Joan Vollmer

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Joan Vollmer
Joan Vollmer.jpg
Vollmer, early 1940s
Born(1923-02-04)February 4, 1923
DiedSeptember 6, 1951(1951-09-06) (aged 28)
Mexico City, Mexico
Cause of deathGunshot wound
Other namesJoan Vollmer Adams
Joan Vollmer Burroughs
EducationDoane Stuart School
Alma materBarnard College[1]
Spouse(s)William S. Burroughs
ChildrenJulie Adams
William S. Burroughs Jr.

Joan Vollmer (February 4, 1923 – September 6, 1951)[2] was the most prominent female member of the early Beat Generation circle. While a student at Barnard College, she became the roommate of Edie Parker (later married to Jack Kerouac). Their apartment became a gathering place for the Beats during the 1940s, where Vollmer was often at the center of marathon, all-night discussions. In 1946, she began a relationship with William S. Burroughs, later becoming his common-law wife. In 1951, Burroughs killed Vollmer. He claimed, and shortly thereafter denied, the killing was a drunken attempt at playing William Tell.

Early life and education[edit]

Joan Vollmer was born in Loudonville, an affluent suburb of Albany, New York, to an upper-middle-class family. She attended Barnard College in New York City in the early 1940s. Vollmer met Edie Parker at the West End Bar and the two moved in together in the first of a series of apartments in New York's Upper West Side that they shared with the writers, hustlers, alcoholics and drug addicts that later became known as the Beats. These included: William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke, Vickie Russell (a prostitute and addict who appears as "Mary" in Burroughs' novel Junkie), and Hal Chase, a Columbia University graduate student from Denver.[3]

Vollmer married Paul Adams, a law student, in 1944, and had her first child, Julie, in August 1944. In 1945, Vollmer asked Adams, who was in the military at the time, to consent to divorce.[4] Paul Adams divorced Vollmer upon returning from military service, reportedly appalled by her drug use and group of friends.[5] In 1945 Jack Kerouac introduced her to Benzedrine, which she used heavily for a few years. Early in 1946, she began a long-term relationship with Burroughs. The match was initially set up and encouraged by Allen Ginsberg, who much admired Burroughs’ intellect and considered Joan his female counterpart.

Several years later, when Vollmer and Burroughs were living together in Texas, Ginsberg encouraged Burroughs to break up with Vollmer, believing that Burroughs could never return her total devotion. Nevertheless, Burroughs ignored this advice and evidence suggests he and Vollmer had a passionate affair.[citation needed] Once they were arrested for having sex in a parked vehicle. Vollmer became a mother for the second time after William, Jr. was born in 1947.

In 1946, Vollmer had been admitted to Bellevue Hospital in New York City due to psychotic episodes as a result of excessive amphetamine use. At this time Burroughs had been convicted of prescription forgery and was sentenced to return to his parents' care in St. Louis, Missouri. Immediately after completing his probationary order, he traveled to New York to retrieve Vollmer from Bellevue. From that moment until her death, she called herself Mrs. William Burroughs. Although the two were never formally married, they had a son, William Burroughs, Jr. Due to trouble with the law for drug abuse, drug distribution and lewd behavior charges, they relocated several times, moving first to New Waverly, Texas, then to New Orleans, and eventually to Mexico City. While living in New Orleans, Burroughs was arrested for heroin possession, during which time police searched Vollmer's home, unearthing letters from Ginsberg discussing a possible shipment of marijuana. The resulting criminal charges were grave — upon conviction Burroughs would have served two to five years in Louisiana's infamous Angola State Prison; he fled for Mexico City.[6][7] Once he was settled, Vollmer joined him, along with her children.

Life in Mexico City (1949-1951)[edit]

Vollmer was reportedly unhappy in Mexico City. Benzedrine, her usual drug of choice, was unavailable, and she wrote to Ginsberg that she was "somewhat drunk from 8:00am on... Bill is fine in himself, and so are we jointly. The boys are lovely, easy and cheap (3 pesos = 40 cents) but my patience is infinite."[5] Ted Morgan describes her in Literary Outlaw as a woman suffering from serious drug and alcohol addictions which had aged her noticeably. Her face was swollen; she limped due to a recent bout of polio.[8]

In her son’s novel Kentucky Ham (1973), Vollmer is remembered as a gentle and considerate mother who was meek and deferential to her husband's parents. Yet she is also depicted as being prone to wild bouts of self-destructive behavior. The book recounts a reckless, almost deadly drive down a mountainside road in Mexico. Joan's battered appearance and unpredictable behavior alarmed Ginsberg when he visited with Lucien Carr in 1951. During their visit she expressed some bitterness and hostility toward Burroughs' lack of affection and continued drug addiction. In fact, at the time of Ginsberg's visit, Burroughs was away in Guatemala with a young man he pursued unsuccessfully.

In a 1980s interview with Ted Morgan, Burroughs described a domestic violence incident which occurred shortly after his arrival in Mexico in January 1950, stating he "slapped" Joan after she threw his heroin in the toilet and recalled how he immediately went out to buy more, stating "What could she do? [Go back to Upstate] New York?"[9] The same scene was recounted in Burroughs' semi-autobiographical Junkie: "When my wife saw I was getting the habit again, she did something she had never done... My wife grabbed the spoon and threw the junk on the floor. I slapped her twice across the face and she threw herself on the bed, sobbing."[10]

Herbert Huncke, who had stayed with the couple in Texas, was struck by Burroughs' indifference to Joan, stating that Burroughs "didn't like to be annoyed with her too much."[11] In August 1950, a petition for divorce was initiated in Mexico by Burroughs, Vollmer, or both.[9] Although their marriage was a common-law marriage, in Mexico it was considered legal.[8] However, the application was later withdrawn by their Mexican attorney. The divorce was likely required due to Burroughs' stated desire to take custody of their son upon dissolution.[12] From the same source, there is some speculation that Vollmer was romantically linked with several men while living in Mexico.


On September 6th, 1951, Burroughs shot Vollmer in the head, allegedly while trying to shoot a glass he had asked her to balance on her head during a drunken William Tell act. Vollmer died several hours after being shot in the head, at the age of 28.[13] Burroughs said he had eight to ten drinks and couldn't remember much of that night, while witnesses Woods and Marker claimed they had two small glasses.[14][15] The couple's four-year-old son, William Burroughs Jr. was in the room when the incident occurred.[16] Burroughs gave different accounts of the shooting, denying his original William Tell story after intervention by his prominent Mexican attorney, Bernabé Jurado.[8]

In December 2017, it came to light that Lewis Marker and Eddie Woods (not the poet Eddie Woods, who was also friends with Burroughs) were present at the shooting.[9] Burroughs' brother Mortimer arrived from St. Louis to help his brother, providing thousands of dollars for legal costs to Jurado, who used part of the money to bribe the judge, ballistics experts, and others involved in the case.[17] Burroughs was held on murder charges for thirteen days before being released on bail.[5]

Burroughs claimed that he dropped the gun and it misfired, then changed the account again to say that he accidentally misfired the gun while trying to sell the weapon to an acquaintance, an account which was corroborated by two witnesses who had been coached by Jurado.[14] Burroughs testified that he had not known that the gun was loaded because he had not used it in three months, and that while he had been checking the gun, the carriage had slipped and it had misfired at Vollmer. [15] As a result, he was charged with criminal negligence, which carried a maximum sentence of five years. [18]

For a year, Burroughs reported every Monday morning to the jail in Mexico City while Jurado worked to resolve the case. However, Jurado fled to Brazil after shooting a youth who had accidentally damaged his Cadillac.[19] Burroughs decided to follow Jurado's example and fled back to the United States, where he was fortunate that Louisiana had not issued a warrant for his arrest on the previous narcotic charge. In absentia, Burroughs was convicted of manslaughter in Vollmer's death. He received a two-year suspended sentence.[5]

Vollmer was buried in Mexico City and her parents took her two children back to the United States. Her daughter Julie went to live with her maternal grandparents in Loudonville and assumed the surname Vollmer, while Vollmer's son was raised by her in-laws.[5]

Reactions to Vollmer's death[edit]

Friends of the couple were divided in opinion on the case. Ginsberg and Carr defended Burroughs and believed that Vollmer may have encouraged the William Tell incident, stating she had seemed suicidal when they visited her in 1951.[9] Haldon Chase, who had also visited Burroughs and Vollmer in 1951 in Mexico City, distanced himself from Burroughs after Vollmer's death.[20] Chase believed that Vollmer "had wanted to die," but that Burroughs story was "a sham, a put-up thing to release Bill, to let him commit the ultimate crime."[21] In interviews with Ted Morgan from 1983-1986, Burroughs said "Allen was always making it out as a suicide on her part, and I do not accept that cop-out."[9] By the 1980s, Burroughs had publicly returned to the William Tell story to explain the killing of Joan.

In a 1954 letter to Ginsberg, Burroughs wrote about his fears that he had subconsciously wanted to kill Joan: "May yet attempt a story or some account of Joan's death. I think I am afraid. Not exactly to discover unconscious intent, it's more complex, more basic, and more horrible, as if the brain drew the bullet toward it."[22]

In the introduction to Queer, Burroughs describes how Joan's death exposed him to the risk of possession by a malevolent entity he called "the Ugly Spirit", forcing him to become a writer as a consequence:

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death ... 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 life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.[23]

Burroughs meant this reference to "possession" to be taken literally, stating: "My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanations... I mean a definite possessing entity."[24] Burroughs' writing was intended as a form of "sorcery", in his own words[25] - to disrupt language via methods such as the cut-up technique, and thus protect himself from possession.[26][27][28][29] Later in life, Burroughs described the Ugly Spirit as "Monopolistic, acquisitive evil. Ugly evil. The ugly American", and took part in a shamanic ceremony with the explicit aim of exorcising the Ugly Spirit.[30]


Brenda Knight in The Women of the Beat Generation:

Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs was seminal in the creation of the Beat revolution; indeed the fires that stoked the Beat engine were started with Joan as patron and muse. Her apartment in New York was a nucleus that attracted many of the characters who played a vital role in the formation of the Beat; ... Brilliant and well versed in philosophy and literature, Joan was the whetstone against which the main Beat writers — Allen, Jack, and Bill — sharpened their intellect. Widely considered one of the most perceptive people in the group, her strong mind and independent nature helped bulldoze the Beats toward a new sensibility.[31]


The film Beat (2000) is a biographical account of the relationship between Joan Vollmer Burroughs and William S. Burroughs. Joan Vollmer Burroughs is portrayed by Courtney Love and William S. Burroughs by Kiefer Sutherland. There are brief appearances by Daniel Martinez as Jack Kerouac, Ron Livingston as Allen Ginsberg and Norman Reedus as Lucien Carr. The film centres on the killing of Joan Vollmer Burroughs, on 6 September 1951, by her husband, William S. Burroughs. It also portrays Lucien Carr's plea of guilty to the first-degree manslaughter, on 13 August 1944, of David Kammerer, played by Kyle Secor, for which he served two years of a one-to-twenty-year sentence in the Elmira Correctional Facility in Upstate New York.


  1. ^ Leland, John (2004). Hip, the history. HarperCollins. p. 240. ISBN 0-06-052817-6.
  2. ^ Carmona, Christopher. "The Girl Who Kissed the Gun and the Bullet That Ate Her: The Life of Joan Vollmer", Beat Scene #58 (Spring 2009), p. 4
  3. ^ Wills, David S. (January 13, 2008). "The Women of the Beat Generation', in Beatdom Vol. 2 (Mauling Press: Dundee, 2008) pp. 14-18". Retrieved 2014-05-09.
  4. ^ Lawlor, William (2005). Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons, and Impact. ABC-CLIO. p. 362. ISBN 978-1-85109-400-4.
  5. ^ a b c d e Morgan, Ted (2012-07-31). Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 125. ISBN 978-0-393-34324-3.
  6. ^ Women of the written by Maureen Latvala Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Campbell, James (2001-11-19). This Is the Beat Generation: New York San Francisco Paris. University of California Press. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-520-23033-0.
  8. ^ a b c Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw; pp. 189. New York: Avon Books, 1988.
  9. ^ a b c d e Grauerholz, James W. The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs: What Really Happened?
  10. ^ Burroughs, William S. (2012-10-02). Junky: The Definitive Text of "Junk". Grove/Atlantic, Inc. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-8021-9405-3.
  11. ^ Campbell, James (2001-11-19). This Is the Beat Generation: New York San Francisco Paris. University of California Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-520-23033-0.
  12. ^ Grauerholz, James. The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs: What Really Happened? January 7, 2002. American Studies Department, University of Kansas.
  13. ^ "Documents on the Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs | RealityStudio". Retrieved 2020-05-03.
  14. ^ a b "Grandson of Inventor Burroughs Held in Fatal Shooting of Wife in Mexico". Schenectady Gazette. September 11, 1951.
  15. ^ a b "Burroughs, Held Without Bail, Tells New Death Story". Albany Times Union. September 9, 1951.
  16. ^ Burroughs, William S. (1993-10-01). Speed and Kentucky Ham. Abrams. ISBN 978-1-4683-0212-7.
  17. ^ Grauerholz, James (2007-06-16). "The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs: What Really Happened?" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2007-06-16. Retrieved 2020-05-03.
  18. ^ Campbell, James (2001-11-19). This Is the Beat Generation: New York San Francisco Paris. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-23033-0.
  19. ^ Campbell, James (2001-11-19). This Is the Beat Generation: New York San Francisco Paris. University of California Press. p. 122. ISBN 978-0-520-23033-0.
  20. ^ Lawlor, William (2005). Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons, and Impact. ABC-CLIO. p. 57. ISBN 978-1-85109-400-4.
  21. ^ Campbell, James (2001-11-19). This Is the Beat Generation: New York San Francisco Paris. University of California Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-520-23033-0.
  22. ^ Campbell, James (2001-11-19). This Is the Beat Generation: New York San Francisco Paris. University of California Press. p. 122. ISBN 978-0-520-23033-0.
  23. ^ Queer, Penguin, 1985, p. xxiii.
  24. ^ Queer, Penguin, 1985, p. xxiii.
  25. ^ Stevens, Matthew Levi. The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs. p.125.
  26. ^ "When Gysin, apparently in trance, told Burroughs 'The Ugly Spirit shot Joan because' he thought he finally had the answer... the unforgiveable slip that had caused the death of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer... had come about because he was literally possessed by an evil spirit ... William instinctively knew the only solution available to him... If the Word was indeed the basic mechanism of control - the 'virus' by which The Ugly Spirit, or its agency Control, exerted its malevolent influence - then surely a real understanding of the Word, what words are and what can be done with them - was essential. All these explorations and obsessions were not merely diversions, experiments for artistic or literary amusement... but part of a deadly struggle with unseen, invisible - perhaps evil - psycho-spiritual enemies." – Stevens, Matthew Levi. The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs. pp.124-125.
  27. ^ "The cut-up techniques made very explicit a preoccupation with exorcism - William's texts became spells, for instance." – Terry Wilson, in conversation with Brion Gysin. Ports of Entry, published in Here to go: planet R-101 (1982). Re/Search Publications.
  28. ^ "The word of course is one of the most powerful instruments of control... Now if you start cutting these up and rearranging them you are breaking down the control system." – William S. Burroughs, interviewed by Daniel Odier. Journey through space-time, published in The Job (1970). John Calder Ltd.
  29. ^ "Burroughs often wrote about his belief in a 'magical universe.' ... Curses are real, possession is real. This struck him as a better model for human experience and psychology than the neurosis theories of Freud, in the end... he did pursue a lifelong quest for spiritual techniques by which to master his unruly thoughts and feelings, to gain a feeling of safety from oppression and assault from without, and from within." – James Grauerholz, On Burroughs and Dharma, Summer Writing Institute, 24th June 1999, Naropa University. Transcript published in Beat Scene Magazine, No.71a, Winter 2014.
  30. ^ William S. Burroughs, interviewed by Allen Ginsberg (1992). Published as The Ugly Spirit in Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs 1960-1997. 2001.
  31. ^ Knight, Brenda (1996). Women Of The Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution. Conari Press. pp. 49.


  • Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw, the Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (1988, Henry Holt, ISBN 0-380-70882-5)
  • Jack Kerouac, The Vanity of Duluoz (1967–1968, Coward-McCann, ISBN 0-14-023639-2)
  • Collins, Ronald & Skover, David, Mania: The Story of the Outraged & Outrageous Lives that Launched a Cultural Revolution (Top-Five Books, March 2013)

External links[edit]