How did Hank Williams Die? A Not-So-Happy New Year

how did hank williams die
Hank Williams publicity photo taken in 1951. Image by WSM Radio on Wikimedia Commons.

Hank Williams is universally recognized as the original King of Country Music. In his short 15-year career, he released an incredible 55 Top 10 singles, with 12 of them hitting the #1 spot. 

Although he had fame and fortune, Hank Williams lived a reckless life, ultimately leading to his demise. How did Hank Williams die? Is there more to the story than just a common cardiac episode? Find out below. 

Hank Williams’ last days

The days leading up to Hank William’s untimely death were not smooth. 

For years, he struggled with drug and alcohol abuse due largely to back pain caused by a mild case of spina bifida occulta, which he was born with. 

The addiction only increased after the pain was further aggravated by an accident during a hunting trip in 1951. This addiction eventually led to his divorce from his first wife, Audrey Sheppard, and his dismissal from the Grand Ole Opry in 1952. 

By this time, he had also been known as a frequent canceler of appearances, using varied excuses. This was so well-known that when the audience at his scheduled New Year’s Day appearance was informed of his death, they laughed, believing it to be another out on Williams’ part. 

Once other performers in the show began singing tributes of “I Saw the Light” the laughter stopped, and the crowd joined in the song.  

Related: The 50 Best Country Songs from Jimmie Rodgers to Morgan Wallen 

How old was Hank Williams when he died?

Hank Williams died on New Year’s Day, 1953, at the tender age of 29. 

hank williams death
Publicity portrait of Country & Western singer-songwriter Hank Williams for MGM Records. Taken in 1948. Image by MGM Records on Wikimedia Commons.

How did Hank Williams die?

The 48 hours surrounding Hank Williams’ untimely death have led to much controversy and speculation about what happened to the legendary singer. 

But what really happened to Hank Williams? Let’s begin with the originally accepted recollection of events. 

On New Year’s Eve 1952, Williams was supposed to appear at the Municipal Auditorium in Charleston, West Virginia. However, the appearance was canceled due to a severe ice storm in the area. Instead, Williams hired a driver to take him to his next appearance on New Year’s Day in Canton, Ohio. 

Several stops were reportedly made during the multi-hour drive, including one to the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee. There, a doctor was requested due to Williams’ feeling the effects of the alcohol and chloral hydrate he had consumed on the trip from Montgomery to Knoxville. 

The doctor gave Williams two shots of vitamin B12 with morphine to help. 

After leaving the hotel, from which he supposedly had to be carried by hotel porters, the car stopped once at a restaurant in Bristol, Virginia, and a second time in Oak Hill, West Virginia, at a filling station. 

It was there that Williams was found to be unresponsive in the back seat by the driver after the latter had noticed the singer’s blanket had fallen off and reached to put it back over him.

Reportedly, by then, Williams had already been dead for some time as rigor mortis, the stiffening of the joints and muscles, had already set in.

Immediate investigations upon reports of Williams’ death discovered several empty beer cans and the handwritten unfinished lyrics of a song yet to be recorded in the backseat.

Related: Willie Nelson’s Net Worth and Other Essential Facts 

Who was driving Hank Williams when he died?

Hank Williams died in the back seat of a baby-blue 152 Olympic Cadillac Series 62 convertible. The only witness was Charles Carr, the 17-year-old college student hired to drive Williams to his New Year’s Day gig in Canton, Ohio. 

The Cadillac is preserved at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.

What were Hank Williams’ last words?

Reportedly, Hank Williams’ last words came when Carr stopped at a 24-hour restaurant in Bristol, Virginia, in the early hours of Jan. 1. 

When Carr asked Williams if he wanted anything to eat, the latter said he would not. According to Carr, Williams never spoke another word. 


Cause of Death

So, how did Hank Williams die?

Initial reports determined that he died of a heart attack due to insufficient functioning of the heart’s right ventricle. It is still considered the official cause of death.

The sudden heart failure is believed to be connected to Williams’ continual use of alcohol, morphine, and chloral hydrate.

What did the autopsy report reveal?

Hank Williams’ autopsy was performed by Dr. Ivan Malinin, a Russian immigrant who was not fluent in English. It was performed at the Tyree Funeral House in Oak Hill, West Virginia. 

Along with the evidence of the heart malfunction, Malinin discovered that sometime in the days leading up to his death, Williams had been in a fight, which included him being repeatedly and severely kicked in the groin. 

His left arm was also injured in that fight, which was eventually discovered to have taken place in a bar in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Related: The Tragic Story of John Lennon’s Demise 

Conflicting reports

In the days following Williams’ death, conflicting reports continued to come out surrounding the cause of death and when exactly Carr discovered the singer’s lifeless body in the backseat. 

Due to nervous energy Carr displayed between stops made asking for help and, eventually, the hospital, foul play has been suspected but never proven.

Several investigations have also been made, the most substantial being that of Horace “Toby” Marshall, whom Williams met years earlier. Marshall claimed to be a doctor who could relieve Williams of his back pain, though a surgery done at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville proved unsuccessful. 

Hank Williams’ funeral

Hank Williams’ funeral service was held at the Montgomery Auditorium on Jan. 4, 1953. His silver coffin stood on the stage covered in flowers. 

Several musicians performed some of William’s biggest hits, including Ernest Tubb singing “Beyond the Sunset,” Roy Acuff singing “I Saw the Light,” and Red Foley singing “Peace in the Valley.” 

The venue was filled with 2,750 mourners. An estimated 15,000 to 25,000 people visited the coffin. 

Williams’ funeral is said to be the largest held for any citizen of Alabama. It is also considered the largest event ever in Montgomery, even bigger than Jefferson Davis’ inauguration as the Confederate President in the months leading up to the Civil War. 

Related: The 21 Best Drinking Songs to Raise Your Glass To 

Where is Hank Williams buried?

Hank Williams is buried at the Oakwood Annex Cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama.

Impact of Hank Williams’ death

According to an interview given to Billboard magazine by the president of MGM, Williams’ record label, more than 300 requests came for pictures of the late singer. 

Additionally, after his death, record shops quickly sold out of Hank Williams records as customers repeatedly requested copies of every record the “I Saw the Light” singer ever released. 

The final single Williams ever released before his death was “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” He did write and record his final song, “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” in 1952, but it was only posthumously released. It was No. 1 for six weeks on several country charts. 

hank williams career
Hank Williams, Audrey Sheppard Williams and the Drifting Cowboys band in 1951. Image by MGM Records on Wikimedia Commons.

Hank Williams’ Posthumous Recognitions

The first “Hank Williams Day” was celebrated on Sept. 21, 1954, the official proclamation made by then-Alabama governor Gordon Persons. A monument was unveiled at the Cramton Bowl Stadium in Montgomery during the first celebration and was later added to his gravesite. 

Williams was posthumously honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Feb. 8, 1960, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1961 and 1985, respectively. 

In 1987, Williams was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at the 29th annual Grammy Awards. 

Biographic films

Hank Williams’ life has been the subject of four biographic films. They include Your Cheatin’ Heart in 1964, starring George Hamilton as Williams; Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave in 1980 and starring Sneezy Waters; The Last Ride in 2011, which starred Henry Thomas; and I Saw the Light in 2015, starring Tom Hiddleston. 

Now that you know the answer to the question ‘how did Hank Williams die,’ you may also enjoy…

15+ Best Songs About Cheating to Remind You That You Aren’t Alone 

The 25 Best Songs About America

The Life and Music of Elvis Presley 

Written by Erik Ritland

Erik Ritland is a songwriter, musician, journalist, and podcaster based in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s released over a dozen albums since 2002, most recently Old Dog Almost Gone (2021), the first-ever multimedia album, and his latest collection of all original material, A Scientific Search (2020). During his 15+ years as a music journalist, Erik has written hundreds of articles for Music in Minnesota, Something Else Reviews, his own blog Rambling On, and more. In addition to continuing his music career, Erik currently runs The Cosmic American, a music journalism website, and is the editor of Music in Minnesota.


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