It’s been over 45 years since his death, but questions about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s final moments continue to circulate to this day. And even after the release of his 2022 biopic, many are still wondering: how did Elvis die?
At the time of his death at the age of 42, Elvis was one of the most renowned artists in the world. His passing shook the nation and prompted President Jimmy Carter to declare that the country lost a “part of itself” that day. “He was unique and irreplaceable,” Carter told the American public. “More than 20 years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equaled. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture.”
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However, as the world continued to grieve Elvis’ passing, several mysteries surrounding his death persisted. The biggest question even all these years later remains: how did Elvis die?
When did Elvis die?
Elvis Aron Presley died in his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, on August 16, 1977. He was discovered by his then-fiancée, Ginger Alden, who found him unconscious in their master bathroom. Elvis was quickly rushed by ambulance to Baptist Memorial Hospital, where he was ultimately declared dead at 3:30 PM following unsuccessful attempts to resuscitate him.
How did Elvis die?
So, how did Elvis die? It all began on the morning of August 16, 1977, when Elvis told his then-fiancée, Ginger Alden, that he was going to the bathroom to read. The “Jailhouse Rock” star notoriously suffered from long bouts of constipation due to a combination of his diet and use of prescription painkillers, and took a copy of Frank Adams’ The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus with him to the bathroom to keep himself occupied. According to her 2015 memoir, Ginger and Elvis, Ginger, who was still half-asleep herself, told Elvis not to fall asleep on the toilet.
Hours passed. Ginger, who had gone on about her day as normal, began to realize that she saw no sign of Elvis around their Graceland mansion. This was unlike her fiancé, who was due to leave for the U.S. leg of his latest tour later that evening. A little after 2 o’clock in the afternoon, she went in search of the singer, only to find that the door to their master bedroom was ajar. When she peered inside, she encountered Elvis slumped over their toilet. “I stood paralyzed as I took in the scene,” she wrote in her 2015 memoir. “Elvis looked as if his entire body had completely frozen in a seated position while using the commode and then had fallen forward, in that fixed position, directly in front of it.”
By the time she found him, Ginger described Elvis’ face as looking “blotchy, with purple discoloration,” with eyes that were “staring straight ahead and blood red.” An ambulance was immediately called, arriving to the scene at 2:33 PM. Minutes later, Elvis was rushed to the emergency room at Baptist Memorial Hospital, where doctors made unsuccessful attempts to revive him. Elvis was officially pronounced dead at 3:30 PM, and the world’s media was informed within the hour.
Three physicians—Eric Muirhead, Jerry Francisco and Noel Florredo—conducted an autopsy on Elvis the same day he passed away. While the postmortem examination took two hours to complete, Francisco decided to make a public statement about Elvis Presley’s cause of death midway through the process without the consent of his fellow pathologists. He cited “preliminary autopsy data” and announced to the press that Elvis Presley’s cause of death was “cardiac arrhythmia,” a.k.a., a heart attack. Francisco also claimed at the time that there was no indication that drugs played a role in his death. When pressed for details to confirm whether or not drugs were involved, Francisco dodged reporters, claiming that “the specific cause [of Elvis’s death] may not be known for a week or two pending lab studies. He added, “It is possible in cases like this that the specific cause will never be known.”
However, several weeks and a toxicology report later, Elvis Presley’s cause of death was confirmed—and the results weren’t quite as simple as Francisco let on. As it turns out, drugs did factor into Elvis Presley’s cause of death. Keep on reading ahead for what we know about the truth of how Elvis died.
What was Elvis Presley’s cause of death?
So, what was Elvis Presley’s cause of death? While Elvis Presley died of heart failure, the cardiac episode is now believed to have been brought on by the “Hound Dog” singer’s long history of prescription drug abuse.
According to Presley’s toxicology report, which arrived several weeks following his death in August 1977, the rockstar had significantly high levels of Codeine, Dilaudid, Percodan and Demerol in detected in his blood, plus another 10 narcotics in his system. Elvis was a longtime opiate user, having also abused sleeping pills, antihistamines, barbiturates and, lastly, laxatives to treat intense constipation caused by his prescription-grade painkillers. In his final moments, Elvis likely strained so hard to pass a bowel movement that the effort put an extreme amount of pressure on his heart, resulting in cardiac arrest. Yet at the time of his passing, it seems that medical examiner Francisco purposefully left out these additional details in a bid to satisfy the Presley family, who were desperate to try to keep the rockstar’s drug use a secret and maintain his public image after his death.
In the years to come, Elvis Presley’s personal physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos (otherwise known as Dr. Nick) was indicted on felony charges for overprescribing and overdistributing controlled substances to a number of celebrity clients. In the last eight months that Elvis was alive, Nichopoulos prescribed over 10,000 doses of amphetamines, barbiturates, narcotics, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, laxatives and hormones to the star. Nichopoulos, who first began treating Elvis in 1967, claimed he provided the astonishing number of drugs in an effort to keep Elvis from resorting to illegal substances “on the street.” While he was acquitted on all charges, the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners eventually terminated his medical license for good in 1995.
Forty five years after Elvis died of a cardiac arrest, his daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, whom he shared with his ex-wife Priscilla Presley, died from the same condition. Lisa Marie died in the evening of January 12, 2023. She was 54 years old. Her mother, Priscilla, confirmed her death. “It is with a heavy heart that I must share the devastating news that my beautiful daughter Lisa Marie has left us,” Priscilla said in a statement at the time. “She was the most passionate strong and loving woman I have ever known. We ask for privacy as we try to deal with this profound loss. Thank you for the love and prayers. At this time there will be no further comment.”
A statement from the Presley family at the time also read, “Priscilla Presley and the Presley family are shocked and devastated by the tragic death of their beloved Lisa Marie. They are profoundly grateful for the support, love and prayers of everyone, and ask for privacy during this very difficult time.”
Hours before Lisa Marie’s death, Elvis’ daughter was rushed to the hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest. According to TMZ, EMTs responded to a cardiac arrest call at Lisa Marie’s home on the 5900 block of Normandy Drive in Calabasas, California, after she was found unresponsive in her bedroom by her housekeeper. TMZ reported that Lisa Marie’s ex-husband, Danny Keough, performed CPR un her until the paramedics arrived and took over. After noticing Lisa Marie had “signs of life,” the paramedics transferred her to a local hospital for “immediate medical care,” where she later died, according to People.
Who inherited Elvis Presley’s estate?
Who inherited Elvis Presley’s estate? Elvis’ will appointed his father, Vernon Presley, as the executor and a trustee of his estate. The beneficiaries of the trust were Vernon; his daughter Lisa Marie (whom he shared with ex-wife Priscilla Presley); and his grandmother, Minnie Mae Presley. Because Lisa Marie was 9 years old at the time of her father’s death, her inheritance was held until her 25th birthday. Elvis’ mother, Gladys, died 19 years before him in 1958—hence her exclusion from his will.
After Vernon’s death in 1979, Lisa Marie’s mother and Elvis’ ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, was named as one of three trustees in Elvis’ will. The other trustees were the National Bank of Commerce in Memphis and Joseph Hanks, who had been Elvis’ accountant. After Minnie Mae’s death in 1980, Lisa Marie became the only surviving beneficiary. Lisa Marie inherited Elvis’ whole estate on her 25th birthday on February 1, 1993. Due to his years of excessive spending and being bilked by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ estate was worth $5 million at the time of his death, with just $1 million dedicated to Lisa Marie before the deaths of Vernon and Minnie Mae. However, by the time Lisa Marie inherited Elvis’ whole estate in 1993, the amount had grown to $100 million, thanks to the stewardship of Priscilla. “I tried to ignore it,” Lisa Marie told People at the time. “I think it’s time. I do [have new responsibilities], but it’s not like a major new thing, except maybe for people who didn’t know my role.” She continued of her new role at the time as the owner of the Elvis Presley Trust, “Everything remains the same, except I’m on the management team now.”
Jerry Schilling, Lisa Marie’s manager and Elvis’ longtime friend, also told People at the time of Lisa Marie’s readiness to inherit her father’s estate. “I think marriage and motherhood have made her a responsible person,” he said at the time. “I have seen her grow so much.” He continued, “If [the inheritance] had happened five years ago, it potentially could have affected her. But I think I Lisa has prepared herself.”
Lisa Marie also praised Priscilla’s stewardship over the estate in the interview with People. “She’s done an astounding job,” she said. “She’s incredible, and I have huge admiration and respect for what she’s accomplished.”
In 1998, Lisa Marie became more involved as the owner and chairman of the board of the Elvis Presley Trust and its business entity, Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. She told 85 percent of the estate’s business holdings to CKX Inc. (now known as Industrial Media, LLC) with the exception of Graceland and the properties within it. In 2018, Lisa Marie sued her former manager, Barry Siegel, for the alleged “reckless and negligent mismanagement” of her estate, which had left her with only $14,000, according to court documents obtained by The Blast. Siegel countered the suit and claimed that the low amount was a result of Lisa Marie’s excessive spending. He also damanded $800,000 in damages from Lisa Marie for non-payment.
In the court documents, Siegel claimed that Lisa Marie’s 2005 deal to sell 85 percent of her share of Elvis Presley Enterprises, which he negotiated, “cleared up over $20m in debts Lisa had incurred and netted her over $40m cash and a multi-million dollar income stream.” Lisa Marie, however, claimed that the deal lost her millions due to a subsequent investment in Core Entertainment, the production company behind American Idol that went bankrupt in 2016.
Siegel sold off 85 percent of her share in the Elvis Presley Enterprises company in 2005, a deal that he says “cleared up over $20m in debts Lisa had incurred and netted her over $40m cash and a multi-million dollar income stream”. Presley says it lost her millions thanks to a subsequent investment in Core Entertainment, the company behind American Idol that went bankrupt in 2016. According to tax filings obtained by The Guardian, the Presley Charitable Foundation had operated at an annual loss each tax year since 2009. The Guardian also reported that annual revenue was down to just $26 in one year.
The lawsuit between Lisa Marie and Siegel came at the time of her divorce from her fourth husband, Michael Lockwood, in 2018. According to court documents obtained by People, Lisa Marie claimed that she was $16.7 million in debt as a result of what she owed in income taxes, a defaulted mortgage and credit card bills. Lisa Marie’s business manager at the time, Justin Stiegemeyer—who was responsible for her “day-to-day finances and paying all of her bills”—claimed her had had first learned of her debt while her former business manager, Provident Financial Management, was handling her finances. As a result, Stiegemeyer claimed that Lisa Marie “had not been provided with proper accountings or notices or been kept abreast of her finances” by her former business manager and that she had “total liquid assets of less than $20,000” at the time they were fired. Stiegemeyer also reported that, “by the end of 2015,” there were “no additional funds” other than “the approximately $20,00 of liquid assets” available to Lisa Marie to use to pay her debts. He added that a majority of her debts were related to unpaid income taxes” from 2012 to 2015, which “total over $10 million.” Stiegemeyer also claimed that Lisa Marie owed almost $50,000 in credit card debt and that she had already paid off one of three “outstanding American Express cards each totaling approximately $300,000” in October 2017 an made the final payment on a “Citicard credit card with a balance due of $111,083” in January 2018. He stated at the time that the remaining outstanding American Express bills were expected to be “paid in full in September 2018.” “Suffice it to say that in addition to having to pay off these debts, the payment issues with these cards has caused [Lisa Marie’s] credit to be significantly impaired,” Stiegemeyer said. Stiegemeyer also stated that Lisa Marie hoped at the time to start payments toward her income tax debt “once we have paid off the credit cards and various legal fee debts and obligations.” The court documents also revealed that Lisa Marie had defaulted on a mortgage of a $6 million house she owned in the United Kingdom, which she had been trying to sell for two years at the time.
According to the court documents, Lisa Marie received a monthly salary of $4,361 from Elvis’ estate at the time, as well as $100,000 in dividends and interest from investments. Lisa Marie detailed her debt in response to a February 2017 court order requiring her to cover $50,000 of Lockwood’s $450,000 divorce attorney fees.
For more about Elvis, read Priscilla Presley’s 1986 memoir, Elvis and Me: The True Story of the Love Between Priscilla Presley and the King of Rock N’ Roll. In the book, Priscilla takes readers through her and Elvis’ relationship, from the moment they met to their marriage to their affairs and eventual divorce. The New York Times bestseller also reveals never-been-told details about Priscilla and Elvis’ relationship and why she still considers their bond “unbreakable” decades after his death. Described as a “tribute to both the man and the legend” that was Elvis, Elvis and Me is a must-read for any Elvis fan and written by the woman who loved him—in her own words.
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