The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (1963). A true telling of historical facts or…

by Tony Attwood

Does it matter that sometimes Dylan uses other people’s melodies, phrases, partial lyrics?  Does it matter that on occasion he re-uses his own music with new words?   Does it matter if he takes an actual event which relates to a recently deceased person and doesn’t reflect the true facts of the case?

Actually I don’t quite know where I stand on this although I know I would be both proud and bothered if Dylan took one of my songs, changed the words, published it and didn’t ask permission and pay for the privilege.  But I suspect most of my annoyance would be because most people wouldn’t believe I had written it!

But I am also bothered about changing the reporting of facts about events and drawing conclusions that seemingly are not at all valid.  So Hattie Carroll did indeed worry me as I came to write this article.  If it were about events 100 years earlier, no, I’d let it go. But somehow, the fact that Dylan was writing about contemporary events, and from all the evidence got some of the facts utterly wrong, and from these errors makes the strongest accusations of corruption and miscarriages of justice, and accuses a man of murder – an accusation which many have said was not at all justified, then yes, I am worried.

Or at least I was, when I started.  But not now, because my view changed in the researching of this review, for in doing my background work I came across an article from Mother Jones magazine, (an American radical publication) which gave me a new insight.

It is often pointed out that the sentence of William Zantzinger was delivered by the court on the same day that Martin Luther King, gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. Bob Dylan, as we know, was one of the celebrities at the march and it is often reported that on the journey home to New York he read about the conviction of Zantzinger and that gave him the idea for the song.

That much I knew, but what I didn’t know and what a 2005 article from Mother Jones tells me is how the mainstream press reported the march and speech.  Here’s what the article says on that point…

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.

And that, I think is the key.  Dylan uses every weapon at his disposal to hit not so much at the hopeless William Zantzinger but the hopelessness of the national press in seeing an event and utterly, totally and completely misunderstanding what was going on.  He wanted (I believe) to point the finger at the fact that the white nation and those who wrote for the white nation, were just totally out of touch with the way the times were a-changing.

The point about “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is that it was “lonesome”, because no one knew what was going on and no one was going to report it, let alone be outraged.  In this sense the song is attuned to the message of Times they are a changing  – “there’s a battle outside and it’s raging” but you haven’t looked outside to see it.

The point on the march wasn’t that the marchers were very polite and didn’t cause a riot.  The point was “I have a dream”.   The point wasn’t whether William Zantzinger killed Hattie Carroll or not, but that the mindless, ceaseless horrific abuse of black workers by arrogant prats like Zantzinger was part of day to day reality for millions upon million of Americans and no one was reporting it as even significant.

The “I have a dream” speech could have been lost as a major historic moment if so many had not taken up the theme.  But at first the media was indeed blind.  The abuse of Hattie Carroll would have most certainly gone unnoticed if Dylan had not taken up the theme because no one took that sort of thing up.

Dylan’s approach to the death of Hattie Carroll followed from the bleak headline in Broadside

Rich brute slays Negro mother of ten.  

and what Dylan did was to write a stunning piece of music based around that allegation (which itself hides most of the truth), and the fact that William Zantzinger, the accused, got six months for for being the perpetrator.

What is sometimes not noticed however is the timetable.  Hattie Carroll died on February 9; Zantzinger went to jail on September 15; Dylan recorded the song on October 23 – a very fast turnaround of six weeks from the event to the recording.

None of this hides the fact that the accused was not found guilty of murder, but of involuntary manslaughter, because the case that was put showed that no, William Zantzinger did not beat Hattie Carroll to death although he did behave in an illegal, not to say utterly offensive and disgusting manner.

Now I am not going to try and unpick what happened; so many people far closer to the details and much more knowledgeable about what the laws that applied said at the time have done that.  But the essence of it appears to me to be that Zantzinger was extremely drunk, extremely abusive, was a racist (commonplace and not a crime at the time) and clearly felt it was his right to shout at a waitress who he perceived to be slow.

But the court found that the cane left no mark on her; and that she died of a brain haemorrhage brought on by stress caused by Zantzinger’s verbal abuse, coupled with the assault.

Heylin argues strongly that Dylan took the prosecution case in the subsequent trial but took no notice of the defence case which seemingly was stronger than the prosecution case.  But I think that is wrong.  I think he was thinking not just about Hattie Carroll and the abuse she suffered, but also the media’s perception of the march and the King speech.  I think he was incredibly frustrated by the way the march was reported, and so used the most dramatic drama he could to portray his feelings and to get attention.  And in that he certainly succeeded.  Lesser writers might have written a piece about the papers ignoring the true meaning of the march.  Dylan went in the opposite direction and had much more effect.

Dylan set his diatribe to a variation of the traditional Scottish song “Mary Hamilton” which implicates the Queen’s husband in the murder of a child of a maid.  The Queen later made the singing of the song, the writing of it down, and the teaching of it to another, an act of treason.  So it’s a good piece to choose for this type of writing.

And surely no one can deny the power of the song he produced.  The use of the “time for your tears” line is surely one of the most powerful single lines in Dylan’s work, and indeed the whole chorus with its plea for humanity and understanding, is phenomenally powerful.

Interestingly in a musical sense he also used two techniques that he had already experimented with.  The song like Times they are a changing is again a song in triple time – this time in 6/8 rather than 12/8, meaning each bar consists of two groups of three beats.

Second he used verses of varying length, as in Hard Rain.

What also adds to the absolute power of the delivery is the fact that the chord sequence in unremitting in its repetition.  Six lines of the same three chords…

C  Am  Em; C Am Em; C Am Em…..

with the added impact of the last two being minor chords which builds significantly on the feel of melancholy and doom.

Of course the song raises many other issues.  For example, if one is being critical and accepting the view that Dylan’s lyrics have nothing to do with the finding of the court, then the question arises why didn’t Zantzinger sue Dylan for millions of dollars.

There’s also the fact that Dylan deliberately or mistakenly calls the protagonist “William Zanzinger”.  We never know why.

Dylan is also completely off track with the “cane” which Dylan says was the weapon that killed Hattie Carroll.  It was in fact a toy costing 25 cents, which could not be used as a weapon.

Hattie Carroll complained of feeling unwell five minutes later, collapsed and died eight hours later.  The autopsy showed she had an enlarged heart, hardened arteries and high blood pressure.

After the trial Time magazine said, “After Zantzinger’s phalanx of five topflight attorneys won a change of venue to a court in Hagerstown, a three-judge panel reduced the murder charge to manslaughter. Following a three-day trial, Zantzinger was found guilty. For the assault on the hotel employees: a fine of $125. For the death of Hattie Carroll: six months in jail and a fine of $500. The judges deferred the start of the jail sentence until September 15, to give Zantzinger time to harvest his tobacco crop.”  This sort of deferral is not known in the UK, but is common in parts of Europe – indeed it is the norm in Sweden.  I am told it is in parts of the US too.

Although Zantzinger was said to be a rich tobacco farmer in many reports, it seems he had a lot of financial problems and eventually had his properties removed from him in response to his tax arrears.

In 1986, because of the back taxes, the county took possession of some rental houses he owned but seemingly being the sort of man who always thinks he is clever when he isn’t, he went on collecting rents as before. When the black tenants fell behind on their rent, he took them to court which was fairly dumb, and the state noticed.  In 1991,  Zantzinger was arrested on charges of fraud and deceptive business practices.  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.

Zantzinger passed into whatever afterlife such people go to, but his name lives on with one of the most powerful first lines in any song – and this in a song packed with power.

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.

Six lines of unremitting repeated chords as I mentioned above before a three line chorus – all very unusual in musical terms.  And then it gets more odd, with seven lines plus three.

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.

And then the third and fourth verses of unremitting horror across 11 lines plus the final three – with the last verse’s powerful variation.

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.

That third verse above adds even more pressure on the listener with three lines all ending “table” – you just don’t do that unless you are making one hell of a point.  It is like banging on that table in fact.

And so to the conclusion.

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.

How powerful do you want a song to be?

All the songs reviewed on this site.


  1. Inspiring and interesting piece of writing Tony. I will have your words on my mind when I watch the opening of his autumn tour in Oslo in a couple of weeks, hoping to see another reading of “Hattie Carrol”. Thank you from a Dylan-fan since the first hearing of the song back in 1964.

    Rune Pedersen

  2. I am a native of Baltimore. I have lived there all my life. So this song has always been especially powerful for me. And the Baltimore newspapers & radio have, from time to time, featured this song – including interviewing Zantzinger himself – throughout the years. Zantzinger maintaining in these interviews, up until his last interview before his death, that Bob Dylan is (I think this is the quote, if I recall correctly) “the scum of the earth.” Which is an interesting damnation coming from someone as low-down as Zantzinger. I have to say that the line ” but you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears” is a line I never fully understood, really, until Baltimore exploded in violence following the Freddie Gray killing this past spring. All of a sudden, that very week, as our city was tense and still smoldering & in ashes, and the entire nation & world even, was casting their fingers in accusation, asking, “What’s wrong with Baltimore? Why are they so angry?” etc., etc., I was listening to a live version of Hattie Carroll and that line “but you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears” leapt out at me and I really truly understood for the very first time in my life, what Bob meant when he sang that line. Up until that time, that line was always a mystery to me in this very powerful song.

  3. I think it was Stalin that said that the death of one person is a tragedy; the deaths of thousands are simply a statistic.

    Using one graphic and specific story to make a point can be compelling. Think of the picture of a dead Syrian child drowned off the coast of Turkey. Its very specificity galvanized people world wide, creating great attention and sympathy for the victims of the Syrian war trying to make their way to Europe or North America.

    Dylan has used this device – focusing on a specific case to make a general point – many times. Think of “Hollis Brown,” “George Jackson,” “Hurricane Carter.” “Lenny Bruce,” “Joey,” “Roll on John” and so forth. Indeed if you look at the song selection of “The Times They are a Changin” you see how Dylan intersperses personal specific concrete tales – “Hollis Brown,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “Hattie Carroll” with anthem-like statements universal in their appeal.

    Whether Dylan got the facts right is another matter altogether. In my view it is pretty much irrelevant. What counts, I think, is the universal point he is trying to make by clothing it in the garb of a single tragedy. “Joey” is about fate; “Hollis Brown” about poverty and desperation; “Hattie Carroll” about racism built into the justice system; “Lenny Bruce” about being an unconventional outlaw; “George Jackson” about taking away freedom, imprisoning the righteous; and so forth.

  4. A lot of songs about great injustices fall into the trap of “stating the bleedin’ obvious”. One of the remarkable things about this song is that nowhere does it say that Hattie Carroll was black and that William Zanzinger was white. And yet, somehow, we as listeners can still understand that this is what the song is all about.

  5. Hi @kimberly, I don’t understand the chorus either. That’s why I ended up at this page all together. You say you finally understand the lines. So what DO they tell us, you think? Cheers, David

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