Death of Hank Williams

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Death of Hank Williams
Hank Williams Memorial Montgomery Alabama.JPG
Entrance marker of the Oakwood Annex Cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama
DateJanuary 1, 1953; 66 years ago (1953-01-01)
LocationOak Hill, West Virginia
CauseInsufficiency of the right ventricle of the heart
BurialJanuary 4, 1953 at Oakwood Annex Cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama
InquestJanuary 1, 1953 in Oak Hill, West Virginia
CoronerIvan Malinin

Hiram King "Hank" Williams died on January 1, 1953. Williams was an American singer-songwriter and musician regarded as one of the most significant country music artists of all time. Williams was born with a mild undiagnosed case of spina bifida occulta, a disorder of the spinal column, which gave him lifelong pain—a factor in his later abuse of alcohol and drugs. In 1951, Williams fell during a hunting trip in Tennessee, reactivating his old back pains and causing him to be dependent on alcohol and prescription drugs. This addiction eventually led to his divorce from Audrey Williams and his dismissal from the Grand Ole Opry.

Williams was scheduled to perform at the Municipal Auditorium in Charleston, West Virginia. Williams had to cancel the concert due to an ice storm; he hired college student Charles Carr to drive him to his next appearance, a concert on New Year's Day 1953, at the Canton Memorial Auditorium in Canton, Ohio. In Knoxville, Tennessee, the two stopped at the Andrew Johnson Hotel. Carr requested a doctor for Williams, who was feeling the combination of the chloral hydrate and alcohol he consumed on the way from Montgomery. A doctor injected Williams with two shots of vitamin B12 that contained morphine. Carr talked to Williams for the last time when they stopped at a restaurant in Bristol, Virginia. Carr later kept driving until he reached a gas station on Oak Hill, West Virginia, where Williams was discovered unresponsive in the back seat. After determining that Williams was dead, Carr asked for help from the owner of the station who notified the police. After an autopsy, the cause of death was determined to be "insufficiency of the right ventricle of the heart."

Tributes to Williams took place the day after his death. His body was initially transported to Montgomery and placed in a silver coffin shown at his mother's boarding house. The funeral took place on January 4 at the Montgomery Auditorium, where an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 attended while the auditorium was filled with 2,750 mourners.


In 1951, Williams fell during a hunting trip in Tennessee, reactivating his old back pains. Later, he started to consume painkillers, including morphine, and alcohol to ease the pain.[1] His alcoholism worsened in 1952. In June, he divorced Audrey Williams,[2] and on August 11, Williams was dismissed from the Grand Ole Opry for habitual drunkenness. He returned to perform in KWKH and WBAM shows and in the Louisiana Hayride, for which he toured again. His performances were acclaimed when he was sober, but despite the efforts of his work associates to get him to shows sober, his abuse of alcohol resulted in occasions when he did not appear or his performances were poor.[3] In October 1952 he married Billie Jean Jones.[4]

Due to Williams's excesses, Fred Rose stopped working with him. Also, the Drifting Cowboys were at the time backing Ray Price, while Williams was backed by local bands. By the end of 1952, Williams had started to suffer heart problems.[1] He met Horace Raphol "Toby" Marshall in Oklahoma City, who claimed to be a doctor. Marshall had been previously convicted for forgery, and had been paroled and released from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in 1951. Among other fake titles he claimed to be a Doctor of Science. He purchased the DSC title for $35 from the "Chicago School of Applied Science"; in the diploma, he requested that the DSc was spelled out as "Doctor of Science and Psychology". Under the name of Dr. C. W. Lemon he prescribed Williams with amphetamines, Seconal, chloral hydrate, and morphine.[5]

Williams was scheduled to perform at the Municipal Auditorium in Charleston, West Virginia on Wednesday, December 31 (New Year's Eve), 1952. Advance ticket sales totaled US$3,500 (equivalent to US$33,021.9 in 2011).[6] Because of an ice storm in the Nashville area that day, Williams could not fly, so he hired a college student, Charles Carr, to drive him to the concerts. Carr called the Charleston auditorium from Knoxville to say that Williams would not arrive on time owing to the ice storm and was ordered to drive Williams to Canton, Ohio for the New Year's Day concert there.[7] Williams and Carr departed from Montgomery, Alabama at around 1:00 p.m.

The final trip[edit]

Williams arrived at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Carr checked in at 7:08 p.m and ordered two steaks in the lobby to be delivered to their rooms from the hotel's restaurant. He also requested a doctor for Williams, as Williams was feeling the combination of the chloral hydrate and alcohol he had drank on the way from Montgomery to Knoxville.[8] Dr. P.H. Cardwell injected Williams with two shots of vitamin B12 that also contained a quarter-grain of morphine. Carr and Williams checked out of the hotel at around 10:45 p.m. Hotel porters had to carry Williams to the car, as he was coughing and hiccuping.[9] At around midnight on New Year's Day, Thursday, January 1, 1953, they crossed the Tennessee state line and arrived in Bristol, Virginia.

At one stage, Carr was fined $25 (US$234 in 2018 dollars[6]) after being arraigned on a traffic ticket.[10]

Carr stopped at a small all-night restaurant and he asked Williams if he wanted to eat. Williams said he did not, and those are thought to be his last words.[11] Carr later drove on until he stopped for fuel at a gas station in Oak Hill, West Virginia, where he discovered Williams seemingly asleep in the back seat. He was unresponsive and rigor mortis had already begun to set in. Carr immediately realized that he was dead and informed the filling station's owner, Glenn Burdette, who called the chief of the local police, O.H. Stamey. Because a corpse was involved, Stamey called in radio officer Howard Janney.[12] Stamey and Janney found some empty beer cans and the unfinished handwritten lyrics to a song yet to be recorded in the Cadillac convertible.[13]

The town's coroner and mortician, Dr. Ivan Malinin, a Russian immigrant who barely spoke English, performed the autopsy on Williams at the Tyree Funeral House. Malinin found hemorrhages in the heart and neck and pronounced the cause of death as "insufficiency of [the] right ventricle of [the] heart." Malinin also found that, apparently unrelated to his death, Williams had also been severely kicked in the groin during a fight in a Montgomery bar a few days earlier[14] in which he had also injured his left arm, which had been subsequently bandaged.[15] That evening, when the announcer at Canton announced Williams's death to the gathered crowd, they started laughing, thinking that it was just another excuse. After Hawkshaw Hawkins and other performers started singing "I Saw the Light" as a tribute to Williams, the crowd, now realizing that he was indeed dead, followed them.[16]


The circumstances of Williams's death are still controversial. The result of the original autopsy indicated that Williams died of a heart attack.[17] Author Colin Escott concluded in his book Hank Williams: The Biography that the cause of death was heart failure caused by the combination of alcohol, morphine and chloral hydrate.[18]

The investigating officer in Oak Hill declared later that Carr told him that he had pulled over at the Skyline Drive-In restaurant outside Oak Hill, and found Williams dead. Having interviewed Carr, the best that Peter Cooper of The Tennessean could offer was that "somewhere between Mount Hope and Oak Hill", Carr noticed Williams' blanket had fallen off.

"I saw that the overcoat and blanket that had been covering Hank had slipped off," Carr told yet another reporter. "When I pulled it back up, I noticed that his hand was stiff and cold." When he tried to move his hands, they snapped back to the same position the hotel porters had arranged him in.

Carr told Cooper this happened at the side of the road six miles from Oak Hill, but investigating officer Howard Janney placed it in the Skyline Drive-In restaurant's parking lot, noting that Carr sought help from a Skyline employee. Another researcher decided it could have happened at any of the gas stations near Mount Hope.

Regardless, Carr said he next drove to "a cut-rate gas station". "I went inside and an older guy, around 50, came back out with me, looked in the back seat, and said, 'I think you've got a problem'. He was very kind, and said Oak Hill General Hospital was six miles on my left," and that would place him in Mount Hope.

They later drove to Oak Hill in search of a hospital, stopping at a Pure Oil station on the edge of town.[19] Carr's account of how he discovered that Williams was dead outside Oak Hill is challenged by Dr. Leo Killorn, a Canadian intern at Beckley hospital, West Virginia, fifteen miles from Oak Hill, who claims that Carr drove up to the hospital and asked him to see Williams. Killorn stated that the fact that Carr told him it was Hank Williams caused him to remember the incident. Carr was exhausted and, according to the police reports, nervous enough to invite suspicion that foul play had been involved in Williams' death.[clarification needed][20]


The body was transported to Montgomery on January 2. It was placed in a silver coffin that was first shown at his mother's boarding house at 318 McDounough Street for two days. His funeral took place on January 4 at the Montgomery Auditorium, with his coffin placed on the flower-covered stage.[21] During the ceremony, Ernest Tubb sang "Beyond the Sunset" followed by Roy Acuff with "I Saw the Light" and Red Foley with "Peace in the Valley."[22] An estimated 15,000 to 25,000 people passed by the silver coffin, and the auditorium was filled with 2,750 mourners.[23] During the funeral four women fainted and a fifth was carried out of the auditorium in hysterics after falling at the foot of the casket.[22] His funeral was said to have been far larger than any ever held for any other citizen of Alabama,[24][25] and the largest event ever held in Montgomery,[26] surpassing Jefferson Davis' inauguration as President of the Confederacy.[27] Around two tons of flowers were sent.[28] Williams's remains are interred at the Oakwood Annex in Montgomery.[29]

Grave of Audrey (left) and Hank Williams (right) at Oakwood Annex Cemetery
Hank Williams's tombstone
Hank Williams's grave


The president of MGM told Billboard magazine that the company got only about five requests for pictures of Williams during the weeks prior to his death, but over 300 afterwards. The local record shops sold out of all of their records, and customers were asking for all records ever released by Williams.[23] His final single released during his lifetime was ironically titled "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." "Your Cheatin' Heart" was written and recorded in 1952 but released in 1953 after Williams's death. The song was number one on the country charts for six weeks. It provided the title for the 1964 biographic film of the same name, which starred George Hamilton.[30] The Cadillac in which Williams was riding just before he died is now preserved at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.[31]

Oklahoma investigation of Horace Marshall[edit]

Mugshot of Horace "Toby" Marshall

As part of an investigation of illicit drug traffic conducted by the Oklahoma legislature, representative Robert Cunningham seized Marshall's files. During an initial hearing, Marshall insisted that he was a doctor, refusing to answer further statements. Marshall gave Cunningham a list of his patients, including Hank Williams. Defending his position, he claimed that Williams possibly committed suicide. Marshall stated that Williams told him that he had decided to "destroy the Hank Williams that was making the money they were getting". He attributed the decision to Williams' declining career: "Most of his bookings were of the honky-tonk beer joint variety that he simply hated. If he came to this conclusion (of suicide), he still had enough prestige left as a star to make a first-class production of it ... whereas, six months from now, unless he pulled himself back up into some high-class bookings, he might have been playing for nickels and dimes on skid row."[32]

On March 10, Marshall was called again to testify. He acknowledged that in previous testimony he had falsely claimed to be a physician. Representative Cunningham presented the committee a telegram from Marshall's seized files, directed to the estate of Hank Williams for $736.39, and stated that the committee was evaluating the revocation of Marshall's parole.[33] On March 12, 1953, Billie Jean Jones appeared before the Oklahoma committee. She stated that she received after Williams' death a bill for $800 from Marshall for the treatment. Jones refused to pay, and further stated that Marshall later intended to convince her to pay him by assuring that he would "pave her the way to collect her husband's state". Jones declared "I have never accepted the report that my husband died of a heart attack."[34]

On March 19, Marshall declared that he felt Williams was depressed and committed suicide by taking a higher dose of the drugs he had prescribed. Marshall admitted that he had also prescribed chloral hydrate to his recently deceased wife, Faye, as a headache medicine. He denied any responsibility in both deaths.[35] On March 21, Robert Travis of the State Crime Bureau determined that Marshall's handwriting corresponded to that of Dr. Cecil W. Lemmon on six prescriptions written for Williams.[36] The same day, the District Attorney's office declared that after a new review of the autopsy report of Faye Marshall, toxicological and microscopic tests confirmed that her death on March 3 was not related to the medication prescribed by her husband.[37] Oklahoma Governor Johnston Murray revoked the parole of Horace Raphol "Toby" Marshall, who returned to prison to complete his forgery sentence.[38]


  1. ^ a b "Hank Williams Biography". AOL Music. AOL. Archived from the original on September 29, 2012. Retrieved March 7, 2011.
  2. ^ Williams, Roger M. p. 96
  3. ^ Lornell, Kip; Laird, Tracey. Shreveport Sounds in Black and White. p. 82.
  4. ^ Koon, George William; p.70
  5. ^ Koon, George William; p.74
  6. ^ a b Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Development Project. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
  7. ^ Lilly, John. "Hank's Lost Charleston Show". West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Retrieved March 8, 2011.
  8. ^ Olson, Ted p.296
  9. ^ Olson, Ted p.298
  10. ^
  11. ^ Olson, Ted p.300
  12. ^ Olson, Ted p.303
  13. ^ Koon, George William p.79
  14. ^ Olson, Ted p.306
  15. ^ Celon, Curtis p.79
  16. ^ Celon, Curtis. Country Music Culture: From Hard Times to Heaven. p. 80.
  17. ^ "Find Attack Killed Hank Williams". The Milwaukee Sentinel. Associated Press. January 11, 1953. Retrieved October 11, 2011.
  18. ^ Browne, Ray Broadus; p.65
  19. ^ Escott,Colin p.241 & 242
  20. ^ Escott,Colin p.242
  21. ^ Stanton, Scott. The Tombstone Tourist. p. 262.
  22. ^ a b p.70
  23. ^ a b Peterson, Richard A. Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. p. 182.
  24. ^ Finch, Jackie Sheckler;p.73
  25. ^ Hank Williams Trail Brouchure (PDF). Alabama Tourism Department. Alabama Tourism Department. Retrieved March 14, 2011.
  26. ^ Finch, Jackie Sheckler; p.72
  27. ^ Birk, Carl S; p.184
  28. ^ Curtis, Ellison p.80
  29. ^ Williams, Roger M; p.251
  30. ^ Koon, George William p.161
  31. ^ "The Hank Williams Museum".
  32. ^ Flippo, Chet; p.228
  33. ^ "'Doctor' Admits Ordering Drug". The Telegraph-Herald. March 11, 1953. Retrieved October 11, 2011.
  34. ^ "Conspirancy Studied in Singer's Death". The Victoria Advocate. 107 (68). March 18, 1953. Retrieved October 11, 2011.
  35. ^ "Convict Says Williams Depressed... Singer Said Possible Suicide". 51 (298). Pampa Daily News. United Press International. March 19, 1953. p. 1. Retrieved March 5, 2015 – via access
  36. ^ "Name is Forged to Prescriptions, Expert Says". 57 (242). Corsicana Daily Sun. Associated Press. March 21, 1953. Retrieved March 5, 2015 – via access
  37. ^ "No Connection of Pills and Death". 52 (52). Ada Weekly News. Associated Press. March 26, 1953. p. 10. Retrieved March 5, 2015 – via access
  38. ^ "Five-State Probe Launched Into Death of Hank Williams". The News and Courier. 151 (70). March 11, 1953. Retrieved October 11, 2011.

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