FROM 2003: Retracing Hank Williams’ ghostly night ride
NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Tennessean on January 1, 2003 edition of The Tennessean.
Look for the ghost of Hank Williams at Edd’s Grocery in Corryton, Tenn., and all you’ll find is yo-yo wax, cigarettes and panty hose boxes from the disco era. Might as well comb the nearest beachfront for hockey pucks.
But the well-scuffed little store is a landmark of sorts. It’s a U.S. Highway 11W slow-down point, a 66-year-old relic that’s positioned just to the Knoxville side of what used to be the Skyway Drive-In Theater.
Fifty years ago, a pale blue Cadillac carrying a similarly hued, 29-year-old Hiram “Hank” Williams sped north from Knoxville, right past Edd’s.
The Skyway – now intimated by a rusted sign in a weed-happy field where locals toss garbage – marks the place where a patrol officer stopped Williams’ driver, a 17-year-old Auburn University freshman named Charles Carr. The officer, Swan H. Kitts, ticketed Carr for speeding and driving recklessly. To this day, Carr denies the charges.
Either way, the man now viewed as country music’s single greatest, most important and most legendary performer lay motionless through the hubbub. As Dec. 31, 1952, passed silently into the new year, Williams may have already passed, as well.
Hank Williams died in Knoxville or Bristol or Mount Hope, W.Va., or any number of other places. Maybe it was within a couple of miles from where the Daddy Owes Pool Hall now stands in Bean Station, Tenn., or right around where you’ll see Hillbilly Auto Sales in Ghent, W.Va.
The only place he surely didn’t die along twisted 11W or desolate 19 North is the place listed on his death certificate: the West Virginia town of Oak Hill.
“What difference does it make?” snaps Dr. Stuart McGehee, a historian at Bluefield, W.Va.’s Eastern Regional Coal Archives. “What does it possibly matter, other than to satisfy the obsessive people who want to know exactly where did he draw his last breath?”
Maybe the death spot doesn’t matter, but the route does. Jan. 1 signifies a new year and commemorates an old, never-to-be-healed wounding.
And while Williams’ native Alabama boasts its own Hank Williams Memorial Lost Highway, there is no more sorrow-bound succession than Knoxville to Blaine to Bristol to Bluefield to Princeton to Mount Hope to Oak Hill, with only “The Complete Hank Williams” boxed set for company.
“It’s a tough drive, I promise you that,” said Carr, who only drove it once, when he had Hank Williams for cargo if not for company. “If I had known what was going to happen, I would not have made the trip.”
Stop to snap a photo of the old Skyway sign, step through brush and over a toppled toilet to get back to the car and listen to Hank sing Leon Payne’s words: “And now I’m lost/ Too late to pray.”
It’s a spooky deal for sure, and not at all like a trip to Graceland.
I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Livin’
The latter part of 1952 was a strange and not altogether pleasant time to be Hank Williams.
The expiring year had brought divorce from first wife Audrey; an affair with a woman named Bobbie Jett, who became pregnant with a girl who became singer Jett Williams; the recordings of now-classics including Jambalaya, You Win Again, Kaw-Liga and Your Cheatin’ Heart; his firing from the Grand Ole Opry; a marriage to the former Billie Jean Jones Eshliman; a continuation of physical frailties including persistent and sometimes debilitating back pain; more than enough pills and booze to derail stronger, stouter men; and a health-related leave of absence from the Louisiana Hayride radio show.
Williams ended the year as country music’s best-selling artist, but he hoped 1953 would bring comparative peace and calm. He had moved from stressful Nashville in August, first returning home to Montgomery, Ala., then taking an apartment in Shreveport, La., and relocating again to Montgomery.
With a Dec. 31 show booked in Charleston, W.Va., and a gig the next day in Canton, Ohio, Williams stopped on Dec. 29 to see old friend Daniel Pitts Carr at Carr’s Lee Street Taxi Co. It was a place of comfort and familiarity, and Hank liked to drink there.
“I had known Hank most of my life,” said Charles Carr, now a 67-year-old Montgomery, Ala., businessman. “My dad looked after him before he became a star, and Hank never forgot that.”
Charles agreed to chauffer Williams to the concerts in exchange for money that would help with the next semester’s tuition. On Dec. 30, after Williams took a shot of morphine to ease his back pain, the young man and the country superstar drove off in Hank’s conspicuous 1952 Cadillac.
Also because of his back pain, Williams was carrying chloral hydrate, a drug intended to induce sleep. Chloral hydrate can slow the heartbeat, and things can get weird when the drug is combined with alcohol. In the movies, when a bad guy puts someone to sleep by “slipping him a Mickey,” chloral hydrate is what the villain has placed in the victim’s drink.
“A mixture of chloral hydrate, morphine and alcohol will more than likely bring about psychosis,” said Brian Turpen, a Bedford, Ind., police captain who has conducted exhaustive research into Williams’ death. “That combination is sometimes used to euthanize critically ill patients.”
The two travelers made it to Birmingham that night, and the next morning they reached Knoxville.
Planning to fly to Charleston, they boarded a 3:30 p.m. plane, but poor weather conditions necessitated a boomerang flight. The fellows were back in Knoxville by 6 p.m., knowing that Williams wouldn’t make his scheduled performance and figuring there was a long drive involved in making the Canton show.
(Contrary to many reports, the problem with the Charleston airport was fog, not snow. Many – even most – published accounts have Carr and Williams driving through a perilous mix of snow and ice, but Dec. 31, Jan. 1 and Jan. 2 newspapers in Knoxville, Bluefield and Charleston reported no such precipitation.)
In Knoxville, Carr checked his man into the elegant Andrew Johnson Hotel, owned by Mrs. R.J. Reynolds and known for its showy lobby and old-money clientele. By then, a reasonably normal afternoon had become a lousy evening as Hank was back to drinking. Convulsive hiccups necessitated a call to a doctor, and more morphine (two shots, along with some vitamin B-12) soon surged through Williams’ blood. At some point, Hank fell to the hotel room floor.
Carr and Williams left the Andrew Johnson before 11 p.m., with the singer’s cognizance in question.
“Hank Williams stayed here after a performance, and it is rumored that he died here in 1953,” reads a passage in a notebook kept by the public affairs office of the Knox County school system, now located in the old hotel. That rumor stems from porters’ reports that an otherwise somnambulant Williams emitted two “coughing” sounds while being carried to his Cadillac. Dead men sometimes make such sounds when being picked up.
But Carr is adamant that he spoke to Williams on a couple of occasions after Knoxville, and the Oak Hill, W.Va., mortician who handled Williams’ body says the singer was neither cold nor stiff enough to have died in East Tennessee.
With no complaints from his rider, Carr pressed northward. Pulling out to pass – right past Edd’s, next to the Skyway Drive-In sign, and quite near the dividing line between Knox and Grainger counties – he drew the notice of Officer Swan Kitts.
The officer pulled the Cadillac to the roadside. And for a half-century, Kitts has told people that he noticed the zonked-out Williams in the back seat, asked Carr whether the singer was dead and received assurance that Hank was under sedation, had been drinking and was certainly alive.
Kitts later came to believe that Hank had indeed died before the stop, an opinion that still angers Carr.
“Hank was asleep,” Carr said. “If he was dead, what was this officer doing letting a 17-year-old ride around with a corpse?”
The Cadillac followed Kitts to the house of a justice of the peace in Blaine, where Carr says he answered “$75″ when asked how much money he was carrying.
“You want to know what the fine was?” he said. “You guessed it: $75. In the police report, it said I was fined $25. I wonder what happened with that extra $50?”
All parties were made aware that Williams – the celebrated hillbilly performer – was in the back of the Caddy. Yet neither Kitts nor anyone else checked for a pulse.
Bristol to butcher shop
Ask around in the border city of Bristol, and someone will point you to the Burger Bar and tell you that’s where Hank Williams ate his last meal.
But Williams’ last meal was a few bites of steak at the Andrew Johnson Hotel, and he and Carr never stopped at the Burger Bar. There was no Burger Bar: In the early 1950s, the building housed a dry cleaners.
Carr did stop, however, at the corner of Moore and Sycamore streets, where he says he spoke briefly with a groggy Williams, bought some gas and bought a sandwich at Trayer’s Restaurant, a few blocks from the spot where Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family recorded the 1927 “Bristol Sessions” that helped give rise to the commercial country music industry.
In Bristol, Williams might have taken a couple of the chloral hydrate pills that he had stashed for the trip and washed them down with Falstaff beer: bottles were later found on the Cadillac’s floorboard.
Some historians believe Carr obtained a relief driver, Donald Surface, in Bristol. But Carr recalls that pickup as having occurred several hours up the road, in Bluefield, W.Va. Surface hailed from Bluefield and worked at the Bluefield Cab Co., so Bristol would seem an odd embarkation spot.
Between Bristol and Bluefield, 11W falls away in favor of 19 North, and curves begin to sharpen as the elevation increases. Even when the road is clear, filthy snow hugs the winter shoulders. Pop Williams’ songs into a car stereo CD player, and his sorghum-and-razor-blades voice is poorly matched to the area’s ice and stone.
If Williams was still alive after Bristol, his body was under internal attack. He needed a doctor, and not for another morphine shot. Instead, he got as smooth a ride as could be had over that terrain, as the Cadillac rolled on through the dark early morning.
Bluefield was then a bustling coal town, and the Dough Boy Lunch was open all night. Carr remembers getting a sandwich and a Coke at what was likely the Dough Boy, then speaking to a cab company dispatcher who offered Donald Surface’s services.
In today’s Bluefield, the Dough Boy has been razed, as has the Cab Co. building. One other potential landmark, the Bluefield Sanitarium, has been torn down as well: At least one published report has Carr seeking a doctor in Bluefield at the sanitarium, trying unsuccessfully to get yet another shot for Hank.
Today, Carr says Williams was awake in Bluefield but that there was no sanitarium excursion.
“The only doctor he saw was at the hotel in Knoxville,” he said.
Williams’ death is regarded as one of country music’s defining moments, yet the Bluefield newspaper – like many others – didn’t find the news terribly important. On Jan. 2′s front page, a story headlined “Voluntary Health Insurance For Aged and Ill is Urged” was played higher and bolder than was “Hank Williams, 29, dies.”
Just up the road in Princeton, the blue Caddy stopped again, probably at the Courthouse Lunch at 101 Alvis St. (it’s now a bank). Carr could have let Surface off here or Surface might have continued on the doomed journey, as Carr is simply not sure what happened to the “relief driver.” Surface himself died before the matter was resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.
The Cadillac wound higher north, over the Bluestone River, past farms and goats and white birches that reached out as if to ensnare. The Bluestone’s overpass at Spanishburg, W.Va., is now called the Hank Williams Sr. Memorial Bridge, and the Valley General Store next to it sells coffee for 35 cents.
Asked whether folks in Spanishburg ever talk of Hank Williams’ last ride, Valley patron Drema Hall said: “Very seldom. But if you want a story, I’ll give you a story: There’s an all-girl butcher shop just up the road. It’s just women that work there.”
I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
Algisa Bonifacio was, by her account, a silly teenager when Hank Williams’ Cadillac entered Mount Hope, W.Va. Bonifacio remains in the same place she says she was that late-dawning morning: Behind the counter at Bon Bon’s, a store along Mount Hope’s main drag, on what used to be Highway 19.
She insists that the Caddy stopped right across the street from her, that a young driver came into Bon Bon’s, and that she fixed him a lemon sour because he said: a) He had Hank Williams in the car, b) Hank wasn’t feeling well, and c) Hank needed a drink. She knows that Williams was pronounced dead a few miles down the road.
“Here’s one for you,” she said, passing a Styrofoam cup filled with the sweet blend. “OK, don’t die.”
When passing through Mount Hope, Carr was monumentally exhausted and probably quite worried about the well-being of his famous passenger, but today he is certain he didn’t stop at Bon Bon’s.
Carr remembers continuing on toward Oak Hill, a town in which Hank had never performed, never stayed and possibly never heard of, yet which would become forever intertwined with the Hank Williams legend.
Somewhere between Mount Hope and Oak Hill, Carr says, he noticed that Williams’ blanket had slid off his frame.
The driver reached back and found Williams’ hand cold and stiff. Carr says this happened six miles from Oak Hill, at the side of the road. Investigating officer Howard Janney reported that it happened in the Skyline Drive-In restaurant’s parking lot and that Carr talked to an employee at the Skyline. Researcher Turpen thinks it may have been at one of several gas stations closer to the heart of Mount Hope.
Wherever it was that Carr discovered Hank Williams had died, the teenager soon checked with an attendant at what he describes as “a cut-rate service station.”
“There was a big heater across the glass front,” Carr said. “A man at the service station came out with me and looked in the back seat and said, ‘I think you’ve got a problem.’ He was very kind, and said Oak Hill General Hospital was six miles on my left.”
Here, oral remembrance and accepted history diverge again. Numerous reports have Carr driving to Oak Hill and pulling into Pete Burdette’s Pure Oil station, less than a quarter-mile from the hospital. Deputy Sheriff Janney recently told a reporter with Goldenseal magazine that he and another officer (Orris Stamey, now dead) came to Burdette’s and saw the lifeless Williams and that Janney then escorted the car down the street to the hospital.
“No, I drove straight to the hospital,” Carr said. “Burdette’s had nothing to do with it. I went into the back of the hospital and two interns looked at Hank and said, ‘He’s dead.’ I said, ‘Is there anything you can do for him?’ They said, ‘No, he’s dead.’ They took him, and they didn’t use a stretcher. They put him on an examining table.”
“I called my dad and told him what happened, and then Hank’s mother called me at the hospital,” Carr said. “One of the parting things she said was: ‘Don’t let anything happen to the car.’
“So I gave the car keys to a law enforcement officer, and he pulled the car across the street to the funeral home. After that, Burdette allowed us to put the Cadillac in one of his bays at the Pure Oil station, so no one would mess with it.”
61-6, or The Alabama Waltz
Enter Oak Hill today, and signs proclaim the town as the home of Marian McQuade, the lady who founded National Grandparents’ Day.
But the town’s only true claim to fame is its permanent place in the Hank Williams time line: “Born Sept. 17, 1923, Mt. Olive, Ala. Died Jan. 1, 1953, Oak Hill, W.Va.”
In December 2002, the former Burdette’s Pure Oil features a Santa’s Workshop scene. Pete Burdette is gone, having killed himself out back of the place, years after taking Williams’ cowboy hat from the car.
The hospital is still there, though it’s undergone a makeover. And across from Santa’s Workshop is the old mortuary, though undertaker Joe Tyree has long since moved his operation to another spot in town. But from the street, passers-by can glimpse the window to the upstairs room where an autopsy was performed on Williams and where Hank was prepared for his Alabama homecoming. The official cause of death was heart failure.
“I don’t think he died here in Oak Hill, or in this county,” Tyree said. “But he hadn’t been dead for more than a couple of hours. I feel like he was alive in Bluefield.”
Tyree said he never saw relief driver Donald Surface, who was mentioned in police reports as being present in Oak Hill.
Awaiting the arrivals of his father and Hank’s mother, Carr was alone in a very strange place at a very bad time. He remains grateful to Tyree for comforting him.
“We tried to help Charles Carr, because he was in a peculiar situation,” Tyree said. “Charles was a nice young boy. We took him to an apartment at the funeral home, and he stayed with our sons.”
Tyree remembers that Carr watched New Year’s Day football games at that apartment, though Carr thinks he watched at an Oak Hill city council member’s home. One of those games was the Orange Bowl, in which Alabama defeated Syracuse, 61-6.
Across Alabama, folks cheered for the Crimson Tide. Many of the Tide backers didn’t yet know that one of the state’s favorite sons lay still in West Virginia.
“Have you seen the pictures of him at the funeral?” Tyree said. “We put that outfit on him, and we put him in that casket.”
Leaving Oak Hill, a modern-day, Nashville-bound car can take one more snaky two-lane highway out of town, then hop on the interstate and make it to big-city Charleston within an hour. Then it’s on to Huntington and down to Olive Hill, where a country music fan can start considering the bucolic birthplace of Tom T. Hall and try to stop dwelling on the hopeless final hours of Hank Williams.
Hank’s death is shrouded in questions that are likely unanswerable, and the ride from Knoxville to Oak Hill consequently spurs depth of feeling, not breadth of knowledge.
Highway 11W to Highway 19 North was a pathetic, sad-sack end, but Williams’ legacy is as enduring as his life was transitory. Fifty years after he exited that Cadillac, it seems likely that Cold, Cold Heart, Hey, Good Lookin’, Jambalaya and I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry will be around, will be enjoyed, will be alive even after Bean Station, Corryton and Mount Olive crumble to history.
Curse that road. Bless this music.
Tennessean staff writer Peter Cooper may be reached at 259-8220 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Tennessean on January 1, 2003 edition of The Tennessean.