The Strange Death of Country Music Star Hank Williams
On January 1, 1953, Hank Williams, Country Music Star and idol of millions, was found dead in the back seat of a chauffeured car on his way to a gig in West Virginia.
Williams, at the tender age of 29, was at the epitome of his musical career. Yes, he missed some performances, and yes he had medical issues and he drank to excess, but his fans loved him just the same. His strange death, once it became public, would reverberate throughout the country music industry for decades. Williams, whose name was synonymous with country music from the late 1930s and into the present day, still lives on in the hearts of millions.
If you should ask a young country music fan “Who is Hank Williams?” the first thing they may ask is “Senior or Junior?” Or depending on their age, they may merely take it for granted you’re speaking of Junior. But if you ask the older crowd of country music fans, their answer will more than likely be something like, “Oh man, he was the greatest country music singer in the world.” and sometimes they add, “…and still is, to me.” then they’ll start reminiscing about his songs; “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and others. And then they’ll talk about their heartbreak on the day they heard the news of his death. Those are the things they remember about Hank Williams. There was nobody else like him in the world. So what made his death so strange? Here’s as much of the story as I could remember from my young years and find online since then.
The Day Death Took Hank
During the road trip to Oakhill, West Virginia, his driver, college student Charles Carr said he found him dead in the back seat. Hank’s health was never good; he was born with the condition of Spina Bifida Occulta a disorder of the spinal column, causing him lifelong pain. Williams was known to drink alcohol, and he developed a tolerance for medications his doctor prescribed such as chloral hydrate and Morphine. It was the only way to stay on his feet and keep doing what he loved to do; playing and singing.
When he died he was on his way to a gig in Municipal Auditorium in Charleston, West Virginia. Because of an ice storm in Nashville, he couldn’t fly to the destination. He planned to sleep and rest for the performance during the drive. When Carr called the scheduled venue and told them they were unable to honor the performance because of the severe weather conditions, they were told instead to proceed on to Canton, Ohio for the New Year’s Day concert. But he never made it to that booking either. According to Carr, he stopped at a gas station and discovered the body.
After his death, Williams was mourned not only by his fans, but also by his peers in the business. Many of them wrote songs about him and what his passing meant to them. In his tribute to Hank, country star David Allen Coe wrote and performed “The Ride” after his death. It still gives me the shivers to this day….”You don’t have to call me “mister,” Mister, the whole world calls me Hank.” This video below contains the lyrics and you’ll see what I mean.
What Do We Really Know?
The one thing we do know about Hank Williams’ death is that he certainly was dead in the back seat of the car driven by Carr. But when or if he died in that spot is still up for speculation, even today. By the time authorities were notified, he had been dead for several hours, nobody knows exactly how long. Determining the correct time of death wasn’t a perfect science, not near as advanced as it is today. During the trip when they stopped at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville TN, he was said to be feeling the effects of alcohol and chloral hydrate. He was actually feeling so bad that a doctor, Dr. P.H. Cardwell was summoned. Cardwell injected him with Vitamin B12 and a quarter gram of Morphine. After this, they checked out of the hotel and it was reported that the porters had to carry him to the car because he was so ill.
This is What We DON’T Know: When Did He Actually Die?
Carr stopped for gas later at a small station in Oak Hill, Virginia and reportedly discovered Williams was unresponsive and cold to the touch. He asked where the nearest hospital was and was directed there, a short distance. But Williams was dead with rigor mortis already apparent in the body. An autopsy performed by Dr. Ivan Malinin at the Tyree Funeral House shortly afterward found “insufficiency of the right ventricle of the heart.” But in his report, Dr. Malinin also found distinct signs of brutal beating; evidence of being kicked in the groin and a huge welt on his head. Was his death caused by the medications and alcohol, a severe beating, or the insufficiency of the heart ventricle?
The information above calls for these questions:
- Was he beaten, leading up to his death?
- If so, who did it?
- Were the combinations of alcohol, chloral hydrate and morphine too much, causing the resulting problem with his heart, resulting in his death?
- What’s the truth about his manner of death?
- Why wasn’t a more detailed investigation done into the circumstances?
- Was the cause of his death merely taken for granted due to his excesses of drugs and alcohol?
- Was the autopsy performed thoroughly enough to have detected any other cause of death than drugs and alcohol? Or the “insufficiency of the heart ventricle?”
Stories and Rumors Abound
Consider the conflicting stories below, and maybe others you may have heard, that made the rounds of all country bars, honky tonks, and country music lovers. Are any part of these stories true? If so, they alter our perception of the cause of Hank Williams’ death.
- The driver, Charles Carr, got too tired to drive and stopped somewhere and hired another man to drive while he slept.
- No one ever questioned the substitute driver for his knowledge of events.
- There was an automobile accident while Carr was driving.
- There were two morphine shots given, and it was an overdose of chloral hydrate, alcohol and morphine that caused his heart to stop.
- He died at the Knoxville hotel and the porters unknowingly carried his dead body to the car.
- He died with an unfinished song in his hands, bedroom slippers on his feet, and a bottle of vodka in his coat pocket.
- He was wheeled out of the hotel in a wheelchair, not that sick, just tired and wanting to conserve energy.
- He was coughing and shaking which is why he had to be carried out by the porters indicating heart attack symptoms.
The Hank Williams Memorial
File:Hank Williams Memorial Montgomery Alabama.JPG
Created: 26 December 2008
Hank Williams Memorial, Oakwood Cemetery Annex, Montgomery, Alabama
A Lot Of Living Went Into His Years
When Hank Williams died, he was only 29 years old, but he’d lived a full life in those few years. After becoming successful as a kid on an Alabama radio station, he formed his own band The Drifting Cowboys traveling with them through central and southern Alabama, playing clubs and private parties. and beginning his descent into alcoholism. Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff warned him, “You’ve got a million dollar talent son, but a 10 cent brain.”
He married Audrey Sheppard in 1944, who gave birth to his son Randall Hank Williams, better known today as Hank Williams Jr. Williams and Sheppard divorced in 1952. A relationship with another woman, Bobbie Jett, resulted in another child, a daughter Jett Williams, who was born five days after his death. He married Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar in October 1952. He would be dead in less than three months after the marriage.
On January 4, 1953 in the Montgomery Auditorium, an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 people attended and stood outside as 2,750 mourners inside grieved for the loss of this young country music star. It’s been said that sometimes the burden of talent becomes too heavy to bear, and this could perhaps be said of this young person who lived a short, creative life.
You might be interested to know that his final recording, released after his death, was “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive.” You can hear it below:
If you still remember and love Hank Williams as much as I do, you might be interested in a few of the products shown below. He may be gone, but his music lives on forever. I had all his 78RPM records before my divorce, but they were all destroyed during the final days of my marriage. Not of course, by me. Today, they would have been my treasure!