Hank Williams' Tragic New Year's Day
Before the music star left on his fateful road trip, he began to have dark premonitions of death.
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Hiram “Hank” Williams, old before his time and ill in countless ways, was by all measures in no condition to travel long distances in bone-chilling, rainy, blustery weather.
He may have wanted to go just as much to get away from the madness in Montgomery, a constant urge whenever he spent any time there. But even if the concert dates over the New Year’s holiday were of critical importance— which they weren’t—looking back, because no one thought to talk him out of that last ride, or at least make sure he wouldn’t be traveling essentially alone in bone-freezing weather, his family and friends did let him down. Indeed, after receiving Toby Marshall’s telegram, Lillie’s only adjustment wasn’t to reconsider her feeling that Hank was well enough to travel alone but rather to give Marshall instructions to be in Charleston with his black bag well stocked. This despite telling Marshall that Hank recently had a “highly upsetting emotional incident” that sent him back to the bottle.
Hank’s last full day in Montgomery, Monday, December 29, 1952, was especially maudlin. Needing to go to church, an urge he rarely felt, he went to the St. Jude’s Hospital chapel, to pray with the nuns. “Ol’ Hank needs to straighten up some things with the Man,” Billie Jean said he told her. He was even more melancholy when he came into his cousin Marie McNeil’s room and handed her forty dollars, which he wanted used to help pay the doctor who would deliver Bobbie Jett’s baby. As he left the room, Marie said, Hank told her, “Ol’ Hank’s not gonna be with you another Christmas. I’m closer to the Lord than I’ve ever been in my life.” Billie Jean recalled that Hank tossed and turned in bed all that night, the pain in his back excruciating. At one point, he leaped out of bed and, she recalled, started shadowboxing, mimicking throwing punches at an invisible target. Startled, she asked, “Hank, what in the world is the matter with you?”
“Every time I close my eyes,” he said, echoing what he’d told newspaperman H. B. Teeter a year before, “I see Jesus comin’ down the road. He’s comin’ after ol’ Hank.”
None of these mawkish expressions seemed to alarm them, having heard variations of the theme before. The next morning, his travel plans still in limbo, he chartered a flight to Charleston for early afternoon. But because of the horrendous weather—a snow-storm had blanketed Montgomery, one of the few to ever hit the city—he’d had to go about hiring a driver days before. Hank could have pulled out of one or both concerts, but because of his reputation for missing shows he couldn’t afford more bad publicity. He insisted on going, and had convinced Don Helms on the phone to play at both dates. Helms, with Jerry Rivers, was now in Ray Price’s band, and Ray was scheduled to play in Cleveland a day earlier, so Helms signed on to meet up with Hank in Canton, for a $200 pay-day, and would hitch a ride out with Bam Bamford.
Seeking a driver, Hank first asked Brack Schuffert, but Brack couldn’t miss work at Hormel Meats. An old standby in the Driftin’ Cowboys, “Beanpole” Boling, was working at a Montgomery cab company, but he too was busy. He then went over to the Lee Street Taxi storefront and asked the owner, Dan Carr, who’d gotten him drivers before, if he could spare someone. Carr recommended his son, Charles, a thin, sandy-haired, eighteen-year-old freshman at Auburn University who was home for the holidays. He had once driven Hank, who thought Charles rode the gas pedal a little hard, but then that was how Hank himself liked to drive. So Charles Carr it was, at $400 for the four-day round-trip.
Carr backed up Billie Jean when he confirmed she was still indeed in Montgomery and far from being disowned by Hank. Right up until he drove away, Carr said, she was asking Hank if she could go with him, but Hank said no. Billie Jean would recall that farewell with more melancholy:
Hank was in the car. I was back in my room putting my makeup on. And he came back into the room, came up behind me and kissed me on the cheek. He sat down on the edge of the bed. He just looked at me, not saying a word. I stood in front of the mirror, my back to him, and to me he looked like he was already dead. And I asked him if somethin’ was botherin’ him. And he said, “No, baby, I just wanted to look at you one more time.”
At around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Hank and Carr loaded up his baby blue ’52 Cadillac convertible. Hank laid his guitar on the back seat and stowed in the trunk a couple of others, along with several stage suits and other things he would need. He was wearing dark blue serge pants and jacket, a white shirt, black tie, navy blue overcoat, white felt cowboy hat, and blue suede shoes. With his pearl-handled .45 tucked in his coat pocket, Hank climbed into his accustomed travel quarters, the well-used back seat of the Caddy. As Carr pulled away, Hank told him to wait and went back in the house, changing into white cowboy boots. Still hoping the plane would be allowed to take off, he had Carr buzz by the airport, but with all flights canceled well into the day, Hank settled in, his back already hurting, for what would be hours on the road.
Before heading out of the city, though, there were some loose ends to tie up. Needing a shot of something for the road, he had Carr stop by a hotel where he’d heard there was a convention of construction contractors going on. Ambling into the ballroom where people stared, their mouths agape, he helped himself to some drinks and left. He then swung by Doc Stokes’s office. He was going to deliver Bobbie’s child, and Hank also gave him forty dollars, then asked Stokes if he could give him a shot of morphine. Stokes, smelling liquor on his breath, refused.
Hank then tried one of the doctors he’d gone to before with Toby Marshall’s card and prescriptions, and the doctor, identified in one account only as a man named Black, shot him up with morphine. Hank walked out, his legs wobbly but feeling fine. He also had several chloral hydrate tables in his pocket, after using the last prescription he had left from Toby Marshall’s stash.
Carr then made two more stops, first at a gas station to change a tire, and even the guy who changed it, Cecil Jackson, would enjoy his fame for entering the coming drama. Hank then stopped at the Hollywood Drive-In diner and bought some sandwiches, coffee, and a six-pack of Falstaff beer. Now he could leave. At around five o’clock, darkness had thrown a veil over the sky and the snow. The Caddy turned onto Highway 31 and headed northbound.
The itinerary was to cover nearly a thousand miles, from Montgomery to Charleston to Canton. Posters were printed for the appearances, the one for the Canton show featuring Hank’s signature saying “If the good Lord’s willing, and the creek don’t rise . . . I’ll see you at Canton Memorial Auditorium New Year’s Day 1953.” As it happened, an Opry troupe was also playing in Canton on New Year’s Day, starring Carl Smith and the Carter Sisters. And Bamford was quite willing to take a few liberties, plastering the poster for Hank’s show with the words ‘Grand Ole Opry presents in person…’ The show would be the same at both engagements, an early set—8 p.m. in Charleston, 3 p.m. in Canton—followed by late shows at 10:30 and 5:30, respectively.
Hank would headline on an “All-Star” bill with the cornpone comedy team Homer and Jethro, the Webb Sisters, Alabama warbler Autry Inman, who had played bass in Cowboy Copas’s band, and Harold Franklin “Hawkshaw” Hawkins. Most of the acts would play behind Hank, with Helms, and be joined by Bill Monroe’s fiddler, Red Taylor.
Because Hank had gotten out of Montgomery late, he decided to stay the night in Birmingham, raising some hell as usual. When Carr parked illegally in front of the posh Tutwiler Hotel, a cop ticketed him and, not moved when Carr told him who was in the back seat, shooed him away. They then booked two rooms at the Redmont, where three women recognized Hank within minutes and spent the next hour in his room. Carr and Hank ordered room service and after a good night’s sleep were off early the next morning, New Year’s Eve day. They made a stop in Fort Payne, where Hank bought a bottle of bourbon, and made it to Chattanooga by lunchtime and ate in a diner. Hank dropped a dime in the box and played Tony Bennett’s cover of “Cold, Cold Heart,” then left a $50 bill for the waitress, saying, “Here’s the biggest tip you ever got.”
By 1 p.m. they were in Knoxville, still three hundred miles from Charleston. He had Carr check on flights. There was one at 3:30 that would get there by 6. Hank bought two tickets, deciding to keep Carr along for company. During the ride up, Hank had gotten along well with the kid; they had sung to keep the boredom away, and he liked the kid’s spunk. The Caddy would be left in the airport parking lot until they came back on the return trip.
With time before the flight, Hank found his way to St. Mary’s Hospital, where, in mysterious circumstances Carr never explained, he was able to have a doctor give him another morphine shot. The plane boarded and took off on time. But the weather was rough, and the plane was ordered to turn back to Knoxville, landing at 6 p.m. By now, as Carr learned when he phoned Lillie, the two Charleston shows had been canceled due to the storm. Most of the performers were able to navigate the icy roads and get to the theater just as it was being boarded up. Bam Bamford, arriving with Don Helms, was particularly peeved, knowing he’d be refunding two sellout houses of 4,000 people. Bam instructed all of them to get going to Canton for the next night’s shows. One other interested party had made it to Charleston as well—Toby Marshall, who called Lillie for his marching orders.
Meanwhile, stuck back in Knoxville, Carr and a dog-tired Hank checked into the Andrew Johnson Hotel. Hank, who had drained the bourbon, could barely stand, and two porters all but carried him to his room. One of them, Emmanuel Martin, recalled that Hank “was very much alive. I talked to him coming in, talked to him coming out, and I remember he made one little statement, ‘When you drink like this, this is the price you gotta pay.’”
Carr ordered two room service steaks, but Hank was laid out on his bed, kept awake only because he developed nagging hiccups that seemed to approach convulsions. Concerned, Carr also called Lillie again, who proceeded to call Marshall to tell him where Hank was. Marshall then phoned Carr with instructions to have the front desk summon a doctor. Minutes later, Dr. Paul Cardwell rushed to the hotel and, possibly having conferred by phone with Marshall, injected Hank with two more morphine shots along with vitamin B-12. Brought up to speed, Marshall informed Carr not to stay overnight at the hotel and to get back on the road to Canton, and whatever he did, keep Hank away from the sauce.
From this point on, mysteries abound that have never been solved, mysteries with plenty of clues but a lot of doubt. Some have, through the years, advanced the theory that when two porters carted Hank down to the Cadillac at around 10:45 p.m. he was already dead, although the hotel manager would offer later that Hank was still alive albeit looking “groggy.” And Carr, for his part, later noted, “If he was dead, it was a dead man walking around when we stopped later.”
Over the next eight hours, as Hank sat almost silent in the convertible, which even with the heater blasting was as cold as a meat locker, nobody apparently tried to speak with or check on him, nor heard a peep from him in the back seat. Carr would later say Hank had spent time writing songs and chugging some beer, and noted that the last song they sang was Red Foley’s “Midnight,” a song that may have matched the mood he was in as he sang for the last time:
Midnight, I lie in bed awake and stare at nothing at all Wonderin’, wonderin’ why you don’t care, wishing you’d call
Ensuing police reports and investigations only served to sow doubt and confusion, keeping the Hank legend appropriately, and eternally, necromantic, aptly bathed in a dark, cold, pitch-black midnight.
Charles Carr, who should have known all there was to know, didn’t make the enigma any clearer. From what is known, Carr headed through Rutledge Pike toward the West Virginia border, but just before the new year rang in, exhausted, he nearly collided head-on with a highway patrol car while trying to pass a truck in Blaine, notably the hometown of Roy Acuff and Carl Smith. A rookie cop, Swann H. Kitts, was riding with a veteran sheriff, J. N. Antrican, in the car, and after pulling the Caddy over, Kitts later testified, he saw a lifeless-looking man, his collar and hat covering his face, slumped across the back seat, seemingly asleep, and asked Carr if something was wrong with the passenger.
“No,” he said, acting very nervous, “he’s been drinking six beers and the doctor gave him a sedative to make him sleep.”
“That guy looks dead,” noted Kitts, who later ventured that he thought the “pale and blue looking” man was dead but, inexplicably, did not check his pulse or try to rouse him.
Neither did Carr say who it was, possibly guilty he had not followed Marshall’s orders to keep Hank dry. Even more oddly, the sheriff never got out to add his expertise. Adding to the mystery, Kitts would also recall seeing in the passenger seat a “serviceman” in uniform. Carr disputed this later, as well as the testimony of the manager at the Andrew Johnson, who said that he had arranged for Carr to ride with a relief driver in case he grew too tired, and that the driver wore a chauffeur’s uniform and cap.
Rather than giving him a ticket, Kitts had Carr follow the police car to a magistrate in Rutledge, who fined Carr twenty-five dollars. He paid out of his pocket—even as, incredibly, a man that a police officer believed was dead was simply left in the back seat outside, still unchecked.
By now, it was 1 a.m., the new year having come during this bizarre interlude, which was nowhere near over. In no mood to celebrate, Carr hit Highway 19, crossed into West Virginia, and stopped at a gas station in Bluefield to fill up. It was around 4:30 now. He asked the attendant if he knew where a relief driver could be found and was directed to a diner, the Doughboy Lunch Restaurant. Here, Carr claimed later, Hank got out and stretched his legs. “I asked him if he wanted a sandwich or something,” Carr recalled. “And he said, ‘No, I just want to get some sleep.’ I don’t know if that’s the last thing he said. But it’s the last thing I remember him telling me.”
Carr said Hank did not go in the diner, though waitress Hazel Wells said Hank did come in, said who he was, and also inquired about a relief driver. Carr found a thirty-seven-year-old local cabbie, Don Howard Surface, who was in a booth having breakfast and agreed to take over the driving through the dangerous mountain roads of the Appalachians, in exchange for an unknown sum and bus fare back to Bluefield. Carr would also say that before they left the town, Hank awoke and—contradicting his assertion that Hank had already spoken his last words to him—wanted to find a doctor to give him another shot of morphine, but at that hour it was impossible, and they pushed off again.
Surface was still there when the Caddy stopped for coffee and sandwiches somewhere in Princeton, West Virginia at around 6 a.m. It was still dark and freezing, and Hank was out cold. Carr said Surface left to go back home here, but it was later determined Surface was still at the wheel when they stopped in Oak Hill, in Fayette County, a half hour later to fill up again and get some grub at the Skyline Diner. Only now did Charles Carr think it necessary to pay much attention to the man in the back seat, and only because the blanket Hank had wrapped around himself had fallen off. He was lying still on the seat in a kind of coffin pose, on his back, arms folded across his chest, eyes closed.
As Carr reached back to pull the blanket over him, he touched one of Hank’s hands. It felt cold as a stone and stiff. As Carr would put it, “I felt a little unnatural resistance from his arm.” Panicking, Carr rushed into the restaurant—it’s unknown whether Surface, if he was still there, came inside with him—and came back out with an older man who took a look at Hank and summed up the situation with classic understatement.
“I think you got a problem,” he said.
Police reports would indicate that Carr and Surface, if he was there, knowing they had a famous corpse in the back and needing to get it to a hospital, asked for directions to one at Burdette’s Pure Oil gas station. Carr asked the owner, Peter Burdette, to call the local police station and tell them a dead man had been driven into his place. Within minutes, a police car arrived, and Officer Orris Stamey confirmed Hank was dead. His body was still somewhat warm, but his extremities were numbed by rigor mortis. Stamey then had Carr and Surface follow him to Oak Hill Hospital. Once there, Carr raced into the emergency room. “I ran in and explained my situation to the two interns,” he recalled. “They came out and looked at Hank and said, ‘He’s dead.’ I asked ’em, ‘Can’t you do something to revive him?’ One of them looked at me and said, ‘No, he’s just dead.’”
The orderlies pulled Hank’s body from the car, lifted him by his armpits, and toted him inside. He was laid out on a stretcher, and another intern, Diego Nunnari, listed the time of death at 7 a.m., though Nunnari estimated that Hank had died between two and four hours before that. Carr, walking around in a daze, couldn’t face calling Lillie. Instead, he called his father, who told him he had to call Lillie.
No doubt gulping hard, Carr did, and was floored when her reaction was nothing like a mother’s anguish over losing a son; rather, she was all business. “Don’t let anything happen to the car” were her first words when Carr had finished telling what happened, apparently thinking that if the car was impounded by the authorities, it might never be returned, and possibly could offer incriminating evidence of what Hank was doing to himself, something Lillie wanted never to become public knowledge. Lillie also sent a telegram at 10:33 a.m. to Irene in Virginia, which read perfunctorily, “Come at once. Hank is dead. Mother.”
As it happened, eerily, Irene had had another premonition during the night that her brother was dead, and had even packed a suitcase so she could go to Montgomery for his funeral.
Toby Marshall, after Lillie called him in Charleston, was ashen but probably not completely shocked. He hopped a bus and arrived in Oak Hill early the next day. By then, Hank’s body had been removed to the Tyree Funeral Home. Lillie was already in town, having arrived with Carr’s father, flying to Roanoke because the Charleston airport was still closed, then taking a cab. Lillie didn’t go right to the funeral parlor; instead, she went to the police station to find out what they knew of Hank’s death and the belongings in the car. She was armed with legal papers saying she was his next of kin, and others showing that Billie Jean’s belated divorce from Harrison Eshlimar invalidated her marriage to Hank, and she therefore was not Hank’s next of kin, with no right to his remains and belongings. “Mrs. Stone made all the arrangements,” Joe Tyree, who ran the funeral parlor, said. “She chose a Batesville casket with silver finish and white interior. She went out to his car and chose one of his white cowboy outfits to bury him in.”
Tyree recalled that she was a “nice, stately-looking woman, very pleasant and composed. She held her grief.”
Excerpted from Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams by Mark Ribowsky. Copyright © 2017 by Mark Ribowsky. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.