This song gives the account of the killing of 51-year-old barmaid Hattie Carroll by the wealthy young William Devereux "Billy" Zantzinger and his subsequent sentence of six months in jail. The actual incident took place February 9, 1963 at a ball at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland. Dylan's song accurately implies, but never states, that Carroll was black and Zantzinger is white. The song implies that Zantzinger beat Carroll to death with his cane, when in fact he drunkenly assaulted Carroll and at least two others with the cane (a bellboy and a waiter both also reported being attacked by Zantzinger the same night).
At about 1:30 a.m. on the morning of February 9, Zantzinger ordered a drink from Carroll and when she did not bring it immediately, he cursed at her, to which Carroll replied: "I'm hurrying as fast as I can." Zantzinger said, "I don't have to take that kind of s--t off a nig--r," and struck her on the shoulder with the cane. Carroll was heard to remark, "I feel deathly ill, that man has upset me so," before collapsing and being taken to the hospital.
After Carroll died the following morning, Zantzinger was charged with homicide. However, this was changed to manslaughter and assault after it was discovered that Carroll had hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, high blood pressure, and that she had in fact probably died of a brain hemorrhage caused by the stress of Zantzinger's verbal and physical abuse, rather than the physical assault itself (the cane left no mark on her).
On August 28, 1963, Zantzinger was convicted of assault and manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in jail. Dylan's song strongly implies that Zantzinger's upper-class status contributed to the lenient sentence. After the sentence was announced, the New York Herald Tribune conjectured that Zantzinger was not given more jail time to keep him out of the state prison, since the notoriety of his crime would make him a marked target among its largely African American inmates (Zantzinger instead served his time in the comparative safety of the Washington county jail). Zantzinger began serving his term on September 15, and paid to the Carroll family the sum of $25,000.