Editor’s note: This story contains profane and racist language in direct quotes and a description of physical violence.
On Valentine’s Day 1963, Rev. Theodore Jackson, Sr., stood over the body of fifty-one-year-old Baltimore native Hattie Carroll and addressed 1,600 mourners at the Gillis Church in West Baltimore, where she had been a deacon and member of the choir
“This one death will mean more to the city of Baltimore than any other,” he declared. “I do think the ministers of this city, the doctors, the lawyers, all people should come together as never before and let people know that colored citizens are not going to stand for certain things.”
Eighteen weeks later, twenty-four-year-old William Zantzinger stood on trial for Carroll’s murder. Judge David Kenneth McLaughlin said that “outside elements” had special interest in the case but that “none of those elements will affect us in our decision.” McLaughlin and two other judges, Irvine J. Rutledge and Stuart F. Hamill, heard three days’ testimony in June 1963. There was no jury. The location was four counties away from Baltimore in Hagerstown, Maryland. A dozen Black citizens attended as spectators.
The prosecutors dropped charges of first- and second-degree murder against Zantzinger on the third day, leaving one charge of manslaughter and three charges of assault. Zantzinger’s defense attorneys, Frederick J. Green Jr. and Claude A. “Speed” Hanley were able to sow doubt about aspects of the timeline of events and relied heavily on the testimony of medical professionals who claimed that Carroll had an enlarged heart at the time of her death. They also mentioned high blood pressure during one of her pregnancies eighteen years earlier.
The consensus in the courtroom and in the press was that Zantzinger’s abuse had caused her death, but only because she was already in poor health. He killed her, but if she had been someone else with a different body, she wouldn’t have died. Zantzinger simply said he didn’t remember hitting her.
McLaughlin convicted Zantzinger of manslaughter and assault on June 28. The maximum manslaughter sentence could have been ten years and a $500 fine, but sentencing was delayed another two months so that Zantzinger, free on bond, could continue to oversee the operations of his 630-acre tobacco farms in Charles County.
On August 29, 1963, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, McLaughlin fined Zantzinger a total of $625 and sentenced him to six months in jail, which Zantzinger was allowed to serve after the fall harvest.
“I’ll just miss a lot of snow, and I’ll be back in time for the spring harvest,” Zantzinger told a reporter.
A law stating that he should have served his prison term in Baltimore City was simply ignored; he served his sentence from September 15, 1963, through March 16, 1964, in Hagerstown, where he worked in the kitchen and was kept apart from Black inmates. Upon leaving, Zantzinger told the warden that he had a pleasant stay and had been treated well. The warden called him a model prisoner.
The story of Carroll’s brutal murder and Zantzinger’s weak sentence is detailed in Bob Dylan’s song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” But aside from a few lyrics in the song, little has been published about Carroll’s life. Sixty years after her death, we take a closer look.
Hattie Carroll (neé Curtis) was born on March 3, 1911, at 1532 Bruce Street and was raised by her parents, Ternan and Josephine, along with her brother Newton and sister Margaret in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
The neighborhood was home to two other Black women who would become renowned later in life: lawyer, priest, activist, and poet Pauli Murray (1910–1985) and Billie Holiday (1915–1959). Murray wrote, “In 1910 [it] was a well-kept neighborhood of rising, young professional people of color who were buying their own homes and paying ground rent to the City.” After decades away from Baltimore, she returned in 1952, to find her family’s former home “a grimy slum” and “an unsightly dump.”
When Holiday lived only a few blocks away from where Carroll and Murray were born, from 1924 to 1929, she had a profoundly different experience of the place. Abducted and raped at the age of eleven, she recalled the horrific mistreatment by the police and the matrons of the House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls, where she was separated from her struggling, young, single mother. With bemused cynicism, she recalled segregation both at the five-and-dime where she stole white socks and at the brothel on the corner, where she had a job cleaning. There she first heard the life-changing recordings of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. The white patrons of the brothel, she pointed out, “helped label jazz ‘whorehouse’ music.’ … A whorehouse was about the only place black and white folks could meet in a natural way. They damn well couldn’t rub elbows in churches.”
Carroll’s church, Gillis Memorial Methodist, had only five active members in 1933 when it was founded on Stockton Street, three blocks from where she lived with her husband James Carroll and their family. Its leader, Rev. Theodore Jackson, who later spoke at her funeral, was among the most active organizers of African American music in the city and was the first Black preacher on Baltimore radio in the 1950s. When the church relocated into a formerly white church, Carroll, as deacon, likely fundraised for and attended performances by Mahalia Jackson, the Soul Stirrers, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Clara Ward, and other great singers of the era. A highway project forced the congregation north of the city, where it now retains its old marble altar and a congregation of about 2,000 members.
The tight-knit Carroll family—parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents—all lived within a few blocks in Sandtown-Winchester going back to Emancipation. The men all worked as drivers and laborers, and the women worked as maids and laundresses. By the time she was eighteen, Carroll had moved eight blocks away to a house on Division Street with her parents, young siblings, aunt, and nephew, and she was already working as a maid.
By 1940, a decade later, she had moved seven blocks south with her husband James and their first four children, and his mother Laura, who had come in the Great Migration from Virginia in the 1910s. By then, Carroll was working as a laundress for a family who had paid her $152 (less than $3,000 today) for fifty-two weeks of work in 1939. At that time, her husband was employed by the Works Progress Administration on a road construction project. During World War II, he was a kitchen worker in the Navy.
Hattie and James had eleven children, nine of whom survived childhood: Billy, Lauretta, Mildred, Charlotte, James, Leota, Frank, Gwendlyn, and Margaret. By February 1963, the family had settled in Cherry Hill at the southern edge of Baltimore, in a new public housing apartment for Black veterans. The kids had mostly gone to Frederick Douglass High School near Sandtown-Winchester. James and Frank worked as waiters at the nearby Sparrows Point Country Club. Billy was a tailor. Lauretta and Charlotte worked in hospital kitchens. All the girls who were old enough were married.
The Baltimore Sun announced the fifteenth Spinster’s Ball on January 27, 1963, with photos of the eight smiling organizers and young white women in ball gowns and fur wraps. The name of the event, organized by the Wicomico Hunt Club, was tongue-in-cheek: If you had been a debutante at sixteen and were still unmarried at the age of twenty-five, you were a spinster.
With proceeds going to the Baltimore League of Cripple Children and Adults (now the League for People with Disabilities), the event consisted of a dinner followed by cocktails and a performance by Howard Lanin’s orchestra. Then guests had to be invited by someone to get into the white-tie gathering in the Emerson Hotel’s mezzanine. The paper published the names of twenty-five families to contact to be invited. Start time was 10 p.m. on February 8.
The afternoon after the ball, the Sun reported on the front page, “Charles County Man Involved in Brawl at Spinster Fete.” It ran with his mugshot and began, “A prominent young Charles County socialite was charged today with homicide after a 51-year-old hotel bar waitress who died seven hours after she was struck with a cane at a society ball.” More than one hundred newspapers around the country reported the story over the next several days, often on the first page and often with a photo of smiling Hattie Carroll in her Sunday hat next to one of a disheveled, bruised Zantzinger. The February 22 issue of Time magazine dedicated two columns of their national news section to the story.
Reading through the accounts chronologically, it’s clear that Zantzinger, over six feet tall and more than 200 pounds, and his wife, Jane Elson Duval Zantzinger, arrived at the Emerson drunk. They had flown from Texas that afternoon, been invited by another couple, and were not on the guest list. After ordering steaks and several rounds of double Cutty Sark scotches, neglecting to leave a tip, they made a spectacle of themselves on the dance floor, falling on the floor, and he hit her on the head with his shoe. Jane passed out at least once.
As the night proceeded, Zantzinger repeatedly hit thirty-year-old staff member Ethel Hill across her hips and buttocks. “Each time he hit, he hit me harder and harder,” she told the court that summer. When Hill refused to serve them more, Zantzinger replied, “Don’t say no to me, you nigger. Say, no sir.” He called for his sixth or eighth double whiskey instead at the bar from Hattie Carroll, who responded, “Just a minute, sir.”
A coworker named Grace Shelton recalled him saying, “Why are you so slow, Black bitch? Nigger, did you hear me ask you for a drink? I don’t have to take that kind of shit off a nigger.” Four other witnesses recalled approximately the same words. Then Zantzinger hit Carroll on her right shoulder with the short, metal-tipped decorative cane that he had used to hit Ethel Hill and a bellhop.
After the blow, Carroll leaned on the bar, visibly hurt. Coworkers took her to the kitchen, where she said, “That man has upset me so. I feel deathly ill.” Soon, her right arm and leg were paralyzed, and her speech became so impaired that her coworkers had trouble understanding her. She was carried out on a stretcher to Mercy Hospital. The police and a reporter from the Sun arrived. A former football player named Frank Riggs took the cane; after Zantzinger tried unsuccessfully to hit him, Riggs punched him to the ground. While Zantzinger was arrested for being drunk and disorderly, his wife lunged at the arresting officer, knocking him and Zantzinger down, injuring the officer such that he had to take several days off work. Zantzinger spent less than eight hours in jail. Jane Zantzinger’s drunk and disorderly bond was $28, and she ultimately paid a $50 fine.
Hattie Carroll died, without having regained consciousness, at 9 a.m. of a brain hemorrhage, seven hours after the assault, around the same time that Zantzinger was released. Around noon, police issued a warrant to arrest Zantzinger for her murder. He turned himself in more than a day later, accompanied by his lawyer who brought the $103 needed for his bond. He was released after a short hearing in front of a judge where Zantzinger pled not guilty and left without a word. Further developments in the story, calling attention to racism in Maryland, ran in hundreds of newspapers throughout the spring and summer of 1963.
On October 23, 1963, fifty-five days after Zantzinger’s sentencing, Bob Dylan, who was less than two years younger than Zantzinger, recorded in two complete takes a vivid and largely accurate telling of the events. Dylan settled on its final key and added a harmonica break on the second take and debuted it in public three days later. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” was released in January 1964 while Zantzinger was still in jail in Hagerstown.
The June 4, 1964, issue of Jet magazine reported that three white freshmen at Northwestern University, having heard Dylan’s song, donated $600 to help Carroll’s children. They raised another $200 by writing to fraternities and sororities around the country, asking for $15 contributions. Since it isn’t mentioned in the song, the freshmen were unaware of Carroll’s race. Among the responses was a Confederate $20 bill and a hostile letter from the Louisiana State University chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon, still known today for making offensive and ignorant statements.
Attorney H. Morton Rosen tried to sue Zantzinger in 1965 for $1 million in a wrongful death claim on behalf of Carroll family, but it went nowhere. He won a $15,000 workmen’s compensation suit against the Emerson Hotel, where Carroll’s daughter Gwendlyn worked even after her mother’s murder there. The claim was to have been paid in installments of $41.14 every two weeks, and it would have taken fifteen years to pay the entire amount, but the Emerson closed in October 1969, at which time it was $400,000 behind in tax debts.
Nine children and ten grandchildren survived Hattie Carroll. Mildred moved into Hattie and James Sr.’s apartment and became legal guardian to Margaret. “We all try to help each other now,” she told Jet. While working in the kitchen at a hospital, Charlotte found herself serving a customer who, like Zantzinger, demanded faster service. She simply walked off the job. When Carroll’s husband died in 1987, he was buried at Baltimore National Cemetery for veterans. Her side of the white stone marker gives her dates of birth and death and says only “Hattie His Wife.”
Carroll’s family has kept quiet about the incident, and her church remains cautiously helpful about inquiries. Several grandchildren, who remembered her as an elegant woman and a hard worker, attended a ceremony to name a walkway in Charles County in Carroll’s honor in 2017.
William Zantzinger lived until 2009, and he got to tell his side of the story.
On April 12, 2015, Baltimore City Police arrested a twenty-five-year-old Black man named Freddie Gray after chasing him for two blocks for no reason. The arrest near the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenues in Sandtown-Winchester was five blocks from where Hattie Carroll was born. Their brutality in the arrest broke his spine, and he died a week later. The arresting officers were charged with “craven heart murder”—homicide by disregard for human life. None were convicted.
Ian Nagoski is an independent music researcher in Baltimore, Maryland. A specialist in early twentieth-century recordings by immigrants to the United States, he has produced reissue collections for Dust-to-Digital, Tompkins Square, the Database of Recorded American Music, and other labels including his own Canary Records.