The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll was recorded by Bob Dylan on this day in 1963. Donal O’Keeffe looks at the killing which inspired one of Dylan’s most powerful songs.

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gathering
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
As they rode him in custody down to the station
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain’t the time for your tears

– Bob Dylan, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is a highlight of Dylan’s superb third studio album, The Times They Are A’Changin’, released on January 13, 1964.

On the night of February 8, 1963, William Devereaux ‘Billy’ Zantzinger, a 6’2”, 24-year-old white man from a wealthy tobacco-farming family in Charles County, Maryland, showed up in top hat, white tie and tails at the Spinster’s Ball, a formal charitable event in the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore.

Already drunk, with his first wife Jane in tow, Zantzinger had in his hand a novelty carnival cane which had cost 25 cents.

“I just flew in from Texas!” he roared. “Gimme a drink!”

As the night wore on, Zantzinger grew progressively more drunk, and increasingly more obnoxious. He twirled the cane, pretending he was Fred Astaire, and he tapped with the cane women who passed by, and then he used the cane to assault at least three staff members, all of whom were black. When one waitress failed to call him ‘sir’, he hit her twice with the cane, calling her a “n*gger”, before she fled in tears.

He then took to the dancefloor, where he collapsed drunkenly upon his wife, whom he then assaulted with his shoe. When another man intervened, Zantzinger got into a fistfight.

Around 1.30am, Zantzinger headed for the bar and ordered a bourbon. The barmaid, Hattie Carroll, was 51-years-old and was the mother of at least nine children. (Dylan says she “gave birth to 10 children” but some accounts say it was nine, others 11.)

The bar was busy that night, and when Hattie didn’t serve him as quickly as he would have liked, Zantzinger swore at her, calling her a “black bitch”. When she said “I’m hurrying as fast as I can”, Zantzinger hit her with his cane on the shoulder and head, declaring “I don’t have to take that kind of shit off a n*gger”.

As Hattie Carroll prepared his drink, Zantzinger struck her again with his cane, this time between her shoulder and her neck. Within five minutes of serving Zantzinger, Hattie slumped heavily against a colleague, telling her “I feel deathly ill, that man has upset me so”.

Her colleagues said her words sounded garbled, “like she had a mouthful of marbles”. They called an ambulance, and Hattie Carroll died eight hours later in hospital, having suffered a massive stroke.

Bob Dylan’s righteously angry song was written only months after Hattie Carroll’s death. It is almost straight journalism, even if Dylan uses poetic licence with some facts. Billy Zantzinger (with a “t”) was charged initially with murder, but the charge was reduced to manslaughter and assault.

Zantzinger’s family did indeed, as Dylan wrote, own “a tobacco farm of six hundred acres” and he had indeed “rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him and high office relations in the politics of Maryland”. Zantzinger was the son of a prominent Washington real estate agent who had served a term in the Maryland legislature and had served on the State Planning Commission.

The case became a symbol of racism in Maryland, a state still segregated. This was 1963, the year a Klan bomb killed four black girls in a Birmingham church, the year Medgar Evers was assassinated by a sniper, the year Bull Connor’s cops fire-hosed black demonstrators.

The Washington Afro-American wondered: “Are they really going to try a well-to-do Southern Marylander for the death of a coloured woman?”

Zantzinger’s defence was that he had been drunk, and could not remember, and anyway Hattie Carroll was overweight and might well have had her stroke regardless.

Time covered the trial, describing Zantzinger as a “rural aristocrat” who enjoyed fox-hunting, charged with the killing of an ailing black grandmother:

“(A)fter Zantzinger’s phalanx of five topflight 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.

Zantzinger’s sentence was handed down on August 28, the same day that Dr Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I have a dream” speech”, 50 miles away in Washington DC. Bob Dylan was there with Dr King.

The New York Herald Tribune speculated that the sentence was set so short to keep Zantzinger out of state prison, where he might be subject to retribution from the predominantly black prison population there. Zantzinger served his six months in relative safety in the Washington County jail. Zantzinger told the Herald Tribune: “I’ll just miss a lot of snow.”

Zantzinger returned to his life, with most white folks believing the Hattie Carroll incident had been blown out of proportion, and he raised three children, and divorced, and remarried. He moved into real estate, driving a Mercedes with the vanity plate “SOLD2U”.

By 1983, he was a slum-lord and a pillar of the local chamber of commerce, but he forgot to pay his taxes, and that brought media attention, doubtless all the more-so thanks to Bob Dylan’s song.

With the Internal Revenue Service on his case, Zantzinger was stripped of various properties – utter hovels – which he rented to poor black people, living in abject squalor. He continued to collect rents – over $64,000 – on homes he no longer owned. In 1991, he was convicted of fraud and deceptive trade practices, and given an 18-month jail term and a $50,000 fine.

Hattie Carroll would probably have been forgotten to history, and the racist thug who killed her too, had not someone shown a newspaper article to a 22-year-old folk singer, who – legend has it – wrote a song in an all-night coffee shop on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue.

In 2001, Zantzinger dismissed The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll as a “total lie” and claimed “It’s actually had no effect upon my life”. He said of Dylan: “He’s a no-account son of a bitch; he’s just like a scum of a scumbag of the earth. I should have sued him and put him in jail.”

Perhaps there is the tiniest bit of justice in the fact that Dylan’s song haunted Zantzinger to his dying day.

William Devereaux “Billy” Zantzinger died in Charlotte Hall, Maryland, aged 69, on January 3, 2009.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll was recorded on 23 October, 1963.