Penalities against possesion of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself. - President Jimmy Carter, October 2, 1977

The Symbolic Slaying of Joan Vollmer Burroughs

A classic story to those familiar with the Beats and the literary revolution of the late 1950’s. For those who aren’t familiar, what follows is a stranger-than-fiction account of writer William S. Burroughs and the accidental murder of his wife, Joan.
Recounted by the sexy-smart Harley Claes, editor of Angelical Ravings Press.

Donovan Martinez

          The death of infamous Beat writer William Burroughs’ wife Joan Vollmer Burroughs has always been a controversial case. She was murdered September 6th in 1951 at the age of 28. Her killing was claimed to be accidental. Her husband William Burroughs was known for playing the risky game of William Tell, which consisted of shooting an apple off of a players’ head. One drunken night, he did so and missed by an inch, shooting his late wife in the forehead. Many had wondered if the slaying was truly accidental, or if he had dual intentions. Even Burroughs himself seemed unsure of the killing, which leads us to believe that perhaps her death was no accident. 

It had been said that the William Tell act between Joan and William was a recurring one, and that Burroughs was always a good shot. This was a party game they played often amongst friends while opiated. It was easily apart of Burroughs impulsive and iconic charades that came along with being a revolutionary of the times. The game itself derived from a real life William Tell, who was sentenced for not bowing when told to bow. To be pardoned, they proposed he shoot an apple off of his son’s head with a crossbow. If successfully shot, the crime he commited would be overlooked. After splitting the apple, he won his freedom and came to claim that if he were to have killed his son, he would kill Gessler, the man who had initially proposed the idea. Later, in a symbolic slaying, he did kill Gessler with the same crossbow. 

It is said William Burroughs had questioned his sexuality quite often before marrying Volmer, but regardless married her on persuasion from close friends such as writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Symbolism could see the shooting of the apple (which represents femininity) off of Joans head, to be an ends to Burroughs experiment in heterosexuality. He is setting himself free of the normativity, both figuratively and physically, in killing his wife. Herbert Huncke, a fellow writer of the Beat movement and close friend of Burroughs, noted that the relationship between Joan and William was very strained. They didn’t even sleep in the same room. Burroughs on numerous occasions forfeited his role as father and husband. 

In 1947, the Burroughs couple had a son together named Billy. Billy Burroughs claimed to have witnessed the crime. Thus forever severing a potential relationship between father and son. His mother’s death haunted him until his death date, and he often wrote about it. 

Billy wrote:

“Had it been sublime to be born in time, hospital halls unknown, mother soon to be blown from the face of the earth, a bullet hole in her head, father pale, hand shaking as he lit the wad of cotton in the back of a little toy boat in a Mexico City fountain. The boat made crazy circles as the poplar trees trembled, and our separate fates lay sundered, he to opium and fame, bearing guilt and shame. And I, the shattered son of Naked Lunch, to golden beaches and promises of success.”

Towards the last days of his life he wrote:

“Just woke from my daily ____ ‘Time Out’ A slight spill of beer—and of course—no one here—I must tromp the gathering night (o god I wish I wish, I could have the wish I wish tonight) but I need the cabin—My voiced is laced with madness & my only mental funds have long been placed in security—God, I’m so alone—I splurged and bought a case of beer (redundant) & of course there’s no one here—The wish? I do so much want to be honorably nonexistent”

At age 33, Billy Burroughs died of cirrhosis after struggling with a lifelong addiction to alcohol.

Another one of their children, Julie, was said to have been a witness, but never spoke a word of it and was content in her self-established solitude. 

William S. Burroughs believed the death of Joan Vollmer to be ‘the birth of a writer’ instead of the death of a mother and child. He goes on to express he felt possessed by something undefinable at the time of the murder, and that he was not acting like himself. William Burroughs wrote in the introduction to Queer,

“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. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. 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 (6).”

 He is said to have eaten the apple upon her death, a representation of indulgence in the evil. 

There was not enough evidence of ill intent to keep William Burroughs incarcerated after bribery from his wealthy family lead to his release. He spent only 13 days in jail before receiving bail. Weekly supervision followed, yet William saw this as an opportunity to flee Mexico. Despite claiming the murder haunted him till the day he died, many theorists propose relief was a more likely reaction. 

Throughout Burroughs life he had more positive afterthoughts on Joan’s death than negative ones, and often found new ways to justify her murder. It seems a great weight was lifted off his shoulders when he had pulled the trigger, and went on to cohabitate with only men. 

Though a great writer of avant-garde fiction, William Burroughs had a monstrous history in relation to not just one murder, but two. He was proven to have covered up another murder in his lifetime, that of David Kammerer’s slaying. His backstory incriminated him, and he had on more than one occasion implied his criminality to have a motive. William Burroughs was no innocent man in any sense of the word, but he was a damn good writer and innovator of the times. 

Now what did this death mean for the Beat Movement as a whole? After Jean Vollmer’s death, William was open to relationships with men as many of his fellow Beats were. A great weight was lifted off his shoulders and another was added, that of yet another tragedy in his collection. Tragedy was always known as a muse to many writers and artists, but certainly of The Beat Writers, who wrote early on about anything from their incarceration, to their stays at mental institutions, and reckless behavior arranged for the very intent of gaining inspiration. Their main focus however was their exploration in Eastern spirituality and the derangement of the senses, and how those two played together. 

William S. Burroughs in particular was known as a junkie, having popularized the term and drug in his book of the same title (Junky.) He milked the very essence of a junkie’s horror, and seeked a spiritual journey through the drug. He was even diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, though that diagnosis was more common in those days due to lack of education on a majority of other yet to be discovered or labeled mental illnesses. So tragedy was not unfamiliar to Burroughs especially, and he seemed to orbit it and use it as his divine source of inspiration. 

The truth around Joan Vollmer’s death will always be a controversy in question. Which leads us to inherent curiosity of William S. Burroughs’ true character, and how it affected his work.

Did he do it with intention? Was it merely a break in consciousness, a demonic possession? Or was it truly an accident that haunted him for the rest of his life as he tried to find a means to justify it? That is for the reader to conclude.