Influential writer William Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife while demonstrating his “William Tell act”

Domagoj Valjak
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William Burroughs was a prominent writer whose works profoundly influenced American post-modern literature. Along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Burroughs was one of the primary figures of the Beat Generation.

Most of his novels describe sexual escapades and surreal drug-fueled adventures of impoverished yet highly intelligent underdogs. The atmosphere of his narratives is often haunting and permeated by feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and depression. Namely, Burroughs wrote most of his seminal works after the accidental death of his wife Joan Vollmer, and her death haunted him for the rest of his life.

William S. Burroughs at his 70th birthday party in 1984. Photo Credit

Burroughs and Joan Vollmer never officially married, but they referred to themselves as a married couple. They escaped to Mexico after Burroughs was arrested for forging drug prescriptions. He was frequently in trouble because of his heroin addiction, and both he and Vollmer were regularly using Benzedrine, a potent amphetamine that was sold legally in pharmacies across the United States.

Carl Solomon, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. Photo Credit

In Mexico, Burroughs attended the Mexico City College where he studied Spanish and the Mayan language. Still, his and Vollmer’s life in Mexico was harsh, as she developed a crippling addiction to Benzedrine and he was experiencing a severe heroin withdrawal because it was hard for him to obtain heroin in Mexico.

During the time he was addicted to heroin, Burroughs, who was openly bisexual, spent most of his time with Vollmer. After he had endured the crisis, he started frequenting Mexican gay bars to satisfy his homosexual urges. Burroughs’ descent into drug-fueled promiscuity enraged Vollmer, and their fights became increasingly violent.

Christiaan Tonnis: William S. Burroughs 3 / Oil on Canvas / 61 x 72.8 inches / 1999. Photo Credit

On September 6, 1951, Burroughs and Vollmer were in a rare period of harmony, and they attended a party together at a bar in Mexico City. The heavily intoxicated Burroughs suggested that they should demonstrate their “William Tell act” to their friends at the party. They never performed the act before, and it ended up being a tragic catastrophe that sent Vollmer to her grave and Burroughs into a lifetime of guilt and regret.

Vollmer put a highball glass on her head, and Burroughs was supposed to shoot it with his revolver. Burroughs aimed too low and shot Vollmer in the face, instantly killing her. She was buried in Mexico City, and he fled back to the United States to escape prosecution. He was tried in absence and convicted to a two-year prison sentence because he was found guilty of culpable homicide.

He never served his sentence because he never returned to Mexico. The unfortunate event was dramatized in David Cronenberg’s 1991 film adaptation of Burroughs’ acclaimed novel Naked Lunch.

William S. Burroughs and James Grauerholz in the alley behind the Jazzhaus in Lawrence, Kansas (1996)

The tragedy made a huge impact on Burroughs’ life and writing. He stated several times that Vollmer’s death was the sole reason for him becoming an appreciated writer. In the introduction to his autobiographical novel “Queer,” which was written in 1953 and published 1985, Burroughs wrote:

“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death… The death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”

William S. Burroughs grave, Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo Credit

Joan Vollmer’s death forever stained Burroughs life. Another tragedy struck him in 1981, when his son died of a cirrhosis-related hemorrhage at the age of 33.

Read another story from us: Roald Dahl, the writer of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” was given a Viking funeral, and was buried with wine, snooker cues, pencils and a power saw

Nothing stopped Burroughs from writing and collaborating with various artists until his death in 1997, but he lived a life of guilt, anxiety, bitterness and substance abuse.