The Real Story Behind "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"

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In 1963, Bob Dylan recorded a song about a murder that had occurred only a few months before. On February 8, 1963, Billy Zantzinger arrived at the Spinsters Ball at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore. He was elegantly dressed and carried a cane, and he was drunk. He abused the serving staff, stumbled through dances, hit his wife, and even got into a fist fight with another guest. Zantzinger, who had just turned 24, also demanded a drink from bartender Hattie Carroll. Carroll was serving another guest, and didn’t respond as quickly as Zantzinger wanted. In response, he called her racist names and hit her with his cane. Zantzinger was arrested for being disorderly and for assault.

Soon after the incident, Carroll spoke of feeling unwell, saying in a garbled voice, "I feel deathly ill, that man has upset me so." She was taken to a hospital, where she died of a stroke a few hours later. Zantzinger was released on bail the next morning, before word reached the court about Carroll’s death. Zantzinger was later charged with her murder.

Billy Zantzinger was the son of a prosperous Maryland family with political connections. He owned a 630-acre tobacco farm. His father had served in the Maryland legislature.

Hattie Carroll was a 51-year-old Black woman who had somewhere between nine and 13 children (accounts vary) and several grandchildren. She worked for the hotel only on occasions when they needed a larger staff for special events. She’d been a deacon and choir member at Gillis Memorial Church, where her funeral was attended by 1600 people.

An autopsy determined that Carroll had high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries, which had contributed to her death. Zantzinger maintained he was too drunk to know what he was doing that night. The charge was reduced to manslaughter, plus three charges of assault against others at the ball.

Hoping to avoid a racially charged trial and national publicity, the defense opted to forego a jury, and won a change of venue to Hagerstown, Maryland. Many witnesses testified before a panel of judges, who found Zantzinger guilty of manslaughter, but gave him a sentence of only six months. The sentence was handed down on August 28, 1963, the same day that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in nearby Washington, D.C. If the sentence had been any longer, Zantzinger would have had to serve it in the state prison, but as it was, he could stay at the local jail. Moreover, he was released on bail to get his tobacco crop in before starting his sentence in September. Bob Dylan read about the trial, and recorded his song in October.

Dylan took some liberties with the story. Zantzinger was misspelled as Zanzinger in the song. He was never charged with first-degree murder, just “murder,” which was later reduced to manslaughter. There was no evidence that Zantzinger wore a diamond ring that night, as he does in the song, a detail that was meant to illustrate his wealth and privilege. He was kept in jail overnight after the incident instead of “a matter of minutes” as the song says. Carroll wasn’t a "maid of the kitchen," but tended bar that night as a temporary worker. Zantzinger said, “The song was a lie. Just a damned lie.” He threatened to sue Dylan, but never did, and Dylan never changed the lyrics of the song he still performs in concert.

Billy Zantzinger refused interviews and kept a low profile after his release from jail, except for a bizarre incident decades later. Over the years, he gave up farming and invested in real estate, particularly rental property. In 1986, the government of Charles County seized six units of housing in Patuxent Woods to cover delinquent taxes. However, Zantzinger continued to collect rent from the poor black tenants who lived in the homes, which didn’t even have running water. He also raised the rents. When some of the tenants fell behind on their payments, he took them to court, and won.

It took the intervention of several Civil Rights groups to interest police in Zantzinger’s rent scheme, but he was finally arrested in 1991. He received an 18-month sentence, 2400 hours of community service, and $62,000 in fines. And he still had defenders, including his own tenants, because he was willing to rent to people who would otherwise find no housing available at all. Zantzinger died in 2009.