Behind Hank Williams’ Death on New Year’s Day 1953

Considered one of America’s great songwriters, Hank Williams was born on September 17, 1923, in Butler County, Alabama. In the subsequent years, Williams released songs like “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry,” Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I Saw the Light” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.”

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As a result, he became an all-timer. But the songwriter, performer and father passed away at the young age of 29 years old on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1953, in West Virginia. During his life, he sold millions of albums with myriad No. 1 hits. We uncover Williams’ death below.

The Snow

With a gig setup in Charleston, West Virginia, on New Year’s Eve 1952, Williams, who was in Montgomery, Alabama was facing a problem. A snowstorm made it so that no one could fly. But the upcoming show was calling and was a big payout. So, Williams hired the aptly-named college student Charles Carr to drive him to his date.

The day before the show, December 30, the two stopped in a hotel in Birmingham before moving out the next morning. They arrived in Knoxville finally, and got on a plane, but had to land early due to more bad weather.

In Knoxville again, Williams checked into the Andrew Johnson Hotel and saw a doctor. He was fading thanks to a mixture of a life of drinking hard and the drug chloral hydrate he’d been taking for chronic back pain—some historians believe he suffered from spina bifida occulta. He did have back surgery in his life, too. The doctor gave him an injection of B12 (essentially, a stimulant) and morphine. When Carr and Williams checked out of the hotel the next morning, bellhops had to carry Williams to the car.

Toby Marshall

Near the end of his life, Williams suffered from a number of ailments, from chronic back issues to addiction to heart problems. Around this time, he met Toby Marshall, who said he was a doctor, but who was a known forger and convicted criminal. Some historians say Marshall bought his physician credentials from a traveling salesman.

As Williams was now struggling, barely alive, still with Carr, Marshall told the college student that the NYE gig was canceled but that Carr should drive him to Ohio for his next show on New Year’s Day. An idea that, well, seems absurd today.

That night, Carr drove some 20 hours before having to pull over at an all-night restaurant and find someone to help with the rest of the task. Don Surface, a professional taxi driver, helped out and two men, with Williams in the back seat, forged ahead.

Already Dead

When Surface and Carr stopped a few hours later for gas, they looked back to Williams and realized he had been dead for so long that rigor mortis had already begun in his body.

The autopsy later showed that Williams had hemorrhages in his heart and neck and the doctor, Ivan Malinin, declared the musician died of “acute rt. ventricular dilation.” He also said that Williams had been severely beaten and kicked in the groin recently. Williams had been in a bar fight in Montgomery days earlier.

The combination of drugs—morphine, chloral hydrate, alcohol and perhaps more—eventually did him in. After Williams died, there was such a demand for his music that MGM Records had to trim its other planned releases that year in half to satisfy customers.

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