Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Prescription to Die

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley

At the height of his fame, he was a handsome, lithe and charismatic singer, marrying a beautiful teenage bride and becoming internationally famous. His death on August 16, 1977, at the age of 42, was far from glamorous. The King was found in his bathroom after going to the toilet, slumped over in a pool of his own vomit at Graceland Mansion. While the initial autopsy noted a "cardiac arrhythmia," (at the behest of the family) it was revealed to be a cover-up, and the real cause of death — the cocktail of 14 different drugs in his bloodstream — was later revealed.

Presley's penchant for prescription drugs seems to have began during his service in the army in the late 1950s, and then spiraled out of control in the '60s, when he was most in demand. He would take uppers to get through a night's performance, and downers to go to sleep. He was such a canny addict, that he studied the Physician's Desk Reference, and would often fake symptoms while visiting doctors in different cities, soliciting prescriptions from each. He was twice admitted to rehabs in the 1970s for exhaustion; in reality, he had nearly fatally overdosed.

At the time of his death he had a cocktail of drugs in his system that would seem unbelievable: painkillers Demerol, Morphine; tranquilizers, Valium and Placidyl; antihistamine, Chloropheniramine; Codeine, Ethinamate (a sleeping pill), Quaaludes and an unidentified barbiturate.

Ironically, as a RollingStone.com's biography notes: "He remained devoutly spiritual, never drank alcohol, and publicly denounced the use of recreational drugs."

Like other addicts, Elvis had a trusted doctor, Dr. George Nichopoulous, known as "Dr. Nick." The doctor wrote as many as 10,000 prescriptions in 1977, but would frequently give Presley placebos, because he knew Presley's appetite for drugs was too large, and generally monitored his health. He was formally charged in 1980 with 14 counts of abusing his license to prescribe. Though he was acquitted, the case was reopened 12 years later, and his license was revoked. In June 2009, Dr. Nick held an auction in Las Vegas of Presley's actual prescription pill bottles, with the original pills inside, causing many to ask who had truly been the ill person in the relationship.

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