Joan Vollmer and the William Tell act
Joan Vollmer died on 6 September 1951, shot in the head by her husband William S. Burroughs. Playing a game of “William Tell,“ she balanced a water tumbler on her head, he aimed and fired the weapon, but missed the cup and hit her in the head, right below the hairline. She was 28 years old and was one of the key figures of the beat generation.
Joan was born in Albany, New York, in 1923. In the early 1940's she attended college in Barnard, New York, and afterwards married Paul Adams. After her husband was drafted during WWII she met Edie Parker who introduced her to the group of people who would later be know as the Beats. This group included William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, to name but a few.
She was known for having an independent mind and for being very well-read, always questioning her friends and teachers.
Joan and Edie’s apartment soon became the gathering place for all these writers, alcoholics and drug addicts, and it was during this time that she began using drugs, becoming addicted to Benzedrine. She remained an addict for the rest of her life.
When, in 1945, Paul Adams returned from the war, he was appalled to find Joan living a life of decadence, complete with sex and drugs.
After that she divorced Paul and started dating William Burroughs. The other beats, who saw Joan as an extremely intelligent and talented woman, thought she could be a good counterpart to the genius of William.
She was attracted by his brilliant mind and singularity, and despite his sexual preference for men, they became intimate and she reportedly said to him “You’re supposed to be a faggot, you’re as good as a pimp in bed.”
During their relationship, the couple engaged in heavy use of all sorts of drugs, and Joan was even hospitalised due to amphetamine use. Even so, they had a son, William Burroughs, Jr., her second, since she had another child from her first marriage.
In a letter to Edie, December 29, 1947:
In the mean time, however, I’d been taking so much benzedrine that I got way off the beam, with the result that I finally landed in Bellevue Psycho Ward.
To Allen Ginsberg, 1949:
I was not much surprised to hear of your hospitalisation , as I’ve been claiming for three years (today being my third anniversary from Bellevue) that anyone who doesn’t blow his top once is no damn good…No percentage in talking about visions or super-reality or any such lay-terms. Either you know now what I know (and don’t ask me just what that is) or else I’m mistaken about you and off the beam somewhere — in which case you’re just a dime-a-dozen neurotic and I’m nuts.
Several problems with the law forced them to move from New York. First to Texas, then New Orleans, and finally to Mexico City, hopping to escape the American authorities.
To Edie, December 29, 1947:
I’ve really had a mad year, although now perhaps I’ve come to a resting point — maybe. Was it after you left (I think so) that Bill (Burroughs, of course) finally got nailed for a couple of forged prescriptions? It was all very desperate, as he had quite a habit by that time and it was a couple of months before his case finally came up. The only way I could get him out on bail, unfortunately, was to call his psychiatrist and he promptly informed Bill’s family, which led to a good deal of unpleasantness. Finally, in June, the damn thing came to trial, and he was lucky enough that he got a suspended sentence on condition that he go home to St. Louis for three months. That was pretty good, of course, but it left me in rather a spot — emotionally as well as financially.
And it was in Mexico City they played their last game of William Tell. This is where the account of things gets fuzzy. Some say the William Tell game was routine for the couple, and perhaps Joan had some sort of death wish. Two other people, Lewis Marker and Eddie Woods, were present at the shooting.
In an interview for the Paris Review in 1965, William said:
And I had that terrible accident with Joan Vollmer, my wife. I had a revolver that I was planning to sell to a friend. I was checking it over and it went off — killed her. A rumor started that I was trying to shoot a glass of champagne from her head William Tell-style. Absurd and false.
This was the same version of events he told the Mexican authorities after being arrest for murder. But at the time he changed his story several times, apparently coached by his lawyer, so it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know what really happened that day.
Bill was later convicted of manslaughter in absentia, as he had returned to the States to avoid being arrested.
In the introduction to “Queer,” Burroughs writes:
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death,” because it initiated a spiritual “lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.