8 January 2009
I really hate William Zantzinger. I mean, I really hate him.
In his politically charged days, Bob Dylan wrote many endearing numbers that touched the soul of America and was a voice of change amidst the turmoil of the 1960s. On his second and third albums, Dylan was at his most political, singing songs that would endure long after they were written, songs that would never grow old. “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Masters of War”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Oxford Town” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. “When the Ship Comes In”, “Only A Pawn In Their Game”, “With God On Our Side” and the title track from The Times They Are A-Changin’. And then there’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, also from Times, the minutely fictionalized account of a society gathering in February 1963 and its aftermath.
Hattie Carroll was fifty-one years old. She had eleven children. She was employed part-time at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland as a barmaid. She waited on the wealthy clientele as they thumbed their noses at her and her kind, as they championed segregation in Charles County. She was an average American who did her job, raised her family and who would never have been sung about if not for the events of February 8-9, 1963.
William Devereux Zantzinger (not Zanzinger, though perhaps the name change was to protect Dylan from libel) was twenty-four years old, a high society type who was born into the crust of American society. His father was descended from the first settlers of Maryland, his mother from a former governor of Maryland. He had gone to the finest schools, he was wealthy and he was landed. He had a large tobacco farm, employing whites and African Americans alike. Zantzinger himself even worked alongside them, he even drank with them. It is a shame he wasn’t a teetotaler, because it was his drinking that led to his most dastardly deed.
To put it simply, Billy Zantzinger was acting the fool. Having already assaulted employees at a prestigious restaurant, he walked into the Emerson in a white tie and tails, top hat on his head, cheap carnival cane in his hand. He started out imitating Fred Astaire, growing more sinister as he grew more inebriated, whipping staff for not addressing him as “sir” and engaging in fisticuffs with a gentleman trying to prevent him from hitting his wife with his shoe. And it all culminated with landing blows on the shoulder and atop the head of a part-time barmaid who wasn’t fixing his bourbon fast enough.
Patience is a virtue that was severely lacking in the young Zantzinger. With a garbled tongue, Carroll stated how Zantzinger had upset her. Worried, the staff called an ambulance, which took Carroll away to a hospital where she died eight hours later. Zantzinger was booked for his other actions at the gathering, only after Carroll’s death would the authorities charge him with his role, though he was easily able to make bail. The trial was moved for the benefit of the accused and Zantzinger was able to await the trial at the relative comfort of his 630-acre tobacco farm.
The trial was a bit more complicated than Dylan let on. Hattie Carroll had hardened arteries, high blood pressure and an enlarged heart, which could have contributed to her death, though the cause of death was still given as a brain hemorrhage. Still, the law was on Zantzinger’s side, as it generally is for the wealthy. When the judge handed down his sentence, it was no surprise. Six months and a five hundred dollar fine (thirty-one hundred dollars lower than what his bail had been), with the date of incarceration deferred for a few weeks so that the killer could harvest his tobacco crop and the place of incarceration moved from the state prison to the relative comfort of the county jail in Washington County, Maryland. Zantzinger walked out the county jail in 1964 a free man. His notoriety wouldn’t end there.
He eventually sold the farm and went into real estate. He bought several dilapidated shanties with no running water and no fixtures whatsoever, lost them to tax delinquency and managed to collect and even raise the rent on the shanties for years thereafter, never providing the residents with so much as an outhouse, in flagrant violation of county law. The residents simply had to dump their waste on the ground. He collected over sixty-thousand dollars in rent on properties he did not own. For the longest time, he simply could not lose. However, these actions would catch up with him, and he was eventually sentenced to a year and a half work release, given community service and a fine roughly equal to the amount of money he’d taken from the poor African American tenants who were unaware Zantzinger was no longer their landlord. Strangely enough, tenants in the courtroom actually cried at that announcement.
Did I mention that Hattie Carroll was African American and Billy Zantzinger was white? Bob never does, but the listener would be a fool not to realize it. The tale of Carroll and Zantzinger was but one of the tumultuous 1960s and had it not been for the young songwriter Dylan, the tale probably would have been forgotten. The date of the sentencing was August 28, 1963, the same day that Bob was at the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King and that story would trump any other that happened to be in the newspaper, though brief blurbs were printed in the New York, Baltimore and Washington papers. I really fucking hate William Zantzinger, but he died on January 3, nearly forty-five years after he got his freedom. Good riddance. May he rot in Hell forevermore.
You should put on “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” if you have it. It’s Bob Dylan at his most lyrical, a brilliant portrait of life in the segregated Southland in the 1960s. Dylan was already moving away from the topical material by the time the song was released, but he must hold a place in his heart for Hattie Carroll. He still breaks out the song he wrote about her.