Due to trouble with the law, mainly for drug possession and distribution, William S. Burroughs, his wife Joan and their children moved many times, ending up in Mexico City.
One night Bill and Joan attended a party and, while drunk, it is argued that they decided to play a game of William Tell. While accounts of the events and conversations leading up to Joan’s death differ, it is a fact that Bill did attempt to shoot a glass off Joan’s head and missed. Whether or not they had attempted this trick before is also up for debate.
On Sept. 6, 1951, Bill and Joan visited the apartment of John Healy in Mexico City. A few hours later, Joan arrived at Cruz Roja (Red Cross) where medics began emergency life-saving measures for a bullet wound to the head. Joan had been shot by Bill and pronounced dead at the hospital. She was only 28.
As James W. Grauerholz wrote in his essay, The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs: What Really Happened, “At first the killer declared that in the said gathering, after there had been a great consumption of gin, he tried to demonstrate his magnificent marksmanship, emulating William Tell, and to that end he placed a glass of liquor upon the head of his wife, and aiming over the glass, at a distance of two meters, he fired, but as a consequence and result of the state of drunkenness in which he found himself, he missed the shot lamentably and injured the forehead of his wife with a bullet.”
From the newspaper article Heir’s Pistol Kills His Wife; He Denies Playing Wm. Tell printed Sept. 7, 1951:
“Police said that Burroughs, grandson of the adding machine inventor, first told them that, wanting to show off his marksmanship, he placed a glass of gin on her head and fired, but [was so drunk] that he missed and shot her in the forehead.”
After Mexican police began investigating the shooting, Bill gave several contradictory versions of the events of that night. At first he said he accidentally shot Joan during a William Tell act, but the next day, in court, claimed he misfired while showing the gun to a friend he was trying to sell it to.
Grauerholz describes in his essay that after Bill first told reporters of the William Tell imitation, his lawyer, Bernabé Jurado, arrived and, in front of the press, told Bill to say his pistol had fired accidentally.
“Then, on the way to the scene of the crime, Bernabé Jurado himself went on saying to the reporters that he, in his capacity as the killer’s defender, was obliged to do everything possible so that the punishment would be the least possible for his client,” wrote Grauerholz.
Joan’s death was ruled a culpable homicide. Bill was held on murder charges for two weeks and released on bail when his brother arrived from St. Louis. It is believed Bill’s wealthy parents dispensed thousands of dollars in legal fees and bribes to Mexican authorities.
While Bill and Joan’s children were taken back to the United States to live with relatives, Bill remained in Mexico while Jurado continued to work on the case. About a year later, Jurado accidentally shot and killed a child of a government official who had been trespassing on his property and fled the country. Bill also left Mexico and returned to the States. In absentia, he was convicted of manslaughter in Joan’s death and received a two year suspended sentence.
Bill fled to South America in search of the drug called Yagé. After traveling throughout Africa and Europe, he returned to New York in 1974.
Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs (Feb. 4, 1923 – Sept. 6, 1951) was buried in Mexico City.
Years later, in the introduction to Queer, William S. Burroughs wrote, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death… so the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”