Bob Dylan, the first musician to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, picked up the story of Hattie Carroll from a newspaper account and wrote a ballad about her death. The song has powerful resonance more than 50 years later because, while Dylan might have played loose with some facts, his protest against abuse and cruelty carries profound meaning in a nation engaged in a bitter and ugly presidential campaign.
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” released in 1964, was based on an incident a year earlier in the long-gone Emerson Hotel in downtown Baltimore.
Carroll, an African-American woman, worked at the hotel’s bar. She was 51 years old, the mother of 11 children.
One night in February 1963, during a society event called the Spinsters’ Ball, a young white man in a tuxedo assaulted Carroll with a cheap, carnival-style cane, apparently because she did not serve him a bourbon fast enough. The man also used racial slurs against Carroll and one of her Emerson co-workers.
After being struck, Carroll leaned against the bar and was heard to say: “This man has upset me so, I feel deathly ill.” She died of a brain hemorrhage about eight hours later at Mercy Medical Center.
The man who attacked Carroll was 24-year-old William Zantzinger, from a wealthy tobacco-farming family in Southern Maryland. Zantzinger was charged with causing Carroll’s death. He was also charged with striking a waitress, who suffered arm injuries, and a hotel bellman.
At his trial, Zantzinger admitted using the toy cane to slap waitresses during a pre-ball dinner at a restaurant in the Mount Vernon section of the city.
“I’d been smacking, tapping waitresses on the tail, and they didn’t say anything. I was just playing,” he said.
At another point, he told the court: “I had no other purpose than to have a good time. The last thing I intended was to harm or injure anyone. I never even thought about it.”
A medical examiner testified, critically, that Carroll had health problems — an enlarged heart and severe hypertension — before Zantzinger struck her with the cane.
A three-judge panel reduced the murder charge to manslaughter and, after a three-day trial, convicted Zantzinger of the lesser offense, as well as assault, then fined him $500 and sentenced him to six months’ imprisonment. They also agreed to delay the start of his sentence so that Zantzinger could harvest his tobacco crop in Charles County.
The death of Hattie Carroll and Zantzinger’s sentence outraged many, including the 22-year-old Dylan. He wrote and recorded “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” changing the villain’s name to “Zanzinger” by dropping the T.
Dylan described “Zanzinger” hitting Carroll while twirling his cane “around his diamond ring finger.”
David Simon, as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun in the 1980s, wrote a memorable piece about Carroll, Zantzinger and Dylan’s song. Later, after Zantzinger’s death in 2009, Simon wrote a story for The New Yorker and took issue with Dylan’s telling of the tale:
“A dispassionate reading of the facts of the case leads one to conclude that Dylan took great liberties. Hattie Carroll was not ‘slain by a cane’ that was ‘doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.’ … No physical injury was done to her, nor was there any evidence to suggest lethal intent. The medical examiner’s report — citing Carroll’s enlarged heart and severe hypertension — attributed her death as much to Zantzinger’s verbal abuse as to the tap of his cane. Nor did Zantzinger have ‘high office relations in the politics of Maryland’ to influence the case, as Dylan implied.”
But the song’s power was in its general truth about race and class, about privilege and influence. It’s hard to get away from what Dylan revealed with his poetic examination of a cruel incident that occurred during segregation, as the civil rights movement reached the corridors of power in the nation’s capital. (Zantzinger was sentenced on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington.)
What echoes all these years later is the stark ugliness of the story, America at its worst: a white man from an affluent family taking a stick to a black woman he saw as his servant, and that woman likely seeing in him the violent reprisal all black Americans feared a century after emancipation.
In The New Yorker, Simon noted how Zantzinger, “defined by his ugliest moment,” had lived long enough to see King honored with a national holiday and the country’s first black president elected.
Here in 2016, more than a half-century after “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Dylan’s song resonates with all who still yearn for a better country — free of bullies and hate speech, of sexism and racism, of anger and cruelty, of the things that divide us — but who look around, aghast, at what the presidential campaign has wrought.