In Mexico, on September 6, 1951, William Seward Burroughs II shot his wife Joan Vollmer in the head. They had been playing a game of William Tell. His wife’s death inspired Burroughs to become a writer.
“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing.”
Queer was the twelfth of fourteen novels published in Burroughs’s lifetime, but notably, it was the first he wrote. He started writing Queer the same year Vollmer died, but it was not published until 1985.
Burroughs was an influential writer, visual artist, and a primary figure of the Beat Generation.
Burroughs was the grandchild of the millionaire inventor of several adding machines. He had a quiet childhood in Missouri and attended Harvard University. In his book Literary Outlaw, Ted Morgan details that After graduating from Harvard in 1936, Burroughs got enough money from his parents not to work. For a few years, he traveled Europe, got married to a woman, and had various infatuations with men.
In 1942, right after Pearl Harbor, Burroughs enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve in World War II. He was not made an officer, became dejected, and got addicted to drugs.
A Relationship Built on Addiction
Burroughs ended up in New York City by 1944. In Word Virus, a published collection of Burroughs’ letters his time in New York City can be pieced together. He lived with a group of friends, including Joan Vollmer Adams. Vollmer was married to another man and had a young daughter named Julie. While in New York, Burroughs got addicted to morphine and sold heroin to support his addiction.
Vollmer also had drug problems and became addicted to the amphetamine Benzedrine. When her husband returned from the war and saw her, he immediately divorced her.
Friends of Burroughs and Vollmer encouraged the two divorcee drug addicts to start a relationship. Burroughs was ten years older than Vollmer.
She bailed him out of jail, and he bailed her out of a mental institution, after which he offered to marry her. It was an act of kindness, as Vollmer feared she might lose custody of her daughter. Burroughs and Vollmer had a son together in 1946. They named him after his father.
In 1948, the family of four moved to Louisiana. Burroughs continued to sell drugs and was eventually arrested. To avoid five-years in Angola State Prison, Burroughs and the family fled to Mexico.
Richard Severo wrote in his article that Burroughs and Vollmer were both unhappy in Mexico. They unsuccessfully tried to quit drugs, became heavy drinkers, and possibly neither were monogamous.
A Bullet to the Forehead
On September 6, 1951, Burroughs and Vollmer were at home in their Mexico City apartment. They were partying with two neighbors. Their four-year-old son William was playing in the same room.
As the night progressed, everyone was drunk. According to a New York Times article by Richard Severo, Burroughs took his new gun out and told Vollmer, “It’s time for our William Tell act.” He wanted Vollmer to balance an object on her head so that he could shoot it off.
Vollmer, without hesitation, obliged her husband and put her glass of gin on her head. Burroughs held his .38 caliber automatic pistol, pulled back the cartridge, and fired a single shot. The bullet missed the glass and entered Vollmer’s forehead.
An ambulance rushed Vollmer to a nearby hospital. The twenty-seven-year-old mother of two died two hours later. As certified by Dr. Luis Lardizabal Campero on Vollmer’s death certificate, her cause of death was “bullet wound penetrating cranium.”
Vollmer V. Burroughs
On his defense lawyer's advice, Burroughs tried to change his story to say it was an unfortunate accident. After initially admitting they were playing William Tell, Burroughs tried to change his story to say the gun dropped and discharged.
The judge did not go for his story, and he was held in prison without bail on a homicide charge.
Ted Morgan wrote in Literary Outlaw that Burroughs was able to bribe lawyers and other Mexican officials to get let out of jail after only thirteen days. He then fled back to the United States. The court case continued in his absence, and he was convicted in absentia of culpable homicide. He received a two-year suspended sentence.
Burroughs received a shorter sentence for murder in Mexico than he would have received if convicted of selling drugs in Louisiana.
Burroughs died of a heart attack in 1997 at the age of 83. On his grave, below his name, it reads, “American Writer.”
Burroughs wrote, “So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” — The introduction of Queer.
The death of Vollmer inspired Burroughs to write. It brought him in contact with something evil inside of his mind. He realized the only way to fight his demons was to write.
Burroughs’ life teaches us that recognizing and combatting our demons is one way to reach our potential. Burroughs never conquered his demons, but he fought against their influence every day and became a successful writer and visual artist. I admire his writing's authenticity, even though part of me feels like he got away with murder.