by Tom Warner (Baltimore Or Less)
(October 23, 2013) – The northwest corner of Baltimore and Calvert streets, where the main office of the SunTrust Bank now stands, was the setting for one of Bob Dylan‘s best songs and one of Baltimore’s worst moments. Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll“ – recorded 50 years ago today (it appears on the The Times They Are A-Changin’ LP) – is a moving, although somewhat inaccurate (call it poetic license), account of a real-life incident that occurred there on the night of February 9, 1963, in what was then the Emerson Hotel.
William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled ’round his diamond-ringed finger
At a Baltimore hotel, society gathering
And the cops was called in and his weapon took from him
And they rode him in custody down to the station
And charged William Zanzinger with first-degree murder
Listen to Bob Dylan play “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
It’s true that William Zantzinger (Dylan inexplicably dropped the “t” in his song), a 24-year-old white tobacco farmer from Charles County, was attending a society ball at the Emerson Hotel that night. And, by all accounts, he was drunk, disorderly, and offensive, especially with his lightweight carnival cane, which he liked to tap people with to get their attention. And it’s also true that he struck a black waitress, Hattie Carroll, once above the right shoulder with that cane when she didn’t fetch his bourbon and ginger ale as fast as he would have liked it.
Though she collapsed moments later, she neither fell “under a rain of blows,” as some press reports claimed, nor was she killed by that single stroke of William Zantzinger’s flimsy cane. Rather, it was the inhumanity of the racial slur that accompanied this blow – “You black bitch” Zantzinger bellowed – that triggered, in the medical examiner’s words, a “tremendous emotional upsurge” in the 51-year-old mother of nine (not ten as referenced in Dylan’s song).
Given that Hattie Carroll was not in the best of health (she suffered from arteriosclerosis and hypertension) and was described by her friends as accutely sensitive, most likely it was the shock of William Zantzinger’s words that brought on the cerebral hemorrhage that claimed her life eight hours later at Mercy Hospital.
On August 28, 1963, Judge D. Kenneth McLaughlin sentenced William Zantzinger to six months’ imprisonment, declaring, “We find that Hattie Carroll’s death was not due solely to disease, but that it was caused by the defendant’s verbal insults, coupled with an actual assault, and that he is guilty of manslaughter.”
Those were the facts, but they were dwarfed in significance by what the case had some to symbolize in those nascent days of the civil rights movement. To the press, to civil-rights leaders, and to a folk singer in New York City, William Zantzinger represented the plantation-owner mentality of the still lingering antebellum South, while Hattie Carroll represented the oppression of all underprivileged people, regardless of race, creed, or religion. Details didn’t matter in what became, in Sun reporter David Simon‘s words, a “morality play.” (Simon’s excellent analysis, “The Case of Hattie Carroll,” appeared in the February 7, 1988, Sun Magazine.)
You’d think being the villain in a morality play would be enough infamy to last anybody a lifetime, but William Zantzinger managed to outdo himself and was in the news again in late 1991 when he pleaded guilty to 50 misdemeanor counts of unfair and deceptive trade practices for collecting rent on run-down Charles County properties he no longer owned. Before the county seized Patuxent Woods shanties from Zantzinger in 1986 for failing to pay taxes on them, his record as a landlord was far from exemplary. Patuxent Woods was a virtual rural slum, with dirt roads and no indoor plumbing. In January of 1992, Zantzinger was sentenced to 18 months in jail (he spent only nights in jail), fined $62,000, and ordered to perform 2,400 hours of community service for local groups that advocate low-cost housing. Having lived down his image as a racist plantation owner, Zanzinger managed to gain new notoriety as its modern equivalent – the slumlord.
(Portions of this article originally appeared in my “Raising Cane” contribution to the December 7, 1992 City Paper article “Baltimore Babylon.”)
For more on this story, see WYPR’s podcast “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (“Maryland Morning,” October 23, 2013), which includes Dylan biographer Howard Sounes’ 30-minute BBC Radio 4 documentary about the song. Sounes’ Dylan biography Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan (2001) is the best I’ve read to date and his BBC report is fantastic; not only did Sounes track down William Zantzinger’s notorious cane, but listeners get to listen to Zantzinger “cursing Dylan unrepentedly” in what is believed to be his only recorded interview before his death at age 69 on January 3, 2009.
True Lies: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (Planetslade.com)
Fifty Years Later, Hattie Carroll’s Death Remembered (Afro, March 8, 2013)