Almost Nobody Remembers The Time A World-Famous Author Shot And Killed His Wife Over A Drunken Game

Most people have never heard the name Joan Vollmer, but she was an undeniable part of American culture as she helped found the Beat movement and inspired some of the most famous hardcore poets of the 1950s. And Joan Vollmer's death was even more shocking: she was shot in the head by her own husband, the world-famous author William S. Burroughs, during a game of William Tell.

William S. Burroughs is famous for his semi-autobiographical novels about heroin and his close relationship with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. But Burroughs's addictions turned deadly when he pulled out a gun in the middle of a party in Mexico City and fired a bullet at his wife's head. Although he fled the country, a Mexican court convicted him of manslaughter in absentia. 

The toxic, self-destructive relationship between Joan Vollmer and William S. Burroughs was captured in the 2000 film Beat, with Courtney Love playing Vollmer. But the movie - along with Burroughs's many fans - may be wrong about Vollmer's death. When William Burroughs killed Joan Vollmer, was it really an accident?

  • Burroughs Said He Became A Writer Because Joan Died – Without Mentioning He Killed Her

    “I am forced to the appalling conclusion,” William S. Burroughs wrote, “that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death.”

    In one line, William S. Burroughs credited his career to a woman's death - but he left out the monumental fact that he was the one holding the gun that killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, when she was only 28. Burroughs, famous as one of the founding members of the Beat movement and author of Naked Lunch and Junky, has been described as eccentric, sardonic, and rebellious. But not even Burroughs himself wanted to admit that he was a murderer.

    Joan Vollmer was shot in the head in 1951. Burroughs spent two weeks in jail, changed his story, and then fled the country to avoid more jail time. And while Joan's writing career was over, Burroughs used her death as a stepping stone towards his own success.

  • Joan And William Had A Drug-Fueled Romance
    Photo: John Vachon / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Joan And William Had A Drug-Fueled Romance

    William Burroughs and Joan Vollmer met in New York City in 1945. Burroughs was already friends with writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who introduced him to the young Barnard graduate. The two quickly became inseparable, with alcohol and drugs fueling their romance. Soon, Burroughs was doing heroin, and Vollmer regularly used Benzedrine. 

    By 1945, Joan Vollmer had already been married twice, even though she was only 22, and she had a young daughter named Julie. Burroughs left Vollmer in New York and bought a farm in Texas where he grew marijuana. He came back to the city when he heard Vollmer had been locked up in the psychotic ward at Bellevue. In 1946, Vollmer became pregnant with Burroughs's child, a boy named Billy.

    But two young children didn't slow down the couple. They moved to New Orleans, where Burroughs was arrested for heroin possession. The pair fled to Mexico City to wait out the statute of limitations.

  • Joan Used Alcohol To Get Through Speed Withdrawal
    Photo: Prosopee / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

    Joan Used Alcohol To Get Through Speed Withdrawal

    Joan Vollmer was a brilliant poet, inspired Ginsberg to write "Howl," and was heavily addicted to Benzedrine. When Joan fled to Mexico City with her husband, who had to leave the U.S. or face jail time for heroin possession, she couldn't find her favorite drug. As Joan went through speed withdrawal, she turned increasingly to alcohol.

    On September 6, 1951, Joan and William were both drunk at a party. Apparently on a whim, Burroughs turned to Vollmer and said "Well, I guess it's time for our William Tell act!" The night, like their relationship, would end in tragedy.

  • Unlike William Tell, William Burroughs Missed
    Photo: Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Unlike William Tell, William Burroughs Missed

    According to lore, William Tell helped found Switzerland by shooting an apple off his son's head. The year was 1307, and Tell was a local farmer and hunter. The act was a defiant repudiation of the Hapsburg duke of Austria, who controlled Switzerland and demanded that every man remove his hat in front of the Hapsburg sign. When William Tell refused, the Hapsburg bailiff forced him to shoot an apple off his son's head, or both would be put to death.

    Tell successfully shot the apple off his son's head and was valorized for centuries. But when William Burroughs took a shot at his wife, Joan Vollmer, he missed.

  • Joan Balanced A Glass On Her Head, And William Fired
    Photo: Beat / Lionsgate Films

    Joan Balanced A Glass On Her Head, And William Fired

    On September 6, 1951, Burroughs suggested the William Tell act, and Joan played along. It was their first time trying out the act. Joan balanced a glass of gin on top of her head in the middle of the party. Burroughs, a lifelong gun lover, always carried a weapon. That night he had a .380 caliber automatic pistol. He positioned himself nine feet away from his wife, drew his weapon, and fired a single shot.

    The bullet didn't hit the glass. Instead, because Burroughs's hand wavered, the shot hit Joan in the head, killing her instantly.

  • Burroughs Fled From Mexico And Published His First Novel
    Photo: Christopher DOMBRES / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

    Burroughs Fled From Mexico And Published His First Novel

    After the shooting, Burroughs was locked in a Mexican jail for 13 days while his family got together bail money. His lawyer, Benabé Jurado, told Burroughs to lie to the police. Burroughs went along, telling them that the gun went off accidentally. Before the case came to trial, his own lawyer shot someone in a fit of road rage and fled the country. Burroughs followed, heading to Central America, London, and Tangiers.

    Burroughs's family took in his son, Billy, and provided the unstable writer with a regular stipend to fuel his travels. They were heirs to a small fortune earned by Burroughs's grandfather, who created an adding machine. The Daily News headline about Joan's death read: "Heir's Pistol Kills His Wife; He Denies Playing Wm. Tell."

    Within two years, in 1953, Burroughs published his first novel, Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addictwhich was later released as Junky.