As far as crimes go, is unlawfully tampering with an electric meter worse than illegally keeping livestock within the city limits?
In 1952 in Alexander City, Alabama, it appears that it was.
I draw this conclusion after happening upon a copy of a police report from the night the great Hank Williams, the doomed hillbilly Shakespeare with a bad back and a deep thirst, ended up in the pokey, charged with public drunkenness and disorderly conduct for running wild in the halls of the Russell Hotel in Alex City.
I found an authoritative account of the incident and the police report on the great website Saving Country Music (www.saving countrymusic.com), part of an essay on the origin of a photo of Hank emerging from jail, shirtless and looking like he could use a hot shower and a good meal or three.
I had heard the story (a lodge owner and fishing buddy paid his $25 bond and $10 fine) and seen the photo (it’s frightening) before, but the copy of the police report, which looked more like a citation than the police reports I perused during my days on the cops-and-courts beat, was new to me.
Along with Hank’s full name and address and time and place of the incident was a list of potential criminal offenses a suspect could be charged with. They were not in alphabetical order and since rape, first-degree murder and second-degree murder appeared at the top, I gathered the potential offenses were listed in order of severity. Hank’s public drunkenness check-marked charge was near the middle. His disorderly conduct was close by, falling right behind vagrancy and running a red light, of which he was not accused.
Luckily, Hank had a fixed address in Nashville and was not operating a Cadillac at the time so he avoided four check marks in a row on his report.
I posted an image of Hank’s arrest document on Facebook so my friends, relatives and people I don’t know could get a look at it. Those who were not busy trying to convince others their political views are wrong were also intrigued by the many potential offenses one could commit.
“I like the crime check list,” wrote retired Virginia newspaperman Joe Stinnett, a Great American. “Pretty much covers it all, including ‘affray.’”
The affray charge is sandwiched in assumed severity between carrying a concealed weapon (worse) and assault and battery (not quite as bad).
And what is an affray?
My friend John Wyatt, another Great American, cleared that up, posting that it was defined as an instance of fighting in a public place that disturbs the peace.
So, let’s say on that night in 1952 Hank went down to the lobby of the Russell Hotel after running wild up and down the halls, being publically drunk and disorderly, and encountered Lefty Frizzell, fresh off a package show tour with Kitty Wells and Webb Pierce and enjoying the chart success of “Give Me More, More, More (Of Your Kisses).”
“Why, if it’s not ol’ Hank Williams,” says Lefty with a grin. “What are you doing here in Alex City?”
“Running wild up and down the halls and getting ready to whup you from one side of this lobby to the other,” says Hank. “I’ll give you more, more, more of my boot up your ---”
“Whoa, pardner!” says Lefty. “Settle down or you’re going to have a cheating heart attack. This here is a public place and you sure don’t want to disturb the peace and get charged with affray.”
“&%$# you, Frizzell!” says Hank as he lands a stumbling roundhouse right hand to Lefty’s jaw.
And he is subsequently charged with affray. But, that never happened, so Hank was not charged with affray or any of the other unchecked offenses on the list, which include gaming, operating a business without a license and unlawfully using a bicycle on the sidewalk.
Ol’ Hank may have been the original country music outlaw, but even he had his limits.
Scott Hollifield is editor/GM of The McDowell News in Marion, N.C. and a humor columnist.