The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

            "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is the title of a topical song by Bob Dylan. Recorded on 23 October 1963, the song was released on Dylan's 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin' and gives a generally factual account of the killing of 51-year-old barmaid Hattie Carroll by the wealthy young William Devereux "Billy" Zantzinger (whom the song calls "William Zanzinger"), and his subsequent sentence to six months in jail.


The Incident

            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 waitress both also reported being attacked by Zantzinger the same night). At about 1:30am on the morning of the 9th, he ordered a drink from barmaid Carroll and when she didn't 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 shit off a nigger," and struck her on the shoulder with the cane. Carroll was heard to remark "I feel deathly ill, that man has upset me so" soon after, 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, and high blood pressure, and that she had in fact probably died of a brain haemorrhage 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. Dylan's song strongly implies that his upper-class status contributed to the relatively low length of the sentence. After the sentence was announced, the New York Herald Tribune conjectured that Zantzinger was not given a longer sentence 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 also paid to the Carroll family the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars.

            Dylan recorded his song on October 23, when the trial was still relatively fresh news, and incorporated it into his live repertoire immediately, before releasing the studio version on January 13, 1964. Dylan also performed the song on Steve Allen's network television program soon after its release.

Zantzinger has recently (as of 2005) told Howard Sounes, in Down the Highway, the Life of Bob Dylan, "It's actually had no effect upon my life", but is vitriolic in his scorn for Dylan, saying, "He's a no-account son of a bitch", claiming that the song is inaccurate. "He's just like a scum of a scum bag [sic] of the earth, I should have sued him and put him in jail". He claims that the song is a total lie, but has never attempted to prevent Dylan from performing it.

            Nevertheless, the song has continued to haunt Zantzinger in later controversies. Zantzinger openly rented properties in violation of unenforced county codes. In 1991, it became known that not only did he rent out properties which he no longer owned, but even won court battles against delinquent tenants on those properties. The fact that the families who rented these properties were African American, coupled with Zantzinger's past, led to charges of racism. Dylan's song was invoked as an anthem for those calling for Zantzinger's prosecution.

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," by Bob Dylan


William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath'rin'.
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.

William Zanzinger, 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.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain't the time for your tears.

Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen.
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once 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 Zanzinger.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain't the time for your tears.

In the courtroom of honor, 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 that 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 Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now's the time for your tears.




Poetic Inquiry into the Death of Hattie Carroll

Mr. Steel


Read through the Dylan song and accompanying exposition, and respond in a 500-word reflection (2 pages, double-spaced, 12 point font, 1" margins) to the following question:


To what extent does the poet's pen reflect or distort reality? Must the poet's truth be the same as the journalist's truth? Is there a higher truth in poetry than the truth of facts and figures? Explain, making use of reference to the poem and reading materials.