The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll from Bob Dylan’s 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin’ tells the story of the murder of Hattie Carroll, a 51 year old barmaid, by William Devereux “Billy” Zantzinger (referred to as “William Zantzinger” in the song). The lyrics of the song are a commentary on 1960s racism. At the time of Carroll’s murder, Charles County was still strictly segregated by race in public places such as restaurants, churches, theatres, doctor’s offices, buses and the county fair. The schools of Charles County remained segregated until 1967. William Zantzinger was then 24 years old and a wealthy young tobacco farmer from Charles County, Maryland. Zantzinger was sentence to a mere six months in a county jail after being convicted of assault.
The murder in the song took place in the early hours of the 9th February, 1963 “At a Baltimore hotel society gathering”, the white tie Spinsters’ Ball at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore. Zantzinger, in a drunken state, assaulted at least three of the Emerson Hotel workers: a bellboy, a waitress and at about 1.30am, Carroll. The murder weapon was a toy cane, referred to in the line “William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll, With a cane that he twirled round his diamond ring finger”. Carroll “who gave birth to ten children”, was president of a black social club.
Zantzinger was already drunk before reaching the Emerson Hotel that night. The cane that the 6’2” inch tall killer used was a 25 cent toy. At the Spinsters’ Ball, he called a 30 year old waitress a “nigger” and hit her with the cane. The waitress ran out of the room in tears. A few moments later, he ordered a bourbon from Carroll. When he was displeased with the length of time that Carroll had taken fetching the bourbon, Zantzinger cursed her and called her a “nigger”, followed by “you black son of a bitch” and struck her on the shoulder and across the head with the cane. In the court notes, it states: “He asked for her a drink and called her ‘a black bitch’, and a ‘black son of a bitch’. She replied ‘Just a moment’ and started to prepare his drink. After a delay of perhaps a minute, he complained about her being slow and struck her a hard blow on her shoulder about half-way between the point of her shoulder and her neck”. She handed him his drink. After striking Carroll, he attacked his own wife, knocking her to the ground and hitting her with his shoe.
Within minutes of receiving the blow, Carroll leaned heavily against the barmaid next to her and complained of feeling ill. Carroll told co-workers, “I feel deathly ill, that man has upset me so”. The barmaid, along with another employee, helped Carroll to the kitchen. Her arm became numb and her speech became thick. She then collapsed and was taken to hospital. She died eight hours after the assault. Her autopsy revealed hardened arteries, an enlarged heart and high blood pressure. A spinal tap confirmed that Carroll had died from a brain hemorrhage. She died in Mercy Hospital at 9am on the 9th February, 1963.
Initially, Zantzinger was charged with murder. His defence was that he had been extremely drunk and said he had no memory of the attack. His charge was reduced to manslaughter and assault, based on the likelihood that it was her stress reaction to his verbal and physical abuse that had led to the intracranial bleeding, rather than blunt-force trauma from the blow that left no lasting mark. On the 28th August, Zantzinger was convicted of both charges and given the six month sentence. Time Magazine covered the sentencing on the 6th September, saying:
“In June, after Zantzinger’s phalanx of five top flight attorneys won a change of venue to a court in Hagerstown, a three-judge panel reduced the murder charge to manslaughter. Following a three-day trial, Zantzinger was found guilty. For the assault on the hotel employees: a fine of $125. For the death of Hattie Carroll: six months in jail and a fine of $500. The judges considerately deferred the start of the jail sentence until September 15, to give Zantzinger time to harvest his tobacco crop”.
Coincidentally, Zantzinger’s sentencing occurred on the same day as Martin Luther King led 250,000 civil rights marchers to Washington in what the New York Times called “the greatest assembly for the redress of grievances that this capital has ever seen” and made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. Bob Dylan was present as Martin Luther King made his speech and on the journey back to his home in New York, read about the conviction of Zantzinger in the New York Times. The headline read “Farmer sentenced in barmaid’s death”. This inspired Dylan to write a protest song about the case whilst sitting in an all night cafe in Manhattan. Dylan had previously written about two other white-on-black murders, both in the 18 months prior to the writing of The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. These songs were The Death of Emmett Till about the murder of a 14-year old African American by two white men in 1955 …
… and Only a Pawn in their Game (also from The Times They Are a-Changin’) about the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, shot in Jackson, Mississippi in June 1963.
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll tells of how Zantzinger’s wealth and connections aided the lenient nature of the sentencing.
In the second verse of the song, Zantzinger and the wealth and influence which helps him to get out of prison on bail quickly are described thus: “William Zantzinger, who at twenty-four years, Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres, With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him, And high office relations in the politics of Maryland, Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders, And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was snarling, In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking”.
Now compare this description of Zantzinger with the description of Hattie Carroll in verse three: “Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen, She was fifty one years and gave birth to ten children, Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage, and never once sat at the head of the table, And didn’t even talk to the people at the table, Who just cleaned up all the food from the table, And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level, 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, And she never done nothing to William Zantzinger”.
In complete contrast to Zantzinger, a swearing, sneering and snarling tongued rich young white man who was given a silver spoon by his parents, Carroll is described as a gentle poor black woman who spent her life caring for others, whether it was her family or the people whom she served in the Baltimore hotel in which she was killed but was discriminated against because of the colour of her skin.
The fourth verse of the song tells of how the judge presiding over the trial stresses that all are equal in the court of law, but also of how this will be of no help because of the wealth of the accused: “In the courtroom of honour, the judge pounded his gavel, To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level, And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded, and that even the nobles get properly handled, Once the cops have chased after and caught ‘em, And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom, Stared at the person who killed for no reason, Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’, And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished, And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance, William Zantzinger with a six-month sentence”.
The chorus of The Lonesome death of Hattie Carroll, “But you who philosophise disgrace and criticize all fears, take the rag away from your face, Now ain’t the time for your tears”, refers to the way in which upper class women would hide their faces with a veil or some sort of cloth (a “rag”) when experiencing strong emotional outbursts like tears which were not considered proper in public. However, burying your face in a cloth over-dramatically, implying tears, was also a way to fake emotions. In the chorus, Dylan purposely uses very elaborate words such as “philosophise disgrace” and “criticise fears” in order to describe their actions, further supporting the impression that Dylan is addressing the upper-class public with these lines, criticizing them for the very shallowly condemning such acts without caring to find the real cause and root of the problem: The particular tragedy of the case not being the murder of an innocent woman, or that the perpetrator got out on bail so quickly, but that he was only sentenced to six months in prison. Therefore, in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Dylan makes the point that the main tragedy is not that upper class people treat the lower class badly; it is the ease with which they get away with it.
In 2001, talking to Howard Sounes for Down the Highway, the Life of Bob Dylan, Zantzinger dismissed the song as a “total lie”, going on to say, “It’s actually had no effect on my life”. He also expressed his disdain for Dylan saying, “He’s a no-account son of a bitch, he’s just like a scum of a scum bag of the earth, I should have sued him and put him in jail”. Zantzinger died on the 3rd January 2009 at the age of 69.
“This is a true story, it’s taken out of the newspapers”
– Bob Dylan introducing The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll at Manchester Free Trade Hall in May 1965.