Thursday, June 11, 2015

Bierce's writings shed more light on Orion Williamson disappearance

Ambrose Bierce
Back in mid-May in this space I wrote about the mysterious disappearance of Orion Williamson, a farmer in Selma who vanished in 1854 while walking across his property in broad daylight. He did so supposedly in full view of two relatives and several neighbors.

A search of the area where Williamson disappeared showed no holes that he might have fallen into and no soft spots where he may have sank beneath the surface. Townspeople joined the search, but they couldn’t find a trace of Williamson, and he was eventually declared dead.

One version of the tale says he was sitting on his front porch with his family. As his neighbors, Amour Wren, and his son, James Wren, passed down a road on the far side of the field in a buggy, Williamson stood up to move some grazing horses into the shade. Williamson briefly stopped to pick up a small stick, and he began to swish the stick back and forth as he walked in the field’s ankle-deep grass.

Orion waved at his neighbors, took one step and supposedly vanished into thin air. Unable to believe their eyes, and probably thinking that he’d fallen into a hole, the Williamsons and Wrens ran to the spot and began to look for him. They also noticed that most of the grass in the spot had vanished as well.

It’s said that the Williamsons and Wrens searched for hours and then went to get help. Mrs. Williamson collapsed in shock and was taken to a Selma hospital. When news spread of the incident, a search party of 300 men eventually arrived at the farm and carefully and repeatedly searched every inch of the field. It’s said that they formed three hand-to-hand lines and slowly moved across the field a few inches at a time.

They stopped every few feet, knelt down and searched for holes or openings. It’s said that they searched the field dozens of times and when the sun went down they used torches and lanterns to continue their search. Later, bloodhounds were called in, but as the search continued well on into the night, no trace of Williamson was ever found.

News of Williamson’s disappearance spread, and more volunteers, including a team of geologists, arrived to join in the search. They supposedly dug up the field to see if the ground was unstable or unusual only to learn that there was only solid rock a few feet below the spot where Williamson vanished. Expecting to find holes, cracks, crevices or a cave-in, they found nothing – or so the story goes.

The story takes another weird turn when, supposedly, Williamson’s wife and son began to hear Orion’s voice calling for help. Every time they heard his cries for help, they’d run out into the field, but couldn’t find the source of the cries. This went on for weeks after his disappearance, but his voice grew fainter and fainter until it became a mere whisper and eventually stopped.

A local judge eventually declared Orion dead after continued searches turned up no trace of the missing man. Supposedly, in the spring of 1855, a circle of dead grass appeared on the same spot where Williamson vanished the previous July.

The story of Williamson’s disappearance attracted newspapermen from across the South, including famous writer Ambrose Bierce, who interviewed individuals involved in the actual search. Thanks to Bierce, who himself disappeared in Mexico in 1914, Williamson’s story was reported across the country, and Bierce is credited with keeping Williamson’s story alive.

Since my original column about Williamson’s disappearance hit the streets, one of our readers informed me that Bierce’s version of the tale first appeared in a short story called “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” In that version, it’s said that Williamson lived six miles from Selma and was smoking a cigar on the “veranda” of his house with his wife and child just before his disappearance. Their house faced the road, and on the other side of the road was a flat, 10-acre pasture of close-cropped grass.

There were no animals in this pasture, but in another field beyond this pasture, a dozen slaves were at work with an overseer named Andrew. Williamson remembered something that he’d meant to tell Andrew about the delivery of horses he’d recently purchased from Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation. Williamson left the porch, walked down the gravel walkway, crossed the road and entered the pasture, closing a gate behind him.

As he paused to close the gate, his neighbor, Armour Wren, came by in an open carriage with his 13-year-old son, James, and a man named Sam, who was the carriage’s driver. They soon parted ways, but when they got about 200 yards down the road, Armour remembered that he forgot to tell Williamson that it wouldn’t be convenient to deliver the recently purchased horses until the next day. Armour directed Sam to turn the carriage around, and when he did, all three could see Williamson walking across the pasture.
At that moment, one of the horses pulling the carriage stumbled and nearly fell, and when it recovered, James Wren noticed that Williamson had vanished.

Some time later, Armour Wren was called on to testify, under oath, about what happened next during legal proceedings related to Williamson’s estate.

“My son’s exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible,” Armour Wren testified. “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.

“As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was (hitching) 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. 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 the time lost her mind. I have never since seen or heard of Mr. Williamson.”

James Wren also testified in court and corroborated his father’s testimony. Bierce pointed out that Mrs. Williamson did not testify because she “had lost her reason” and that none of the field hands working in the pasture where Williamson was headed had seen him at all.

In the end, if anyone in the reading audience has any more information about this story, I’d love to hear it. You can contact me by writing The Evergreen Courant, ATTN: Lee Peacock, P.O. Box 440, Evergreen, AL 36401. You can also e-mail me at

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