Billie Holiday was denied peaceful death by Federal Bureau of Narcotics, singer said 'they’re going to kill me'

Billie Holiday was denied peaceful death by Federal Bureau of Narcotics, singer said 'they’re going to kill me'
Billie Holiday's life was tragic and her death, even more so (Getty Images)

‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ is an upcoming American biographical drama film directed by Lee Daniels, based on the book ‘Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’ by Johann Hari. The film will focus on Billie’s career as she gets targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation led by Black federal agent Jimmy Fletcher, with whom she had a tumultuous affair. The film will see how she gets unconditional love from the audience but gets in trouble with the authorities for her protest song ‘Strange Fruit’, which talks about the racism and brutality that was happening at the time.

Holiday’s life was a tragic one -- one filled with poverty, violence, racism, abuse, and addiction -- but her death even more so. Born Eleanora Fagan, the American jazz and swing music singer died on July 17, 1959, at the young age of 44. By early 1959, Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis -- impaired liver function caused by the formation of scar tissue. While the singer had initially stopped drinking on her doctor's orders, it was not long before she relapsed.


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American blues singer Billie Holiday (1915 - 1959) singing with an orchid in her hair, early 1950s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

According to a profile of the musician in Politico Magazine, one day, when a young musician named Frankie Freedom was serving her a bowl of oatmeal and custard in his apartment, she suddenly collapsed and was taken to the Knickerbocker Hospital in Manhattan.

There, she was made to wait for an hour and a half on a stretcher before being turned away for being an addict. Thankfully, one of the ambulance drivers recognized her, and she was admitted to a public ward of New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital. There, she learned of not one, but several problems with her health. She was emaciated because she had not been eating; she had cirrhosis of the liver because of chronic drinking; she had cardiac and respiratory problems due to chronic smoking, and she had several leg ulcers caused by starting to inject street heroin once again. Doctors there told her that she was unlikely to survive for long.

But even in this state of sickness, she had no respite from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics under the order of Harry J. Anslinger, which had been targeting Holiday since at least 1939. Narcotics agents came to her hospital bed and said they had found less than one-eighth of an ounce of heroin in a tinfoil envelope. They claimed it was hanging on a nail on the wall, six feet from the bottom of her bed. 

The new music album that was introduced by actor Billy Crystal, "Billy Crystal Remembers Billie Holiday", ("Billy Remembers Billie"), a compilation CD that includes Billy Holiday's favorite songs, at Dizzy's Club April 11, 2005, in New York City. (Getty Images)

They summoned a grand jury to indict her, telling her that unless she disclosed her dealer, they would take her straight to prison. They confiscated her comic books, radio, record player, flowers, chocolates, and magazines, handcuffed her to the bed, and stationed two policemen at the door. 

Holiday, aside from her illnesses, was also experiencing heroin withdrawal. But after methadone treatment, she began recovering. But the methadone was suddenly stopped, and her condition began deteriorating once again. As per her profile, when a friend was allowed in to see her, Holiday told her in a panic: “They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them.” 

She died in her hospital bed. Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times remarked about her death in 1961: “The likelihood exists that among the last thoughts of this cynical, sentimental, profane, generous and greatly talented woman of 44 was the belief that she was to be arraigned the following morning. She would have been, eventually, although possibly not that quickly. In any case, she removed herself finally from the jurisdiction of any court here below.”

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