William S. Burroughs – Valentine Day Reading (1965)

The first thing to consider when listening to William Burroughs’ St. Valentine’s Day Reading is the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. On that date, five members of the Bugs Moran Gang and two others were shot at SMC Cartage Company on the North Side of Chicago mostly likely under the orders of Al Capone. The crime was never solved.

William S. Burroughs – Valentine Day Reading (1965)

Burroughs was fascinated by the underworld and no doubt the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre played into his reading in 1965, which featured a tape-recorded version of the last words of Dutch Schultz. Schultz was murdered at the Palace Chophouse in Newark by Mendy Weiss and Charlie “The Bug” Workman in 1935. Famously, Schultz slipped in and out of consciousness for 22 hours after the shooting as police stenographers recorded his dying words. Burroughs viewed the transcript as a natural cut-up. The cut-ups were all about revealing hidden links — ones that Burroughs believed were a form of prophecy and time travel.

While writing about Dutch Schultz, Burroughs was pleased to discover that Schultz had arranged the murder of Mad Dog Coll in 1931 on 23rd Street. Coll was 23 years old. Dutch Schultz died on October 23, 1935 and Charlie Workman served 23 years of his life sentence before he was paroled. The number 23 haunted Burroughs and he kept a scrapbook dedicated to the number. This interest in numerology began when Burroughs met a Captain Clark in Tangier who piloted a ferry to Spain. Clark navigated the route for 23 years without incident, yet after talking to Burroughs the ferry sank. That same night a flight from New York to Miami, Flight 23, crashed. The plane was piloted by a Captain Clark. And the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred on 2122 North Clark Street.

Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that the death of Joan was also on Burroughs’ mind as he dictated the dying words of Dutch Schultz on St. Valentine’s Day? St. Valentine’s Day was not associated with romantic love until Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1300s linked the day with the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. Later, as the day became increasingly commercialized, the martyred St. Valentine was tied to marriage as well. A priest during the reign of Claudius, Valentine secretly arranged marriages for young soldiers to their brides despite the fact that Claudius had outlawed such ceremonies. Claudius discovered Valentine’s secret ceremonies and had him executed. Further embellishments suggested that the doomed Valentine wrote the first Valentine’s Day card to his beloved on the eve of his execution. Thus St. Valentine became a martyr for marriage. As suggested in a piece on the death of Joan, the William Tell shooting can be viewed as a perverse wedding ceremony, a shotgun wedding of sorts in which Joan is sacrificed on the altar to free Burroughs from family obligations into a life of creative freedom. Joan may have been, like St. Valentine, a martyr tied to love and marriage.

Much has been made of the fact that the last words of Dutch Schultz fascinated Burroughs due to its cut-up qualities, but equally haunting is the forgotten fact that Joan did not die instantly after she was shot. Accounts vary but it is generally agreed that Joan clung to life for up to an hour. She received blood transfusions in an effort to save her life. As Joan was shot, she emitted a death rattle like a snore. She lost consciousness, but possibly, like Dutch Schultz, she muttered some last words in her final hour. If she did speak on her death bed, Burroughs did not transcribe her words. Did she curse her killer? Did she say good-bye? Maybe she remained silent.

What is clear is that Burroughs did not speak of it.

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