Fifty Years Later, Hattie Carroll’s Death Remembered


It was the night of Feb. 8, 1963,  and William D. Zantzinger, a prosperous tobacco farmer from Southern Maryland, was the center of attention at the Spinsters’ Ball, a swanky charity event at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore.

Channeling Fred Astaire in a top hat, white tie and tails, a carnation in his lapel and a brashly-wielded wooden cane, the 24-year-old “rural aristocrat” and his wife, Jane, came in drunk and quickly announced their intention to become even drunker. “I just flew in from Texas. Gimme a drink!”  Zantzinger reportedly declared upon his entrance.

With each new swig of whatever spirit he was consuming, the 6-foot-2-inch, 225-pound man grew more belligerent. He quarreled with other guests. He fell on his wife in an intoxicated sprawl on the dance floor then started hitting her with his shoe. He assaulted bellhop George Gessell with his cane and chased waitress Ethel Hill, whom he smacked on her behind and called the N-word.

A short time later, Zantzinger elbowed his way to the bar, loudly demanding another bourbon. Hattie Carroll, a 51-year-old barmaid with a history of high blood pressure, was busy serving another customer. She asked him to wait for a moment.

But Zantzinger, wealthy owner of West Hatton, a 630-acre farm along the Wicomico River in Charles County, did not take kindly to having his wishes deferred.

“He said ‘Ni—r, did you hear me ask for a drink?’ He said ‘I don't have to take that kind of sh-t off a ni—r,’” Marina Patterson, a coworker, later testified, according to an AFRO account. “He took the cane and struck her on the right shoulder. She leaned at the bar…. She seemed to have been in shock. She said ‘That man has upset me so, I feel deathly ill.’”

Other co-workers confirmed Patterson’s account.

“Zantzinger yelled ‘Why are you so slow, you black b-t-h?’ then hit Mrs. Carroll with the cane,” added Grace Shelton, of Mulberry Street.

Moments later, Carroll had to be helped to the pantry. Her co-workers said her speech became slurred and garbled, and numbness crept along her right arm, which they tried to massage back to life. She was rushed to Mercy Hospital. And, by 9:15 a.m. on Feb. 9, about eight hours after the incident, Carroll was pronounced dead. The mother of 11 (nine living and two dead) and grandmother of modest means had died of an apparent cerebral hemorrhage.

News of the incident sparked widespread outrage throughout Baltimore’s Black community.  The AFRO reported reactions were “quick and bitter,” and that switchboards at the newspaper and the local NAACP “buzzed incessantly” with demands for justice.

“The case was drawn in shades of black and white,” the AFRO remarked, “and not only because of the racial identification of the victim and her accused slayer. It seemed to place the rich against the poor, the haves against the have-nots.”

The community’s anger and sadness shrouded Carroll’s Valentine’s Day funeral like a thundercloud. “It was a cold, grey day,” reported the AFRO ’s Ralph Matthews.

About 1,600 mourners—only half of whom could fit into the sanctuary—attended the service at Gillis Memorial Church, where Carroll had served as a deacon and choir member.

The Rev. Theodore Jackson, pastor of the church, said his parishioner’s death demanded a united response.

“This one death will mean more to the city of Baltimore than any other,” he preached. “I do think the ministers of this city, the doctors, lawyers, all people should come together as never before and let people know that colored citizens are not going to stand for certain things.”

Jackson’s indignation, and that of the community’s, stemmed in part from city officials’ handling of the case. State’s Attorney William J. O’Donnell did not oppose bail for Zantzinger. He also indicated that his office would likely settle for a manslaughter conviction, not murder.

Deputy State’s Attorney Charles E. Moylan Jr., the key prosecutor on the case, said he feared the case would trigger a riot.

“From the outset I figured we had to make certain it was obvious that the government was treating the case with maximum seriousness and bringing all our resources to bear,” the now-retired judge told the AFRO in a recent interview.

On the night of Carroll’s assault, a pugnacious Zantzinger was arrested and charged with murder, three counts of assault and disorderly conduct. He was later released on $25,000 bail. His wife, who was charged with assaulting an officer and disorderly conduct, was released on $600 bail, according to news accounts.

Zantzinger faced a tentative trial date of March 28, but won motions to have the case moved to Hagerstown, citing prejudicial media coverage. He opted to face a panel of judges, rather than a jury.

The trial finally began at 9:30 a.m. on June 19, 1963.

The courtroom was packed.

Thirty witnesses were called by the prosecution, including members of the “state’s aristocracy” that attended the ball, many of whom “wore rather shame-faced expressions, as if they were embarrassed to be involved in a trial of this nature,” wrote AFRO correspondent James Williams, describing the scene. He added, however, that Zantzinger and his wife seemed unmoved.

O’Donnell and Moylan mounted a vigorous offense but they faced a difficult task.

“Clearly we had a case of simple assault, but to elevate [that] to a homicide level, we had to prove that what he did was the effective cause of death,” Moylan said. That was difficult because “there was no bullet, no knife and the cane was a little thing [that] could do nothing more than sting.”

The prosecution’s last and chief witness was Dr. Charles Petty, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Carroll. He said he believed the blow from Zantzinger’s cane had caused the victim’s fatal stroke. “My opinion is there was a definite relationship,” he told the court. “The assault occurred some minutes before the onslaught of the symptoms. I feel there is a definite cause and effect between the two.”

The defense produced doctors of its own. They argued that Carroll’s medical history, including an enlarged heart, hardened arteries and hypertension, could offer other reasons for her stroke.

And they tried to paint their client as an honest, hard-working man.

“When Zantzinger took the stand, it was in an effort to portray himself as a dirt farmer who went to Baltimore just to ‘cut up’ a bit, and drank so much that he had no recollection of striking Mrs. Carroll,” Williams wrote in a story entitled “Cane-Killer Forgets.”

On June 27, 1963, eight days after trial started, the three-judge panel pronounced that Zantzinger was guilty of manslaughter. Then, in late August, amid AFRO stories about the historical triumph of the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, a disturbing headline announced Zantzinger’s sentence—six months in prison and a $500 fine.

The judges said they didn’t believe he was “an animal type,” according to historic accounts. They also feared he would be murdered by Black inmates in state prison. The judges even gave Zantzinger time to harvest his crops before he began his sentence.

The blatant injustice angered many, including singer Bob Dylan, who had performed at the historic civil rights March on Washington. He later immortalized Carroll in a song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

“I think what was jarring to Bob Dylan and to many was the sick irony of King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech being given that day and the injustice against this woman who was pursuing her dream by working, taking care of her children, going to church… [and then] murdered,” said Sharon Harley, an associate professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. “The sentencing was in no way commensurate with his crime.”

Through it all, Zantzinger remained unrepentant.

“The idea that Black people were no better than an animal and that if a ‘dog’ offends you, you have the right to beat that ‘dog’ with a cane was the attitude that most White people in the South had towards Blacks,” said Temple University scholar Molefi Kete Asante.

In later news reports, friends and acquaintances of Zantzinger felt he was maligned. He lived a relatively quiet life after his release from jail. Then, in 1991, he was convicted of victimizing Blacks again, this time for illegally collecting rent from African American families living in shanties that he no longer owned, since they had been foreclosed for unpaid taxes. Through it all, his family remained mum. When the AFRO contacted Zantzinger family members this week, they refused comment.

“It’s over,” said one relative.

But for many, the case of the killing of Hattie Carroll lives on.

Zantzinger died Jan. 9, 2009, less than two weeks before Barack Obama took the oath of office as president of the United States.

On March 10, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts will launch an exhibition on the case with a reception headlined by Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, officials said.

Click here to see the actual Baltimore AFRO Archives for Newspaper dated February 12, 1963.

"Matron Felled By Cane in "Old Plantation" Setting"

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Fifty Years Later, Hattie Carroll's Death Remembered

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