Janis Joplin’s death — Her disputed cause of death examined

Janis Joplin

In the space of 16 days, the world lost two of its most promising artists: Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Both passed away aged 27; both had short but influential careers; both were rock and roll legends; both died in hotel rooms. 

Janis was found dead at the Landmark Hotel Room by her close friend and manager, John Bryne Cooke. Bryne came searching for Janis as she was late for a recording session. He found her sprawled on the floor, with one hand clutching cigarettes and the other holding money. 

Police said that Janis’ left arm had fresh hypodermic needle marks and an ambulance attendant added that the death didn’t look like foul play. “It looked like she had just fallen over,” the ambulance attendant said (per The Eugene Register-Guard).

Key Takeaways.

  • Janis Joplin had needle marks in her arms and following an autopsy, the coroner attributed her death to a heroin overdose.
  • Joplin’s close friend Peggy Caserta feels that people unfairly blamed her for Joplin’s death due to their gay relationship.
  • Peggy disputes that Janis died due to a heroin overdose and posits that an unfortunate fall caused Joplin’s death.
  • Janis instructed her friend Lyndall Erb to organize a party-style wake to honor her memory.

The coroner ruled that Janis died due to a heroin overdose

Authorities found alcohol in the room, but no drugs, despite the needle marks on Janis’ arm suggesting drug use. Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi suggested that Janis’s friends removed drugs from her room. 

Janis Joplin at her home in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, November 1967 | Photo by Baron Wolman/Getty Images

Noguchi found that Janis died of a heroin overdose possibly exacerbated by alcohol. John Cooke opined that Janis had purchased a more potent heroin dosage than the one she was used to. 

Other heroin overdoses by her dealer’s customers supported John’s theory. Janis’ death was ruled accidental. 

Peggy Caserta, Janis’ close friend, doubted that the heroin Janis used that night had a higher potency than the batch she was used to. She told Vulture that Janis decided to get high after running into her dealer at the Landmark. Peggy said:

“I called George, Janis’s and my drug dealer, and he was bringing me heroin at the Landmark. Janis had been clean, though how clean I don’t know. She just happened to walk out to get cigarettes and ran into George in the Landmark lobby.”

On the Friday before Janis’ death, she was supposed to meet with Peggy and her fiance Seth Morgan for a three-way. Neither showed up: Peggy gave up on the idea after learning of Seth’s involvement, and according to her, Seth missed his plane cheating on Janis. 

“It never occurred to me that he wasn’t going to show up,” Caserta said. “He later claimed that it never occurred to him that I wasn’t going to be there.” Caserta didn’t call to explain her absence; Morgan called, but whatever he said reportedly made Janis very upset. 

“I wish that Seth had been there that last night,” Peggy said. “Or that I had been there. Or that we both had been there. I wish George hadn’t entered the lobby and I wish she hadn’t chosen that moment to get cigarettes. So regrets, yes, of course, the regrets we all have — that we lost her.”

Peggy Caserta feels she was unjustly blamed for contributing to Janis’ death

Peggy Caserta opines that she was unfairly blamed for contributing to Janis’ death. Janis and Caserta met sorting clothes at a hippie store in the Haight-Ashbury district in 1965. 

Caserta was blamed for introducing Janis to heroin, but she insisted that Joplin introduced her to drug use. She told Vulture:

“Janis’s inner circle knew that I didn’t turn her on to heroin. I wasn’t the catalyst for that. They saw me as somebody that was playing very dangerously with her, and I understand that. But I didn’t start it. I never saw a needle outside a doctor’s office until I met her.”

Peggy Carta and Janis Joplin
Peggy Carta and Janis Joplin at Woodstock 1969

Peggy didn’t deny that she did drugs with Janis but stated that other people also shot heroin with the artist. She said that two guys from Big Brother and the Holding Company did heroin with Janis long before she joined the party. 

“He [guitarist Sam Andrew] and Janis used to shoot heroin and talk late into the night and it was just so much fun,” Caserta said. “All three of us shot dope together many times and it was fun, I mean, we didn’t do it because we hated it.”

Caserta feels that people blamed her not because of the drug use but due to her relationship with Janis. “Those people weren’t open to being gay, and yes, it bothered them that they know what my position was with Janis,” Peggy said. She added:

“I think the gay thing just tipped the scale to where I got more flack for it all. Sam certainly shot as much dope with her as I did. It has to be the gay thing.”

Peggy opines that Janis died due to an injury caused by a fall

When Peggy got to Janis’ hotel room, the police hadn’t cordoned it off. Caserta didn’t want to go into Peggy’s room as she didn’t want to see her body. However, she peeped in and saw Janis’ foot ‘sticking out at the end of a bed.’

“She was lying on the floor, elongated, and that’s not what happens when you shoot an overdose,” Caserta told Vulture. “You don’t stand up and then lie down straight to die.”

“How could she have overdosed and then walked out to the lobby and walked back?” Caserta wrote in her memoir

Peggy’s theory is that Janis’ heel caught the shag loops in the hotel’s carpet, tripping her face-first onto a night table. The impact broke her nose, channeling blood into her throat and cutting off her blood supply. 

“I’m sure the fact that she had heroin and other things in her system didn’t help her any,” Peggy said. “Maybe if she hadn’t been loaded and on something, she might have been able to struggle up. But she tripped and fell, honey. I’m positive of it.”

Peggy said she feels more comfortable believing that Janis tripped rather than overdosed. Caserta told Vulture that she knows what an overdose death should look like, and according to what she saw, Janis didn’t overdose. She continued:

“I shot dope with her so many times, both of us shot right to death’s door. She would not have been in that position on the floor. She definitely did not shoot an overdose. She got up and walked to the lobby and got change. It just does not compute. It doesn’t.”

Joplin funded a drug-addled wake after her funeral

Joplin instructed her roommate Lyndall Erb to distribute her belongings among friends. Erb said she enjoyed living with Janis in Larkspur, California. She said (per Ultimate Classic Rock):

“We had good times. We had a lot of things in common. We both had dogs. Hangin’ out, going places. She was doing a lot of rehearsing in the garage and friends coming over. It was just a good time. We were young and enjoying life.”

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin poses at her home in front of a Bob Seidemann poster in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, November 1967 | Photo by Baron Wolman/Getty Images

Erb said that before she could distribute Joplin’s property, her friends raided the house and took whatever they wanted. “They just decided what they were gonna take,” Lyndall said. 

“People came over and took things, people I thought would be above that,” Peter Coyote, Joplin’s friend, said in Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin

Lyndall had a second task: organizing a party-style wake to celebrate Joplin’s life. She organized the wake after Joplin’s secret burial: she was cremated and her ashes scattered by her family from a plane into the Pacific Ocean. Joplin got the idea for a wake after attending a similar event for deceased Hells Angel ‘Chocolate George’ Hendricks. 

“You couldn’t imagine a better funeral,” Joplin told Michael Thomas in The Age of Rock. “It was the greatest party in the world.” During Janis’ wake, musicians performed, and people drank and used drugs – but to some, it didn’t feel like a celebration because it lacked someone: Janis Joplin. John Bryne Cooke wrote:

“The party never achieves the energy level or the buoyant feeling of a ripping good time that Janis wanted it to be, for the simple reason that she isn’t here. Her absence creates a gap, a void that prevents this gathering of friends from achieving critical mass.”

Others, however, opined that it was a fitting send-off. Guitarist James Gurley wrote in Pearl: The Obsessions and Passions of Janis Joplin: “Everybody just got as drunk and as fucked up as they could. I think it was fitting to send her off that way.”