Why Elvis Presley's Death Continues to Stir Conspiracy Theories

Elvis Presley's storied life is the stuff of movies—literally. But what about the conspiracy theories surrounding his death? Well, that's the stuff of true-crime documentaries.

By Cydney Contreras Jun 24, 2022 10:00 PMTags
Watch: Austin Butler Admits It's Hard to Break Accent After "Elvis"

A little less conversation a little more—actually no. The world is far from ready to stop talking about Elvis Presley.

As Baz Luhrmann illustrates in his upcoming biopic Elvis, starring Austin Butler in the titular role, the singer was charismatic and stunning. Women wanted to be with him and men wanted to be him. Beyond his looks, he was one of the world's greatest talents, with an ability to sing, dance and perform like no one his generation had ever seen.

So it's not hard to see why fervent fans would rather imagine an alternate reality in which Elvis is still alive—or one in which he didn't die such a tragic death at 42. 

Since 1977, conspiracy theories about his life and death have gained prominence, fueled by reports of a secret autopsy and the release of FBI records. Plus, those fascinating photos of Elvis with President Richard Nixon.

But the truth is not as glamorous as the life he lived. Keep reading to learn about the puzzling world of the King of Rock and Roll...

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Where was Elvis Presley when he died?

Turns out, rumors that Elvis died on the toilet in his Graceland mansion are actually true—sort of.

While the death certificate says he technically died at the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. on Aug. 16, 1977, his fiancée Ginger Alden did indeed find the 42-year-old, near death, on the bathroom floor. "I stood paralyzed as I took in the scene," she wrote in her 2014 memoir Elvis and Ginger. "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."

The singer was barely breathing and, as she put it, his face was "blotchy, with purple discoloration."

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How did Elvis Presley die?

The singer's cause of death has been a subject of speculation for many years, and for good reason. 

In the days immediately following Elvis' death, three doctors, Eric Muirhead, Jerry Francisco and Noel Florredo, conducted an autopsy, but their findings weren't officially available until two months later. 

Not that fans had to actually wait until October to learn more about their idol's passing. In an Aug. 17 press conference, Francisco actually shared preliminary findings with reporters, noting it appeared Elvis died of a heart attack. However, the doctor, according to the New York Times, said the team was unable to determine the cause of the heart attack.

Though many assumed his death was an overdose, Francisco shut down those rumors, explaining the only drugs detected were those prescribed to the singer by his personal physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos a.k.a. Dr. Nick. 

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Nonetheless, the toxicology report indicated there significant levels of barbiturates, sedatives, depressants and more in Elvis' system, prompting accusations that Francisco lied about the cause of death. These rumors persisted until 1994, when, according to the AP, a Tennessee health department confirmed Francisco's findings. But by then, it was too late. The theory about falsified autopsies and cover-ups were already a part of the zeitgeist.

What was Elvis Presley taking prescription drugs for?

That goes back to 1967, nearly a decade before his untimely passing. At the time, Elvis turned to Dr. Nick as he was suffering from saddle sores caused by years of horseback riding, according to the NY Times.

But in the years that followed, Elvis increasingly asked Dr. Nick for treatment, according to the newspaper, requesting help with everything ranging from those sores to his insomnia. By 1970, Dr. Nick was working for Elvis full time.

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And he was no easy patient. "Elvis was a firm believer there was a medicine for everything," the physician told American Medical News in 1981, according to the NYT. "You know how some people will sneeze and think they need a pill, or get a muscle cramp and want relief, or go to the dentist and need a painkiller? Others aren't bothered. Elvis was convinced he needed drugs."

As a result, Dr. Nick told the medical board he prescribed the singer amphetamines, sedatives, barbiturates and more. (Some context: Barbiturates cause constipation, per the Mayo Clinic, and many have theorized that Elvis' straining to go no. 2 may have caused that fatal heart attack.)

And while Elvis' weight often raised eyebrows—he did have a penchant for fried peanut butter and bananas sandwiches—there is some concern that it was a side-effect of those medications.

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Why was Dr. Nick taken to trial?

Despite the abundance of medical issues Elvis reported facing, many people raised suspicions about whether Dr. Nick was justified to prescribe so many different medications.

Three years later, in 1980, Dr. Nick was indicted on 14 counts of overprescribing drugs to 14 musicians, including Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. A jury acquitted the doctor, but his legal troubles were far from over.

In 1995, the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners once again brought complaints against Dr. Nick. This time, according to the AP, the medical board found he committed gross malpractice and unethical conduct with 13 patients, including Jerry. "The doctor himself agreed that some of his patients were addicts, yet he gave them their drug of choice," a board member said at the time. "That's certainly unethical."

Dr. Nick appealed the decision several times, with the NY Times reporting the doctor told the board he overprescribed because he "cared too much."

He went on to tell The Daily Beast in 2009, "No one understands that Elvis was so complicated. I worked so hard just to keep things together and then they turned the tables on me after he died and decided I was to blame."

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Why is there a second autopsy report?

With so much speculation surrounding Elvis' death, the Presley family wanted solid answers about what really happened. 

According to multiple reports, the Presleys requested a private, second autopsy, which was completed but hasn't been released to the public—yet. Why? As it turns out, the follow-up autopsy is sealed at Elvis' dad Vernon Presley's request. Vernon reportedly signed-off on the autopsy being sealed until the 50th anniversary of Elvis' death, which is Aug. 16, 2027.

In 1982, the ABC show 20/20 went all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court to demand the autopsy report be released, but, according to the NYT, their request was denied.

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Where is Elvis Presley buried?

The artist was laid to rest Aug. 18, 1977 at his home Graceland in Memphis, Tenn.—but that's only if you believe Elvis is actually dead. 

If you said, "wait, what?" just now, allow us to present the SparkNotes, which involve the FBI, the mafia and President Richard Nixon. Some conspiracy theorists believe that Elvis was an undercover FBI agent who went into witness protection because of his supposed ties to the mafia.

While there's no evidence to suggest there's any truth to this theory, Elvis can still be linked back to the FBI. "Presley was the target of many extortion attempts investigated by the FBI," the government has said of federal documents about the musician. "Reactions to his music and stage presentation led concerned citizens to write the FBI suggesting that it investigate Presley; we did not."

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Why did Elvis Presley meet President Nixon?

Then come those photos of Elvis with President Nixon. Their December 1970 encounter in itself is worthy of a movie, with the Smithsonian Magazine reporting that Elvis reached out in the hopes of earning a badge from the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Apparently, the King of Rock and Roll loved to collect badges.

As for why he wanted that specific pin? Well, "I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques," he wrote in a letter written to president, which is now preserved at the Nixon Presidential Library, "and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good."

Nixon aide Egil "Bud" Krogh was in the Oval Office at the time of the meeting, describing the surreal interaction to Smithsonian Mag. "Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit," Krogh recalled. "The President then indicated that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest."

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Was Elvis Presley a member of the mob?

Ultimately, Elvis got the shiny badge he asked for, something he was absolutely fixated on because, as ex-wife Priscilla Presley wrote in her memoir, it meant "he could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished."

But that's the end of that. There's no evidence supporting theories he was ever undercover in any capacity.

As for the mafia tie in, those are mostly because of Elvis' star status and the simple fact that plenty of big names (think: Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe) were tied to organized crime so it stands to reason that Elvis might, too.

But that doesn't mean he is alive today. So, let suspicious minds rest.

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