William Zantzinger died on January 3rd, almost 46 years after he was held responsible for the February 9, 1963 death of an African-American barmaid named Hattie Carroll. Bob Dylan transformed Zantzinger into a national villain and a symbol of why a civil rights revolution was needed. Dylan's memorable song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" was recorded on October 23, 1963 and released on January 13, 1964 on his album The Times They Are a-Changin'.
However vicious, repulsive, racist, and cruel Zantzinger may have been, the facts of Hattie Carroll's death don't completely cohere with the way the song presents them. Zantzinger was at a fancy event dressed up and carrying a toy cane. According to news reports, a drunken Zantzinger hit several employees with the cane and repeatedly used racially derogatory words. At one point he went to the bar and asked Hattie Carroll for a drink. She was evidently too slow for him, and he began calling her racially insulting names and hitting her on the shoulder with the cane. Carroll, whose heart was enlarged and who had hypertension, went to the kitchen. She left and later collapsed and died of a stroke. The medical examiner thought Zantzinger's nasty language had bothered her as the caning. A three-judge panel concluded that the caning itself could not have caused her death and so reduced the charges to manslaughter. Zantzinger was sentenced to six months in jail. In the song, Zantzinger's sentence has much to do with Zantginger's high political connections. In fact, his father had served a single term as a state legislator and been on the Maryland Planning Commission.
Writing for the January 26, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, David Simon (creator of The Wire) notes that he interviewed Zantzinger 25 years after the death. The most interesting part of the interview is that Zantzinger claims he was going to sue Dylan. He told Simon, "Scared that boy good." Zantzinger claimed his lawyer had contacted both Dylan and Columbia Records but refrained from the suit because Zantzinger had had enough of courtrooms.
But there is a lingering question. It was just about the time of the album's release and its immediate aftermath--the very time that Zantzinger's lawyers would most likely have threatened Columbia and Dylan with a lawsuit--that Dylan began to move away from explicitly political songs.
His reasons for doing so--the desire to explore the personal and a refusal to be owned by any movement--continue to make the most sense, and there is no reason to conclude Dylan ever lacked courage or felt legally or artistically threatened by a possible lawsuit. Indeed, Dylan was always a particularly courageous artist. But it would be interesting to see Columbia's legal file on the matter. And I wonder if the realization that the political songs could not be written without sometimes getting a nasty reaction and potential confrontation also contributed in some way to Dylan's move away from those explicitly political songs.