It was on this date, June 24, 1842, that journalist, satirist and social critic Ambrose Gwinett Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio, the tenth of thirteen children, but he grew up on an Indiana farm. He had little formal education, but loved reading in his father’s library, and at 15 became a printer’s apprentice. He enlisted in the Union Army during the American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, becoming an officer. After the war, he sought his fortune in San Francisco, where he became a journalist.
Bierce published his first story, “The Haunted Valley,” in 1871, and already he was mining the macabre and spicing it with satire. Twenty years later, his Tales of Soldiers and Civilians included Bierce’s most famous short story, the hauntingly twisted “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” (A 1962 French film of this story, La Rivière du hibou was adapted as a Twilight Zone episode the same year.) The world of which Bierce writes is not only an ironically cruel one, but also a godless one: in the 1912 edition of his Collected Works, Bierce wrote, “Religions are conclusions for which the facts of nature supply no major premises.”
Between 1887 and 1906 Bierce wrote a regular column called “The Prattler,” which he filled with literary gossip, witticisms, and stories. He collected his 19 years of sardonic epigrams in The Cynic’s Word Book, published in 1906, but changed the title in 1911 to the one we know today for his Collected Works: The Devil’s Dictionary:
RELIGION, A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
CHRISTIAN, One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
HEATHEN, A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something that he can see and feel.
FAITH, Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
INFIDEL, In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.
SCRIPTURES, The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.
KORAN, A book which the Mohammedans foolishly believe to have been written by divine inspiration, but which Christians know to be a wicked imposture, contradictory to the Holy Scriptures.
HOURI, A comely female inhabiting the Mohammedan Paradise to make things cheery for the good Mussulman [Muslim], whose belief in her existence marks a noble discontent with his earthly spouse, whom he denies a soul.
PRAY, To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
REVERENCE, The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.
Unlucky in marriage and family, Bierce drank, divorced, and his two sons died prematurely. From 1900 to 1913 he lived and worked mostly in Washington, DC, counting among his friends and drinking companions fellow Freethinker H.L. Mencken. At the age of 71, perhaps to evade the ignominy of a slow decline and the embarrassment of a public death, Ambrose Bierce made up a story about going to Mexico during their Civil War, to seek “the good, kind darkness.” He vanished without a trace sometime after December 26, 1913, presumably having committed suicide.