Pictured above is the Pure Oil station referred to in the story.
"I Won't Be Home No More" The Death of Hank Williams
By Maura Kistler
New Year's Day 1953 dawned cold and gray in the town of Oak Hill, Fayette County. 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 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, 50 years later.
Hiram "Hank" Williams was born near Georgiana, Alabama, on September 17, 1923. Referred to by some as the "Hillbilly Shakespeare," he had a brief but phenomenally successful career, recording 130 songs, including 11 number-one hits. These included "Lovesick Blues," "Why Don't You Love Me?" "Hey, Good-Lookin'," "Your Cheatin' Heart," and many others. Williams had been the most popular act on the "Grand Ole Opry" for three years, until he was fired in August 1952 for being unreliable one side effect 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 appearance in the state during his four-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 here 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.
Undertaker Joe Tyree, retired police officer 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 here. Howard Janney was one of responding police officers, Joe Tyree was the funeral director who took care of the body, and Ike Brown took part in the coroner's inquest. Young men just doing their jobs, they could never have imagined that their phones would still be ringing 50 years later, as fans, journalists, and the just-plain-curious continue to call. Fortunately, these are gracious men who have clear memories and share a down-to-earth perspective about the story and their places in it. They recount the events of that day simply, without sensationalism, speculation, or drama of any kind.
Unraveling the tale is 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 play four shows in two days: two shows in West Virginia at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium on the evening of Wednesday, December 31, 1952; and two shows in Canton, Ohio, on the afternoon and evening of Thursday, January 1, 1953. He left his home in Montgomery, Alabama, on Tuesday, December 30, in a Cadillac driven by 17-year-old Charles Carr, the son of a local businessman.
The pair encountered repeated delays as they headed north toward Charleston. They arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee, shortly before noon on Wednesday. Realizing that they were running behind schedule, they decided to catch a plane the rest of the way to Charleston. Their 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 about 6 p.m. They agreed that, due to the distance and 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 about 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 four in the morning. There, they reportedly picked up relief drive Don Surface at a local taxi cab stand. Staying on U.S. Route 19, they drove through southern West Virginia in the early hours of January 1, passing through the towns of Princeton, Spanishburg, Camp Creek, Flat Top, Beckley, and Mount Hope.
Sometime 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 remembers going to check on Williams, who was reclining in the backseat and had been dozing fitfully for most of the journey. Carr is now 67 years old and still lives in Montgomery, Alabama. As he recalls, "I looked in the backseat and saw that the overcoat and blanket that had been covering Hank had slipped off. When I pulled it back up, I noticed that his hand was stiff and cold. I went inside and an older guy, around 50, came back out with me, looked in the backseat, and said, 'I think you've got a Problem.'"
Carr immediately headed into Oak Hill, looking for the 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 that time, was relatively inexperienced, so Stamey called deputy sheriff Howard Janney to back him up.
Janney is now 76 years old, and chuckles a bit when asked to recount the story. "I get aggravated to death about this there wasn't much to it," he claims. "I got a call about 7, 7:30 in the morning, so I went down to the gas station. I had seen dead bodies before. So, when I looked in the back of the car, I could tell he was dead," he says. "I escorted the car to the hospital, where they confirmed that Mr. Williams was dead. I was just doing my job. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time."
Howard Janney doesn't remember these events creating much of a stir in Oak Hill that day no throngs of grieving fans, not much interest from the media. "There were some youngsters over at the filling station looking at the car," he recalls, "but that's about it. You'd be surprised."
At the hospital, Janney and two orderlies carried Williams' body into the hospital where he was pronounced dead by Dr. Diego Nunnari, an Italian intern. Dr. Nunnari could not pinpoint the time of death, but thought it could have been up to six hours earlier.
Oak Hill native Joe Tyree has been in the funeral business all of his life, an occupation that he inherited from his father. Today, Joe is 76 years old and still manages the day-to-day operations at Tyree Funeral Home on Jones Avenue in Oak Hill. Joe remembers that he got a call around 9:00 on the morning of January 1, 1953, to come pick up Hank Williams' body. "That didn't mean a thing to me," Joe says. "We have lots of Williamses around here. I just thought it was one of them." The body was transported across the street from the hospital to the location of the funeral home, a building that is now occupied by a pharmacy.
Along with his formal duties as undertaker, Joe Tyree extended hospitality to driver Charles Carr. Charles recalls that Joe put him up in an apartment at the funeral home and, in his words, "treated me as if I was his son." In addition to his gratitude to Joe Tyree for his friendliness toward him during this difficult time, Charles Carr also compliments Tyree's handling of the entire affair. "Even now," he says, "I don't see anything that anyone could have done better."
Almost immediately, however, questions arose about the circumstances surrounding Hank's death. An unexplained welt on Williams' head and confusion about the time and cause of death led magistrate Virgil Lyons, after consulting with prosecuting attorney Howard W. Carson, to decide to conduct a coroner's inquest in an effort to rule out the possibility of foul play. A group of local citizens were quickly impaneled to serve on the coroner's jury. The inquest began at around 1:00 p.m., in an upstairs room at Tyree Funeral Home.
J. Ike Brown, 80, is the owner of the King Coal Chevrolet automobile dealership in Oak Hill and was one of six members on the coroner's jury. Ike 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. As Ike recalls, "I was never sure w why they called me, but they wanted me to come down to the funeral home right away. Howard Janney took us upstairs to where the body was lying under a sheet. We spent about 15 minutes looking at it, and couldn't see anything wrong at all, just that he was unhealthy-looking. He was very, very skinny. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but there was sort of a comic feel about being there, because we didn't really know what we were doing.
"I was sort of impressed to see him," Ike continues. "You can't imagine the attention he got. The 'Grand Ole Opry' was a big deal. It was a strange experience." Unlike Tyree or Janney, Ike Brown remembers that there was a good deal of excitement in Oak Hill once word got out that Hank Williams had died. "There was a buzz about it," Ike says. "Nothing ever happened here, but then something did."
The coroner's jury reached a verdict that there had been no foul play 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 in a bay 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 from the Beckley hospital. The official cause of death was listed as heart failure aggravated by acute alcoholism. Though it is known that during his journey Williams was given two shots of morphine to help manage his acute back, and he was presumed to have been taking chloral hydrate, a strong sedative prescribed for him by doctor Toby Marshall, no traces of drugs were said to have been listed in the autopsy report. The report itself has apparently been lost or destroyed.
The next morning, Williams' mother Lillian Stone and Charles Carr's father arrived from Alabama. The pair flew into Roanoke 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. Hank had married the former Billie Jean Jones Eshliman in October, but Hank's mother presented papers that indicated Billie Jean's divorce from her previous husband wasn't final until late December, rendering the marriage invalid.
As Joe recalls, there was no question of who was in charge. "Mrs. Stone made all the arrangements," he says. "She chose a Batesville casket with silver finish and white interior. She went out to his car and chose one of his white cowboy outfits to bury him in." Tyree recalls that she was a "nice, stately-looking woman, very pleasant and composed. She held her grief." By the time Billie Jean and her father arrived later that day, Hank's mother had the situation firmly in hand. Contrary to some published reports, Joe states, "Neither the mother nor the wife ever saw the body while it was here."
Mrs. Stone arranged for Joe Tyree and his assistant Alex Childers to drive the body back to Montgomery, while she and the Carrs returned in the Cadillac. "The train would have taken too long," recalls Joe. Driving a hearse owned by Tyree Funeral Home, they left Oak Hill at about 4:30 p.m., on January 2. "I remember it was misting," Joe says. "We drove straight on through. All the way down, we kept hearing his songs on the radio. It wasn't until then I realized how famous he was. We'd pull into filling stations and the attendants would wipe the dirt off the license plate and see the West Virginia tags. They would figure it out and come ask me if we were carrying Hank back." They pulled into White's Chapel Funeral Home in Montgomery about seven in the morning. "They had some bunks there, so we slept 'til noon then headed back," Joe says.
At this point, Joe Tyree figured that the story had come to an end. Soon, however, the calls started. "At first, I'd get calls on New Year's Eve," he says. "You could tell that the people had been drinking or were in a bar. They'd want to prove to their friend that Hank had died in Oak Hill. I kept getting phone calls every year, or so." It wasn't long until devoted fans began making pilgrimages to Oak Hill. "Had a honeymooning couple from Branson, Missouri, come to meet me," Joe recalls. "And some journalist from Sweden stopped by." Asked if this steady stream of visitors irritates him, he replies, "If they're interested, who am I to shut them off?"
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. Down at Riley's Cafe on Main Street, a teenage waitress lights up when asked about the details. "Oh yeah," she says. "A regular of ours has his guitar and his cowboy boots." While these items were never reported missing, apparently his cowboy hat and pearl-handled .45 disappeared while the car was being stored at the gas station. Some people claim the hat is still around and will turn up one of these days. Others claim that it was sold. As Howard Janney recalls, "[Pete] Burdette stored the car, locked it up. He had the hat and was wearing it around. I went up to get it, and he said that Hank's mother gave it to him." According to a story around town, Burdette's hair started falling out soon after he starting wearing the hat. He claimed that the hat was cursed. Years later, Pete Burdette committed suicide behind the station.
While the story of Hank Williams' death has become an entrenched part of Oak Hill lore, the town has been slow to embrace this legacy in any official way, possibly because Williams' reputation as a drinker and hard-liver doesn't sit well with some members of this conservative community.
This lack of recognition really stuck in Jack Pennington's craw. Born in neighboring Scarbro, Pennington remembers clearly the first time he heard Hank on the radio playing at the "Grand Ole Opry." "After each song," he recalls, "there was all this static. We didn't realize it was applause. I told my mama that I really liked this guy." Jack's deep regard for the man and his music led to a lifelong hobby of collecting Williams memorabilia. When he entered the service in 1954, Jack left the area feeling like there should be some sort of memorial to the singer and his legacy. Returning 20 years later, Jack found that there was still no memorial. "I felt something ought to be done," he says. "I got talking with Roger Seay about it, and we got support from some folks we had met down at the 'Grand Ole Opry.'"
Pennington and Seay designed a simple, attractive memorial made of a $2,000 bronze plaque mounted on a stone pedestal. It features a likeness of Hank Williams and an affectionate tribute to Hank from his fans. Located on the lawn in front of the local library and across the street from the now-defunct Pure Oil station, the memorial was dedicated on September 17, 1991 Hank's birthday. Mayor Eugene Larrick issued a proclamation making that day "Hank Williams Day" within the city of Oak Hill.
In 1993, a limited-edition Hank Williams postage stamp was issued by the U.S. Postal Service. The day that the stamp was released, Oak Hill postmaster Herb Balser released a limited number of embossed cachet envelopes, bearing a special pictorial cancellation designed by Oak Hill High School graduate Todd Short.
A Hank Williams tribute concert was held in 1993 at the Fayette Armory. Jack Pennington recalls that, as the band started into Williams' song "I Saw the Light," the power blew. "We all knew that the spirit of Hank was with us that night," he says. While the concert is fondly remembered by fans, it was not well attended. Mayor Larrick recalls 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, saw the Hank Williams story as a possible tool for economic development in a community struggling to rebuild its economic base after the coal boom went bust. Asked if he feels that Oak Hill has taken advantage of the Hank Williams story, he replies, "Not nearly to the extent that it could have."
With the 50th anniversary of Williams' death approaching, plans call for another tribute concert and a retracing of Hank's final journey. "I'm doing what I'm doing for Hank Williams," says promoter Ralph Moore of Lineville, Alabama. "I just feel there is something lacking in his legacy. If this tribute is successful, I believe it will motivate people." The tribute concert is scheduled at the Memorial Building in Fayetteville at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, December 31. The tour retracing Hank's final journey departs Montgomery on Saturday, December 28. For further information about either activity, call Ralph Moore at (256)396-9376.
While Williams' death in Oak Hill was a random occurrence, Ralph Moore articulates what a number of local people have observed over the years that there was something appropriate about the Hillbilly Shakespeare dying in West Virginia. As Ralph says, "Where he died took him right back to his roots."
Charles Carr compares the people of his native Alabama to the folks he met on his ill-fated visit to Oak Hill, saying, "The people of Oak Hill were the type of people I was used to being around. They are very genuine. There's nothing phony about the kindness these people showed me. I'll never forget it."
After 50 years, it's safe to say that the people of Oak Hill won't be forgetting, either, what happened here on January 1, 1953.
This marvelous article appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of GOLDENSEAL Magazine and is reprinted here with the gracious permission of GOLDENSEAL editor, John Lilly, and author, Maura Kistler. Ms. Kistler, is from Evanston, IL and now lives in Fayette County, WV. She is co-owner of an outdoor retail business in Fayetteville. She holds a master's degree in education from the University of Virginia and has taught English at Oak Hill High School. This was her first article for GOLDENSEAL. For more information about GOLDENSEAL or this article check out their website at GOLDENSEAL MAGAZINE