Did William Zanzinger Really Murder Hattie Carroll By Beating Her to Death With a Cane?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about music and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the music urban legends featured so far.

MUSIC URBAN LEGEND: William Zanzinger murdered Hattie Carroll by beating her to death with a cane.

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is a song that appears on Bob Dylan’s 1964 album, The Times They Are A’Changin’…

The tune tells the story of the murder of Hattie Carroll by William Zanzinger, and it is based on the real life death of Hattie Carroll after being struck by a cane by William Zantzinger (Dylan dropped the T for some reason).

The song is a sad re-telling of the events, while noticeably avoiding actually mentioning that Carroll was black and Zan(t)zinger was white, leaving it to the listener to discern that for his/herself, while ending each verse by saying, “But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears/Take the rag away from your face/
Now ain’t the time for your tears.” until the end of the song, when we learn that Zan(t)zinger receives only a six-month sentence, and THEN Dylan tells us, “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.”

Let me get something straight off the bat. William Zantzinger (who passed away a few years back) does not appear to be a very pleasant individual. In fact, he sounds like a rotten scoundrel. Just in the last few decades, Zantzinger sued (and won) awards from tenants in shanties that he owned for back rent – the only thing was, he had not owned the properties for YEARS, as the Maryland government had foreclosed on the properties years earlier for Zantzinger’s constant violations of county health codes. He sure seemed to be an awful man.

However, as awful as he was – Dylan exaggerates what happened in the song so much that I think he basically gives a false recitation of the facts and has caused listeners over the years to have a false idea of what actually happened at the lonesome death of Hattie Carroll.

The song opens with:

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.

And later, Dylan describes Carroll as having…

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 ends with:

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.

So here’s what happened – in the early hours of February 9, 1963, after a white tie Spinster’s Ball, a very drunk William Zantzinger (who was with his wife) struck a number of employees at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland with a wooden toy cane he had purchased earlier that day.

When Carroll, a barmaid, did not give him his drink quickly enough, he struck her in the shoulder and on the head with his toy cane.

Zantzinger, the filthy individual that he was, threw out a lot of racial epithets as well. He then turned on his own wife, smacking her around and hitting her with his shoe.

Carroll returned to the kitchen and told her co-workers that she was feeling ill after that man had upset her so. She collapsed and eight hours later, she was dead.

The autopsy reported that she had hardened arteries, an enlarged heart and high blood pressure. They gave brain hemorrhage as the cause of death.

After originally being charged with murder generally (which was basically their way of saying “homicide” – the charges weren’t actually decided yet), the charges became manslaughter when it was determined that it was his berating of Carroll that caused her death of the brain hemorrhage rather than the blows of the cane (the toy cane did not even leave any marks on her).

So when you look at it like that, while you can certainly complain about him receiving only six months, that’s certainly not enough to charge anything BUT manslaughter. You’re not going to prosecute someone for murder when they shock someone into having a stroke. You’re just not.

And Dylan’s version of events ignore all of this, and gives the impression that A. He beat her to death with the cane and B. That he was convicted of murder and received only a six months sentence. Those are two tremendous fallacies right there.

Was William Zantzinger a bad guy?


Was he a pretty horribly racist?


I just don’t think he was a murderer, and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” sure doesn’t tell you that (it’s a sad and beautiful song, though – one of Dylan’s best).

The legend is…

STATUS: False Enough for a False

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

6 Responses to “Did William Zanzinger Really Murder Hattie Carroll By Beating Her to Death With a Cane?”

  1. Dylan never let the truth get in the way of a good song.

  2. And as I’ve featured in a previous legend, it got Dylan into legal trouble once!

  3. […] footnote: via Brian Cronin, Dylan took some creative liberties in the song. But the point remains: Zanzinger got off […]

  4. Yeah, Southern white trash will always stick up for each other, hoods and all. b/t/w I’m white and I’m from the South.

  5. I always find it interesting how folk will try and diminish Zanzinger’s role in Hattie Carroll’s death. Even when the despicable nature of this man is more than apparent. Hattie Carroll, may have had any number of illnesses, but make no mistake about it. It was the blow or several blows from Zanzinger’s cane that killed her. With the logic you use to make Zanzinger seem less of a monster than was, you encourage and condone the bad behavior of a racist pig juxtaposed against the strong Christian God-fearing, hard working legacy of Hattie Carroll. She was a good person and innocent victim. May he burn in hell.

  6. Even if Zantzinger took minutes off her life, he would be responsible for killing her … even if the cause of death were stroke. He initiated the stroke!

    Furthermore, Dylan was writing his song from the report in the newspaper. He was reporting the facts as the facts had been reported.

    I like that he doesn’t say who was white and who was black. Why diminish her importance as a human for the racists, by specifying her race? Anyone else with half a brain can otherwise judge the chasm of social disparity between them, simply by the words he uses to describe both of their circumstances.

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