On This Day: Elvis Presley

16 Aug

On this day in 1977 at approximately 2:30 PM the King Rock ‘n Roll was found dead on a bathroom floor at Graceland, his mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. He had not been seen since around 6 AM, right after he finished playing racquetball.


This was a death that reverberated around the world because Elvis Presley was a world icon. The most recognizable name and perhaps the most recognizable face on the planet.


The autopsy revealed no evidence of trauma or stroke or a heart attack or anything else that would cause a 42-year-old man to suddenly fall dead. Then the toxicology reports returned. These reports have been the subject of controversy and discussion for over 30 years now.

The investigation into The King’s death led to Dr. George Nichopoulos, the original “Dr. Feelgood.” He wrote prescriptions for Elvis for many years and some estimates indicate that he gave Elvis over 10,000 doses of downers, uppers, and narcotics. Seems that Michael Jackson found similar physicians.

The toxicology report indicated that Elvis had significant amounts of Ethinamate (a short-acting sleeping pill taken for insomnia), Methaqualone (Quaalude), codeine (a narcotic), and barbiturates (a class of tranquilizer) as well as smaller amounts of chlorpheniramine (an antihistamine), meperidine (Demerol), morphine (a narcotic) and Valium (a benzodiazepine tranquilizer) in his bloodstream. The question that remains is whether this pharmacological soup directly killed Elvis or did he simply have a cardiac arrhythmia and all of these drugs had little or no role in his death?

This may sound like a simple determination but in fact it is quite difficult and it is problems like these that perplex the medical examiner and the forensic toxicologist on a daily basis. Narcotics, sedatives, tranquilizers, and even antihistamines, when combined, can lead to treacherous results. Though the levels of none of these medications found in Elvis’ body, taken by themselves, would have resulted in death, the combination might very well have. These types of medicines tend to be additive and cumulative. Since narcotics and tranquilizers and sedatives all have depressing effects on the brain’s respiratory center, it is possible that this combination caused Elvis to stop breathing, collapse, and die. It is also entirely possible that his heart simply stopped due to a cardiac arrhythmia and these medications had little or nothing to do with it.

This is not an uncommon problem in forensic investigations. The determination that must be made is whether the drug or the combination of drugs was sufficient to cause death in and of themselves, or did they contribute to the death, or were they simply incidental findings and had nothing to do with the death. These are very difficult problems to resolve since each individual reacts to medications and combinations of medications differently. Maybe what Elvis took was too much for his system. Maybe he was used to these drugs and they had little effect on him. We will probably never know the answer to this question.

Cobain, Kurt

The same dilemma was part of the investigation into the death of Kurt Cobain, a death that was ruled suicidal but might very well might have been something more sinister. Also, these types of questions are coming to the forefront in the investigation of the death of Michael Jackson. Stay tuned.

Elvis Wikipedia

Elvis Tox Report from the University of Utah

Kurt Cobain Wkikpedia

Justice For Kurt


10 responses to “On This Day: Elvis Presley

  1. Karen in Ohio

    August 16, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Doug, I’ve also read (and heard) that one of the theories was a vasovegal syncope, since Elvis was found in the toilet. Do you have any theory on that idea?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 16, 2009 at 5:57 pm

      Vasovagal syncope is the mechanism that cause fainting when someone sees blood or slams a finger in a car door or things like that. It is a neurovascular reflex that causes a drop in heart rate and blood pressure. People can pass out with this but they rarely die from it. It can precipitate deadly changes in heart rhythm but this is rare. Possible in Elvis’ case? Yes, just not likely.


  2. Sheila Lowe

    August 21, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    When Kurt Cobain died I was contacted at 3:00 a.m. by a private investigator who had been hired by his wife, Courtney Love, to investigate the possibility that he had been murdered. While this investigator was doing his investigating, he became convinced that Ms. Love was her husband’s killer and that she had forged his suicide note. That’s where I came in. He asked me to compare the suicide note to a lot of samples that Cobain had been known to write.

    A very long, unpleasant story short (I never got paid for the job and the investigator went on a cross-country media blast with his crazy theories), I determined that without doubt, the handwriting in the suicide note was Kurt Cobain’s genuine writing. I don’t know whether that means Cobain actually killed himself or not, but I do know he wrote that note.


    • Rene Schmidt

      February 20, 2010 at 3:11 pm

      I dont know if Kurt Cobain did write that note or if he killed himself. I just wonder why Courtney Love had a note in her backpack with her handwriting trying to practice on certain letters. Did that note ever get compared to the handwriting on the Cobain “suicide note”?? Especially the last few lines on the Cobain note looks different from the rest of the writing. If you dont what note im referring to that was found in Courtney Love’s backpack then the following link is to a scan of that note. So why did she have such a suspicious note in her backpack the week after Cobain’s “suicide”…



      • Sheila Lowe

        February 20, 2010 at 5:58 pm

        I didn’t have that note, but as a court-qualified handwriting expert with more than 40 years experience, I can tell you that even though Courtney’s handwriting has some similar characteristics to Kurt’s, in my opinion she did not write that suicide note.

        I spent a lot of time examining and comparing her handwriting to it. It’s extremely difficult to forge even someone’s name, let alone forge an entire lengthy note. I don’t know why that page was in her notebook, but having seen a large amount of her writing and a large amount of his writing for comparison, I’m convinced the note is genuine. Other handwriting experts have reached the same conclusion.


  3. Dawood

    August 31, 2009 at 11:10 am

    The quote of John Lennon: “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” says it all about that great artist of all times. Here I’ve tried to collect all notable tributes paid to Elvis Presley by peers:


  4. TJ

    February 1, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    We will probably never know how and why Elvis died with total certainty. I think it’s time to focus on what made him great, ie the music and the amazing cultural impact that he had. He had a wonderful voice, great versatility, amazing stage presence and bucketloads of natural charisma. Here’s a tribute that shows his versatility:


    • Emily

      September 20, 2015 at 10:56 pm

      I know how Elvis died T.J. if you watched his final hours and looked at his autopsy report it looked like he died of a ruptured peptic ulcer


  5. JC

    June 12, 2010 at 5:02 am

    @ Sheila. There is no doubt that Kurt Cobain wrote the note that was at the scene of his death, including signing his name.
    All of the doubt comes from the last 4 lines added at the bottom AFTER he signed his name and ‘To Boddah’ at the beginning. It is very feasible indeed that these could have been added at a completely different time to the original note and it is this handwriting alone that needs to be analysed with Courtney Love’s and the handwriting practice found in her backpack. It is obvious that there are many differences with the lettering in the last 4 lines, to the main body of Kurt’s letter.
    If you “spent a lot of time examining and comparing her handwriting to it”, then please can you tell me what were the outcomes of analysing the last 4 lines of the note with Courtney Love’s practice sheet?


  6. Sheila Lowe

    June 12, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    JC, Since that was quite a few years ago, to answer your question would require me to go back and dig through some files to review my notes, which I can’t do right now (under a deadline). Sorry not to be more helpful.



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