'When I become death, death is the seed from which I grow'

William Seward Burroughs was born on the 5th February, 1914, in St. Louis, Missouri. His family were middle-upper class, and comfortably off due to the profits of his grandfathers invention of a counting machine, and his formation of the 'Burroughs Adding Machine Company', which was later absorbed into Unisys, via Sperry Univac. Burroughs couldn't function in this environment, and with his fascination with guns, and his relatively open homoerotic ideas, his family packed him of to study at Los Alamos Boys School in New Mexico, and then to Harvard University from which he graduated in 1936.

In the mid-late 1930's he travelled to New York and Chicago, where he fell into the gangster underworld, whilst living on a $200/month allowance funded by his parents. He became a handler of stolen goods, which often included morphine, to which he became addicted.

At Christmas 1943, Burroughs met David Kammerer and Lucien Carr in New York , and via this meeting he was introduced to a crowd of writers studying at Columbia University, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Burroughs future wife, Joan Vollmer. Older than the rest of this group, he assumed the role of mentor to his young charges, and spent time encouraging Ginsberg and Kerouac to pursue their writing careers.

In 1947 he married Joan, herself addicted to benzedrine, and the pair moved to New Orleans, and then to Texas where he bought a farm, and attempted to grow oranges, cotton and marijuana. After being joined by Herbert Hunke, they all lived together in a state of drug-fuelled squalor whilst attempting to run the farm and raise two children, one from Joan's first marriage and one, William Jr., the child of Joan and Burroughs. Several of Burroughs old Columbia University friends visited, including Neal Cassady, and Jack Kerouac, who descibed the pandemonium he found there in his book On The Road, referring to Burroughs as 'Old Bull Lee'.

After being run out of the country by the US law authorities for on drugs charges, Joan and Burroughs resettled in Mexico City, apparently as habits were easier to afford and supplies easier to obtain there. Shortly after this move, in 1950 one of Burroughs' Harvard colleagues visited and persuaded him to write a book as a memory exercise. The upshot of this was the book Junky, which was sent to Lucien Carr in New York, who managed to get it published in 1953 under the pseudonym William Lee, and was subtitled 'Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict'.

On 6th September 1951, as part of a drunken prank, Burroughs accidentally shot and killed Joan whilst attempting to perform his William Tell act, which involved him placing a glass on his wifes head and trying to shoot it off with a pistol. He was charged with criminal imprudence, and his parents took custody of William Jr. and moved him to Florida. Burroughs took to travelling, starting in South America, all the time writing letters Ginsberg describing the scenery of Peru and Ecuador and telling of his quest for a mythical drug called yage all of which ended up being published as The Yage Letters in 1963

Burroughs finally ended up settling in Tangier where he could live cheaply and aquire the drugs he needed with ease, he attempted to write out the 'Ugly Spirit' which had possessed him when he shot his wife. In 1957 a visit from Kerouac found him living in a hovel, surrounded by pieces of paper all over the floor, which when asked what it all was, he claimed was his next novel, Kerouac loved it and Ginsberg helped to type them up even going so far as to suggest a name for the whole work - 'Naked Lunch.'

This book brought Burroughs into the spotlight, and is usually considered his best work. He went on to write many essays including one entitled 'Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness' in 1960 for the Evergreen Review after trying to use a London doctors experimental cure for heroin addiction, as well as many other plays, film scripts, and books, some of which were written a style invented by Tristan Tzara called 'cut-up', where he lifted chunks of other works and amalgamated them in an attempt to craft them into his own pieces.

William Burroughs died on 2nd August, 1997, at the age of 83

One important concept due to Old Bill is the routine: meaning a character (like the Old Doctor or the County Attorney) that will occasionally take hold of you, and force you to perform.
Burroughs had several routines, most of which I suspect found their way into his books, like "The Man Who Taught His Asshole To Talk" or, of course, the cool hardened Junkie.

Entirely without relation, or maybe not, let me mention that Burroughs killed his wife Joan in Mexico City, by playing William Tell when drunk. He shot her with a handgun, while trying to break a glass she had on her head.
Later on, he wrote that this happened because an external force took hold of him and shifted his aim.

The day after Bill Burroughs died in 1997, MTV News moron/anchor person Kurt Loder actually referred to the event as "another smoking-related death."


The man was 83 years old when he died. He was a junkie and a genius. He accidentally killed his wife. He spent time in a Mexican jail. He injected or ingested anything he could get his hands on: morphine, Benzedrine, heroin, and who knows what else.

It seems unlikely that the lowly cancer stick could seriously be held responsible for his ultimate demise.

Thanks anyway, Kurt.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.