William Zantzinger Is Dead

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ABC news and others reported over the weekend the death, at age 69, of William Zantzinger, whose caning to death of “poor Hattie Carroll,” an African-American barmaid, provoked one of Dylan’s most memorable protest songs, released on his 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Zantzinger served six months for manslaughter and paid a $500 fine for the crime. He was sentenced on the same day Martin Luther King led his famous march on Washington. He later went into real estate and became a notorious slumlord.

These and other details I gleaned from a Mother Jones essay by Ian Frazier a couple years back, which contains background on the crime, the criminal, and the song:

The song contains errors of fact. Dylan misspells the perpetrator’s name, omitting the t — perhaps deliberately, out of contempt, or perhaps to emphasize the Snidely Whiplash hissing of the zs.
Zantzinger’s actual arrest and trial were more complicated than the
song lets on. Police arrested Zantzinger at the ball for disorderly
conduct — he was wildly drunk — and for assaults on hotel employees
not including Hattie Carroll, about whom they apparently knew nothing
at the time. When Hattie Carroll died at Mercy Hospital the following
morning, Zantzinger was also charged with homicide. The medical
examiner reported that Hattie Carroll had hardened arteries, an
enlarged heart, and high blood pressure; that the cane left no mark on
her; and that she died of a brain hemorrhage brought on by stress
caused by Zantzinger’s verbal abuse, coupled with the assault. After
the report, a tribunal of Maryland circuit court judges reduced the
homicide charge to manslaughter. Zantzinger was found guilty of that,
and of assault, but not of murder.

The judges probably thought they were being reasonable. They
rejected defense claims that Hattie Carroll’s precarious health made it
impossible to say whether her death had been caused, or had simply
occurred naturally. The judges considered Zantzinger an “immature”
young man who got drunk and carried away, but they nevertheless held
him responsible for her death, saying that neither her medical history
nor his ignorance of it was an excuse. His cane, though merely a toy
one he got at a farm fair, they considered a weapon capable of assault.
They kept the sentence to only six months because (according to the New York Herald Tribune)
a longer one would have required that he serve it in state prison, and
they feared the enmity of the largely black prison population would
mean death for him. Zantzinger served his six months in the comparative
safety of the Washington County Jail. The judges also let him wait a
couple of weeks before beginning his sentence, so he could bring in his
tobacco crop. Such dispensations were not uncommon, apparently, for
offenders who had farms.

Peter Eisenstadt, editor of The Encyclopedia of New York State (to which I contributed several pieces on 1790s New Yorkers some years ago) has what I found to be a moving response to Zantzinger’s death over on his Greater New York blog. I’ll let him have the final word:

If “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is not
Dylan’s best song–it would probably get my vote–it is certainly (IMHO)
his greatest protest song, a genre that he would abandon, more or less,
not that long after writing it. His later work, as great as it is,
traded the directness of “Hattie Carroll” for a certain willful poetic
obscurity, and in place of the keen sense of the interaction of the
personal and the public in “Hattie Carroll”, offered instead a long
series of brilliant songs on Dylan’s private woes and obsessions. And
unlike some of his other protest songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” or
“Masters of War,” “Hattie Carroll” is descriptive, not prescriptive,
just a ballad, telling a story.

“Hattie Carroll” came out about the same time as Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem,
which added the endlessly debated phrase “the banality of evil” to our
language. Whatever else you want to say about William Zantzinger, he
was no Adolf Eichmann, and perhaps he better illuminates how an evil
social order is more built upon myriad acts of relatively banal crimes
than great horrors, and how the system of racial and class oppression
that is central to the events of Dylan’s song are less the product of
calculated evil, than selfishness and greediness defended through a
series of endless rationalizations.

And finally it is a song about
the sadness and sorrow that is at the heart of all human history, the
great men and deeds which are built upon the trough of meanness and
pettiness, the unfairness, and the inequalities of every social order.


All of us, have from time to time, tried to “philosophize disgrace and
criticize all fears,” look at the public face of evil calmly and
rationally, and try to understand and deal with it. At other times, all
one can do, as the song finally recommends, “Bury the rag deep in your
face, For now’s the time for your tears.” When my brother died last
year, suddenly and tragically, it is this song, above all others, that
I found myself singing to myself, again and again. I’m not sure why. It
certainly was a time for my tears. And by making sure that the crimes
of one relatively unimportant unsung man would be sung about forever,
Dylan has rendered us all a service. Those of us who spend our lives
writing about history, the lives of others, need to study, to analyze,
to put things in proportion. We also need to remember, from time to
time, to bury our faces in our handkerchiefs, and let the tears flow,
and flow, and flow.

Photo credit: AP/Getty

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