5 Authors Who Did Time

William Burroughs at His Writing Table
Category: Reading

In September 1951, author and poet William S. Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his second wife, Joan Vollmer. The two were engaging in a game of William Tell, with Burroughs attempting to shoot through a glass on top of Vollmer’s head. Perhaps as a result of his inebriated state, Burroughs shot Vollmer in the forehead.

Despite being deeply affected by his actions and spending 13 days in jail, Burroughs stuck to a story created by his lawyer that the gun fired accidentally. He managed to avoid prison despite being convicted of manslaughter in absentia by a Mexican court.

Inspired by Burroughs’s misfortune, we’ve put together a list of more writers who found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Rubin Carter

Rubin Carter was a renowned middleweight boxer falsely convicted of triple-homicide in 1966. Carter spent almost 20 years in prison before his release in 1985. While incarcerated, Rubin took to writing, documenting his life and wrongful conviction in an autobiography: The Sixteenth Round. Carter’s life inspired the 1999 film, The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington, as well as Bob Dylan’s 1975 song, ‘The Hurricane’.

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde in a fur coat

Iconic writer and socialite, Oscar Wilde, spent two years in Newgate Prison, London, from 1895 to 1897. Following a very public spat with the Marquess of Queensberry (whose son, Lord Alfred Douglas, was Wilde’s lover), Wilde was arrested for ‘gross indecency’ relating to his relationships with Douglas and other men in Victorian London. He was convicted in May 1895 and sentenced to two years' hard labour. Following his release, Wilde left Britain, never to return. He spent his remaining years in France before dying of meningitis in 1900 at the age of 46.  

Ken Kesey

The author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest served six months in a California prison. After being arrested for possession of marijuana, Kesey, with the help of friends, faked his own death by placing his car near to a cliff edge with a suicide note inside. Kesey then travelled to Mexico, hidden in the trunk of his friends’ car. After spending eight months in Mexico, Kesey returned to the US and served out his sentence.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Alexander Solzhenitsyn

In February, 1945, three months before the end of World War II, Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn was arrested for anti-Soviet propaganda after criticising the war and Russian leader, Joseph Stalin, in a letter to friend Nikolai Vitkevich. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years hard labour for his actions. He served his sentence in a number of different work camps but it was his imprisonment at a camp in Ekibastuz that formed the basis for his book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The book would not be published until 1962 and it brought widespread Western attention to the realities of Russian work camps. After serving his sentence, Solzhenitsyn lived in a state-decreed exile before eventually being exonerated in 1956.

Henry David Thoreau

In the midst of his time living on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a six-year poll tax to debt collector Sam Staples. Thoreau’s refusal was due to his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery. He was released after somebody paid the tax against his wishes.  

Interested in reading more about crime? Check out our Forgotten Crime Classics Book List.

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