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:
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 ,,,