Last Ride down the Lost Highway
by Robert A. Waters
Now that Dr. Conrad Murray has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson, it’s time to revisit a similar case from nearly 60 years ago. The “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” as the media sometimes called Hank Williams, lit up those old tube radios like no one before or since. He also lit up his body with alcohol, cocaine, morphine, chloral hydrate, and heroin. Hank died at the age of twenty-nine, just a few days after Christmas in 1952. Unfortunately, the bogus doctor who fed him the drugs that may have killed him was never prosecuted.
Hank Williams was one of the most influential American musicians who ever lived. He inspired country, folk, and rock artists for generations. Born dirt-poor in Alabama, Hank grew up hawking peanuts and shining shoes on the streets of Montgomery. It was during the Great Depression and everyone, young and old, worked to support the family. In fact, the first song he wrote was called “WPA Blues.”
By the time Hank was thirteen, he’d learned to drink whiskey and play the Silvertone guitar his mother had bought him. He joined a medicine show for a while. Then, still in his teens, he landed a radio gig at WSFA in Montgomery, quickly becoming the most popular act in the city.
Hank married Audrey Sheppard Guy, and formed a band called the Drifting Cowboys. The group toured the South, playing mostly in honky-tonks where tips were few and bloody fights numerous.
In 1947, Hank and Audrey drove to Nashville where he auditioned with a recovering alcoholic named Fred Rose, co-owner of Acuff-Rose Publishing Company. It was a smart move. Not only did Rose polish many of Hank’s songs before he published them, he tried to help the rising star kick his growing dependency on booze and drugs.
Within a few months, Hank had signed a deal with Sterling Records. He and his band recorded several songs and had his first hit on the “hillbilly” charts with “Move It on Over.” After switching to MGM Records, the mega-hits soon flooded the airways. Hank’s songs weren’t stylish or trendy or politically correct: many were sad word-sculptures cut from the stone of memory; others were humorous yet touching stories about relationships gone awry; still others, like the classic “I Saw the Light,” leaned on his fundamentalist religious upbringing.
As Hank’s popularity grew, his personal life sank into an abyss of relentless suffering. He’d been born with an undiagnosed disease called spina bifida occulta which kept him in constant and excruciating pain. In addition to his back ailment, there was no peace in his home. Audrey and his mother Lily hated each other. Both were aggressive, calculating, and determined. (This wasn’t all bad. Lily had encouraged Hank to study music and bought him his first guitar. Audrey had brow-beat a reluctant Hank into auditioning for Fred Rose which resulted in his profitable song-writing contract.) Still, for country music's first super-star, life was miserable.
Hank and Audrey eventually divorced. Near the end of his life he married a raven-haired Louisiana beauty named Billie Jean Jones.
In the last year of Hank’s life, a con-man and thief became Hank's personal doctor. Toby Marshall, a convicted robber and forger who’d bought his medical diplomas from a traveling salesman, promised to help Hank get off drugs and alcohol. One of Hank’s band members, Tommy Hill, described the daily routine as they toured the country playing one-nighters: “Me and a bunch of the pickers talked about how [Hank’s manager] Clyde Perdue and Toby Marshall were just in it for what they could get out of Hank cause he was making pretty fair money. But Hank never saw any of it. You see, if Hank took one shot of whiskey, he was drunk, so they’d get a six-pack and allot him so many beers after he woke up until the time of the show and that kept Hank happy. Then the doctor would give him a shot so he’d lose all his beer, throw it all up, then they’d put black coffee down him, let him do the show, then give him a six-pack and put him to bed. Same thing every day. I said, ‘They’re killing him.’ The booker and the doctor.”
One of Marshall’s favorite “treatments” for addiction was a sedative called chloral hydrate. The drug is known to be lethal, especially when mixed with alcohol.
In the last week of 1952, the South was iced in. But the bookers had lined up a show in Canton, Ohio for New Years day and were determined that Hank would make it. On December 30, he climbed into the back seat of his 1952 Cadillac as Charles Carr, a hired driver, began the long trip from Alabama to Ohio.
Carr and Hank stopped to spend the night in Knoxville, but the singer was ill. Dr. Paul H. Cardwell arrived at the hotel and administered two shots of morphine mixed with Vitamin B-12. Toby Marshall, in Canton awaiting the arrival of Hank, spoke with Carr on the phone and ordered him to leave immediately for Canton, regardless of Hank’s condition or the weather. It was the middle of the night and the roads were iced up, making the roads treacherous. Inside, the car was freezing. Investigators later estimated that the temperature in the back seat may have dropped to zero.
Hank died somewhere between Knoxville and Oak Hill, West Virginia. When Carr stopped for gas, he found country music's greatest star lying face-up on the back seat.
Even though a local physician ruled the death a heart attack, many who knew Hank speculated that he died from a combination of drugs, alcohol, and hypothermia. An autopsy revealed alcohol in his system, but the doctor didn’t test his body for drugs.
Hank’s songs had affected millions of fans and there was an outpouring of grief throughout the country. While Lily, Audrey, and Billie Jean fought over his money, he was buried in his hometown of Montgomery.
Three months later, Toby Marshall's house of lies came tumbling down. In March, 1953, Fay, his estranged wife, died in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The death was suspicious since she appeared to be in good health. Cops began an investigation and found that Marshall had written Fay a prescription for cafergot, a medicine designed to relieve migraine headaches. During the probe into Fay Marshall's death, local police discovered that Hank Williams had also been Marshall's patient.
Since Marshall lived in Oklahoma City, state officals there began an investigation into the doctor's background. Detectives learned that he'd prescribed chloral hydrate, a powerful sedative and heart depressant, to Hank nine days before his death. The prescription he wrote was for 24 grains of chloral hydrate (24 capsules) and was dated December 12, 1952. When the bottle was found, it was nearly empty. The likelihood is that Hank had taken the drugs right up to the time of his death. Marshall, who had already served time in Oklahoma for forgery and was currently on parole, was forced to admit to investigators that he'd obtained his medical degrees fraudulently. He also admitted that he'd previously been convicted of robbery in California and had served two years in San Quentin.
Oklahoma authorities toyed with charging Marshall in Hank’s death but couldn’t prove that the singer had taken drugs while in the state. One investigator said “if Marshall furnished Williams with this chloral hydrate [in Oklahoma] and the chloral hydrate was a contributing factor in his death, then we could file a case of manslaughter against Marshall.” In the end, the fake doctor had his parole revoked and served the remainder of his sentence in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary before being released.
Authorities in New Mexico also wanted to make a case against Marshall. Fay's body, which had not been autopsied, was exhumed and examined. However, there wasn't enough evidence to try the con-man so the case was dropped.
In 1954, Marshall was arrested in Oklahoma City for vagrancy, possession of barbiturates, and attempting to pass a bogus check. He’d registered at a motel as a doctor.
Three years later, the bogus physician was convicted in Denver of dispensing habit-forming drugs without a prescription. He served six months for that offense.
Because of the uncertainty about where Hank died and the fact that the West Virginia coroner ruled his death a heart attack, charges against Toby Marshall were never filed.
In today’s world, an investigation into the singer's death would have been more aggressive and Marshall likely would have been prosecuted.