Today in Literary History – September 6, 1951 – the day William S. Burroughs shot and killed his wife

On September 6, 1951, William S. Burroughs, famous now for his hallucinatory novels such as Junkyand Naked Lunch, shot and killed his wife Joan Vollmer at a drunken house party in Mexico City, where they were living at the time.

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Burroughs after his arrest

Stories about the shooting vary wildly but the tale that Burroughs and Joan were enacting a version of William Tell and the apple has coalesced into legend.

In this story Burroughs, who was a gun fanatic who prided himself on his marksmanship no matter how much drugs and booze he consumed, had Joan balance a glass of gin on her head and intended to shoot it off, an act they had reportedly performed several times before.

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On this occasion his aim was off (or perhaps not, according to some conspiracy-minded friends) and he shot Joan in the forehead. She was only 28 years old.

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Joan Vollmer

Burroughs was arrested, but thanks to his family’s vast wealth (his grandfather invented the adding machine) and the notoriously corrupt Mexican legal system, he escaped back to America. He was convicted of manslaughter in absentia.

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Burroughs always denied the William Tell story but his own accounts of that night are contradictory.

I’ve always found Burroughs and his work pretty odious. I wonder why?

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