Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)
From Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs
At the age of forty-five, Ambrose Bierce began a four-year cascade of storywriting that, according to biographer Roy Morris Jr., “has seldom been surpassed in American literature.” From March 1988 to December 1891, “Bierce switched back and forth between rigidly controlled war stories and macabre, otherworldly ghost stories,” as well as autobiographical pieces and wickedly gruesome satires (such as “My Favorite Murder”). All of these stories and sketches were published in William Randolph Hearst’s flagship newspaper, The San Francisco Examiner, and many were later collected in Bierce’s groundbreaking collections Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) and Can Such Things Be? (1893). Story of the Week fan Ben Ostrander of Austin, Texas, recommends “My Favorite Murder,” contending that “Ambrose Bierce has few rivals for range of styles and subject matter. Only Edgar Allan Poe exceeds him in my admiration.”
For the last century, literary histories and biographies that mention “My Favorite Murder” seldom fail to comment upon its sensational opening sentence: “Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years.” But, as you’ll see, the story isn’t really about matricide—neither literally nor thematically. In fact, after the opening passage, the death of the narrator’s mother isn’t mentioned again. Instead, the author known to San Francisco readers as “Bitter Bierce” aims his brutal satire at frontier-style courtroom justice and the American penchant for tall tales.
When the movie star Boris Karloff edited a 1946 collection of stories, he included “My Favorite Murder” and observed: “This [story] offers a striking example of the very fine line which exists between horror and laughter! You may judge from this what an unhappy life the professional bogeyman leads, both in the films and on the stage.” Bill Marx, writing last year in the Columbia Journalism Review, acknowledges that the story might be “a bit much” and includes the story “among [Bierce’s] most outrageous, but it is typical of the grotesque ways he battles against American expectations of good taste, ethical rectitude, prosaic reality, and the ethos of success.”
Notes: The story’s location, Nigger Head, is Bierce’s fictitious version of “Nigger Tent,” which in the late nineteenth century was a gold-rush way station on the Sierra Turnpike in Sierra County in central California. A road agency is a group of highway robbers (“road agents”). The Knights of Murder is a parody of the Knights of Labor, a union initially organized by garment workers in Philadelphia. On the final page is a mention of Professor [George] Davidson, a well-known geologist at the University of California.
Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years. In charging the jury, the judge of the Court of Acquittal remarked that it was one of the most ghastly crimes that he had ever been called upon to explain away. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.