Hank’s Final Ride


It was 60 years ago this week, on a cold wintry night on January 1, 1953, that country music star Hank Williams died in the back seat of his Cadillac at the age of 29.

Born in Butler County, Alabama in 1923, Williams was a musical prodigy who possessed a mind that was vibrant and creative in a body that was sickly and dying a slow, painful death. He suffered from spina bifida, a birth defect caused by the incomplete closure of the neural tube. To treat his condition, Williams was administered pain killers such as morphine that proved to be addictive. Even the potent drugs were often not enough to relieve the excruciating pain and he resorted to occasional alcohol use as well.       

By the end of 1952, Williams’s five year recording career had stalled. Looking to make a comeback, he swore off liquor. He agreed to play four shows in two days in West Virginia on December 31, and Canton, Ohio, on January 1, 1953. He left his home in Montgomery, Alabama, on Tuesday, December 30, for what became his final journey.

Williams asked his friend, “Pitt” Carr, the owner of Liberty Cab Company, to drive him to Canton. Pitt asked his 17-year-old son, Charles to make the 1,000 mile trek.

Hanks_car_lowA severe snow storm was impeding their journey northward. They arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee, shortly before noon on Wednesday. Running behind schedule, they decided to catch a plane to Charleston but their flight was turned back because of fog and diverted to Knoxville. Carr phoned A.V. Bamford, the promoter of the concerts, who instructed him to head to Canton in time for the 2 p.m. show the following afternoon.

The two rested at the Andrew Johnson Hotel where Williams began to experience hiccups that contributed to his discomfort. The hotel doctor attending to Williams administered a B-6 shot.

Williams was wheeled out of the hotel in a wheelchair by a bell boy at approximately 10:45 p.m. The two continued north and drove through Blaine and into Rutledge, Tennessee where Carr illegally passed another vehicle and was pulled over by police.  The officer escorted Carr to the home of the Justice of the Peace and apprised the judge of the charges. The justice issued a fine. Carr asked how much the fine was and the justice responded “How much have you got?”

“I told them I had $75 and they took all of it,” Carr recalled. “They wrote $25 on the ticket and the two men divided the other $50 between them.”

Williams and Carr then continued on their journey through Bristol, Virginia then into Bluefield, West Virginia where they made a stop at around 4 a.m. There they picked up relief driver Don Surface at a local taxi cab stand.

Soon after entering Bluefield, Carr pulled into an all-night diner. He turned to Williams and asked if he wanted to eat. He responded “I think I’ll take a nap.” Carr was unaware he had just heard Hank Williams’ last words. Williams got out of the car momentarily to stretch and got back into the back seat to sleep.

Shortly, Carr and Surface continued on their journey toward Oak Hill. Shortly before entering town, Carr noticed the blanket had slipped off Hank. With one hand on the wheel he reached back and attempted to pull the blanket up with his free hand.

“I noticed he didn’t look right,” Carr said. “His head was opposite to me. His right arm was across his chest. I started to move his arm and noticed some resistance.”

Carr pulled into a Phillips Service Station and looked into the back seat. He went inside and found the attendant who gave Carr directions to the hospital. Carr drove to the hospital where he retrieved two orderlies who came out with a metal exam table. The two lifted Hank’s lifeless body from the car and laid him upon the table.

“One of them looked at me and said ‘he’s dead’,” Carr recalled.

As the attending physician had Williams’ body taken to the hospital morgue, Carr called his father and Hank’s wife, Billy Jean.

Williams’ body was taken to Tyree’s Funeral Home across the street from the hospital. As word of his death spread, a small crowd of people gathered at the car. A local mechanic, Pete Burdette, allowed Carr to store the Cadillac in a bay at Burdette Pure Oil Station. Joe Tyree, the owner of Tyree’s Funeral Home, allowed Carr to sleep on a cot in a small apartment over the funeral home where he awaited his father’s arrival.

That afternoon, at approximately 1 p.m., Magistrate Virgil Lyons conducted a coroner’s inquest which ruled out foul play.

An autopsy, performed by Dr. Ivan Malinin, determined the official cause of death was listed as heart failure aggravated by acute alcoholism. No traces of drugs were said to have been listed in the autopsy report.

Many fans appeared at the concert in Canton unaware Williams had died. According to former Drifting Cowboy Don Helms, when the emcee announced Williams’ death to the crowd, a hushed silence fell over the crowd. Moments later, Hawkshaw Hawkins and other performers started singing “I Saw the Light,” as a tribute and the audience sang along.

That afternoon, Williams’ mother, Lillian Stone, and Pitt Carr arrived from Alabama. Stone arranged for  Tyree and his assistant Alex Childers to drive the body back to Montgomery. Stone and the Carrs returned in Williams’ Cadillac. The hearse left Oak Hill at about 4:30 p.m., on January 2 in a misting rain. Tyree played the radio which played Williams’ music on every station.

Tyree pulled into White’s Chapel Funeral Home in Montgomery about 7 a.m. Tyree and Childers laid down on some bunks in the funeral home to get some rest as all the local hotels were booked solid because people were coming in from around the world for the funeral.

Williams’ body lay in wake at his mother’s boarding house for two days. His funeral was held January 4, 1953 at the Montgomery Auditorium, with his coffin placed on the flower-covered stage. It was the largest funeral in Montgomery’s history. An estimated 25,000 people passed by Williams’ casket and the auditorium was filled with 2,750 mourners. He was laid to rest at the Oakwood Annex in Montgomery.

Williams’ death created as much sensation as Elvis Presley’s death in 1977 and Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. Record stores all over the nation quickly sold out of all of Williams’ records.

By Michael Williams

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