What It Was Really Like The Day Elvis Died In 1977
Born into a desperately poor family in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935, Elvis Aaron Presley shot to fame by the tender age of 21. By the time he was 23 years old, Presley was a global icon, appearing on television, in films, and having multiple hit songs on the radio. He toured the nation and was an icon for the U.S. military, and his fame was international. But his sudden celebrity status and resulting wealth would lead Elvis into a lifestyle of such hedonistic indulgence that his health would fail him within two decades of his meteoric rise to fame.
Elvis Presley, the famed and beloved King of Rock and Roll, died in Memphis, Tennessee on August 16, 1977 at the age of 42. It was a hot and humid day, with the temperature topping out at 93 degrees Fahrenheit. Far from the limelight of the stage, the screen, or the recording studio, the singer died in one of the many bathrooms of his mansion, a 17,500 square feet residence he had named Graceland.
Once arguably the most famous performer on earth and already with an enduring legacy, the King was alone and quite likely unconscious on a floor for the final hours of his life. While many of the details will never be clear, here’s what we do know about the day Elvis Presley died.
These were Elvis Presley’s last words
The last person to see Elvis Presley alive, and the person who heard his last words, was Ginger Alden, the singer’s fiancee. Alden was just 20 years old at the time, half the age of her partner, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Alden has given two slightly conflicting reports about the last words ever spoken by the King of Rock and Roll (or at least the last heard by another person), but neither quote is of much significance.
Elvis’ last words were either: "I’m going to the bathroom to read," or, in response to Alden’s admonition for him to not fall asleep in the lavatory, a quiet "I won’t" (via the Express). Alden had reason to be concerned — her fiance had insomnia, which he tried to overcome through strong sedatives, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. It was early in the morning of August 16, 1977 when Elvis slipped out of the bedroom and headed for the bathroom, and Alden went back to sleep. She would remain asleep until the early afternoon, when she found her partner cold on the bathroom floor.
Fortunately for Presley’s legacy, he left behind 18 No. 1 hit songs on the Billboard Charts, according to Insider, and he’s better remembered for those than for his final words.
This is the book Elvis was reading when he lost consciousness
The book Elvis Presley took along with him to the bathroom on the last morning of his life was Frank Adams’ "A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus," which had been published five years prior. The book is focused on the Shroud of Turin, the piece of fabric purported to have been laid across the face and body of Jesus after his crucifixion.
Most modern scholars, scientists, and forensic experts now doubt the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, according to Live Science. Carbon dating shows it is likely from sometime between 1260 and 1390, well after the purported lifetime of Christ, but the shroud remains an object of wonder today just as it was in the 1970s. Presley had maintained a Christian faith throughout his life, apparently being twice baptized while alive (and once posthumously) according to USA Today. He was also keenly interested in religion in general, often practicing meditation, and wearing both a cross and a Star of David at times (Elvis had Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side, via Times of Israel). Not long before his death, he may even have been considering a conversion to Mormonism, according to USA Today.
Here’s how long it took for someone to realize Elvis needed help
Around 5 a.m. on the morning of August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley and fiancee Ginger Alden went to bed together, after spending much of the night awake despite Elvis trying to nod off with the aid of various prescription drugs, according to the Express. At 7 a.m., Elvis apparently took another round of pills, desperate to get some rest given that he was slated to fly to Maine that evening before a concert the next day and then continue on a tour around the nation.
Still unable to sleep after more than another two hours, Elvis left his bedroom, saying his last words to Alden at around 9:30. Alden fell back asleep and would remain slumbering until shortly before 1:30 p.m. Awaking to find herself alone in bed, Alden went to look for her fiancee. Approximately four hours had elapsed since the last time anyone had seen Presley alive, and it’s entirely as possible that he had slipped into unconsciousness in the middle of the morning, thus spending the last few hours of his life alone and incapacitated.
This is who found Elvis near death
Ginger Alden, Presley’s young model fiancee, found Elvis near death on the bathroom floor that afternoon in August. According to Memphis Magazine, "she went to the bathroom door and called his name. When there was no answer, she entered and found him lying face down on the bathroom carpet."
There are conflicting accounts as to just how Alden found her partner. Memphis Magazine shares that Presley had been sitting in a lounging chair in the bathroom, and that he had evidently lost consciousness and slipped out of the seat and onto the floor of the room. The more indelicate version of the story, and the one more commonly repeated, is that Alden found Elvis on the floor of the bathroom, him having slipped off the toilet after losing consciousness. It’s well known that Presley had constipation issues due both to a terrible diet consisting largely of unhealthy foods and his heavy use of medications, as described by the Mirror.
Alden is an actress, model, and author who was born in 1956. She met her future fiance when she was just 5 years old, according to Elvis Australia, shortly after the singer returned from serving in the U.S. Army in Germany. Still alive today, she published the book "Elvis and Ginger: The Presley’s Fiancee and Last Love Finally Tells Her Story" in 2014, and it made the New York Times bestseller list.
Here’s what happened in the minutes after Elvis was found near death
In the moments after Ginger Alden found Elvis Presley lying on the floor and realized he was in dire straits, she tried to revive her partner. Alden later described how she touched Presley’s skin and found it cold, though he may have still been alive. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Alden said, "I slapped him a few times and it was like he breathed once when I turned his head." She then pulled open one of his eyelids to find the eye "was just blood-red," adding "I couldn’t move him."
Alden summoned Joseph Esposito, who was a friend of Presley’s from his days in the United States Army, and who had come to serve Presley as both a personal and professional manager, according to the New York Times. Esposito attempted to revive Presley with rudimentary first aid while awaiting an ambulance. Presley was then rushed to the nearby Baptist Memorial Hospital, according to Memphis Magazine, but it seemed clear by the time medics were transporting the singer that it was already too late.
This is the official time at which Elvis was pronounced dead
Elvis Presley was officially pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m. on August 16, 1977, according to the Express. He had been taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital, a few miles from his Graceland mansion, and it was that there the official pronouncement was made. However, it’s quite likely that he had actually died a good time earlier, perhaps several hours before. A doctor who worked to revive Presley, Dr. Jerry DeVane, later recounted to News Channel 9 that the patient never came near consciousness, if he was even alive at all.
By 4 p.m. that day, word had gotten out to the public that the King of Rock and Roll had expired and already the news was spreading across the nation and soon around the globe.
The location at which last desperate attempts to revive Elvis were made and the place at which his death was confirmed can no longer be visited, the Baptist Memorial Hospital having been destroyed via intentional implosion in November 2005, according to Elvis Australia. During his lifetime, Elvis had been a patient of the hospital on numerous occasions.
Elvis fans responded to the King’s death immediately
According to Country Music Nation, within hours of the death announcement, "thousands of fans gathered outside of Elvis’ Graceland mansion… Some traveled hundreds of miles to be there, feeling compelled to be at the place where Elvis spent his final moments." At Graceland, around the nation, and across the world, people expressed shock, sorrow, and in many cases disbelief. Theories that the news was a hoax and that Elvis had not actually died that August day persisted for decades, and some even believe he is still alive today, according to Time. Conspiracy theories include the idea that the singer faked his own death to escape public attention, and the notion that it was a coverup to help the King of Rock and Roll escape the mafia, and that he went into witness protection.
On the day of Presley’s death, the mayor of Memphis ordered flags in the city to be flown at half staff, and by the next day, the news was making headlines all around the world. Even though Presley was far past the peak of his fame and celebrity when he died in 1977, he was still very much an icon. According to Variety, the death dominated the news cycle for three or four days after his passing. Soon enough much of the world moved on to other things, but many diehard fans would mourn their lost hero for years to come.
Elvis was in terrible physical and mental health preceding his death
By the time of his death, the once famously handsome Elvis Presley was overweight, plagued by insomnia, and regularly taking a cocktail of pills. He was consuming around 100,000 calories per day, and living off a diet of burgers and a sandwich of his own invention that included bacon and bananas, according to ABC Science. Despite being just 42 at the time of his death, he weighed more than 200 lb, had high blood pressure, and had been hospitalized for intestinal blockage, according to the Washington Post.
The multiple drugs that Presley often took also wreaked havoc on his mental health. According to the Express, in the summer of 1977, Presley called the White House and managed to get recently elected President Jimmy Carter on the phone. Carter later said of the call, "He was totally stoned and didn’t know what he was saying. His sentences were almost incoherent." Carter recalled trying "to ease Presley out of his paranoid delusions [and] calming his fears that he was being ‘shadowed’ by sinister forces and that his friend was being framed."
Presley would reportedly call the White House many more times in the weeks before his death, but was never again put through to the Commander in Chief.
This is the official cause of Elvis’ death
The official cause of the death of Elvis Presley on August 16, 1977 was heart failure, according to Town & Country. But the cardiac incident that led to the King’s death was no random fluke, but rather a direct result of his heavy use (and serious abuse) of myriad medications, chiefly sedatives, barbiturates, and opiates. The toxicology report showed "high dosages of, among other things, the opiates Dilaudid, Percodan, and Demerol, as well as Quaaludes and codeine," but shortly after his death, Tennessee’s Chief Medical Examiner Jerry Francisco said that "had these drugs not been there, he still would have died."
Presley had been misusing pills for years, and more heavily so in the last year and a half of his life. It is reported by People that Elvis’ personal physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos (Dr. Nick) had provided his patient with as many as 12,000 pills in the approximate year and a half before Presley died. The doctor later claimed that the pills were intended to be shared among Presley’s entire entourage, but it’s likely he knew exactly where they would go. Several years later, the doctor would have his medical license temporarily suspended, and he faced 11 felony counts of overprescribing drugs in 1981, but was acquitted.
Dr. Nick was finally permanently suspended from practice by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners in 1995, nearly 20 years after the death of his most famous patient.
This is where Elvis Presley’s body was laid to rest
The body of Elvis Presley is buried at Graceland, his beloved home in Memphis, Tennessee. His grave is flanked by the burial sites of his mother, Minnie Mae Presley, who died in May 1980, and his father, Vernon Elvis Presley, who died a bit less than two years after his son, passing in June 1979. According to the official Graceland site, the graves are in the Meditation Garden, where "millions of fans from around the world have come to Graceland to pay their respects to Elvis."
Elvis Presley’s funeral took place on August 18, 1977, two days after his death. Though the actual ceremony was not a lavish affair and was attended by a small, select group of mourners, thousands of Elvis fans converged on Memphis in the 48 hours after his passing. The crowds were so large that, according to Live About, "President Carter ordered 300 National Guard troops to the area to maintain order."
This was Elvis Presley’s net worth the day he died
Despite being one of the most famous and successful musicians of all time, Elvis Presley was not all that wealthy at the time of his death, at least in the context of his earning potential through the years. According to the Express, Presley had a net worth of around $5 million at the time of his death, or around $21 million today. That’s a good amount of money, but for context, some Hollywood movie actors earn more than this for one project, according to Forbes.
How is it that the man with 18 No.1 hit singles and multiple beloved movies, who toured the nation and was known around the world, was worth so relatively little when he died? Quite simply, it’s because Presley spent so much money. From furnishing his Graceland mansion in lavish style to owning two private jets to keeping a huge staff on salary to his own massive appetites for foods and drugs, Elvis had a lifestyle that cost a lot of money. He also spent freely on friends and family, and had agreed to provide his ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, with 5% of his significant publishing rights, as reported by the Express.
However, his estate is worth a huge amount today. In a 2020, Cheat Sheet reported that "Elvis’ estate is still so profitable four decades after his death that the is the fifth highest-paid dead celebrity of 2020. And as it turns out, his estate made more money this year than the singer had the year he died."