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William Tell and His Copycats

When William Tell, a Swiss archer living in the early 14th century, skillfully sniped an arrow off his son’s head with a crossbow, he was neither showing off his marksmanship nor soaked to the gills with booze. He did it on order from a sadistic overlord, as a punishment for sedition. The same can’t be said of Tell’s copycats: Over the centuries, many a boastful, sloshed sharpshooter has attempted the William Tell feat—rarely with happy results.

To honor today’s 710th anniversary of Tell’s test, here's a look at some of the wanna-bes who have tried their (sometimes not so) steady hand at the legendary challenge and explore the consequences of their conceit.

William S. Burroughs

During a party one night in 1951, Beat writer William S. Burroughs

(drunk and struggling with heroin withdrawal) took out a pistol and allegedly announced to the revelers, “It’s time for our William Tell act.” He then placed an apple atop the head of his 28-year-old wife, Joan Vollmer (an amphetamine junkie herself). He aimed, fired and accidentally shot Vollmer in the forehead. She died on the spot.

Burroughs would later credit the incident with inspiring him to become a writer, and it would help enshrine him in legend among his fans.

James Thurber

Humor often comes from tragedy. When James Thurber was a young boy, his brother shot him in the eye with an arrow in a misguided childhood reenactment of the William Tell story. (His brother, incidentally, was named William—just like Burroughs, above.) Thurber lost the eye. Unable thereafter to participate in sports, he learned to cultivate his imagination. He also consequently experienced visual hallucinations and thus developed a surreal awareness of the world that directly fed his humorous stories and cartoons.

Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley was one of the greatest sharpshooters of all time. For years she traveled the country with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, exhibiting her jaw-dropping marksmanship before large crowds. One of her acts involved a dog and an apple: Balancing the apple on her dog’s head, Oakley would count her paces across the stage, turn around and shoot her gun off without fail. On occasion, she even had audience members fill in for the dog, in various creative takes on the William Tell tale. At one show, Oakley shot the ashes off Kaiser Wilhelm II’s cigarette from across the stage. Some have suggested that if she had shot Wilhelm instead of his cigarette, she might have prevented World War I.

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