The Strange Claim About John Wayne's Autopsy Report

In his heyday, Western star John Wayne was one of the biggest names in the business. He established himself as a leading man in a series of classic Westerns made with director John Ford in the 1930s and 1940s, and for many moviegoers he became the embodiment of American masculinity. Though his finest characters have been praised for their nuance, for many people today he represents a dated form of masculinity, and his legacy as an actor has been tarnished as a result.

However, Wayne himself has ended up having a strange afterlife on the internet and in popular culture due to a rumor — a, it must be said, gross one — concerning his death. Wayne died of colon cancer in 1979 at the age of 72. He had been treated for the condition earlier that year, with his stomach and gall bladder being removed in a surgical procedure, though he had also been diagnosed with lung cancer 15 years prior. But according to some sources, the illness was closely related to Wayne's carnivore diet — and a rumor suggested that an autopsy found 40 pounds of impacted fecal matter (some sources say red meat) in the actor's system. This dubious story has stuck around for decades, but the fact is there is very little to support it.

The roots of a rumor

But where exactly did the strange rumor concerning the state of John Wayne's intestine at the time of his death start? According to a Snopes fact check published in 1999, the story may have been circulated in early internet forums. The outlet quotes a comment from a user published the same year as an early example: "By the way when they did an autopsy on John Wayne (Mr. Macho himself) 40 pounds of impacted fecal matter was removed from his death inducing cancerous colon[,]" it reads. "That's because Humans are not evolved for Animal eating. Animal fats lodge in the folds and pockets of our intestines. Carnivores have smooth intestinal linings and do not have these problems."

The same year journalist Cathy Hainer made the same assertion in an article published in USA Today, showing that the rumor also circulated in mainstream publications at least as early as the turn of the millennium. However, there appears to be no trace of the fact in any reputable biographies of the actor.

No evidence

Despite being widely circulated and becoming an established pop culture tidbit around the turn of the millennium, there seems to be no evidence to support the story that John Wayne's pathologists discovered any unusual material in his colon. As contemporary reports of Wayne's death make clear, at the time it was simply reported that the actor had died of cancer (per The New York Times).

The internet comment above suggests the claim is a talking point in online discussions around diet and healthy eating, evoked as anecdotal evidence in support of adopting vegetarian or vegan diets. According to Snopes, the story also continues to be cited by enthusiasts of colon cleansing, an enema treatment that is claimed to improve digestive health and even help people lose weight. Colon cleansing was something of a health fad among celebrities in the 1990s but has been widely debunked in recent years, with experts noting that the procedure has few tangible benefits.

The story may actually relate to Elvis

Though there is no basis for thinking that John Wayne had 40 pounds of fecal matter in his digestive tract at the time of his death, another superstar was widely reported to have been suffering from similar digestive problems when he died: Elvis Presley.

Indeed, in her 1999 USA Today article, after Cathy Hainer makes her claim about Wayne, she then proceeds to say the same about Presley, stating that the King of Rock 'n' Roll had 60 pounds of fecal material in his colon. According to Charles C. Thompson II and James P. Cole's 1991 book "The Death of Elvis: What Really Happened," one shocking detail pathologists discovered in Presley's autopsy was that his colon was dilated to almost twice its natural size, and compacted with "white, chalklike fecal material." Pathologist Dan Warlick explained to the authors that he believed the grim state of the King's bowel was the result of prolonged drug use, which can paralyze the digestive system. It appears that this disturbing detail may have been misattributed to Wayne's death, with the actor dying just two years after the "Blue Suede Shoes" singer.

Did radiation cause John Wayne's stomach cancer?

The rumor about John Wayne's impacted bowel as a result of a heavily carnivorous diet seems to have no basis in fact, but there were two major factors reported as having potentially increased the likelihood of the actor developing cancer. The first, unsurprisingly, was smoking. According to The New York Times, Wayne, like many Hollywood stars of his time, smoked almost constantly, working his way through up to five packs of cigarettes a day — 100 cigarettes in total — before having lung cancer treatment in 1964.

Another theory — which, it must be said, hasn't been proven — claims that Wayne may have had an elevated cancer risk as a result of radiation exposure. In 1954, Wayne starred in the movie "The Conqueror," which was filmed in the desert in Utah. At the time, the United States Atomic Energy Commission was in the process of detonating more than 100 nuclear bombs as part of the Manhattan Project, which turned vast swathes of the desert into a dangerous zone of radioactive fallout. The year after Wayne's death, People magazine highlighted the abnormally high cancer rates among the film's 220 cast and crew members: By 1980, 91 had been diagnosed with cancer, and 46 had died. According to The Guardian, one evidently bereft nuclear scientist was quoted as saying: "Please, God, don't let us have killed John Wayne."