Midnight: The Death of Hank Williams


Midnight: The Death of Hank Williams

December 31, 1952


     

     
     The story of the last 48 hours of Hank Williams' life has passed from reality, to legend to myth at this point. There are so many questions and inconsistencies with the various accounts given over the years, it is doubtful that the whole truth will ever be known. Just about every aspect of the story has been contested at some point or another, sometimes even by the people who made the original statement that is being argued. There are several "conspiracy theories" that have been floated over the years and there are even some people who claim, like Elvis Presley, that Hank didn't die that New Years night in West Virginia and actually faked his own death to escape the pressures of fame. It was actually a cover story of the Weekly World News Magazine in 1995.

     With that being said, I would just like to be clear that any account someone gives about the night of December 31, 1952 is not going to be 100% accurate. Too much time has passed, the people who we're directly involved have all passed away and all we have left to go on are the accounts they left behind. Whatever happened that night, nothing would change the fact that Hank departed this world somewhere between midnight and dawn on January 1, 1953. No matter if it was the result of natural causes, a mixture of alcohol and pills or even, as some have speculated, suicide, Hank Williams was gone. He left behind one of the greatest bodies of work in American music history and he is still loved, celebrated and influencing countless people to pick up a guitar and write and sing country music around the world and nothing is going to change that either.



"You tell me that I must perish
Like the flowers that I cherish
Nothing remaining of my name
Nothing remembered of my fame
But the trees that I planted still are young
And the songs I sang will still be sung"

- Johnny Cash



"Midnight: The Death of Hank Williams"
The story of Hank's last ride in story and song.
Available exclusively from The Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
    

     Hank Williams woke up on the morning of December 30, 1952 with plans to fly out of Montgomery, Alabama to a New Years Eve performance in Charleston, West Virginia but a winter snow storm had crippled the southeast. Cars and taxis were stranded on the streets of Montgomery and it soon became apparent that Hank would have to make the nearly 800 mile trip by car.

     After calling around to several friends in search of a driver without success, Hank got in touch with the Lee Street Taxi Company and hired the owners son, 18 year old Charles Carr, to make the nearly twenty hour drive. Carr was a freshman at Auburn University and worked for his fathers cab company during school breaks.


Hank's 1952 Carolina blue 1952 Cadillac as it looked at the time of his death.
     Hank Williams loaded up his Carolina blue '52 Cadillac with his guitar, stage suits, records, photos, song books and other things he would need for two scheduled appearances the one in Charleston and a New Years Day show in Canton, Ohio. According to his wife, Billie Jean, Hank returned to their bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed, looking at her and not saying a word. When she asked what he was looking at, Hank replied "I just wanted to look at you one more time." He gave her a kiss on the cheek, said his goodbyes and left.

     At around noon, Hank and Charles Carr left his mothers boarding house on North McDonough Street. According to Carr, Hank was wearing dark blue pants, a white button up shirt, a tie and a navy blue overcoat.


Hank's mother's boarding house in Montgomery, Alabama
    The two drove around Montgomery for a while, Hank picked up a six pack of Falstaff beer for the road and ran into saxophone player and friend, Leo Hudson, who had been at the Musicians Union benefit at the Elite Cafe a few days earlier. Leo convinced Hank to drop by a local highway contractor's convention at a nearby hotel where he more than likely had a few drinks.

     
Leaving there, Hank had Carr drive him to his doctor to get a shot of morphine to ease his back pain for the long ride ahead of them. Smelling liquor on Hank's breath, The doctor turned him away. Hank then went to another doctor and received his shot.

     Finally, at around 4:00 PM, the two pulled out of Montgomery onto Highway 31 North headed towards Birmingham. With the rain turning to sleet by this time, the highway conditions made progress agonizingly slow. Although the rear seat of Hank's Cadillac had been customized so that it could be folded back into the trunk and allow Hank to lie down, it was unable to be converted into such a position with all the items in the trunk. In spite of the back pain that he frequently experienced in long car rides, Charles Carr remembered Hank being in good spirits, talking and singing along the way to Birmingham, approximately 100 miles north of Montgomery.

      During this leg of the trip, Charles Carr would later remember Hank singing along with Red Foley's "Midnight" when it came on the radio. It would end up being the last song Hank Williams would ever sing.

     It was night by the time they arrived in Birmingham, the snow storm had made further travel that evening difficult if not impossible. Hank decided to spend the night there and wanted to stay at the Tutwiler Hotel, but while searching for it, Charles Carr was pulled over by police after making an illegal u-turn. The officer let them go without citing Carr for the violation and the two proceeded to check in at the Redmont Hotel. That night, two girls reportedly found their way up to Hank's room. When he asked where they were from, one of the girls said, "Heaven" to which Hank reportedly replied, "Then you're the reason I'm going to hell."


The Redmont Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama    
     The two checked out in the early morning hours of December 31st, and after breakfast at the hotel, continued their journey north on Highway 11 heading towards Chattanooga. By the time they got there, the snow had started to pick up, once again making for poor highway conditions and continuing to slow their progress to West Virginia for the 7:00 p.m. New Years Eve show that night. It was a 580 mile trip that would be near impossible to make in favorable conditions.

     After stopping for a pint of whiskey and a shave in Fort Payne, Alabama, the two made it to Chattanooga, Tennessee where they had lunch at a diner. Hank played Tony Bennett's version of "Cold, Cold Heart" on the jukebox before buying sandwiches and leaving a $50 tip for the waiter.

     Hank's Cadillac rolled into Knoxville around 11:00 a.m. By this time, it was becoming clear that Hank was not going to make it to Charleston by showtime that night unless he was able to fly the rest of the way. They proceeded to the airport and found there was a flight leaving out at 3:30 p.m. Hank booked the flight and to kill some time before the plane left he called Cas Walker, who hosted the popular "Noontime Neighbor Show" on local radio station WBIR, and told him that he wanted to stop by and "do a number." Apparently, Hank changed his mind, however, as Walker later stated he never showed up at the station.

     The flight departed at 3:30pm, but was turned around due to bad weather after not being able to land at the airport in Charleston. The plane returned to Knoxville and landed back on the runway shortly before 5:57 p.m. Night had fallen and the storm was getting worse. Charles Carr checked himself and Hank Williams into the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville at 7:08 p.m., the time the show in Charleston was scheduled to begin. Hank, who had been drinking on off throughout the day, had to be carried up to the room by porters who would later state that he was obviously drunk and only spoke a few words to them.



The Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee
     
     Once in the room, Carr ordered room service for two steak dinners. Hank only took a few bites before passing out, finally rolling off of the bed and falling onto the floor. When Carr noticed Hank experiencing hiccups that were sending his body into mild convulsions, he placed a call to Hank's doctor, Toby Marshall, asking him to locate a Knoxville doctor to come see Hank at the hotel. Within an hour, a Dr. P.H. Cardwell arrived and - apparently acting on Marshall's instructions - administered two shots, one of vitamin B12 and another of B6, each containing one quarter grain of Morphine. Cardwell would later tell investigators that Hank was very drunk and that there were three or four capsules, but didn't know what they were or how many he might have taken. 

     At some point during the three hours and forty-four minutes they spent at the Andrew Johnson Hotel, Charles Carr spoke with promoter A.V. Bamford to let him know what had happened and why they did not make it to the show in Charleston. Bamford told Carr to depart Knoxville immediately for Canton, Ohio to make sure they made it in time for the matinee New Years Day show at 2:00 p.m.

     Carr called down to the front desk and asked that the porters come up to the room to help get Hank and their bags back down to the car. Charles and the porters dressed what seemed to be a lifeless Hank Williams and carried him back down to the Cadillac. They would later recall him making a wheezing or coughing like sound twice, but that he never spoke or moved at all. Hank was laid in the back seat with his hands lying across his chest, and covered him with a blanket and his navy blue overcoat. Charles Carr drove out Knoxville around 10:45 p.m. headed northeast on Highway 11.


A Cadillac similar to Hank's


     Within an hour of leaving Knoxville, Carr was stopped near Blaine, TN by Corporal Swan H. Kitts. Carr had attempted to pass a truck and almost hit Kitts cruiser head on as he crossed over into the oncoming lane. After pulling them over, Officer Kitts approached the Cadillac and shined his flashlight into the back seat where he saw Hank Williams. He asked Carr if his passenger could be dead as he was pale and blue looking. Carr told Officer Kitts that Hank had drank six bottles of beer and was also given two injections by a doctor to help him sleep.

     Carr went on to explain to the Corporal who his passenger was and that he was driving him to an engagement in Ohio and could not afford to be late. Officer Kitts decided not to disturb Hank but had Carr follow him into Rutledge, Tennessee. At 12:30 a.m. on January 1, 1953, he was written a ticket for reckless driving. He was tried before Justice of the Peace Olin H. Marshall and fined $25.00 plus court costs. Officer Kitts talked to Carr about his passenger in the presence of Marshall and Sheriff J.N. Antrican, and both of them would recall that Carr seemed nervous, but again asked that Hank not be disturbed. At 1:00 a.m. Charles Carr left Rutledge and continued northeast on Highway 11.



Grainger County Courthouse in Rutledge, Tennessee     
     Having been awake and driving now for nearly twenty hours, Carr stopped for gas in Bristol. Across the street, Charles spotted a cab stand and decided to see if he could find someone to help him drive for a while so he could get some rest. He hired a cab driver named Donald Surface, who had just finished his shift and was up for the job. Surface drove for a couple of hours and was then paid and dropped off in Bluefield, West Virginia. The snow had finally let up, and with only 300 miles to go, Carr was confident they would make it to Canton with plenty of time to spare.

     Sometime before dawn, Charles was looking for a place to stop for coffee and a stretch when he happened upon the Skyline Drive-In, a simple, cinder block restaurant on the roadside of Highway 16 in Hilltop, West Virginia. It was here that Charles decided to check on Hank, who was still lying in the back seat just as the porters at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville had left him. The navy blue overcoat that had been covering Hank had slipped off. When Charles pulled it back up over his body, his hand inadvertently touched Hank's, and it was cold and offered "unnatural resistance."


The Skyline Drive-In in Hill Top, West Virginia.
     
     He attempted to wake Hank up, but got no response. He went back inside the Skyline and asked for help. Someone inside advised Charles that there was a hospital just up the road a few miles, and maybe he should take Hank there and let them take a look at him. Charles got in the Cadillac and headed north into Oak Hill.

     Carr drove two miles up Highway 16 and found himself in Oak Hill, West Virginia. The first thing he saw was Burdette's Pure Oil 24-Hour Service Station. He pulled the car up to the station and went inside to ask for help. The attendant on duty came out, took a look into the backseat, and upon seeing Hank said, "I think you've got a problem." Charles, no doubt in a state of shock at the time, asked if there was anything the man could do to which he replied, "No, he's just dead."



Burdette's Pure Oil Station in Oak Hill, West Virginia
     
     The service station attendant told the teenager the police should be called and within a few minutes, Patrolman Howard Jamey arrived on the scene and also immediately realized Hank was dead. He later stated that Charles was so visibly upset, that he drove Hank's Cadillac the short distance to the Oak Hill Hospital. He pulled the car up to the emergency room entrance where two orderlies came out and picked Hank up by the armpits and feet, placed him on a stretcher and pushed him inside. Hank was pronounced "dead on arrival" at 7:00 AM January 1, 1953 by Dr. Diego Nunnari who concluded from the state of rigor mortis and the temperature of the body, that Hanks death occurred approximately five to six hours earlier.





The Oak Hill Hospital in Oak Hill, West Virginia.
     Hank's body was then taken directly across the street to the Tyree Funeral Home where he was embalmed by James Alexander who later told reporters that he had no idea the corpse was so famous until the following day when news of Hanks death was spreading across the country.

     Dr. Iven Malinin, who performed the autopsy after Hank had already been embalmed, was a Russian intern who spoke almost no english. His report noted needle marks in Williams' arms, bruises on various parts of the body, a welt on his forehead (which some suspect he got from falling off the bed at the hotel in Knoxville) and hemorrhages in the heart and neck. The official cause of death was attributed to acute right ventricular dilation, meaning that his heart had just stopped beating. 



Comments

  1. Thanks Joey. I actually got this CD at the Museum in Birmingham back in May. I was delighted to see you on it. I really hope someday you reconsider going back on the road. Happy New Years and God bless!

    ReplyDelete
  2. We stopped at his grave in October and paid our respects. Incredible to imagine what might have been.

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  3. Great read Joey, great song also. --wolf--

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