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The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

John Simkin

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I thought teachers might be able to use the example of the case of Hattie Carroll as an "interpretation" exercise.

First here is the lyrics of Bob Dylan's song, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (1964)

William Zantzinger 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 Zantzinger for first-degree murder.

But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,

Take the rag away from your face.

Now ain't the time for your tears.

William Zantzinger, who at twenty-four years

Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred 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 philosophize disgrace and criticize 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 fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten 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 Zantzinger.

But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize 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 Zantzinger with a six-month sentence.

Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,

Bury the rag deep in your face

For now's the time for your tears.

Here is an article on the song by the great songwriter Phil Ochs:


Here is a brief background to the case:


Phil Ochs considers the song as a work of art. However, Dylan, was guilty of distorting the truth to make his point. Was this justifiable? Ochs will no doubt argue that it was. After all, he was a political activist who used his music as propaganda. For a time in the 1960s Dylan held similar views.

William Zantzinger (note that Dylan changed his name for artistic reasons) was indeed an unpleasant racist. However, it is highly debateable if he actually killed Hattie Carroll.

Zantzinger was a farmer in West Hatton who was married with two young children. On 8th February, 1963, Zantzinger attended a charity Spinsters’ Ball at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore. He was wearing a top hat, white tie and tails and carrying a toy cane.

During the evening he got drunk and began tapping people with the cane. Later people claimed that Zantzinger hit rather than tapped them with the cane. This included three people who were working at the hotel, Hattie Carroll, George Gessell and Ethel Hill. Hattie was hit on the shoulder by Zantzinger. Afterwards she complained of feeling ill. She collapsed and was taken to hospital where she died the next day. The hospital reported that she died of a brain haemorrhage. The 51 year old Hattie was also suffering from hardened arteries, an enlarged heart and high blood pressure. Although being struck on the shoulder had not caused her death, the hospital indicated that the brain haemorrhage might have been triggered by the stress caused by Zantzinger’s verbal abuse of her the previous night.

Dylan is of course wrong to claim that Zantzinger was charged with first-degree murder. In fact he was charged with manslaughter and assault. He was later convicted and sentenced to 6 months in prison. This in fact was a very harsh punishment considering the facts of the case. It is hard to imagine anyone in the UK being convicted for such an offence.

However, people know the story of Hattie Carroll via Dylan’s song and it helped to change attitudes towards race relations.

For a full account of this case see:


However, it was another song by Dylan that had the most impact on the Civil Rights Movement:

Bob Dylan, Death of Emmett Till (1963)

Twas down in Mississippi no so long ago,

When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door.

This boy's dreadful tragedy I can still remember well,

The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up.

They said they had a reason, but I can't remember what.

They tortured him and did some evil things too evil to repeat.

There was screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds out on the street.

Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain

And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain.

The reason that they killed him there, and I'm sure it ain't no lie,

Was just for the fun of killin' him and to watch him slowly die.

And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial,

Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till.

But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime,

And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.

I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see

The smiling brothers walkin' down the courthouse stairs.

For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,

While Emmett's body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.

If you can't speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that's so unjust,

Your eyes are filled with dead men's dirt, your mind is filled with dust.

Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow,

For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man

That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.

But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give,

We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

In this case Dylan kept very close to the facts and helped to publicize and appalling crime.

Dylan writes:

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up.

They said they had a reason, but I can't remember what.

However, the reason he was murdered is in fact very important in understanding why this case played such an important role in the struggle for Civil Rights.

Emmett Till, the only child of Louis Till and Mamie Till, was born near Chicago, Illinois, on 25th July, 1941. In August, 1955, Emmett, now aged 14, was sent by Mamie to Mississippi to stay with relatives.

During the evening of 24th August, Emmett, a cousin, Curtis Jones, and a group of his friends, went to Bryant's Grocery Store in Money, Mississippi. Carolyn Bryant later claimed that Emmett had grabbed her at the waist and asked her for a date. When pulled away by his cousin, Emmett allegedly said, "Bye, baby" and "wolf whistled".

Bryant told her husband about the incident and he decided to punish the boy for his actions. The following Saturday, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, took Emmett from the house where he was staying and drove him to the Tallahatchie River and shot him in the head.

After Emmett's body was found Bryant and Milam were charged with murder. On 19th September, 1955, the trial began in a segregated courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. In court Mose Wright identified Bryant and Milam as the two men who took away his nephew on the 24th August. Other African Americans also gave evidence against Bryant and Milam but after four days of testimony, the all white jury acquitted the men.

The Emmett Till case, publicized by writers such as William Bradford Huie, led to demonstrations in several northern cities about the way African Americans were being treated in the Deep South.

The US justice department announced recently that it was reopening the case of Emmett Till.

For more information on the case see:


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When I have time in my course for 12th graders, I have a Bob Dylan song day.

He has the ability to look at the problems of the end of the legal segregation era with an eye on the problems of a society trying to separate the interests of poor whites and poor blacks.

Only a Pawn in Their Game is a great one.

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood.

A finger fired the trigger to his name.

A handle hid out in the dark

A hand set the spark

Two eyes took the aim

Behind a man's brain

But he can't be blamed

He's only a pawn in their game.

A South politician preaches to the poor white man,

"You got more than the blacks, don't complain.

You're better than them, you been born with white skin," they explain.

And the Negro's name

Is used it is plain

For the politician's gain

As he rises to fame

And the poor white remains

On the caboose of the train

But it ain't him to blame

He's only a pawn in their game.

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid,

And the marshals and cops get the same,

But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool.

He's taught in his school

From the start by the rule

That the laws are with him

To protect his white skin

To keep up his hate

So he never thinks straight

'Bout the shape that he's in

But it ain't him to blame

He's only a pawn in their game.

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks,

And the hoof beats pound in his brain.

And he's taught how to walk in a pack

Shoot in the back

With his fist in a clinch

To hang and to lynch

To hide 'neath the hood

To kill with no pain

Like a dog on a chain

He ain't got no name

But it ain't him to blame

He's only a pawn in their game.

Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught.

They lowered him down as a king.

But when the shadowy sun sets on the one

That fired the gun

He'll see by his grave

On the stone that remains

Carved next to his name

His epitaph plain:

Only a pawn in their game.


I like to look at the transition in tone from Blowin in the Wind to The Times They Are a Changin to Ballad of a Thin Man.

My favorite of his songs that connect to the threads of the dispossessed is Chimes of Freedom.

Some days I can sneak this more obscure song in on the kids.

Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll

We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing

As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds

Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight

Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight

An' for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

In the city's melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched

With faces hidden while the walls were tightening

As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin' rain

Dissolved into the bells of the lightning

Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake

Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsaked

Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail

The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder

That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze

Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder

Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind

Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind

An' the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales

For the disrobed faceless forms of no position

Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts

All down in taken-for-granted situations

Tolling for the deaf an' blind, tolling for the mute

Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute

For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an' cheated by pursuit

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Even though a cloud's white curtain in a far-off corner flashed

An' the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting

Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones

Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting

Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail

For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale

An' for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Starry-eyed an' laughing as I recall when we were caught

Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended

As we listened one last time an' we watched with one last look

Spellbound an' swallowed 'til the tolling ended

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed

For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an' worse

An' for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.


I think Bob Dylan 1962-1966 represents the transformation of the New Left of the 1960s. He reinvented himslef and evolved so quickly and his age gave him a voice of radical youth that was authentic and an odd combination of idealistic and disgusted.

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