Art, reality, and William Zan(t)zinger

(Note: see exchange between commenter Pentheus and me on whether Dylan defamed William Zantzinger. Also see follow-up, “The death of Hattie Carroll in reverse.)

William Zantzinger died this week. Bob Dylan’s song about the death of Hattie Carroll, which was caused by Zantzinger at a “Baltimore hotel society gatherin’” in 1963, is a thing of beauty. Unfortunately, Dylan grossly misrepresented what actually happened, and I’m amazed that Zantzinger (whose name Dylan changed to the more euphonious “Zanzinger”) never sued him for libel.

As told in a long, interesting article in Mother Jones in 2004, William Zantzinger, who was 24 years old, was “wildly drunk” that night, behaving atrociously, like an animal, toward several people, but he did not commit anything like a homicide. He called Hattie Carroll a “nigger” and struck her once on the shoulder. The blow caused no physical injury. But she was in poor health, with hardened arteries, high blood pressure, and an enlarged heart, and she was so upset by Zantzinger’s insult and assault that she suffered a brain hemorrage at the hotel and died in the hospital the next morning.

According to press accounts of Zantzinger’s trial, he and his wife arrived at the ball, a charity event called the Spinsters’ Ball, at the Emerson Hotel on Friday evening, February 8, 1963. He was in top hat, white tie, and tails, attire with which a cane is optional. Unlike other guests, Zantzinger didn’t check his cane at the door because, as he said, “I was having lots of fun with it, tapping everybody.” Tapping turned to hitting; a bellboy named George Gessell said Zantzinger struck him on the arm, and a waitress named Ethel Hill said Zantzinger argued with her and struck her several times across the buttocks. At about 1:30 a.m., he ordered a drink from the bar from Hattie Carroll, one of the barmaids. When she didn’t bring it immediately, he cursed at her. Carroll replied, “I’m hurrying as fast as I can.” Zantzinger said, “I don’t have to take that kind of s**t off a nigger,” and struck her on the shoulder with the cane. Soon after, Hattie Carroll said, “I feel deathly ill, that man has upset me so.” She then collapsed and was taken to the hospital.

But Dylan told it as a wanton act of murder, in which Zantzinger hurled his cane at Hattie Carroll, and it struck her and killed her:

Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children….
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’d never done nothin’ to William Zanzinger….

In the courtroom of honor the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level…
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’

Until I read the Mother Jones story a couple of years ago, I always pictured the cane sailing through the room, hitting Hattie Carroll on the head, and killing her instantly.

So, what is the morality here? Was Dylan justified in following his poetic inspiration even at the expense of portraying as a deliberate killer a man who, while he behaved horribly and was justly convicted of involuntary manslaughter, was not at all a murderer? If Dylan had stayed with the facts, or at least avoided outright libeling Zantzinger, could the song have been written in a way that worked?

How about this alternative, factually true version?

Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen
She was fifty-one years old and had hardened arteries….
Got hit on the shoulder by a toy cane
Then became very upset and collapsed of a brain hemorrage

In the courtroom of honor the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level…
Stared at the person who struck Hattie on the shoulder for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’

Not quite the same, is it?

I guess the real question is: would we have had Dylan not write this haunting, timeless song, in order to avoid committing the massive act of defamation that the song required?

Here are the complete lyrics of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Here is the recording. The line that touches me the most every time I listen to the song is simply,

Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen.

I can’t explain why the line cuts into me the way it does. It’s the totality of it, the words, the melody, and the unique feeling conveyed by Dylan’s voice. To me the song is not primarily about oppression or injustice or people’s moral blindness. It’s about life, the beauty of life. Dylan had this poetic thing going on in him, and it could express itself through a variety of subjects, and here it expressed itself through the story of a black woman being gratuitously killed by a well-to-do white man. (What I’ve just said is similar to Nietzsche’s theme in The Birth of Tragedy, which he says that tragedy is really an expression of the underlying joy of life, which expresses itself through the representation of disastrous events. The greatest example of this tragic sensibility in Dylan’s work is his 1975 song, “Tangled up in Blue,” in which the actual events told of in the song are about loss and pain, but the overwhelming emotion conveyed by the song is joy. However, that only applies to the official recording of the song. In other performances of the song, it is downbeat without the joy. )

Of course, as I’ve said before, Dylan would never have dreamed of using his poetic gift to tell the story of, say, the racially motivated, savage murder of a white person by blacks, and of a society that philosophizes this disgrace.

* * *

- end of initial entry -

Jim N. writes:

I don’t see the big quandary. All that needs to be done is to change the peoples’ names.

And don’t tell me he can’t do that because he wants to convey something about what happened in the real world, because he’s already phonied that up. :)

LA writes:

But you know what? I think that when he read the newspaper story with the names “Hattie Carroll” and “William Zantzinger,” the sound, rhythm, and “feel” of those particular names instantly inspired the words, melody, and feeling of the song. Thus the song begins,

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll

And the first three verses of the song all begin with one of those names. So he couldn’t have changed the names, as they were intrinsic to the conception of the song in his mind. Also, if he had made the song an outright fiction, it would have lost its impact.

LA continues:

But still, you have a point. Given that he was drastically changing the facts, he could and should, after writing the song, have replaced the real names with made-up names that were their poetic equivalent.

Again, I can’t understand why Zantzinger didn’t sue Dylan for libel. I have read that he was very bitter at Dylan for smearing him as he did.

And apparently Zantzinger himself wondered why he didn’t do so. According to the Guardian,

“[Dylan] is a no-account son of a bitch,” Zantzinger told Dylan biographer Howard Sounes in 2001. “He’s just like a scum bag of the earth. I should have sued him and put him in jail. [The song is] a total lie.”

January 11

Pentheus (a new pen name for a long time reader) writes:

I am not sure how Dylan’s lyrics are a misrepresentation of the facts, let alone defamatory.

You say that Dylan portrays it as an intentional homicide, but a close reading shows that the lyrics are not much different than would have been the allegations of the criminal complaint for involuntary manslaughter: “On or about [date], Defendant did recklessly and with callous indifference [such and such action] which resulted in the victim’s death.”

Note that Dylan uses passive phrasing that refers to the result and the victim, rather than active phrasing referring to the assailant or his intent.

Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane

Nothing in this line is untrue.

She was “killed by a blow,” for purposes of alleging the criminal result of Zanziger’s action which was legally the proximate cause of the death. If she was “killed by a heart attack” in the sense of that having been a superseding cause, Zanziger would not have been convicted of a crime. His phrasing is therefore completely legitimate license in telescoping the attenuated (but legally unbroken) chain of causation. [LA replies: While the concept of proximate cause is used in tort law, I’m not aware that it is used in criminal law. And, in any case, the issue here is not the sort of language that would be used in a criminal complaint, but the way that the ordinary reasonable person would take the meaning of Dylan’s song. “Killed by a blow, slain by a cane,” unambiguously means that she was killed by the blow, which she was not. She died because of a heart attack brought on the emotional stress caused by Zanzinger’s abusive behavior. So the song is defamatory]

It does not matter whether the cane hit her in the head or shoulder, or whether she “lay slain” immediately or sometime shortly afterward. Dylan states, effectively and by no means falsely, the gravamen of the criminal charge for which Zanziger was convicted. To recognize a libel claim based on Dylan’s portrayal of events would have required, therefore, an impermissible collateral attack on the criminal conviction. [LA replies: I disagree, again, because the issue is not whether technical legal language in a criminal indictment would be similar to Dylan’s language; the issue is how a reasonable person would understand Dylan’s language. A reasonable person hearing or reading the song would believe that Zanzinger committed and was charged with killing Hattie either deliberately or through depraved indifference. But, as explained in the Mother Jones article (see below), when the medical examiner’s report came in showing Hattie Carroll’s hardened arteries and high blood pressure, her death from brain hemorrage, and the absence of any visible marks from the blow with the cane, the charge against Zantzinger was lowered from homicide to assault and involuntary manslaughter.]

Note also that Dylan in his lyrics attributes Hattie Carroll’s death to “a blow” and “a cane,” and personifies the “cane” rather than Zanziger as being the decisive actor. Indeed the cane itself is a tool of fate:

slain by a cane
That sailed
through the air …
doomed and determined to destroy …

Dylan thus portrays Zanziger himself to be somewhat of a tragic actor in Hattie Carroll’s death. If Zanziger had, for example, shot Carroll, I doubt that Dylan would have described the bullet as “doomed and determined.” [LA replies: That’s a creative and interesting interpretation, but I don’t find it persuasive. There is nothing tragic about Zanzinger in this song. He is portrayed as thoroughly vile and amoral. Even after Hattie has died and he’s been arrested, “And swear words and sneering in his tongue it was a snarlin’.” In reality, as I’ve read in long accounts (either the Mother Jones article or elsewhere), he felt very remorseful and made voluntary financial restitution to Hattie’s family.]

Involuntary manslaughter is a crime in which so much hangs upon the intervention of fate (“doom”; “determine” as in determinism rather than decide or choose) somewhere between the potentially non-fatal act and the actual, fatal, criminal result. Dylan’s lyrics capture this sense in which a particular involuntary manslaughter defendant is somehow “doomed”—i.e., fated—to be the cause of a criminally chargeable death by an action that, if done by some other person with a different fate, would not have caused a death. (e.g., all the other people Zanziger hit with his cane that night). And this applies, as well, to the victim as being fated. [LA replies: Again I find this interpretation interesting, but not exculpatory of the charge against Dylan that the average reasonable person hearing or reading this song would think that Zanzinger in an act of at least wanton depraved indifference hurled his cane through the air, it struck Hattie, and it killed her on the spot.]

It would seem that Dylan’s larger point is about the poisonous effects of racial hatred (this was a 1960s civil rights song), and how they harm not only the victims (blacks) but as well “doom” whites to lowering themselves to a beastly, callous state. [LA replies: I think you’re applying to “Hattie Carroll” the theme of another Dylan song from the same album, “Only a Pawn in their Game,” in which the killer of Medgar Evers is portrayed as a victim of the South’s racial system as much as Evers. That is not the case here, where Zanzinger is himself a wealthy man of privilege and shown as a snarling, callous killer who gets off with a six month sentence because he’s wealthy and white. As explained in the Mother Jones article, the authorities limited his term to six months in the county jail, rather than giving him a longer sentence which would have required sending him to state prison, because they thought that in prison he would be targeted and killed by blacks in vengeance for the death of Hattie Carroll.]

LA continues:

Also, it’s hard for us to form an opinion on the justice of the sentence in the absence of knowledge of how hard he hit her. None of the accounts I’ve seen make it clear whether he hit her with a tap, or with force. The more force he used, the more culpable he was. In any case, there is no indication that it caused physical injury.

Here it would be worthwhile to quote Ian Frazier’s article in Mother Jones (from which I see that I was mistaken in saying initially that Hattie Carroll died of a heart attack: she died of a brain hemorrhage):

Zantzinger’s actual arrest and trial were more complicated than the song lets on. Police arrested Zantzinger at the ball for disorderly conduct—he was wildly drunk—and for assaults on hotel employees not including Hattie Carroll, about whom they apparently knew nothing at the time. When Hattie Carroll died at Mercy Hospital the following morning, Zantzinger was also charged with homicide. The medical examiner reported that Hattie Carroll had hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, and high blood pressure; that the cane left no mark on her; and that she died of a brain hemorrhage brought on by stress caused by Zantzinger’s verbal abuse, coupled with the assault. After the report, a tribunal of Maryland circuit court judges reduced the homicide charge to manslaughter. Zantzinger was found guilty of that, and of assault, but not of murder.

The judges probably thought they were being reasonable. They rejected defense claims that Hattie Carroll’s precarious health made it impossible to say whether her death had been caused, or had simply occurred naturally. The judges considered Zantzinger an “immature” young man who got drunk and carried away, but they nevertheless held him responsible for her death, saying that neither her medical history nor his ignorance of it was an excuse. His cane, though merely a toy one he got at a farm fair, they considered a weapon capable of assault. They kept the sentence to only six months because (according to the New York Herald Tribune) a longer one would have required that he serve it in state prison, and they feared the enmity of the largely black prison population would mean death for him. Zantzinger served his six months in the comparative safety of the Washington County Jail. The judges also let him wait a couple of weeks before beginning his sentence, so he could bring in his tobacco crop. Such dispensations were not uncommon, apparently, for offenders who had farms.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 09, 2009 11:56 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):