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ambrose bierce

Ambrose Bierce and the Disappearance of David Lang

There once was a man named David, he loved his family so.  They lived on a farm in Tennessee, in eighteen hundred eighty.  One day while his daughters played nearby and his wife watched from her swing, David walked across the field and vanished without a word.

That’s the gist of the story, though I admit to having taken some artistic liberty with the wording (I’m no poet), but even my version offers pretty much the same amount of detail to the original.  The man in question was David Lang, and he did indeed vanish, or so the story goes.  It’s said that he took a stroll through the field next to his family home, while his wife and children watched from the yard, and after only a few steps he simply disappeared without a trace, right in front of their eyes.  This, apparently, was also witnessed by two men who happened to be passing by the farm in a buggy at the time.  The full version of the tale says that an exhaustive search was undertaken to find the poor vanished soul, but to no avail.  David Lang was never heard from again.

If that sounds familiar to you, it might be because American journalist, satirist, and short story author Ambrose Bierce wrote an almost identical tale calledThe Difficulty of Crossing a Field.  If you judge books by their cover, you may have overlooked that title.  That’s a short story that first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, and later appeared in some versions of Bierce’s ‘Can Such Things Be?’ collection, but it soon took on a life of its own.

Of course, with stories like this, of this age, it can be exceedingly difficult to track down who exactly said what and when.  We know, because of his relative fame, that Bierce did write The Difficulty of Crossing a Field sometime in the late 19th century, which detailed the disappearance – in very much the same way – of a plantation owner named Williamson from Alabama, but was he the first to write it?  Was he drawing on actual events as inspiration, changing names and locations to protect the innocent, as it were?

The tale of David Lang, which differs only in the minute details, was first published in an edition of Fate Magazine in 1953.  That version was penned by novelist Stuart Palmer, who claimed that it was a true accounting, and was in fact the event on which Ambrose Bierce based his story.  Palmer’s version has since been copied into several books relating to strange disappearances, such as Frank Edward’s Stranger than Science (1959).  Since then, the two tales have been intertwined, confused, misattributed and just plain plagiarized many times over.

Why am I telling you all this?  I’m getting to that.

Several researchers have gone to great lengths to confirm or disprove the story of David Lang, and it seems that no such man ever existed.  There are no census records for a man of that name in Gallatin, Tennessee (where the story takes place) in that era, nor of his family.  No newspaper articles have ever been found discussing or referring to the incident, and no correspondence of any kind has been seen.  This doesn’t mean that David Lang didn’t exist, he very well could have.  Records get lost all the time, even now.  It also doesn’t mean the incident never happened.  I just means that we can’t confirm it.

Unfortunately, we’ll never know what happened, but that hasn’t stopped people from speculating based on the little we do know.  And I’m about to do the same.

There’s something you should know about Ambrose Bierce; his name is inexorably connected to the concept of strange disappearances, for more than one reason.  Aside from the fact that he wrote about people vanishing into thin air on more than a few occasions – An Unfinished Race comes to mind, which features the odd disappearance of James Worson, who, while running a foot race, simply blinked out of existence right before the eyes of several other men – Bierce himself disappeared without a trace while in Mexico in 1914, never to be heard from again.

It’s a strange business, all of it, but things do get stranger.

Did you know that The Difficulty of Crossing a Field has been adapted as an opera?  It has!  I’ve not had a chance to experience it, but I imagine it was quite the show.  It played at the Roulette Intermedium theatre in New York in 2002 and several times since then.  Here’s the strange bit though…the man who wrote the adaptation and produced the show is named David Lang.

david lang

According to his website, David Lang, the current, is a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and at one time held the Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall.  By all accounts he is a brilliant musician and were he named anything else, no one would ever question his involvement.

But since he is named David Lang, I can’t help but let my imagination run a little bit.  What if…?  And hear me out.  What if, the original David Lang really did exist, and really did disappear as the story suggests?  If it were true we’d have to consider where, exactly, Mr. Lang went when he disappeared.

Despite the relatively shallow depth of our knowledge in the realms of time travel and teleportation (yes, both are theoretically possible, given certain caveats), it could be said that it is conceivable that the man, David Lang, who disappeared from a field in Tennessee a hundred years ago, is also the man, David Lang, who now works to retell the story of his own mysterious demise through Ambrose Bierce’s tale The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.

OK, yes, I can already hear you pounding your keyboard, typing out a comment to tell me how deluded and credulous I am.  The name David Lang is, arguably, a very common name, and yes, strange coincidences happen all the time, some stranger than this.  But even if all I’ve done here is point out a strange coincidence that inspires some of you to add Ambrose Bierce to your reading list and David Lang to your playlist, then this was all worth it.  For the record though, I think David Lang is actually a Time Lord.

Editor - Author
  1. Time Lords
    I love the quote of Mark Twain that “history does not repeat, but it rhymes.”

    I wonder sometimes if I’m somehow connected to Karl Abraham, the under-study of Sigmund Freud that tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Herr Doctor that Akhenaten was Oedipus. The name Karl Abraham (“Exalted Father”) is essentially synonymous with Charles Pope. And my attempts to inform on history are about as futile as his! For all practical purposes, Karl Abraham vanished from public awareness. His insight was lost for decades until it was taken up again by the second generation Psychoanalyst Immanuel Velikovsky. Yet, Velikovsky refused to associate Akhenaten with Moses!

    (P.S. I don’t think dating services can work for time travelers!)

    P.S.S. Freud famously associated Akhenaten with the Greek figure of Oedipus, but thought that Moses was only a courtier of Akhenaten. It was of course native Egyptian Ahmed Osman who made the direct association in more modern times with the publication of “Moses: Pharaoh of Egypt” (1991). Sometime in the 1990’s Ahmed was contacted by the third generation Freudian Psychoanalyst William Theaux, who urged Ahmed to consider the identification of Akhenaten with both Moses and Oedipus. However, Ahmed initially rejected the idea, and that’s where I came into the picture! In 1999, Dr. Theaux invited Ahmed to visit him in New York for discussions and asked me to come and help him to convince Ahmed as well! Through the additional research that I had performed Ahmed was ultimately persuaded that Oedipus was a significant memory and perspective of Akhenaten. Later that week we all gave talks at a public symposium.;id=1037

    Nothing really came of all this. Dr. Theaux eventually returned to France to practice medicine. Ahmed’s books are still neglected by the mainstream and academia. My own attempts to expand on Ahmed’s work have been a glorious failure (at least in terms of popular appeal). I was young when I started this quest and now I am old. So I can only wish the next Karl Abraham better luck, haha.

  2. Names…

    Well, I guess one should also consider that, maybe, the current D. Lang heard of the story and, amused by the fact the other guy had the same name, decided to do something with it (which, in his case, means opera…). In this case there is no more coincidence whatsoever. It seems somewhat more likely to me, even if I’d like to meet a Time Lord…


  3. Fate magazine
    Fate magazine was co-founded in 1948 by sci-fi writer Ray Palmer (whom DCs superhero The Atom was named after). It specialized in paranormal subject matter and played loose with facts in favour of cultivating interest in the unknown. I suspect the author Stuart Palmer (any relation to Ray or another coincidence?) had read Bierce’s story at some point and thought it would make for a good article in Fate. It wouldn’t be the first time someone borrowed a story from a noted authour of the Macabre in the 1950s.
    EC did it all the time with their horror story series borrowing from Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe. granted these were intended as fiction but honestly Fate magazine was mostly fiction even if it purported to be factual. For those who wish to explore Fate :

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