Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Murder of Hank Williams

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. 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.


Unknown said...

just like elvis and michael he had a killer doctor taking care of him. and he wasn't even a real doctor. just another great talent when to an early grave thanks to the pharmaceutical industry and the quack doctors they sell there products to.

Unknown said...

these were the good ole days when the medical classes did not bankrupt the nation...and drug laws did not so much cramp our style....the country had half todays population or less...u could find peace and quiet in the country not suburban sprawl

James Shelton said...

The man should have never handled Hank Williams Sr.
or he may have been still alive today.
George Jones drank alcohol for years and years
and he lived to be 80 some.
It is all sad,yet tragic.

James Shelton said...

He should have been punished and given a real doctor.

james haskell said...

its a trajic and sad story...all of it.i feel such a connection with hank Williams,and I consider him a part of who I 52,and first heard of him when I was 12 yrs.old.he became my favorite singer,and still is.i cant get enough. I feel the world lost its greatest songwriter,singer,poet,and showmen on that fatal new years day in '53.i miss you hank,and when I go to heaven,your the 1st. person I want to meet!

Clare Kuehn said...

The autopsy also showed beating, groin injuries and head welt. The ride was long and he was, it seems, left for dead on the long drive -- or the driver was so inured to troubles for Williams he just didn't check on him for a long period. See part about autopsy, under "death" section, with note #72.

Unknown said...

Have a read of the Steve Earle novel "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive"....based in the first person of the doctor who 'killed' Hank. Good read.

Unknown said...

Wildchild said......that's some b******* Toby Marshall needs his ass whooped!! love you Hank! !!!

Unknown said...

Wildchild said......that's some b******* Toby Marshall needs his ass whooped!! love you Hank! !!!

Unknown said...

Uhh..... What!?!

Unknown said...

Sedatives and benzos (ZAXAX, etc.) are deadly when combined with Morphine or any opiate. This is how Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole, her son, and over 100 actors and singers have died. The girl from CLUELESS and her husband mixed them and died from depressed respirations/heart stops. Apparently, HANK was one of the first to mix sedatives with opiates (as he was a known opiate addict). Matter of fact, if you are on Suboxone, you are warned NEVER to take benzos with them !!!!!!

Clare Kuehn said...

Not totally relevant, Debra Rigby. Number one, there are other problems with Ledge and Nicole and so on. Number two: Hank was beaten up, and ignored (possibly ignorantly, possibly not). It is quite obvious given the connections he had and his unwillingness to always play ball, that he was murdered (manslaughter), if you have any suspicious bone in your body, no matter what other drugs he took or were given to him.

Phil said...

I wish someone would find out who beat up Hank Williams. Now there's the killer! Head injuries from a beating on top of all the drugs & alcohol involved would kill anyone.

Bonnie said...

Very interesting story since I never knew all the details and his devil doctor and never once thought of his death as a murder because they were all doing whatever was around at the time.

AustinBlood1981 said...

This is a terrible tagedy­čśö

AustinBlood1981 said...

This is a very sad story that still to this day goes on for to many folks all over the world. Hank's legacy will never be forgotten for generations to come.I myself think tha world of all 3 Hank's and they're life stories.I have had alot of tragic events throughout my life. And I guess that's why I can truly understand they're stories and they're songs. Long live tha 3 Hank's legacy.

Unknown said...

Hank got in to many fights while on the road playing, this could explain the physical injuries. What killed Hank was a combination of several things. Addicts need help from others, they are helpless for themselves.

No one either cared enough or didn't know how to have him committed for his addictions.

Instead his family, friends and associates let him down. Some let him down because of the greed for money he made or gave them. Others were just stupid. YOU JUST CAN'T FIX STUPID.

Unknown said...


partanna said...

some of his ribs were also broken that did not help his cardiac function.also the driver was freaked out when questioned and had said he picked up a stranger to drive at some was a helpless target for some reason.i think it was an intentional coverup also.and that Russian dr in w.v. could hardly speak or understand English.tragic.

The lost highway. said...

It sounds fishy to me and made up the story doesn't fit and a fake doctor when know how that goes to well these days in my opinion they murder Hank they wasn't making the money they wanted to because he wasn't showing up to shows je was drunk most of the the time so they made a plain to kill him because they knew that when someone famous died they'd become legends and they knew that would happen with Hank and the grand ol Opry should reinstate him the words of Hank3 the Grand ol Opry ain't so grand thank you.

Unknown said...

Google King Tut drive in (Bluefield WV). Totally different story about what may or may not have happened Dec 31,1952.

Unknown said...

The story about the King Tut ties together a lot of loose ends that have existed over the years. The 2nd driver, the bruises on Hank's body etc. Supposedly told by an eye witness to the events, Blair Mays. As far as I can tell all the direct participants are long gone except the waitress at the restaurant. The King Tut is still there and in businesses.

Unknown said...

It seems there wasn't a King Tut drive-in in Bluefield but there was one and still is in Beckley. So how could Blair Mays' version of events be true?