Pop Culture
Jan 12, 2009, 04:44AM

William Zantzinger's Lonesome Death

The racist Marylander made famous in Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" passed away last week.

The following video was included in this article:

A bit more than week ago, William Zantzinger—"Billy" to friends and family—died of complications related to coronary disease, age 69, in Southern Maryland, where he lived his entire life. Very likely, the name elicits only a head-scratching question mark to anyone less than 50 years old or unfamiliar with Bob Dylan's prodigious song catalogue. Arguably, Zantzinger—over the years a tobacco farmer, real estate owner, nightclub manager, auctioneer/appraiser, and antiques shop operator—comes across as the single most despicable real-life figure depicted in a Dylan composition.

Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," a simply strummed acoustic guitar and wheezy harmonica number typical of his early troubadour style that appears on the 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin', chronicles the true story of how Carroll, a 51-year-old black waitress/barmaid and mother of 11, and the white Zantzinger, 24 at the time, tragically intersected at the quaintly named Spinsters Ball, a charity event at downtown Baltimore's long-defunct Emerson Hotel in February 1963. Tellingly, Dylan does not explicitly mention Carroll and Zantzinger’s races.  

In a who/what/where/how opening ripped straight from the first sentence of a newspaper story, Dylan begins, “William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll/With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger/At a Baltimore hotel society gath'rin'.” (Dylan spelled it “Zanzinger.”)

“The story, I took out of a newspaper,” a 22-year-old Dylan explained to host Steve Allen on the latter’s TV show in February 1964, before delivering a solemn rendition of “Lonesome Death” in front of a hushed studio audience. “I changed the reporter’s view—I used it … for something that I wanted to say.”

He used it all right. Dylan etches a social caste system, wherein privileged (“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”) and bellicose (“And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was snarling”) lord of the manor Zantzinger assaults Carroll (“A maid of the kitchen … who carried the dishes and took out the garbage”), resulting in her death (“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 Zantzinger”), and then cynically eviscerates a criminal justice system that convicts Zantzinger only of manslaughter, handing him a meager six-month sentence (“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”).

True, sort of, although Dylan treats the facts of the case somewhat cavalierly. Five years ago, I spent weeks poring over newspaper and courtroom accounts of the Zantzinger/Carroll case for a story published in Baltimore magazine. By the time Zantzinger, his wife, and another couple stumbled into the Spinsters Ball, they had been on a daylong drinking bender, with Billy knocking back bourbon after bourbon. A bulky six-foot-one, 220-pounder dressed in top hat, white tie, and tails, Zantzinger immediately proceeded to hector hotel employees, swatting a 19-year-old bellhop with a five-eighths-inch thick carnival cane. At 1:15 a.m., a blotto Billy demanded a drink from Carroll; when she failed to respond to his satisfaction, he called her “a fat bitch” and “a nigger,” then struck her across the shoulder with his cane. Minutes later, she crumpled, fell unconscious, and died eight hours later of a cerebral hemorrhage. An equal-opportunity abuser, Zantzinger carried on, whacking a 30-year-old waitress several times at 1:30 a.m., which engendered a minor scuffle, with the cops finally hauling away Billy and his wife.  

Charged with murder, Zantzinger ultimately was convicted that summer of manslaughter by a three-judge panel, who determined that Carroll’s pre-existing high blood pressure and enlarged heart made her especially vulnerable to Zantzinger’s verbal and physical assault. He did six months and paid a $625 fine, seeping back into the Southern Maryland fabric a bete noir for life, thanks to Dylan, whom he never forgave, venomously and famously telling author Howard Sounes in 2001, “He’s a no-account son of a bitch. He’s just like a scum bag of the earth … I should have sued him and put him in jail.”

Zantzinger knew about the Big House. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to 50 misdemeanor counts of “unfair and deceptive trade practices” when he continued to collect rents—even raising them!—on a handful of wooden shanties without indoor plumbing five years after the local county government took possession of the properties in lieu of unpaid property taxes. Sentenced to 18 months in prison, Zantzinger also paid a $50,000 fine—a weird irony when measured against his 1963 conviction.    

Dylan still occasionally performs “Lonesome Death” in concert, its visceral power and impact undiminished, while a legion of critics has parsed the song’s lyrics and offered up mini-manifestos on its place in the Dylan canon. Irwin Silber claims it “had a significant impact on American consciousness and style,” while Paul Nelson, less enthralled, notes, “That the song itself is a masterpiece of drama and wordplay does not excuse Dylan’s distortions.”

For his part, Dylan, characteristically laconic, told Steve Allen on that 1964 TV show, “I used a true story, that’s all. I could have used a made-up story.”


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