Legacy of a Lonesome Death

Had Bob Dylan not written a song about it, the 1963 killing of a black servant by a white socialite's cane might have been long forgotten.

William Zantzinger (center) and Hattie Carroll (right) on the front page of the Baltimore Afro-American, February 12, 1963.

Do you know the Bob Dylan song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"? Put it on now and listen to it, if you happen to have it on a CD or an album. If you don't, or you don't remember it, it's about a young society swell named William Zantzinger who, in 1963, killed a black serving-woman named Hattie Carroll at a ball at a Baltimore hotel by striking her with a cane. Dylan was just 22 when he wrote it, and the lyrics show him at his high-energy, internal-rhyme-spinning peak:

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger…

[She] Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room,
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle…

Zantzinger's motive, Dylan sings, was that he "just happened to be feelin' that way without warnin'." When Zantzinger came to trial, charged with first-degree murder, the judge "spoke through his cloak, so deep and distinguished," and then gave Zantzinger a six-month sentence. At this last injustice, the song ends,

But you who philosophize disgrace
And criticize all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face,
For now is the time for your tears.

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The song contains errors of fact. Dylan misspells the perpetrator's name, omitting the t—perhaps deliberately, out of contempt, or perhaps to emphasize the Snidely Whiplash hissing of the zs. Zantzinger's actual arrest and trial were more complicated than the song lets on. Police arrested Zantzinger at the ball for disorderly conduct—he was wildly drunk—and for assaults on hotel employees not including Hattie Carroll, about whom they apparently knew nothing at the time. When Hattie Carroll died at Mercy Hospital the following morning, Zantzinger was also charged with homicide. The medical examiner reported that Hattie Carroll had hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, and high blood pressure; that the cane left no mark on her; and that she died of a brain hemorrhage brought on by stress caused by Zantzinger's verbal abuse, coupled with the assault. After the report, a tribunal of Maryland circuit court judges reduced the homicide charge to manslaughter. Zantzinger was found guilty of that, and of assault, but not of murder.

The judges probably thought they were being reasonable. They rejected defense claims that Hattie Carroll's precarious health made it impossible to say whether her death had been caused, or had simply occurred naturally. The judges considered Zantzinger an "immature" young man who got drunk and carried away, but they nevertheless held him responsible for her death, saying that neither her medical history nor his ignorance of it was an excuse. His cane, though merely a toy one he got at a farm fair, they considered a weapon capable of assault. They kept the sentence to only six months because (according to the New York Herald Tribune) a longer one would have required that he serve it in state prison, and they feared the enmity of the largely black prison population would mean death for him. Zantzinger served his six months in the comparative safety of the Washington County Jail. The judges also let him wait a couple of weeks before beginning his sentence, so he could bring in his tobacco crop. Such dispensations were not uncommon, apparently, for offenders who had farms.

Nowadays I like to listen to Dylan's old protest songs. Something about them suits a current need, with commercial radio so jingly and dead and Dylan himself doing the music for Victoria's Secret lingerie ads. He must be proud of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"; since the song came out in 1964 he has included it on a greatest-hits CD (Biograph) and on a live-concert CD. The song is also part of his touring repertoire, an exposure that has brought it many listeners in recent years. On the long and sad list of victims of racial violence, from Emmett Till to Amadou Diallo, most names are forgotten after the news moves on. Dylan's poetry has caused Hattie Carroll's name, and the sorrow and true lonesomeness of her death, to stick in some people's minds.

Dylan describes Hattie Carroll as a 51-year-old maid who waited on tables, took out garbage, emptied ashtrays, and "never sat once at the head of the table." He mentions that she had borne 10 children. Of Zantzinger, he says,

William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four years,
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres

As I listened, I noticed the tense of that verb. "Hattie Carroll" was perhaps Dylan's most journalistic song, nearly contemporary with the events it chronicles. Hattie Carroll died on February 9, Zantzinger went to jail on September 15, and Dylan recorded the song in New York City on October 23, all in 1963. The immediacy of that "owns" got me wondering about the actual event, and about its consequences working themselves out through time.

Zantzinger said, "I don't have to take that kind of shit off a nigger," and struck Carroll on the shoulder with the cane. Soon after, she collapsed and was taken to the hospital.

For example, William Zantzinger: What happened to him? Does he own that farm today? Zantzinger is, it turns out, an amazing guy. In the semirural part of Maryland where he still lives, many people know his name. If you mention him to someone in real estate, the antiques business, the legal profession, or law enforcement, you get a reaction. People don't want to talk about him, or they do, or they want their names left out of it, or they shake their heads and laugh; they never have to be told who he is. Many say he's a wonderful person, always polite and smiling, a good friend. Because Dylan's song made him a "story," in the news sense, reporters come to Charles County, Maryland, every so often to see what Zantzinger is up to now. They are usually surprised, as I was, that he is hard to summarize.

When Zantzinger got out of jail in early 1964, he returned to his family and farm. He had a wife and two young boys. (His wife, Jane, had been charged with assaulting a policeman at the ball.) The farm is called West Hatton. Its main house, a three-story brick mansion, has pillars and a porch on the side facing the Wicomico River. A Revolutionary War veteran built the house in about 1790. Both of Zantzinger's parents also lived on the farm; his father could trace his ancestry from the earliest white settlers of Maryland, and his mother, from a governor of Maryland. All along the river, lawns and fields lead up to mansions facing the shores, landmarks of the old tobacco-growing Maryland Tidewater. Neighbors of the Zantzingers owned enough land that you could ride to the hounds after foxes on it. Zantzinger loved foxhunting, and some of the 1963 news articles identified him as a "huntsman." Yet the Zantzingers were country gentry—he worked his farm alongside his employees, and he drank with the locals, black and white, in the nearby bars.

At some point, Zantzinger sold the farm and got into real estate. Notoriety did not pursue him, and his name stayed out of the paper until it began to appear regularly in the notices of Charles County property owners who were delinquent with their taxes. In 1986, because of the back taxes, the county took possession of some ramshackle rental houses he owned in a neighborhood called Patuxent Woods. What Zantzinger did next got his name back in the news. He knew that the county now owned the properties, but that the renters, all poor and black, did not know. Counting on a lack of attention all around, he simply went on collecting rents as before. Even more enterprising, when tenants fell behind on their rent, he filed complaints against them and took them to court for not paying him rent on property he no longer owned. The county court, in calm and bureaucratic ignorance, heard the cases. And to put the cap on it, he won.

Eventually, local authorities caught up with him. In 1991, a Charles County sheriff's deputy arrested Zantzinger at his real estate office on charges that included fraud and deceptive business practices. A number of newspapers, the Washington Post among them, did stories about this latest chapter in the Zantzinger saga. The houses he had been renting were such disasters—run-down shacks without plumbing or running water—that they embarrassed the county and gave traction to local fair-housing advocates, whose cause had been mostly frustrated until then. All the same, a few tenants came forward to speak up for Zantzinger, saying that without him they'd be living on the street. When the judge sentenced him to 18 months on work-release in the county jail, 2,400 hours of community service, and about $62,000 in penalties and fines, there were people in the courtroom who cried.

Police take William Zantzinger into custody.: AP/Wide World Photos Police take William Zantzinger into custody. AP/Wide World Photos The small building on Highway 301 in White Plains, Maryland, where Zantzinger's real estate office used to be, is now closed and empty, with a "Keep Out" sign on the door. The number listed for his real estate company in the Yellow Pages has been disconnected. A car dealership and a lumberyard flank his former office, and across the highway is a tattoo parlor. Similar enterprises—featuring bagels, blinds, birdseed, braiding, bail bonds—not to mention the usual behemoth stores as common as traffic, spread along Highway 301 for miles and miles, interrupted only occasionally by patches of trees labeled with developers' signs. At this rate, what little remains of rural Maryland will probably be gone sometime next week, foxhunting fields, antebellum mansions, and all.

People say Zantzinger now lives on a farm in neighboring St. Mary's County. They say he's had a few health problems; he's a big man, 6 feet tall and heavy, and he's 65. They say he still owns a lot of rental properties, some as run-down as Patuxent Woods. (He doesn't talk to reporters, so I never found out for sure.) Candice Quinn Kelly, a former housing activist in La Plata, Maryland, told me, "I was on the other side from Zantzinger in the Patuxent Woods situation. In fact, it was our organization that uncovered his fraud to begin with. Maybe I've mellowed or sold out, but I don't see things as clear-cut as I did then. Billy Zantzinger provides housing to marginal folks nobody's gonna give a lease to, because they don't have a job or a rent deposit or a bank account or whatever. I learned that you can offer people tons of help and they still can't get out of poverty. Billy rents to those people anyway. Since Patuxent Woods I've met him and talked to him a couple of times, and I feel strange saying this, but Billy Zantzinger is really a very nice man."

In Baltimore, 70 miles to the north, friends and acquaintances of Hattie Carroll don't agree. Carroll lived in Cherry Hill, a lower-middle-class black neighborhood, and attended Gillis Memorial Christian Community Church. At the time, the church was at the corner of Mulberry and Calhoun, downtown, but it has since moved to Park Hill on the city's northwest side. People at the church remember Hattie Carroll as a quiet, well-dressed woman, tall and poised, with good taste in hats. She sang in the church's over-45 choir and was a member of the Flower Guild, which does floral displays for the altar and other projects of church beautification. Away from work, at least, Hattie Carroll seems not to have fit the picture of the lowly person Dylan described. Few people I talked to at the church knew that her death had been the subject of a widely played protest song.

"I wonder what kind of respect did that man have for people? What kind of respect did he have for ladies? He wasn't thinking about people at all. He was acting under the slave mentality."

I stopped by the church on a Wednesday, just as the noon service ended. The minister, the Reverend Dr. Theodore C. Jackson Jr., was making some final prayerful exhortations, boosted by an organ's repeated chords. In the parish hall, still glowing from his preaching, he told me that he had been a student away at seminary when Hattie Carroll died. Then he introduced me to two longtime parishioners, Dorothy Johnson and Mildred Jessup. The first wore a hat of black mesh material in a broad-brimmed Stetson shape, and an ankle-length dress appliquéd with lighter patterns like stylized leaves, and the second wore a white blouse and tan slacks. Both are themselves preachers—the Reverend Johnson for 30 years, and the Reverend Jessup for 28. Both knew Hattie Carroll. They sat with me for a while in the church's library and talked. "I remember that Hattie went to work at the hotel that day, and later word came back that she'd been struck with a cane," said Rev. Johnson. "And right after that we heard that she had died. Everybody in the church was very upset. It was a terrible blow. She had a huge funeral, people filling the church to the doors and hundreds more standing on the street. A sad, sad day."

"I wonder what kind of respect did that man have for people? What kind of respect did he have for ladies?" asked Rev. Jessup. "He wasn't thinking about people at all. He was acting under the slave mentality."

"Hattie's family suffered so, her children, after she died," said Rev. Johnson. "They don't go to this church anymore. Four of them, I think, became Muslims. One daughter ended up in a mental institution. But whatever you cause by word and by deed, it's all comin' back to you."

"If I was that man's nurse—I used to be a nurse at Johns Hopkins—I would give him so much prayer to think about that he'd be miserable," said Rev. Jessup.

I asked the reverends if they thought God would forgive Zantzinger.

"You see, you are not your own," Rev. Johnson said. "You belong to God. God gives you agape love—deep, unconditional, fatherly love. And with God all things are possible. Didn't he forgive Peter, who denied him three times? Now, if the man who killed Hattie Carroll is willing to repent, and if he is really godly sorry for what he did—and God knows if you are truly godly sorry—I know God will forgive."

"How about you?" I asked. "Could you forgive him?"

"Yes, I believe I could," said Rev. Johnson. "I've forgiven people that did worse than he's done."

"For myself, I don't know about that," said Rev. Jessup. "Things may be possible for God that are not possible for me. But I will tell you one thing. Because of what happened to Hattie Carroll, I have a phobia about canes to this day. I don't like to even see 'em, and I can't stand when people be foolin' with 'em. Just don't be bringin' no canes around me."

Zantzinger was sentenced on August 28, 1963. As it happened, that was the day of the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

According to press accounts of Zantzinger's trial, he and his wife arrived at the ball, a charity event called the Spinsters' Ball, at the Emerson Hotel on Friday evening, February 8, 1963. He was in top hat, white tie, and tails, attire with which a cane is optional. Unlike other guests, Zantzinger didn't check his cane at the door because, as he said, "I was having lots of fun with it, tapping everybody." Tapping turned to hitting; a bellboy named George Gessell said Zantzinger struck him on the arm, and a waitress named Ethel Hill said Zantzinger argued with her and struck her several times across the buttocks. At about 1:30 a.m., he ordered a drink from the bar from Hattie Carroll, one of the barmaids. When she didn't bring it immediately, he cursed at her. Carroll replied, "I'm hurrying as fast as I can." Zantzinger said, "I don't have to take that kind of shit off a nigger," and struck her on the shoulder with the cane. Soon after, Hattie Carroll said, "I feel deathly ill, that man has upset me so." She then collapsed and was taken to the hospital.

"What makes it hard to bear was that no one at the party challenged him, no one stopped him," Rev. Jessup said. "He was bold enough to behave like this in the presence of many people, and not one of them intervened. Maybe they had connections to him, maybe they came for business, or their hands were tied by who he was. But not one of those people stood up for her."

"Can you imagine waking up from a drunk to find out you'd done something like that?" asked Bobby Phelps, a friend of Zantzinger's since childhood. He and I were talking on the front porch of the post office in Mount Victoria, a hamlet just up the road from Zantzinger's old farm. "I'd've probably blown my brains out if it had been me," Phelps said. "And what I really can't understand is, when Billy started getting crazy at the party, why somebody didn't just kick his ass for him and throw him out on his ear.

"You think about it and you feel bad for everyone. Billy is somebody I would trust with my life. Billy didn't hate black people—he used to set with them here in my bar and drink with them. A colored woman that used to work for the Zantzingers told me that Mr. Zantzinger—Billy's father—was pacing the floor and saying, 'How could my boy have done such a thing?' His parents were just devastated. What a hell of a sad thing that was, that Hattie Carroll killing. You look back and wonder, 'How in hell did that all happen?'"

Zantzinger was sentenced in the Hattie Carroll killing on August 28, 1963. As it happened, that was the day of the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Baltimore Sun all ran stories about the sentencing; the Times gave it a short, single-column write-up on page 15; the stories in the Post and the Sun were not much larger. None mentioned that anybody objected to the lightness of the sentence.

The New York Times reports on "orderly" civil-rights march on Washington: The New York TimesThe New York Times reports on "orderly" civil-rights march in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963 The New York Times

All three papers devoted pages and pages to the march; and it is striking, to a reader with the perspective of four decades, how blind (for want of a better word) the coverage in all three papers was. What comes through in the stories about the march is a vast relief—shared, presumably, by the reporters, the papers' management, and their readership—that the 200,000-plus assembled Negroes hadn't burned Washington to the ground. All three papers used the adjective "orderly" in their headlines; all reported prominently on President Kennedy's praise for the marchers' politeness and decorum. The Post and the Sun gave small notice to Dr. King, and less to what he said. Neither made much of the phrase "I have a dream." Only James Reston of the Times understood that he had witnessed a great work of oratory, but even his story veered into brow-wiping at the good manners of the Negroes.

Listening to "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" today, you can hear Dylan shouting against exactly this blindness. The song he wrote took a one-column, under-the-rug story and played it as big as it deserved to be. Dylan's voice sounds so young, hopeful, unjaded, noncommercial—so far from the Victoria's Secret world of today. Even the song's title is well chosen: Before I went to Hattie Carroll's church, I hadn't quite understood why her death was "lonesome." But of course, as Rev. Jessup noted, "not one of those people stood up for her"; in a party full of elegant guests, Hattie Carroll was on her own.

If it weren't for TV and videotape, we would not know how powerful the March on Washington, or Dr. King's speech, really was. And if it weren't for Dylan, nothing more would have been said about Hattie Carroll.

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