Was Jimi Hendrix’s death a case of insurance fraud?

Forty-three years after his death, Jimi Hendrix is still considered one of the most influential guitarists in the history of rock and roll. Despite a short career of only four years, he permanently changed the landscape, ushering in the age of psychedelia and paving the way for heavy metal. He redefined the electric guitar, pioneering its use as a source for sound, to be transformed by wah pedals, whammy bars, and the previously undesirable effects of distortion and feedback. The result was something that couldn’t help but get a reaction. It was the sound of hard earned technical proficiency, raw passion, and a bomb going off next to your head. Whether or not you’re a fan of his sound, he expanded the range of what was thought possible at the time, and the ripples are still being felt today. Unknowingly, he spawned generations of future guitarists who would agonize for years over their attempts to emulate his playing. His technicality has since been surpassed by many of them, but there remains something about his distinctive, quirky sound that is almost impossible to imitate. However, the holy grail of his guitar tone is not the only thing that people are still trying to figure out. The circumstances surrounding his untimely death are shrouded in mystery. Gaps in knowledge and contradictory accounts of what happened on the night of his death have generated much speculation, but one conspiracy theory tends to get the most attention. It is often rumored that Hendrix was murdered by his debt-ridden manager, Michael Jeffrey, who wanted to cash in his £1.2million life insurance. Is this really justified by the evidence?

Unreliable evidence

Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Unfortunately, as is the case with most historical events, circumstantial evidence like witness testimony makes up the bulk of the evidence, and the typical pattern of separate accounts diverging over time until they are virtually unrecognizable is glaringly evident. The fact is, no matter how certain people are that they are accurately recounting the past, there is no way to know whether they truly are without examining more objective, static recordings of the past itself. I­n fact, it turns out that the degree of confidence a person feels about how accurate a memory is has very little correlation to how accurate it really is.(1) People come away from dramatic events with memories that seem like vivid, static snapshots, claiming to know exactly what they were doing when it happened, who they were with, and where they were. But it simply doesn’t work that way. Experiments have tested people’s memory after a tragedy, and then again months and years later. The subjects are confident that their memories are completely accurate, but they aren’t. Huge details have been added and replaced by confabulated ones, and it is all beyond the test subject’s awareness.(2) Therefor, I don’t think we should take accounts of the event from long after it occurred too seriously. Although it is possible that, years later, someone could have remembered something crucial that had slipped their mind, or found the courage to let go of a dark secret, it would be an exception to the rule. If there is no direct evidence provided, there is no way to distinguish these accounts from the inaccurate ones. In a few cases, it’s even possible that a newly recounted memory was completely fabricated for publicity. For all of these reasons, I take individual testimonies with a grain of salt. That being said, when you have a collection of testimonies this big, enough of them may agree with each other strongly enough that they can rule out another testimony that opposes them, or corroborate one inference over another. If they do agree with each other, it shouldn’t be ignored.

The conspiracy theory and it’s claims

Here’s how the theory goes: Hendrix was legally bound to Jeffery in an increasingly abusive professional relationship. Jeffrey was manipulative and untrustworthy, coercing the band into non-stop touring, and siphoning off most of the money they made into an offshore company in the Bahamas called Yameta, never to be seen again. People were terrified of confronting him, as it was rumored that he had ties to MI6, the FBI, and the Mafia. In 1969, Hendrix claimed to have been abducted, imprisoned for days, and then rescued by Jeffery, and he believed that it was all just an elaborate ploy to make him feel dependent on Jeffrey. In 1970, the contract between Hendrix and Jeffery was up for renewal. When Jeffery got word that Hendrix was talking about firing him, he took out a £1.2million pound insurance policy on Hendrix’s life and then murdered him by forcing sleeping pills and red wine down his throat.(3)

There are different permutations of this theory. However, there are three central claims that serve as linchpins. The first claim is that Jeffrey took out an insurance policy on Hendrix’s life shortly before he died. Even if it were true, it wouldn’t constitute proof that Jeffrey murdered Hendrix; insurance policies are a standard practice in the music industry. It would mean that Jeffrey stood to gain from Hendrix’s death, but assuming a priori that this makes him guilty is as logically unsound as assuming that a murdered parent was killed by their only child, simply because the child is in the parents’ will. On the other hand, if it isn’t true that Jeffrey took out the insurance policy, the theory falls flat on its face. So, did Jeffrey take out a £1.2 million insurance policy on Jimi’s life? Those who maintain that Jeffrey killed Hendrix take this absolutely for granted. However, there appears to be only one record in the public domain that references an insurance policy on Hendrix, an old magazine article from 1968, in which co-manager Chas Chandler is quoted as saying, “you wouldn’t believe it, but we’ve got Jimi insured for a million dollars!”(4) However, it’s not clear who exactly Chandler was referring to, and Bob Levine, Jimi’s US manager and business partner of Jeffery’s, denies that Jeffery ever took out insurance on Hendrix.(5) The evidence is inconclusive, leaning towards Jeffrey never having taken out the insurance. The second claim is that the contract between Hendrix and Jeffery was going to expire in 1970. The only material I could find on this subject states that the contract expired in 1972, but I couldn’t verify it.(6) Inconclusive once again. The third claim is that Hendrix was discovered with an impossibly huge amount of red wine in his hair, lungs, and stomach. This idea appears to originate from interviews with John Bannister, who was one of the doctors that treated Hendrix at the now closed St Mary Abbott’s Hospital. In various interviews, Bannister has claimed that he spent over half an hour extracting wine from Hendrix’s body. “The amount of wine that was over him was just extraordinary. Not only was it saturated right through his hair and shirt but his lungs and stomach were absolutely full of wine,” he said.(7) Of all the hospital personnel who dealt with Hendrix that night, Dr. Bannister is the only person who claims to have seen any red wine in or on the body. Ambulance attendants Jones and Suau didn’t see any red wine when they arrived at the flat, and the man who conducted the post mortem of the body, Dr. Seifert, didn’t notice any signs of alcohol.(8) Strangely, Dr. Bannister said that he remembered being perplexed by the length of the body, claiming that it was hanging over the table “by about 10 inches.” This is suspicious because Hendrix was only 5’11; he wasn’t short, but by no means was he a giant. It seems plausible that Dr. Bannister was confusing Hendrix with another patient.  He didn’t know who Hendrix was at the time, so there’s no reason for Hendrix to have been more memorable to him than any of the other patients he treated at the time. That’s not the only alternative explanation though. Allegedly, Monika Dannemann (Hendrix’s girlfriend at the time of his death) claimed in an interview that the last thing she saw Hendrix drink was cola.(9) It’s possible that Dr. Bannister mistook the dark, cola-stained gastric contents for red wine.

Origin of the theory

So where does this theory, which seems to be getting more implausible by the minute, originate? In 2009, Former Hendrix roadie, James Tappy Wright, claimed in his 2009 autobiography, Rock Roadie, that Jeffery drunkenly confessed in 1971 to murdering Hendrix. According to Wright, Jeffery told him that—with help from a couple of other people—he had stuffed pills into Hendrix’s mouth and poured a few bottles of red wine deep into his windpipe. Jeffery allegedly said: “I had to do it. Jimi was worth much more to me dead than alive. That son of a bitch was going to leave me. If I lost him, I’d lose everything.”(10) However, one thing that both sides of the debate seem to agree on is that Jeffery was in Majorca, Spain, when Hendrix died in London. I don’t know whether this is true. If it is, we are left with two possibilities:

1. Jeffery hired someone else to do it and skipped town.

2. Jeffery was innocent.

There is a fairly unforgivable problem with the first one. If Jeffery wasn’t in London, then Wright’s claim is false, because it requires Jeffery’s presence at the murder. However, Wright’s claim is the very origin of the theory. If it is false, the theory is completely baseless—without even a sensational claim made by someone trying to sell a book to stand on. By this logic, if it could be proven that Jeffery was in Spain that night, the theory would be proven false by proxy.

If, despite all of that, you still put stock in Wright’s claim, you have no reason not to attach equal validity to a claim made by Bob Levine. Levine claimed that Wright confessed to him that he fabricated the story to give his book a selling point: “I told Tappy, ‘What are you doing making up this story? So you want to sell books – why do you have to print such lies?’ And he said to me, ‘Well, who’s going to challenge me? Everybody’s dead, everybody’s gone. Chas Chandler, Michael Jeffrey, Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding…they’re all gone. Nobody can challenge what I write.”(5) Do I need to point out how ironic that is?

Just to be absolutely clear, it’s not my intent to tell you that the theory is false. Most of its claims aren’t falsifiable, because the past is just that, the past. All I can justifiably do is point to the fact that they are based off of suspicion rather than evidence. To say with 100% confidence that they are false would be to make the same critical mistake that the people making them are: 100% confidence on the basis of incomplete evidence. Proponents of the theory take it’s claims as gospel, but they appear to be moot. It would be arrogant to dismiss them entirely, because there simply isn’t enough evidence. Or would it? It depends on whether you agree with Christopher Hitchens when he said, “that which is presented without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” What clearly is arrogant is to presume that they are valid, extrapolate from them wildly, and then scoff at someone for asking you to go back and prove your own premise…Welcome to the wacky world of internet conspiracy sleuths.

What I want to do now is take a look at what solid evidence there is, and try to figure out what the simplest explanation is. It must be consonant with the evidence and not require a load of unproven assumptions. How about the possibility that Hendrix simply fell victim to an excessive lifestyle, like so many others in his line of work?

The post mortem examination

In her original testimony, Monika Dannemann claimed that Hendrix had taken nine of her prescribed Vesparax sleeping pills, 18 times the recommended dose.(11) This is supported by the results of Hendrix’s post mortem examination. The doctor who conducted the examination, Robert Donald Teare, reported that blood tests revealed a mixture of barbiturates consistent with those from Vesparax.(12) Interestingly, professor Teare stated that the dose was “too low to be fatal.” However,  in the mid-1990s, one of Teare’s former students re-examined the report, concluding that the barbiturate level in Hendrix’s blood was above the toxic level. This degree of barbiturate intoxication inhibits the cough reflex, meaning that it would have been difficult for him to breathe during vomiting.(13)

Even if he hadn’t started vomiting, the dose was 3 ½ times the highest therapeutic level, a dose toxic enough to be deadly without fairly immediate treatment for barbiturate intoxication. Also, Teare didn’t take into account the interaction that would have taken place between the barbiturates and the alcohol in Jimi’s system.  Back then, people weren’t aware of how dangerous it is to mix barbiturates and alcohol. Both depress the central nervous system, consequently, combining the two results in a greatly decreased amount of activity in the nervous system, which can kill you.(14) But Jimi didn’t just make the mistake of mixing the two, he made the mistake of having very high levels of both in his system at once. In the post mortem, it was estimated that his “blood-alcohol level was probably at 100 mgs at the time when he took the Vesparax.”(15) If that’s true, by today’s standards he was legally intoxicated when he took the pills, and would probably have died that night with or without inhaling his own vomit.

If Jimi simply overdosed, the next logical question to ask is, did he do it on purpose? You can make a good case either way.

The case for suicide

The months leading up to Jimi’s death were a dark time in his life. He was being pressured constantly by fellow musicians, his manager, and the record company, all of whom had different ideas of what his direction should be, and he was embroiled in enough legal disputes to compromise his financial security for years. By the time he reached the European leg of his tour, he was worn out by a relentless string of gigs, chronic fatigue, a nasty cold, disillusionment with the industry, and emotional turmoil over personal relationships. It is said that he stopped showing up for sound checks, and during a performance in Aarhus, he walked off the stage after three songs, telling the audience bleakly: “I’ve been dead a long time.” It was obvious that he was in no shape for touring. His last performance was an informal jam with Eric Burdon’s band, War, in which he played uncharacteristically quietly, refraining from the trademark stage moves that had helped make him famous.(16) It’s impossible to know exactly what his state of mind was. Did he kill himself? Who knows. There is, however, one solid piece of evidence that supports the idea–without proving it outright. Just a few hours before Jimi’s death, he wrote a poem that can very easily be construed as a suicide note. The last stanza reads, “the story of life is quicker than the wink of an eye, the story of love is hello and goodbye. Until we meet again.”(17) Eric Burdon had recently discussed death and suicide with Jimi, and after reading the poem he declared to the press that he believed Jimi had killed himself.(18) He has since changed his mind, but perhaps he was on to something.

The case for accidental overdose

Superficially, popping 9 sleeping pills does seem like something that you would only do if you were intent on killing yourself. However, there are many things that this doesn’t take into account.

1. Hendrix was known for taking drugs very recklessly.(19) His reputation as a drug user has caused those who knew to casually dismiss the idea that a mere barbiturate overdose could have taken him down. On the contrary, I think that it makes it much more likely that he accidentally overdosed.

2. The product leaflet may have been printed only in German, in which case he wouldn’t have been able to read what the recommended dose was.

3. A common side effect of barbiturates like Vesparax is amnesia. It’s possible that Jimi forgot that he took a dose, so re-dosed, then forget he re-dosed and re-dose again until he eventually overdosed. In toxicology, this tendency is called “automatism.” Back in the days when barbiturates were still common, automatism was thought to have claimed many people’s lives, notably Judy Garland. However, whether automatism is a real phenomenon seems to be disputed within the medical literature.

Conclusion

For a glamorous rock star, being assassinated is a sexy way to go. Accidental or intentional barbiturate overdose, leading to asphyxiation on vomit, is not. It’s bleak and pointless–not befitting of a rock star. Thankfully, there are enough conflicting accounts, unsubstantiated rumors, and blog rants for you to piece together a variety of narratives that aren’t so bleak and pointless. If you’re in the mood for a web of intrigue, you’re in luck: all the ingredients are there for you to play a game of connect the dots ending with Hendrix getting killed by his manager. That is, if you’re planning on reasoning your way backwards and relying upon dubious anecdotes. If you’re planning on a more intellectually honest look at Hendrix’s death, prepare to be disappointed. When you use Occam’s razor to cut away all of its unproven assumptions, it turns out that the theory is artificially suspended by them, and comes crashing to the ground. In my opinion, the most likely scenario is that Hendrix accidentally overdosed, but I can’t say for sure. There’s just not enough evidence. To dismiss all other possibilities, come to a rock solid conclusion, and insult those who disagree is incredibly arrogant. But this kind of behavior dominates the online discourse over controversial matters where the evidence is lacking. Perhaps it is an unfortunate commentary on human nature, or perhaps people who behave like that are represented disproportionately in online discussions. For humanity’s sake, I hope the latter is true, but I’m inclined to think that it’s really a little bit of both.

 

Citations:

1. Clifford, B.R., Hollin, C.R. (1981). Effects of the Type of Incident and the number of Perpetrators on Eyewitness Memory. Journal of Applied Psychology, 66, 364- 370;  Smith, V. L., Kassan, S. M., & Ellsworth, P. C. (1989). Eyewitness accuracy and confidence: Within- versus between-subjects correlations. JAP, 74(2), 356-359; Berger, J. D. & Herringer, L.G (1991). Individual Differences in Eyewitness Recall Accuracy. The Journal of Social Psychology,131, 807-813; Penrod, S. D., & Cutler, B. L. (1995). Witness confidence and witness accuracy: Accessing their forensic relation. Public Policy, Psychology & Law, 1, 817-845; Sporer, S. L., Penrod, S., Read, D. & Cutler, B. (1995). Choosing, confidence, and accuracy; A meta-analysis of the confidence-accuracy relation in eyewitness identification studies. Psychological Bulletin, 118(3), 315-327; Tomes, Jennifer L., and Albert N. Katz. ” Habitual Susceptibility to Misinformation and Individual Differences in Eyewitness Memory.” Aplied Cognitive Psychology . 11.3 (1997): 233-251. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

2. Nalbantian, Suzanne, Paul M. Matthews, and James L. McClelland . The Memory Process. MIT Press, 2010. Print.

3. Rowley, Scott. “The Mysterious Death Of Jimi Hendrix.” Classic Rock Magazine. (2013): Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <http://www.classicrockmagazine.com/features/the-mysterious-death-of-jimi-hendrix/&gt;.

4. Altham, Keith. “Jimi Hendrix: Jimi Brings Manager’s New Club Roof Down!” NME. 27 7 1968: Print.

5. Bosso, Joe. “Jimi Hendrix wasn’t murdered by his manager, says former business partner.” musicradar. 26 5 2011:  Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <http://www.musicradar.com/news/guitars/jimi-hendrix-wasnt-murdered-by-his-manager-says-former-business-partner-453035&gt;.

6. Richie , Unterberger. The Rough Guide To Jimi Hendrix. Alfred Publishing, June 2009. Print.

7. Simpson, Aislinn. “Jimi Hendrix murder theory ‘plausible’ says ER doctor.” Telegraph [United Kingdon] 20 7 2009, Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/5869491/Jimi-Hendrix-murder-theory-plausible-says-ER-doctor.html&gt;.

8. Brown, Tony. Jimi Hendrix: The Final Days. Omnibus Press, 1997. 145. Print.

9. Glebbeek, Caesar. “Until We Meet Again: The Last Weeks of Jimi Hendrix.” Univibes. 3 9 2011: Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

10. “Jimi Hendrix’s roadie says guitarist’s manager murdered him.” NME. 1 6 2009: Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <(http://www.nme.com/news/nme/45021)>.

11. Cross, Charles R. . Room Full Of Mirrors: a biography of Jimi Hendrix. Hyperion, 2005. 332. Print.

12. Brown, Tony. Jimi Hendrix: The Final Days. Omnibus Press, 1997. 159-160. Print.

13. Brown, Tony. Jimi Hendrix: The Final Days. Omnibus Press, 1997. 164-165. Print.

14. Drug and Alcohol Office. Alcohol and Other Drugs Program, n.d. Web. 12 Nov 2013. <http://www.dao.health.wa.gov.au/DesktopModules/Bring2mind/DMX/Download.aspx?Command=Core_Download&EntryId=439&PortalId=0&TabId=211&gt;.

15. Shapiro, Harry. Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy. St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 470–471. Print.

16. Brown, Tony. Jimi Hendrix: The Final Days. Omnibus Press, 1997. 107. Print.

17. Cross, Charles R. . Room Full Of Mirrors: a biography of Jimi Hendrix. Hyperion, 2005. 331. Print.

18. Cross, Charles R. . Room Full Of Mirrors: a biography of Jimi Hendrix. Hyperion, 2005. 335. Print.

19. Redding, Noel, and Carol Appleby. Are You Experienced?. Da Capo Press, 1996. 60. Print.