William S. "Billy" Burroughs, Jr.

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William Seward "Billy" Burroughs, III

Also Known As: "William S. Burroughs", "Jr. and Billy Burroughs"
Birthdate: (33)
Birthplace: Conroe, Montgomery, Texas, United States
Death: March 3, 1981 (33)
DeLand, Volusia, Florida, United States (Liver failure as a result of untreated alcoholism)
Place of Burial: Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of William S. Burroughs and Joan Vollmer

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About William S. "Billy" Burroughs, Jr.


William Seward Burroughs III (July 21, 1947 – March 3, 1981) was an American novelist, also known as William S. Burroughs, Jr. and Billy Burroughs. He bears the name of both his father and his great grandfather, William Seward Burroughs I, the original inventor of the Burroughs adding machine. He wrote three novels, two of which were published as Speed (1970) and Kentucky Ham (1973). His third novel, Prakriti Junction, begun in 1977, was never completed, although extracts from it were included in his third published work Cursed From Birth.

Burroughs Jr. underwent a liver transplant in 1976 after developing cirrhosis. He died in 1981, at the age of 33, from alcoholism and liver failure. Burroughs Jr. appears briefly in the 1983 documentary Burroughs, about his father, in which he discusses his childhood, his liver problems, and his relationship with his family. In the documentary, John Giorno calls him "the last beatnik."


Burroughs was born in Conroe, Texas, to William S. Burroughs and Joan Vollmer. His mother was addicted to amphetamines, and his father was a heroin addict. Herbert Huncke, a friend of his parents, relates that when Joan was pregnant he would drive into Houston to obtain Benzedrine, an inhaled amphetamine, for her.

On September 6, 1951 Billy's father accidentally shot and killed his mother in a drunken game of 'William Tell' in Mexico City. In chapter three of his second novel, Kentucky Ham, Burroughs relates his memory of the day his mother was shot dead, as well as the following reunion with his father after he was freed from a Mexico City prison. While his father stayed in Mexico, Billy went to live with his paternal grandparents – Mortimer and Laura Lee Burroughs, in St. Louis, Missouri. In the spring 1952, when Billy was nearly 5, he moved with his grandparents to Palm Beach, Florida, where they relocated their store, Cobblestone Gardens. By his own account, Billy said his grandparents were kind and reassuring; yet as they grew older, and he grew into adolescence, they were unable to relate.

When Billy was thirteen, his grandparents asked William S. Burroughs to take Billy back. He agreed, and Billy was sent alone by air to Tangiers, Morocco to live with his father. In Tangiers, Billy was introduced to marijuana, and he experienced several episodes of grown men attempting to rape him. By his father's own admission, the visit was a failed attempt to rehabilitate their relationship. After Burroughs' lover, Ian Sommerville, convinced William that his son was irrevocably homesick, Billy returned to Palm Beach.

When Billy was fifteen, he accidentally shot his best friend in the neck with a rifle, causing an almost fatal wound. This event caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown. According to Kentucky Ham, Billy thought his friend was dead and ran away from home to seek refuge in a girlfriend's family fallout shelter. He planned to flee to California, convinced that he was a murderer. Yet his friend lived, and the police ruled the wounding unintentional. Still, this act did not go unnoticed in the exclusive Palm Beach community, and the manner in which his mother perished at the hand of his father was revived. Billy was sent to a mental hospital in St. Louis for help, but threats to run away caused Mortimer and Laura to bring their grandson home. Bill then attended Green Valley, an alternative school based on the principles of English educator A.S. Neill, in Orange City Florida from 1965-1966.

Drug addiction

Living in a wealthy section of Palm Beach, Billy Burroughs began to spend more time out of his grandparents' care and beyond the reach of local authorities. Billy became addicted to amphetamines and resorted to criminal behavior to obtain it: forging prescriptions and visiting doctors' offices to steal prescription pads. Like his father, he was soon arrested. Unlike his father, Billy was not an adult, and had the tragic story of his parents' life to temper criminal proceedings against him. Nevertheless, his second novel begins with his condemnation to a four-year suspended sentence and required admission to the Federal Narcotics Farm at Lexington in Kentucky. This prison was one of two U.S. Federal prison hospitals treating persons convicted of federal drug crimes in the United States from 1935 until 1973.

After being released on parole in 1968, Billy quit his addiction to amphetamines and sought treatment at The Green Valley School, a private institution run by Reverend Von Hilsheimer in Orange City, Florida. The Green Valley School was where Billy met his wife, a 17-year-old Jewish girl from Savannah, Georgia named Karen Perry, who came from a privileged background. The two formed a romantic relationship and were married in 1969, settling in Savannah. Billy began to write; Karen was a waitress.


The marriage disintegrated in 1974, when Karen left Billy because of his chronic alcoholism. Despite the publication of his novels, he was increasingly alienated from friends and family, and there were long periods when his whereabouts were unknown. When he showed up in Boulder, Colorado to visit his father and Allen Ginsberg at Ginsberg's Buddhist retreat at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, he had the appearance of a derelict.

In 1976, during a dinner with Ginsberg and his father, Billy began vomiting blood. When the heaving would not stop, he was admitted to Colorado General Hospital, where it was discovered that he was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. There is no doubt he would have died if he had not been in Colorado. The hospital was one of only two institutions in 1976 that performed liver transplants. Dr. Thomas Starzl had performed over 100 transplants, with a survival rate of less than 30 percent. Nevertheless, Billy profited from Starzl's care. Although Billy spent months in and out of the hospital, and there were many serious complications, the operation was successful. Unfortunately, Billy didn't take advantage of his second chance. Despite the obvious risks, Burroughs kept drinking. Many people, notably Allen Ginsberg, tried to encourage him to quit, but Billy's self-destructive behavior continued.

Eventually, Billy began to express hostility and anger towards his father. He published a damning article in Esquire, explaining how his life was "ruined" by his father’s actions. The estrangement between father and son was never reconciled.


In 1981, Burroughs stopped taking his anti-rejection drugs. Allen Ginsberg was notified that Billy had returned to Florida to reconnect with the founder of the Green Valley School. Shortly after, Burroughs was found lying chilled, drunk, and exhausted in a shallow ditch at the side of a DeLand, Florida, highway on March 2. A passerby took him to a local hospital, where he died the following day at 6:35 a.m. of acute gastrointestinal hemorrhage associated with micronodular cirrhosis. He was 33 years old. Burroughs was cremated and his ashes buried in Boulder, Colorado.

Writing style

William S. Burroughs, Jr. wrote two autobiographical novels, and was working on a third. He began writing poetry at the Green Valley School when he was twenty-one in 1968 and completed his first novel Speed in 1970. His novels show much promise and also have interest for readers because of their Beat sensibility. The novels relate the trips of a teenage runaway in the early 1960s, and are comparable in style and content to both Kerouac’s On the Road and his father’s Junkie. His friendships, his drug use, and his social commentary make each novel interesting, if at times unpolished. Some time after the death of Burroughs, Jr., his father invited David Ohle to edit the manuscript of his late son's unfinished novel Prakriti Junction. The manuscript was unpublishable so, instead, Ohle compiled a work from the manuscript, the last journals and poems of Burroughs Jr., and correspondence and interviews with those who knew him.


Speed (1970)
Kentucky Ham (1973)
Prakriti Junction (1977-1978, unfinished)
Speed and Kentucky Ham: Two Novels (1993, novel compilation)
Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr. (2006, compiled by David Ohle)
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William S. "Billy" Burroughs, Jr.'s Timeline

July 21, 1947
Conroe, Montgomery, Texas, United States
March 3, 1981
Age 33
DeLand, Volusia, Florida, United States
Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, United States