William Zantzinger PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 17 May 2010 13:37

William ZantzingerWilliam Devereux "Billy" Zantzinger

Born: 7 February, 1939, Maryland.

Died: 3rd January, 2009.

Age: 69

Cause of death: 

Notable because: Immortalized by Bob Dylan for his part in the death of 'poor Hattie Carrol.' He said of Dylan "He is 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. The song is a total lie."

William Devereux Zantzinger was born on February 7 1939, the son of a real estate developer and farmer. He grew up in the farm's white-colonnaded mansion and graduated from school in 1957. After that he spent most of his time until the fateful night in 1963 working the family's tobacco plantations.

On Feb. 8, 1963, William Devereux Zantzinger was drunk at a charity ball at Baltimore's old Emerson Hotel. Carrying a cheap toy cane and dressed in a top hat at the Spinsters Ball, he began the evening in a spirit of jest by imitating Fred Astaire.

As he continued to drink throughout the night, Zantzinger, who was a husky 6 feet 1, became more threatening in his demeanor. He assaulted a bellhop with his cane and, according to news accounts at the time, shouted at a waitress, "Hey, black girl, bring me a drink." He fell down on his wife while dancing with her. Then he went back to the bar and demanded a drink from Hattie Carroll, a 51-year-old black barmaid with 11 children and a history of heart problems. "Just a minute, sir," she said, which angered Zantzinger. It was not how the white man was used to being treated on his 630-acre farm.

He thrust a racial profanity at Carroll and struck her with his cane. She served him his bourbon and then stepped away. Hours later, she collapsed and died of a stroke, and William Devereux Zantzinger, at 24, was charged with homicide. Because of several inconclusive factors, including Carroll's already poor health, the charge was reduced to manslaughter.

The court case of Zantzinger, who died Jan. 3 at 69, received national attention at a volatile moment in the civil rights movement. Bob Dylan immortalized Zantzinger and Carroll in a protest song about race and class, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," which appeared on the folk singer's 1964 album "The Times They Are A-Changin'." "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,"

 "William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll/With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger," Dylan sang in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. Dylan deliberately misspelled Zantzinger's name in the lyrics, perhaps concerned that he might face legal action. Indeed Zantzinger, in a bitter tirade about the song three decades after it was released, claimed that it was "a total lie". "I should have sued him [Dylan] and put him in jail," he said.

The song, considered one of Dylan's finest, tells the story of the night of February 9 1963, when Zantzinger, who had been drinking heavily, arrived at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore to attend a white tie ball.

Time magazine called Zantzinger a "rural aristocrat," because he was the son of a politically connected real estate developer in Washington, D.C. Following graduation from the Sidwell Friends School in 1957, Zantzinger married and settled into the family's colonnaded mansion while overseeing its tobacco operation on a farm called West Hatton.

Zantzinger was freed during sentencing for themanslaughter conviction to finish harvesting of his tobacco crop. He served six months in jail and was fined $625.

After his imprisonment, Zantzinger returned to Charles County, Md., and lived quietly. William Zantziger after his arrest for the murder of Hattie Carroll in 1963

 After his release from jail he found that his sentence had little impact on his reputation with his immediate friends. He was a member of a local country club and gave generously to his church.

Beyond his circle however, Dylan's song was helping to ensure Zantzinger became a figure of hate. Written just months after the case and incorporated into the singer's 1964 album, The Times They Are a-Changin', the song put Zantzinger's name on the map nationwide and ultimately across the world. Dylan sang it on television and at concerts, continuing to perform it as recently as last year.

Nor was the Hattie Carroll case the last of Zantzinger's racially-charged legal travails. In the 1990s he was convicted of claiming rents from black tenants for tumbledown homes, not connected to water or sewerage pipes. In fact the dwellings had been confiscated from him in lieu of back taxes. He was fined and sentenced to 18 months but only spent a few days in jail.
Bob Dylan
The case seemed to seal Zantzinger's reputation as a racist, but he long protested that Dylan's song had misrepresented him, a verdict with which Dylan's biographer Clinton Heylin agrees.

"That the song itself is a masterpiece of drama and wordplay does not excuse Dylan's distortions, and, 36 years on, he continues to misrepresent poor William Zantzinger in concert," Heylin wrote.

William Zantzinger will have few defenders however, and the infamy in which he was cloaked by Dylan will certainly long outlive him. He is survived by his second wife, Suzanne, and three children from his first marriage.



When Zantzinger got out of jail in early 1964, he returned to his family and farm. He had a wife and two young boys. (His wife, Jane, had been charged with assaulting a policeman at the ball.) The farm is called West Hatton. Its main house, a three-story brick mansion, has pillars and a porch on the side facing the Wicomico river. A veteran of the Revolutionary war built the house in about 1790. Both of Zantzinger's parents also lived on the farm; his father could trace his ancestry from the earliest white settlers of Maryland, and his mother from a governor of Maryland. Neighbours of the Zantzingers owned enough land that you could ride to hounds on it. Zantzinger loved foxhunting, and some of the 1963 news articles identified him as a "huntsman". Yet the Zantzingers were country gentry - he worked his farm alongside his employees, and he drank with the locals, black and white, in the nearby bars.

At some point, Zantzinger sold the farm and got into real estate. Notoriety did not pursue him, and his name stayed out of the paper until it began to appear regularly in the notices of Charles County property owners who were delinquent with their taxes. In 1986, because of the back taxes, the county took possession of some ramshackle rental houses he owned in a neighbourhood called Patuxent Woods.

What Zantzinger did next got his name back in the news. He knew that the county now owned the properties, but the renters, all poor and black, did not know. Counting on a lack of attention all around, he simply went on collecting rents as before. Even more enterprising, when tenants fell behind on their rent, he filed complaints against them and took them to court. The county court, in calm and bureaucratic ignorance, heard the cases. And to put the cap on it, he won.

Eventually, local authorities caught up with him. In 1991, a sheriff's deputy arrested Zantzinger on charges that included fraud and deceptive business practices. A number of newspapers, the Washington Post among them, did stories about this latest chapter in the Zantzinger saga. The houses he had been renting were such disasters - run-down shacks without plumbing or running water - that they embarrassed the county and gave traction to local fair-housing advocates. All the same, a few tenants came forward to speak up for Zantzinger, saying that without him they would be living on the street. When the judge sentenced him to 18 months on work-release in the county jail, 2,400 hours of community service and about $62,000 in penalties and fines, there were people in the courtroom who cried.

Zantzinger reportedly now lives on a farm in neighbouring St Mary's County. People say he's had a few health problems; he's a big man, 6ft tall and heavy, and he is 65. They say he still owns a lot of rental properties, some as run-down as Patuxent Woods. (He doesn't talk to reporters, so I never found out for sure.) Candice Quinn Kelly, a former housing activist in La Plata, Maryland, told me: "I was on the other side from Zantzinger in the Patuxent Woods situation. In fact, it was our organisation that uncovered his fraud to begin with. Maybe I've mellowed or sold out, but I don't see things as clear-cut as I did then. Billy Zantzinger provides housing to marginal folks nobody's going to give a lease to, because they don't have a job or a rent deposit or a bank account or whatever. I learned that you can offer people tons of help and they still can't get out of poverty. Billy rents to those people anyway. Since Patuxent Woods, I've met him and talked to him a couple of times, and I feel strange saying this, but Billy Zantzinger is really a very nice man."

In Baltimore, 70 miles to the north, friends and acquaintances of Hattie Carroll don't agree. Carroll lived in Cherry Hill, a lower-middle-class black neighbourhood, and attended Gillis Memorial Christian Community Church. People there remember Hattie as a quiet, well-dressed woman, tall and poised, with good taste in hats. She sang in the church's over-45 choir and was a member of the Flower Guild, which does floral displays for the altar and other projects of church beautification. Away from work, at least, Hattie Carroll seems not to have fit the picture of the lowly person Dylan described. Few people I talked to at the church knew that her death had been the subject of a widely played protest song.

I stopped by the church one day just as the noon service ended. The minister, the Reverend Dr Theodore C Jackson Jr, was making some final exhortations, boosted by an organ's repeated chords. In the parish hall, still glowing from his preaching, he told me that he had been away at a seminary when Hattie Carroll died. Then he introduced me to two longtime parishioners, Dorothy Johnson and Mildred Jessup. Both are preachers - the Reverend Johnson for 30 years, and the Reverend Jessup for 28. Both knew Hattie Carroll.

They sat with me for a while in the church's library and talked. "I remember that Hattie went to work at the hotel that day, and later word came back that she'd been struck with a cane," said Johnson. "And right after that we heard that she had died. Everybody in the church was very upset. It was a terrible blow. She had a huge funeral, people filling the church to the doors and hundreds more standing on the street. A sad, sad day."

"I wonder what kind of respect did that man have for people? What kind of respect did he have for ladies?" asked Jessup. "He wasn't thinking about people at all. He was acting under the slave mentality."

"Hattie's family suffered so, her children, after she died," added Johnson. "They don't go to this church anymore. Four of them, I think, became Muslims. One daughter ended up in a mental institution. But whatever you cause by word and by deed, it's all comin' back to you."

"If I was that man's nurse - I used to be a nurse at Johns Hopkins - I would give him so much prayer to think about that he'd be miserable," said Jessup.

I asked the reverends if they thought God would forgive Zantzinger.

"You see, you are not your own," Johnson said. "You belong to God. God gives you agape love - deep, unconditional, fatherly love. And with God, all things are possible. Didn't he forgive Peter, who denied him three times? Now, if the man who killed Hattie Carroll is willing to repent, and if he is really godly sorry for what he did - and God knows if you are truly godly sorry - I know God will forgive."

"How about you?" I asked. "Could you forgive him?"

"Yes, I believe I could," said Johnson. "I've forgiven people that did worse than he's done."

"For myself, I don't know about that," said Jessup. "Things may be possible for God that are not possible for me. But I will tell you one thing. Because of what happened to Hattie Carroll, I have a phobia about canes to this day. I don't like to even see 'em, and I can't stand when people be foolin' with 'em. Just don't be bringin' no canes around me."

According to press accounts of Zantzinger's trial, he and his wife, Jane, arrived at the dance, a charity event called the Spinsters' Ball, at the Emerson Hotel on Friday evening, February 8 1963. He was in top hat, white tie and tails - attire with which a cane is optional. Unlike other guests, Zantzinger didn't check his cane at the door because, as he said: "I was having lots of fun with it, tapping everybody." Tapping turned to hitting; a bellboy named George Gessell said Zantzinger struck him on the arm, and a waitress named Ethel Hill said Zantzinger argued with her and struck her several times across the buttocks.

At about 1:30am, he ordered a drink from Hattie Carroll, one of the barmaids. When she didn't bring it immediately, he cursed at her. Carroll replied: "I'm hurrying as fast as I can." Zantzinger said: "I don't have to take that kind of shit off a nigger," and struck her on the shoulder with the cane. Soon after, Carroll said: "I feel deathly ill, that man has upset me so." She then collapsed and was taken to the hospital.

"What makes it hard to bear was that no one at the party challenged him, no one stopped him," Jessup said. "He was bold enough to behave like this in the presence of many people, and not one of them intervened. Maybe they had connections to him, maybe they came for business, or their hands were tied by who he was. But not one of those people stood up for her."

I spoke to Bobby Phelps, a friend of Zantzinger's since childhood. "Can you imagine waking up from a drunk to find out you'd done something like that?" he asked. We were talking on the front porch of the post office in Mount Victoria, a hamlet just up the road from Zantzinger's old farm. "I'd've probably blown my brains out if it had been me. And what I really can't understand is, when Billy started getting crazy at the party, why somebody didn't just kick his ass for him and throw him out on his ear.

"You think about it and you feel bad for everyone," Phelps went on. "Billy is somebody I would trust with my life. Billy didn't hate black people - he used to sit with them here in my bar and drink with them. A coloured woman that used to work for the Zantzingers told me that Mr Zantzinger - Billy's father - was pacing the floor and saying, 'How could my boy have done such a thing?' His parents were just devastated. What a hell of a sad thing that was, that Hattie Carroll killing. You look back and wonder: how in hell did that all happen?"

Zantzinger was sentenced on August 28 1963. As it happened, that was the day of the march on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr delivered his "I have a dream" speech. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Baltimore Sun all ran brief stories about the sentencing; none mentioned that anybody objected to the lightness of the sentence.

All three papers devoted pages and pages to the march; and it is striking, to a reader four decades on, how blind (for want of a better word) the coverage all was. What comes through in the stories about the march is a vast sense of relief - shared, presumably, by the reporters, the papers' management and their readership - that the 200,000 or more assembled "Negroes" hadn't burned Washington to the ground. All three papers used the adjective "orderly" in their headlines; all reported prominently on President Kennedy's praise for the marchers' politeness and decorum. The Post and the Sun gave small notice to Dr King, and less to what he said. Neither made much of the phrase "I have a dream". Only James Reston of the Times understood that he had witnessed a great work of oratory, but even his story veered into brow-wiping at the good manners of the marchers.

Listening to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll today, you can hear Dylan shouting against exactly this blindness. The song he wrote took a one-column, under-the-rug story and played it as big as it deserved to be. Dylan's voice sounds so young, hopeful, unjaded, noncommercial - so far from the Victoria's Secret world of today. Even the song's title is well chosen: Before I went to Carroll's church, I had not quite understood why her death was "lonesome". But of course, as Rev Jessup noted: "Not one of those people stood up for her." In a party full of elegant guests, Hattie Carroll was on her own.

If it weren't for television and videotape, we would not know how powerful the march on Washington, or Dr King's speech, really was. And if it weren't for Dylan, nothing more would have been said about Hattie Carroll.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

      William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
      With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
      At a Baltimore hotel society gath'rin'.
      And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
      As they rode him in custody down to the station
      And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder.
      But you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears,
      Take the rag away from your face.
      Now ain't the time for your tears.
      William Zanzinger, who at 24 years
      Owns a tobacco farm of 600 acres
      With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him
      And high office relations in the politics of Maryland,
      Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders
      And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was snarling,
      In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking.
      But you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears,
      Take the rag away from your face.
      Now ain't the time for your tears.
      Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen.
      She was 51 years old and gave birth to 10 children
      Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
      And never sat once at the head of the table
      And didn't even talk to the people at the table
      Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
      And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level,
      Got 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 Zanzinger.
      But you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears,
      Take the rag away from your face.
      Now ain't the time for your tears.
      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
      Once that the cops have chased after and caught 'em
      And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,
      Stared at the person who killed for no reason
      Who just happened to be feelin' that way without warnin'.
      And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,
      And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
      William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.
      Oh, but you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears,
      Bury the rag deep in your face
      For now's the time for your tears.

Last Updated on Friday, 29 June 2012 11:59

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