The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

In 1963, a drunk man named William Zantzinger walked into the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore carrying a toy cane. He swung that cane on the staff, hitting a few of them. One of the women he hit was a bar maid named Hattie Carroll. He reportedly ordered a drink from her, and when she didn’t bring it fast enough for his liking he hit her on the shoulder with his toy cane, and called her a racial slur.


She was taken into the hospital later that day and passed on. Zantzinger had been taken to jail for drunkenness, and after she passed her murder was added to the case. He received a 6-month jail sentence which the courts allowed him to delay long enough to reap his tobacco crop.

Those are facts. Everything else surrounding this story has gone down in history in a quite interesting fashion. Accounts vary on what exactly killed her, whether it was the hit itself or the emotional effects of his words straining a pre-existing health condition she had. How exactly he was able to wiggle out of a longer sentence is hidden from history as well, and her family was paid off by him and his lawyers in an effort to stop discussing the matter and move on. Accounts of Hattie vary from the number of children she had to her level of involvement in the church.

Zantzinger has now also passed, and there is plenty speculation on what happened that day and about the quality of his character. Interestingly, though it appeared as if Zantzinger was a slumlord who took advantage of poor people, there are accounts of him drinking with black people and allowing them leases that kept them from homelessness.

Zantzinger being escorted by a police officer.

Zantzinger being escorted by a police officer.

The truth surely lies somewhere in these accounts, but one famous man was inspired by this story to write a song. When songwriter Bob Dylan saw this story in the newspaper, he immediately wrote a song about it which he turned around quickly enough to add to his repertoire in time for it to remain topical. Because of this, Hattie Carroll’s death is remembered throughout history, but there are lyrics in the song that are unproven and some are downright incorrect.

Dylan spoke about those discrepancies when singing the song live on the Steve Allen Show on February 25th, 1964:

“Well, I changed the reporters’ view into… I used it. I used it for something that I wanted to say, and I used his view… to get at what I wanted to say and turn it that way. I used a true story, that’s all. I could have used a made up story.”

See that performance below, and read the links (linked throughout this blog) to contemplate for yourself what might have happened that fateful day.

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