Joan Vollmer (1923 – 1951)
Continuing our occasional series of unusual (and amusing) deaths.
Switzerland, by most people’s estimation, is not the most exciting place on earth. That statement goes a long way to explaining the enduring popularity of the story of William Tell – you know the one about him putting an apple on his son’s head and then splitting it (the apple) asunder with a bolt from his crossbow. Apart from cuckoo clocks and banking, it is about all most people can readily recall about the country.
Such is Tell’s grip on people’s imagination, the story has spawned many real-life imitators, with varying results. I have already brought you the tragic story of Ching Ling Foo. Now consider Joan Vollmer.
Vollmer was a troubled soul, hanging around with some of the leading lights of the Beat Generation such as William S Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg et al. She was introduced to Benzedrine in 1945 and by the following year had been hospitalised due to her excessive use of the drug. She was also what is known as a maintenance drinker, consuming one or two bottles of tequila or vodka a day but in small sips over the course of the day.
In 1946 she was introduced to Burroughs by Ginsberg and, although the novelist was predominantly gay, became his common law wife.
Burroughs had a thing about guns – this together with a serious drug and alcohol problem was a recipe for disaster. On 6th September 1951, Burroughs, short of money and in Mexico City, was keen to sell one of his firearms. In an attempt to display its efficiency Burroughs and Vollmer hit upon a bizarre demonstration – they would recreate the famous William Tell scene. Appropriately, given their predilections, Vollmer placed a tumbler on her head. Burroughs took aim and fired. Unfortunately, he missed the glass but planted the bullet right into Vollmer’s skull. Vollmer died later that day from the effects of the gunshot wounds.
Her death was ruled as culpable homicide – Burroughs later denied that he was trying to recreate the William Tell scene, rather he was more prosaically handling the gun when it went off – but he was able to skip bail and flee to Louisiana where he escaped the short arms of the law. Nevertheless he was convicted in absentia in Mexico of manslaughter and received a two year suspended sentence.
Despite Vollmer’s tragi-comic death, Burroughs went on to find fame as a major writer in the late 1950s.
Strange but true!