Hank Williams is largely considered one of the founding fathers of country music, a legacy being brought to the big screen in the new biopic I Saw The Light, starring Tom Hiddleston. Known for hits like "Move It On Over" (1947) and "Hey, Good Lookin'" (1951), Williams made a huge impact on music history in his six-year career, becoming the public face of country music. Privately, however, he suffered from several medical issues, and on January 1, 1953, he was found dead in the backseat of a Cadillac while on his way to a concert in Alabama. How Hank Williams died has been a long debated mystery for fans: Did he overdose on pills and alcohol? Or was his death a result of heart problems and drug use?
The specifics of Williams' demise are unknown. His official cause of death was heart failure, though it is widely believed that he died due to a lethal mix of morphine and alcohol. While on his way to perform a show in Ohio on New Year's Day, Williams died in the backseat of a blue Cadillac in the company of his driver, a 17-year-old college student named Charles Carr. According to Carr in a 2002 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Williams had been drinking and feeling ill the night before his death, complaining of hiccups and a bad stomach. He called a doctor, who allegedly gave Williams a shot of morphine mixed with B12. "He calmed down after that, but looking back, maybe the hiccups or the indigestion could have been the beginning of a coronary," Carr said.
Prior to his death, Williams had multiple health problems. Born with a spinal condition believed to have been spina bifida occulta, Williams reportedly suffered from back pain his entire life, PBS reports. In 1951, the pain culminated in a spinal surgery that did little to alleviate any pain, allegedly resulting in more alcohol abuse and a reliance on pain killers. It has also been reported that Williams suffered a minor heart attack that same year.
Williams' drug problem was allegedly facilitated by his doctor, who, as the movie shows, is rumored to have faked his degree. Because of his established drug use and the rumors surrounding the series of events leading up to his death, it seems fans will never know exactly how Williams died. Was it a drug overdose caused, in part, by the doctor who cleared him for travel that day? Was it the morphine, the drinking, or a heart problem? The questions have become so persistent that Williams' death has evolved into some kind of urban legend, a conspiracy never to be uncovered.
Carr, meanwhile, maintains that Williams' death was a quiet one. Carr told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that during the long drive, he realized that Williams had been surprisingly silent and pulled over to check on him, only to discover that he had died. He drove the singer to a local hospital somewhere in West Virginia, where he was declared dead early on New Year's Day. The version of Williams' death presented in I Saw the Light seems to support this version of events. Though the singer's death is not depicted in the film, it is stated that his official cause of death was heart failure and that he died in the car on the way to a show.
Whatever you believe, it is clear that Williams' legacy far exceeds the mystery of his death.
Images: Sony Pictures Classics