Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

For people of a certain age and background Bob Dylan's early song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" (1963) is life altering. 
It tells of a wealthy man who kills a servant and, through his power and wealth, escapes justice. The song tells a true story - or that's what I believed until quiet recently. 

The song shaped my thinking about power inequality and the law for as long as I can remember. 

The lyrics are:

"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 philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain't the time for your tears

William Zanzinger, 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 Zanzinger
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 Zanzinger 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"

Now I happened to hear the song again recently while I was preparing for a homicide trial. 

And something struck me. William Zanzinger was charged with First Degree Murder - but he killed for no reason and without warning. 

That doesn't sound like First Degree Murder - it sounds like manslaughter. 

I was curious and dug deeper. 

In fact William Zantzinger (Dylan dropped the "t", perhaps to make the words scan better) was a dreadful man and a nasty racist. He did come to a fancy dress ball with a twenty five cent toy cane. He did push around staff and called them racial names. In short he was a very bad guy and the police took him away and charged him with assault and public intoxication - and rightly so. 

But oddly he was not charged at first with assaulting Hattie Carroll. And, again at first, she had no injuries but was deeply upset but being called dreadful names by William Zantzinger. The records are not clear but it is possible that she was not hit at all by Zantzinger - or she may have been. If she was assaulted she was hit on her shoulder. Either way she suffered no direct physical injuries. But she was almost immediately taken ill. Hattie Carroll told co-workers, "I feel deathly ill, that man has upset me so."

Hattie Carroll's arm became numb, her speech thick. She collapsed and was hospitalized. Carroll died eight hours later.  Her autopsy showed hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, and high blood pressure. She died of a brain hemorrhage probably caused by the stress of Zantzinger's verbal abuse.

There was a very real causation issue. 

What's more, the assault, if it happened, was not one that would have suggested death was a likely (or even plausible) result.  A conviction for manslaughter was far from a sure thing. 

But a conviction resulted. 

Manslaughter has a remarkable range for sentencing - everything from discharge to life imprisonment. The Zantzinger sentence was low - but not so low as to be an inconceivable result even today. My own sense is a court today would be more likely to give a three or four year sentence but with the right type of pre-sentence reports a lower sentence might follow. 

I should be clear that I am not acting as an apologist for William Zantzinger -- who died in 2009. He seems to have been a thoroughly dreadful person (at least in the early 60s). 

But the story is far more complex than I had known ,,,

1 comment:

Laurent said...

thank you for that story, I had no idea. Very interesting.