1888 (pub): Difficulty of Crossing a Field

The following story comes from Ambrose Bierce's book Can Such Things Be?, published on January 1, 1893, and is an edited version of what he originally published as "Whither?"  in the San Francisco Examiner on October 14, 1888.


        "ONE morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles from Selma, Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on the veranda of his dwelling. Immediately in front of the house was a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public road, or, as it was called, the 'pike.' Beyond this road lay a close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree, rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface. At the time there was not even a domestic animal in the field. In another field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an overseer.

      "Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: 'I forgot to tell Andrew about those horses.' Andrew was the overseer.

        "Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation. Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of thirteen. When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: 'I forgot to tell Mr. Williamson about those horses.'

        "Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: 'Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?'

        "It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.

        "Mr. Wren's strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here follows:

        " 'My son's exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree, but I reckon more by my son's manner than by anything he had himself observed. [This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.] As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: 'He is gone, he is gone! O God! what an awful thing!' and many other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect. I got from them the impression that they related to something more than the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred before her eyes. Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances. I have no reason to think she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson.'

        "This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a proper term) -- the lad James. Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. The boy James Wren had declared at first that he saw the disappearance, but there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court. None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly known of the matter. The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law."

        In many modern re-tellings of the above as a "true story," the vanishing planter's name is now given as Orion Williamson. The earliest occurrence of this seems to be in Robert Jay Nash's 1978 book, Among The Missing... but I don't have a copy at the moment, so can neither directly confirm this nor tell if Nash had gotten the new name from someone else. In any case, it is just a minor variation of Bierce's story above... so not true.

        The fictional tale of Williamson's disappearance also proved to be the inspiration for at least one other false account of a supernatural disappearance, the tale of the farmer David Lang from Gallatin, Tenneesee, USA, who was said to have vanished in full view of five witnesses. The full study of that story can be read at the second link below.

        I also must note that a news item about a farmer disappearing after leaving his house to walk to his fields (though not supernaturally) was in some United States newspapers in 1885. Given that the news story was three years before Bierce wrote The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, it seems possible that this occurence may have inspired the fictional tale. You can judge for yourself by clicking the first link below.

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