“The Death of Hank Williams”
New Year’s Day 1953 dawned cold and gray in the town of Oak Hill in Fayette County, West Virginia. While many residents rolled over to enjoy a few extra hours of sleep on this bleak holiday morning, a drama was unfolding downtown which would become an enduring part of Oak Hill lore, complete with tall tales, conflicting accounts and larger-than-life characters.
As the rest of the world would soon learn, country music singer and composer Hank Williams had quietly rolled into town early that day in the backseat of his brand-new baby-blue Cadillac convertible. At the age of 29 he was dead.
Questions about the incident, such as what time he had died, how he had died, what became of his hat and pistol, and exactly what Oak Hill should do now with the dubious distinction of being “the last stop of Hank’s final journey,” still elicit lively debate over six decades later.
Hiram “Hank” Williams was born near Georgiana, Alabama on September 17, 1923. Referred to by many as the “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” he had a brief but phenomenally successful career, recording 130 songs including eleven #1 hits: “Lovesick Blues,” “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” “Why Don’t You Love Me,” “Moanin’ The Blues,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Jambalaya (On The Bayou),” “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive,” “Kaw-liga,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Take These Chains From My Heart.”
Williams had been the most popular act on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry for three years until he was fired for unreliability, just one of the many side effects of his ongoing problem with alcohol. While his musical style may not have been to everyone’s taste, his emotional, deeply personal songs delivered in a trademark hillbilly twang have proven to be timeless.
Hank Williams and his music are particularly revered in West Virginia. While he made few live appearances in the state during his six-year performing career, his popular recordings and radio broadcasts secured him a strong West Virginia audience, both during his lifetime and in the years following his death.
In Oak Hill, feelings about Hank Williams are mixed. Some residents have been deeply moved by what occurred there on January 1, 1953 to the point of erecting a monument and lobbying for the construction of a local museum in Williams’ honor. Others seem anxious to forget their community’s brush with the troubled young musician, while still others remain ambivalent or uninformed about this captivating chapter of Oak Hill history.
Funeral home owner Joe Tyree, Deputy Sheriff Howard Janney and automobile dealer Ike Brown were all in Oak Hill on that fateful morning, and each played an active role in the events that took place there. Janney was one of the responding police officers, Tyree was the funeral director who took care of the body and Brown took part in the coroner’s inquest.
Young men just doing their jobs, they never could have imagined that discussions about the occurrence would still be going on decades later as fans, journalists and the just-plain-curious continued to ask questions. These men had clear memories from that day, and for the remainder of their lives, they were always gracious enough to share their down-to-earth perspective about the story and their places in it. They recounted the events simply and without sensationalism, speculation or drama.v
Unraveling the tale was no easy task. Numerous biographies and articles have been written over the years chronicling the events leading up to Williams’ death. No two accounts are in complete agreement. Briefly put, Hank Williams, in declining health and struggling to rebuild a faltering performing career, was booked to appear at four shows in two days. The first two were to be held at Charleston, West Virginia’s Municipal Auditorium on the evening of Wednesday, December 31, 1952.
Then from there, Hank was to travel on to Canton, Ohio for afternoon and evening shows on Thursday, January 1, 1953. He left his home in Montgomery, Alabama on Tuesday, December 30th in his Cadillac driven by seventeen-year-old Charles Carr, the son of a local businessman. As it turned out, they didn’t give themselves nearly enough time for the trip.
The pair encountered repeated delays due to inclement weather as they headed north toward Charleston. They arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee shortly before noon on Wednesday December 31st. Realizing that they were running behind schedule, they decided to catch a plane the rest of the way to Charleston. The plane took off from Knoxville about three hours later, but it was unable to land at the Charleston airport because of fog.
It returned to Knoxville. From there, Charles Carr phoned A.V. Bamford, the promoter of the concerts, reaching him at the Municipal Auditorium in Charleston at 6 p.m. They agreed that, due to the distance and bad driving conditions, Hank would be unable to make either of the Charleston shows. Bamford instructed Carr to make every effort to get Williams to Canton in time for the 2 p.m. matinee performance the following afternoon.
Hank Williams and Charles Carr left Knoxville at around 10:45 that evening, continuing north and east along the same route that they had plotted earlier, taking them through Blaine, Rutledge and Bristol, Tennessee; Bristol, Virginia; Bluefield, Virginia and into Bluefield, West Virginia, where they made a stop at around 4:00 a.m.
There, they reportedly picked up a relief driver by the name of Don Surface at a local taxi cab stand. Staying on Route 19, they drove through southern West Virginia in the early hours of January 1st, passing through the towns of Princeton, Spanishburg, Camp Creek, Flat Top, Beckley and Mount Hope.
At around 6:30 a.m. Williams’ flashy Cadillac wheeled into the Skyline Drive-In, a simple, cinder-block restaurant located in Hilltop, a few miles south of Oak Hill. After stretching his legs and using the rest room, Charles Carr went to check on Williams, who was reclining in the backseat and had been asleep a good part of the time since their departure from Knoxville some seven hours earlier. Carr looked in the backseat and noticed that the overcoat and blanket that had been covering Hank had slipped off. When he pulled them back up, he noticed that Hank’s hand was stiff and cold.
Carr went back into the restaurant to get some assistance and brought a man back to the car with him who, after taking a look at the person in the backseat said, “I think you’ve got a problem.” Carr immediately headed into Oak Hill, looking for a hospital. He stopped at the Pure Oil filling station at the edge of town to get directions and asked Pete Burdette, the manager of the station, to call the authorities. Officer Orris Stamey, the policeman on duty at the time, was relatively inexperienced, so Stamey called Deputy Sheriff Howard Janney to back him up. Janney knew right away the man in the backseat was dead, and proceeded to escort the car on to the hospital.
Even after word got out that it was Hank Williams who was dead, Janney doesn’t remember the event creating much of a stir in Oak Hill that day. No throngs of grieving fans and not much interest from the media. Surprisingly, the only activity was some youngsters looking over the Cadillac, which they probably would have done anyway even if a famous person hadn’t died in it.
Meanwhile at the hospital, Hank had been pronounced dead by Dr. Diego Nunnari, an Italian intern. The doctor could not accurately pinpoint the time of death, but thought that it could have been up to six hours earlier (or shortly past midnight).
Funeral director Joe Tyree received a call from the hospital at around 9 a.m. to come pick up the body of Hank Williams. Amazingly, Tyree didn’t connect the name with somebody famous. There were lots of Williamses living in the area at the time and Tyree just assumed it was one of them. Hank was taken to the Tyree Funeral Home on Jones Avenue in Oak Hill. In the process, Tyree extended hospitality to driver Charles Carr, putting him up in an apartment located on the second floor of the funeral home.
In addition to his gratitude to Joe Tyree for his friendliness toward him, Carr also complimented Tyree’s handling of the entire affair, saying “there wasn’t anything that anyone could have done better.” Incidentally, Don Surface, the “relief driver” that Carr allegedly picked up at the taxi cab stand in Bluefield, West Virginia earlier that morning appears to be a myth, because nobody remembers seeing any other driver but Carr. If Mr. Surface was ever there, or ever existed, he vanished without a trace.
Additionally, questions immediately arose about the circumstances surrounding Hank’s death. An unexplained welt on Williams’ head and confusion about the time of death and cause of death led to magistrate judge Virgil Lyons’ decision to conduct a coroner’s inquest in an effort to rule out the possibility of foul play.
A group of local citizens was quickly impaneled to serve on the coroner’s jury. The inquest began at around 1:00 p.m. January 1st in an upstairs room at the Tyree Funeral Home. Ike Brown was the owner of the King Chevrolet automobile dealership in Oak Hill at the time and was one of the six members on the coroner’s jury.
He had heard a good bit of Williams’ music and was aware of Hank’s reputation as an entertainer. While he might have been acquainted with country music, Ike was not particularly familiar with medical science or forensics, and wondered why they had called him to serve.
The six jury members spent about fifteen minutes looking over Hank’s body, observing nothing particularly noteworthy (other than the aforementioned welt on his head), although the men did comment on how extremely unhealthy-looking he appeared and horribly thin.
Unlike Deputy Sheriff Janney, who stated that Williams’ death didn’t bring on any special excitement in Oak Hill that day, Brown observed otherwise, saying that there was a tremendous “buzz” around town once word got out that Hank had died in their community.
The coroner’s jury reached a quick verdict that there had been no foul play (completely ignoring the welt and not commenting about it) and that Williams had died of a “severe heart condition and hemorrhage.” With this verdict, local police involvement in the case came to an end, Charles Carr was free to go, and the Cadillac and its contents were secured at Burdette’s Pure Oil station to await Hank’s next of kin.
At about 3:00 that afternoon, an autopsy was performed at the funeral home by Dr. Ivan Malinin, a Russian pathologist summoned to Oak Hill from the hospital in Beckley. The official cause of death was listed as “heart failure aggravated by acute alcoholism,” and although it was known by several people that Hank had been given two shots of morphine during the trip to help control his extreme back pain, along with the sedative chloral hydrate, which Williams took regularly, the rather hastily-prepared autopsy report did not list any drugs at all! However, the report did reveal one very interesting piece of information: Hank had recently been kicked in the groin, suggesting that he had been involved in some sort of altercation or fight just before death (which might also explain the welt on his head).
Although this curious and mysterious development surfaced during the examination, it wasn’t considered a good enough reason to warrant further investigation and the standard “heart failure” conclusion was reached, closing the case.
The official autopsy report went missing shortly afterward and has never been seen again, apparently lost, stolen or destroyed. Carr went to his grave denying that Williams had been involved in any altercation during the two days they had been on the road together.
The next morning, Hank’s mother Lillian Stone along with Charles Carr’s father arrived from Alabama. The pair flew into Roanoke, Virginia and took a taxi to Oak Hill because the Charleston airport was still fogged in. According to Joe Tyree, Mrs. Stone’s first stop was the police station where she was briefed on the situation. She had brought along legal papers establishing herself as next of kin, to the satisfaction of local authorities.
Williams had married the former Billie Jean Jones Eshliman in October, but Hank’s mother presented papers indicating that Billie Jean’s divorce from her previous husband wasn’t final until late December, rendering the marriage invalid. Tyree recalls that there was no question of who was in charge.
Lillian Stone took command, making all the arrangements in a matter-of-fact manner. By the time Billie Jean and her father arrived later that afternoon, Lillian had the situation firmly in hand. Tyree went on to say that, contrary to published reports, neither Hank’s mother nor Billie Jean ever saw Hank’s body while it was in Oak Hill.
Mrs. Stone arranged for Joe Tyree and his assistant Alex Childers to drive Hank Williams’ body back to Montgomery, Alabama in a hearse (as transport by train would have taken too long), while she and the Carrs returned in the Cadillac. Tyree and Childers left Oak Hill at about 4:30 p.m. on Friday, January 2nd. All along the way they kept hearing Hank’s songs on the radio (stations all over the country were airing wall-to-wall tributes to him).
Tyree said it wasn’t until then that he realized just how famous Hank was. During stops the hearse made at filling stations along the route back to Montgomery, people would gather around, knowing that it was Hank the hearse was carrying and they wanted to pay their respects.
The trip was completed at 7:00 on the morning of January 3rd when the hearse pulled into White’s Chapel Funeral Home in Montgomery. There were some bunks there, so the men grabbed a few hours of sleep then headed back to Oak Hill.
At that point, Joe Tyree figured that the story had come to an end. But that wasn’t the case. Soon the telephone calls started, then devoted fans began making pilgrimages to Oak Hill, wanting simply to visit the town where Hank died. Lots of journalists showed up too. It was a steady stream for many years afterward.
This activity was an irritant to some of the town’s residents, but most folks gracefully accepted the attention that Oak Hill was receiving. Many details related to the death of Hank Williams continue to vex researchers, fans and family members.
Of particular interest to Oak Hill citizens are the mysteries surrounding some of Williams’ missing possessions. For many years, a regular customer at one of the town’s eateries claimed to have Hank’s guitar and cowboy boots.
While these items were never officially reported as missing, apparently Hank’s cowboy hat and pearl-handled .45 disappeared while the Cadillac was being stored at Pete Burdette’s gas station. Some people claim the hat is still around and will turn up one of these days.
Others claim that it was sold. Deputy Sheriff Janney recalled that Burdette personally stored the car and locked it up behind his gas station, but he had pilfered the hat and was wearing it around town. When the deputy confronted him about it, Burdette claimed that Hank’s mother had given it to him.
A story began circulating that Pete’s hair started falling out soon after he began wearing the hat, causing him to think the hat was cursed. Several years later, Burdette committed suicide behind the station at the exact spot where the Cadillac had been parked.
While the story of Hank Williams’ death has become an entrenched part of Oak Hill lore, the town has been slow to embrace this historical footnote in an official way, possibly because Williams’ reputation as a drinker and hard-liver doesn’t sit well with some members of the conservative community.
The lack of recognition really stuck in one man’s craw, a lifelong fan by the name of Jack Pennington. Jack’s deep regard for the man and his music led to a fulltime hobby of collecting Hank Williams memorabilia. Pennington felt that there should be some sort of memorial in Oak Hill to salute the singer and his legacy.
Leaving the area in 1954 to enter the service, Pennington returned twenty years later to find that there was still no memorial to Hank. So he took it upon himself to remedy that situation by designing and donating a $2,000 bronze plaque mounted on a stone pedestal, located on the lawn in front of the local library and across the street from the now-defunct Pure Oil station where Hank’s Cadillac was taken after his body was removed.
The plaque features a likeness of Williams and an affectionate inscription to Hank from his fans. The memorial was dedicated on September 17, 1991, which would have been Hank’s 68th birthday. Mayor Eugene Larrick issued a proclamation making that day “Hank Williams Day” within the city of Oak Hill.
A Hank Williams tribute concert was held a couple of years later at the Fayette Armory. Jack Pennington recalled that as the band started into Williams’ song “I Saw The Light,” the power blew, which he took as meaning that Hank’s spirit was there that night.
While the 1993 tribute concert is fondly remembered by fans, it was not well attended. Mayor Larrick recalled that this was the point at which he realized that there just wasn’t enough local support to move forward with bigger projects, such as a museum.
Larrick, while not a fan himself, had foreseen the Hank Williams connection to Oak Hill as a possible tool for economic development in a community struggling to rebuild its economic base after the area’s coal boom went bust. Before the concert, the mayor was asked if he felt that Oak Hill had taken advantage of the Hank Williams story and he replied, “Not nearly to the extent that it could have.”
His enthusiasm diminished somewhat when the concert didn’t attract as many people as had been anticipated. So, in the end, time caught up with the importance of that fateful New Year’s Day in the town where Hank Williams was found dead. Six and a half decades later, the previous excitement and eager, absorbing interest in the circumstances surrounding Hank’s demise appears to have faded in Oak Hill, West Virginia.