Yesterday’s News and Burroughs Month: Double inaugural editions and an introduction

Mexico, September 8, 1951 — The Daily News reports that, in a drinking game which turned tragic, writer William S. Burroughs accidentally shot wife Joan Vollmer fatally in the head. He was aiming for the glass of gin on top of her head.

William Seward Burroughs, 37, first admitted, then denied today that he was playing William Tell when his gun killed his pretty, young wife during a drinking party last night.

via Le Revérénd Docteur right here on the wordpress.

Apparently William S. Burroughs was also a heroin addict and later threw out being bi and went whole-hog homosexual, being one of the first to identify as “queer” and reclaim the word as positive. The latter I’m way down for and think is great, the former …? — I don’t get how people can be addicted to heroin and still live long and functioning lives. Heroin addicts, clue me in on how this is possible? Seems so inescapably destructive a drug that it kind of puzzles me. I suppose having a lot of money helps. Then you don’t engage in all the risky behaviors poorer addicts do in order to acquire money to buy the drug. This is speculation: I am neither well-off nor a heroin addict. I like to try and take a “never say never” approach to life but I feel safe asserting that I will probably never be either.

I’ve used this picture before, but I cannot get enough of Burroughs’ delightfully priggish and pedantic expression. Looking straight down his nose at Kerouac and no doubt both laced to the gills. 1953, Greenwich Village.

I say “apparently,” about those factoids from his life story because, you guys, it’s super embarassing and inexplicable, but I know pretty much zip about William S. Burroughs. I don’t know how it happened, but seriously — virtually zip. I don’t even know if I’ll like all that I plan to read by him, but I was idly flipping through my millions of pictures and run across the scan of the newspaper clipping. I decided that the coincidence of a) searching for someone new to focus on this month; b) toying with an idea for a feature called Yesterday’s News that would be news out of history that had also literally been printed the day before the present date, rather than the more hackneyed “on this date in history…” etc, and c) finding something on Burroughs that’d been published yesterday in history* was too much synchronicity to ignore. So today marks the beginning of Burroughs Month. Welcome!

To be clear: Joan Vollmer was killed September 7. The article is dated September 8, and is the “yesterday’s news” to which the category will henceforth refer. This is partly a “how good am I at searching archives” challenge as well.

edit: Please read the comments, where DaveW takes us to school in re: heroin and Ms. Vollmer. Thanks for the info and insights, Dave!

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3 Responses to “Yesterday’s News and Burroughs Month: Double inaugural editions and an introduction”

  1. Hawkins Says:

    Fascinating. All I know about Burroughs is how cool he sounds on Laurie Anderson’s “Sharkey’s Night” Please continue with Burroughs Month.

  2. Mathilde Says:

    Re the functioning heroin addict thing this article is really interresting – there was a documentary as well. What really struck me about it was the doctors he interviewed who stated that drinking tea was actually worse for you than pure heroin. Highly addictive? Yes. But in it’s pure form not harmful. The programme featured (I think – it was long time ago!) some functioning heroin addicts who were prescribed heroin by their doctors in the UK, very few doctors are allowed to do this, and they all lead normal lives, went to work and could function fully in ‘normal’ society.

    Really enjoying your blog!

  3. DaveW Says:

    Re Joan Vollmer: According to Burroughs biography (Literary Outlaw; Ted Morgan, 1988), accounts differ (there were three surviving witnesses), but he asked her to play William Tell with a highball glass (they were both very drunk) and she happily complied.

    Today it would be called ‘negligent homicide’ or something. In Mexico, in 1951, $1000 got him bail and he skipped the country for Algeria (where he wrote “Naked Lunch”

    Burroughs used heroin off and on (mostly on) for 50 years. Heroin itself is simply an opiate, like morphine or codeine. It’s used in the UK for palliative care since it’s pain relieving qualities are considered to be subjectively stronger than morphine. There is unspoken cultural agreement that some drugs have qualities that traditionally had been reserved for sentient, moral beings. Thus heroin is ‘horrible’ or ‘evil’. This is an all too common (and encouraged) category error. It would be like describing Tylenol as being “moody at times, but has a good heart.”

    Burroughs claimed it took a year of dedicated, steady use to develop a habit, I imagine it differs from person to person but really don’t know. I used heroin occasionally in my teens but haven’t used it since grad school (15 years ago). Most people who use heroin are like me. That’s even according to the government, which estimates only ~10% of first time users develop a habit (compare with ~8% for alcohol). Unless you have hardcore substance abuse inclinations, the biggest danger of illegal drugs isn’t the drugs, it’s the legal system.

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