Burroughs was born into a wealthy family from St. Louis, Missouri. His grandfather, and namesake, invented the Burroughs adding machine which eventually led to the creation of the Burroughs Corporation which William S. Burroughs I owned. Since Burroughs’ birth on February 5, 1914, much was expected from him by his family due to the great success of his family.
At the age of 14, Burroughs was sent to the Los Alamos Ranch School for boys in New Mexico because of an incident in St. Louis where he was playing with some chemicals that exploded and injured his hand. The injury required the use of pain medication and it was Burroughs first taste of morphine and the effect that the drugs had on him was negative. While attending Los Alamos, Burroughs had his first sexual experience with a boy who slept in the bunk next to him. He returned to St. Louis after his misuse of chloral hydrate allegedly caused him to be expelled.
Harvard University accepted William’s application in 1932 and he graduated with honors in 1936 with a degree in English. William’s family gave him a monthly allowance of $200 (which today would be the equivalent of roughly $3,000 a month) after he graduated so he left for Europe where he briefly studied medicine in Vienna before dropping out. He then spent his time traveling around Europe, and exploring the homosexual communities of Austria and Hungary, He met his first wife, Ilse Klapper in Croatia and the two married in 1937 so she could escape Nazi Germany. Burroughs and his new wife left Europe for New York City.
Burroughs cut off the top portion of his pinky on the left hand in 1932. There are two accounts as to why he did so: one states he was proving that he felt no pain (which is how Allen Ginsberg later tells the story) the other that he cut it off for his first boyfriend who had broken off their relationship earlier that year.
The U.S. Army drafted Burroughs in 1942, but he was released for mental instability not long after and was sent to a psychiatric treatment center. When released, Burroughs and Ilse moved to Chicago where he worked as a private detective and then as an exterminator, the longest job he ever held, it was only for nine months.
Klapper and Burroughs moved back to New York in 1944 where he met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The three would become the founders of the Beat writers forming the beat generation. His two newly acquired friends introduced Burroughs to Joan Vollmer; the two would marry in 1946 after Burroughs and Klapper divorced. It was through Kerouac, Ginsberg and Vollmer that Burroughs was introduced to heroin, a drug that would plague him for the rest of his life.
Burroughs was eventually arrested for drug possession, and after the house arrest that he was sentenced to serve, he and Vollmer moved to New Orleans. It became difficult for the two to obtain drugs because of police investigation, so Burroughs moved Joan to Texas to score drugs for the both of them. While Joan was in Texas, she gave birth to their son, William Seward Burroughs, Jr. on July 21, 1947. In 1948, Burroughs was brought up on charges of marijuana delivery and detention, so he fled to Mexico City with Joan and their son.
A lot of Burroughs’ work was written during his time in Mexico City; it was also the most turbulent time in his life. For the next three years, he abused heroin, drank incessantly, and had sex with many men, all while being married and living with Joan and their son.
Things took an unexpected turn on September 6, 1951, when Burroughs and Vollmer decided to play a William Tell act. Vollmer placed a water bottle on top of her head and Burroughs, who never went anywhere without a gun, shot at the bottle and shot Joan in the head. She died a few hours later, but Burroughs only spent 13 days in a Mexican jail before posting bail and was never charged for the murder.
After Vollmer’s death, Burroughs spent time living with his parents in Florida, staying with Ginsberg in New York City, and traveling to Rome and Tangiers. It was in Tangiers that he wrote Naked Lunch, his most famous and controversial work. He would later spend time in court when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts tried to ban the book because of its obscene and vulgar nature but the case was eventually overthrown.
Much of the rest of his life was unremarkable. His books were beginning to be published; Junky was the first in 1953 and work continued to be published just about every year, including 5 titles after he died.
In 1960 his son came to live with him in Tangiers where Burroughs, Jr. became introduced to alcohol, drugs, and homosexual advances, he was only 13. The reunion didn’t last long and Burroughs, Jr. returned to live with his grandparents who had raised him since his mother had died.
Sometime around 1976, Burroughs, Jr. became angry with his father for never being a proper father figure and the two had a falling out, which was never resolved. Burroughs, Jr. died in 1981 from cirrhosis of the liver after battling alcoholism since his time spent with his father in Tangiers.
William moved to London in 1966 to try and kick heroin and was successful for a time although he did eventually relapse. He permanently returned to the U.S. in 1976 where he lived in New York City and became close with Andy Warhol, Patty Smith, Lou Reed, and other members of the counterculture scene at the time. He spent time back and forth between Europe and the U.S. and by 1979 he was again addicted to heroin. He moved to Lawrence, Kansas in 1981 and remained there for the rest of his life. He continued to write and publish works until his death in 1997. At 83 years old, after decades of alcohol abuse and heroin addiction, he died of cardiac arrest in his home on August 2. He was the last surviving founder of the Beat Generation as Allen Ginsberg had passed away some months before.