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Burroughs was born on September 1, 1875, in Chicago, Illinois (he later lived for many years in the suburb of Oak Park), the fourth son of businessman and Civil War veteran Major George Tyler Burroughs (1833–1913) and his wife Mary Evaline (Zieger) Burroughs (1840–1920). His middle name is from his paternal grandmother, Mary Rice Burroughs (1802–ca. 70).

Burroughs was educated at a number of local schools, and during the Chicago influenza epidemic in 1891, he spent a half year at his brother's ranch on the Raft River in Idaho. He then attended the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and then the Michigan Military Academy. Graduating in 1895, and failing the entrance exam for the United States Military Academy (West Point), he ended up as an enlisted soldier with the 7th U.S. Cavalry in Fort Grant, Arizona Territory. After being diagnosed with a heart problem and thus ineligible to serve, he was discharged in 1897.

Adulthood:

After his discharge, Burroughs worked a number of different jobs. He drifted and worked on a ranch in Idaho. Then, Burroughs found work at his father's firm in 1899. He married his childhood sweetheart Emma Hulbert (1876-1944) in January 1900. In 1904, he left his job and worked less regularly, first in Idaho, then in Chicago.

By 1911, after seven years of low wages, he was working as a pencil-sharpener wholesaler and began to write fiction. By this time, Burroughs and Emma had two children, Joan (1908–72), who would later marry Tarzan film actor James Pierce, and Hulbert (1909–91). During this period, he had copious spare time and he began reading many pulp fiction magazines. In 1929 he recalled thinking that

...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never  ritten a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines.

In the 1920s Burroughs became a pilot, purchasing an Security Airster S-1, encourages his family to learn to fly.

Burroughs divorced Emma in 1934, and in 1935 he married former actress Florence Gilbert Dearholt, the former wife of his friend, Ashton Dearholt. Burroughs adopted the Dearholts' two children. He and Florence divorced in 1942.

Burroughs was in his late 60s and a resident of Hawaii at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite his age, he applied for and received permission to become a war correspondent, becoming one of the oldest U.S. war correspondents during World War II. This period of his life is mentioned in William Brinkley's bestselling novel Don't Go Near the Water.

American film director Wes Anderson is Burroughs' great-grandson.

American actor Reid Markel is Burroughs' great-great- grandson.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame inducted Burroughs in 2003.

Death:

After the war ended, Burroughs moved back to Encino, California, where, after many health problems, he died of a heart attack on March 19, 1950, having written almost 80 novels.

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