4 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, Maryland

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll by Bob Dylan

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William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled
Around his diamond-ringed finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath'rin' Read full Lyrics
The Emerson Hotel
In the early morning hours of February 9, 1963, a 51-year-old barmaid named Hattie Carroll was working at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland, when a large white man walked into the establishment loudly announcing, “I just flew in from Texas! Gimme a drink!” The man, 24-year-old William Zantzinger was heavily intoxicated. Almost immediately he began verbally and physically assaulting employees and guests alike.

In his hand he carried a 25-cent toy cane that he had purchased earlier that night. He brandished the cane comically, poking and prodding women with it and dancing about clownishly. But as his drunkenness increased, so did his violence. He moved from poking and prodding people with the cane to actually striking them. At one point he even collapsed upon his own wife and proceeded to hit her with his shoe. When a passerby tried to stop the assault, Zantzinger got to his feet and started a fistfight.

Zantzinger’s alcohol-fueled rampage came to a climax when he asked Hattie Carroll for bourbon. When the barmaid did not move fast enough for his liking, he called her a “nigger” and a “black bitch” before striking her in the shoulder/neck area with his toy cane. Extremely unsettled by the altercation, Carroll managed to serve his drink. Uttering "That man has upset me so, I feel deathly ill" before collapsing against the bar, she was taken away in an ambulance and died of a brain hemorrhage in Mercy Hospital a few hours later. She was the mother of 11 children.

The case garnered national media attention. Many people around the country were outraged by the event and saw it as a symbol of the continued racism still rampant in the south. In court, Zantzinger claimed that he had been so drunk on the night of the event that he no longer remembered it. His defense team asserted that the cane had left no physical marks on Carroll’s body, and that her brain hemorrhage therefore could not have resulted from the actual physical impact of the weapon, but instead as a stress reaction to the impact. Whether the defense was successful or unsuccessful is somewhat hard to discern. Although Zantzinger was successfully convicted of manslaughter, he was only sentenced to six months prison time and a $500 fine. The rather lean prison term was also deferred so that the farmer could finish up the season’s harvest before serving his time. Not surprisingly, the sentencing outraged many people across the country.

The day of Zantzinger’s sentencing was August 28, 1963, the same day that Martin Luther King delivered his iconic I Have a Dream speech in Washington, D.C. A 22-year-old Bob Dylan was present at King’s speech and was heading back home to New York when he heard about the sentencing in the Hattie Carroll case. The news inspired him to start writing the song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" that very night. He recorded the song less than two months later, on October 23, 1963. It was released on his album The Times They are a-Changin’ on January 13, 1964. The album is certified gold.

Baltimore had been a hotbed for racial tension long before Hattie Carroll’s death garnered national attention. Public facilities in the city were still heavily segregated, and public schools were not integrated until 1967. Baltimore was also the scene of what many believe was the nation’s first-ever civil rights sit-in when students from Morgan State University joined with members of the Congress on Racial Equality to occupy a whites-only lunch counter in Read’s Drug Store on January 20, 1955. The seven protestors sat at the store for half an hour before leaving peacefully. Two days later, Arthur Nattans, Sr., President of Read’s Drug Store, desegregated the store.

While Dylan’s song ends with Zantzinger’s sentencing in the manslaughter of Hattie Carroll, the cane-wielding Southerner’s tangles with the law continued long after his release for that crime. In 1986 the IRS ruled against the tobacco farmer and real estate salesman for tax delinquency. Maryland’s Charles County consequently confiscated some of his land. Despite having those properties confiscated, Zantzinger continued to collect rent on the shanties that he leased out to low income blacks on those lands. The shacks had no running water, no plumbing or outhouses, and residents were forced to dispose of their waste in the woods (Carlson). For these crimes, Zantzinger eventually received a $50,000 fine and 19 months in prison. Widely known as "Billy" to friends and family, Zantzinger died on January 3, 2009. He was 69 years old.

Dylan later became legendary as the enigmatic songster whose esoteric lyrics wove fact and fantasy together so masterfully that fans, critics, and historians still struggle to find the stitches along the seams. But "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" sees him in his earliest guise – that of the protesting folk troubadour singing about the sins and injustices of the world and giving faces to the nameless, mistreated victims. Today, half a century after the song was penned, it still remains as a reminder of our nation’s violent, racist past. It also serves as a heartbreaking eulogy for Hattie Carroll, 51-year-old mother of 11, president of a black social club, and casualty of the country’s long, hard march towards freedom, equality, and universal human rights.
~ Jeff Suwak

(Thanks to Dappled for the Songplace suggestion.)

Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll Songfacts
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