Death On The Throne: The Passing Of Elvis Presley
On August 17th, 1977, newspaper headlines across the country, proclaimed the shocking news: The King is dead.
Twenty-seven years ago today, Elvis passed away. Elvis Aaron Presley -- the poor, ambitious, rebellious young man from Tupelo, Mississippi, who gyrated
Headlines like this shocked fans around the world.
himself to the top of the fledgling rock and roll industry in the mid 50s; who helped define and refine its essence for two more decades; and who became increasingly eccentric, isolated and unable to handle his mega-star status -- Elvis Aaron Presley had died at 42 of cardiac arrhythmia, a severely irregular heartbeat or heart attack. His millions of fans wanted immediate answers, wondering how such a thing could possibly have happened to one so previously blessed with good fortune.
At first, conflicting reports circulated throughout the media of how Elvis had met his end, and who had discovered him in his Graceland bathroom. Initial accounts had Joe Esposito, his road manager, discovering Elvis' body fully clothed in pajamas, face up on the floor of the bathroom, around 2:30 on the afternoon of August 16th. Elvis was rushed to the emergency room at Memphis Baptist Hospital, where Jay Francisco, the Shelby County medical examiner, pronounced him dead at 3:30. It was speculated that he might have been dead as early as 9:00 that morning. The only drugs detected in his system were those prescribed by his personal physician and friend, Dr. George Nichopoulos, for hypertension and for a colon blockage (an affliction that hospitalized the singer twice in 1975). A drug overdose of any kind was quickly ruled out.
But a different set of details eventually emerged. To protect Elvis's young fiancé -- a novice actress named Ginger Alden, to whom he was to be married on Christmas Day later that year -- the sequence of events was altered. What actually happened was this: Elvis, who had been unable to sleep, had played racquetball most of the night and early into Tuesday morning (around 6:30). He then told Ginger, who had a separate bedroom and bath, that he was going into his bathroom "to read" for a while. The book he took in with him, interestingly enough, was The Face Of Jesus, by Frank Adams.
It was Ginger who discovered him around 1:30 in the afternoon that day, after he did not respond to her queries at his bathroom door. Finding it unlocked, she pushed on it and encountered him laying on the floor, facedown in a pool
Ginger Alden, Elvis' fiancé, the first to discover the King that fateful morning.
of vomit, his pajama bottoms around his ankles. To spare the distraught woman's feelings and ease her emotional burden, the discovery story was somewhat sanitized in its initial release to the press, particularly regarding the part she had played in the traumatic event, his state of undress and the bodily function in which he had surely been engaged. Only later did it become common knowledge that Elvis had died while trying to defecate.
In his 1999 biography Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis, author Peter Guralnick emphasizes that "it was certainly possible that (Elvis) had been taken while straining at stool"; and Shelby County medical examiner Dan Warlick also indicated that it appeared Elvis had been stricken while seated on the toilet before falling off, crawling several feet, throwing up and dying.
Autopsy results later released to the general public did nothing to discourage this scenario. The singer's heart was enlarged with a significant amount of coronary atherosclerosis, there was extensive liver damage, and the large intestine was clogged with fecal matter, indicating a chronic and painful bowel condition. Elvis's former aide and bodyguard Delbert "Sonny" West would later complete the distressing and graphic picture of the King's physiological torment in a widely-circulated newspaper interview, revealing that his employer's drug habit was "so strong that he had to take pills to get up in the morning, to regulate his bowel movements, to sleep and to perform."
"He took every possible pill you can think of," West continued, "including pain pills during the day. Demerol and morphine shots (with
An actual photo of Elvis' bathroom Pretty swanky!
syringes) for the downs. And a very strong pain medication intended for terminally-ill cancer patients for a pleasant high."
Although these drugs were not in his system at the time of his death, the damage done to his cardiovascular system by dependence upon such substances -- along with a lifetime of extravagant and unhealthy nutritional habits (he was at least thirty pounds overweight when he died) and a previously documented intestinal blockage -- all point to the 'straining at stool' scenario (surely without success) as the probable impetus for his fatal arrhythmia. (His pajamas pants around his ankles, of course, are a dead giveaway.)
Researching this story in the Tupelo library, I was struck by the irony of one of the first newspaper headlines I encountered in the vertical file: "Death Won't Dethrone The King." That particular banner, which heralded an affectionate tribute to his career and made no reference to the manner in which Elvis had died, was more prescient than the headline writer could ever have imagined.
We PoopReporters know better than to take this bodily function for granted. For many of us, and certainly for Elvis, it can be a source of great consternation and travail; but while we joke and share our stories about it, it was straining on the porcelain throne that caused The King to abdicate his reign over rock n' roll.