Charles County case prompts call for sequel to song

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 21, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Somewhere out there is Bob Dylan, who hasn't heard the latest news: William Zantzinger just got himself into trouble again.

The other day in Charles County, Zantzinger pleaded guilty to collecting more than $64,000 in rent on slum properties which he didn't happen to own -- properties the government took away from him five years ago because he failed to pay taxes on them.

If this isn't the stuff of musical folklore, it's at least a postscript. The last time Bob Dylan looked at William Zantzinger, he wrote a song about him that helped give an entire generation a social conscience:

"William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll/With a cane that he twirled 'round his diamond ring finger/In a Baltimore hotel society gathering . . ."

The song was called "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," and for people caught up in the great civil rights movement of this nation, it seemed to sum up a basic truth about American racism of the time: The death of an innocent black woman was worth almost nothing compared with the life of a guilty white man.

Remember?

It was a formal affair at the old Emerson Hotel, Feb. 8, 1963. Zantzinger was there, drunk and loud, decked out in tuxedo and top hat and a cane in his hand. He'd rap the cane when he wanted service, and when he didn't get it fast enough, he started hitting people with it.

One of the people was Hattie Carroll. She was 51 years old, the mother of 11, and a part-time barmaid. Zantzinger told her he wanted a bourbon. Then he called her racist names, and then he hit her with his cane and strode off.

"That man has upset me so," Hattie Carroll told co-workers. "I feel deathly ill."

Somebody called an ambulance: Too late. Eight hours later, she was dead of a stroke, and Zantzinger was charged with murder.

"Ah, but you who philosophize disgrace/And criticize all fears/Lay the rag away from your face/For now ain't the time for your tears."

Remember?

The time for tears, Dylan wrote, came later. He meant months later, when sentencing was pronounced. But he could have been looking 28 years down the road, to Zantzinger pleading guilty this week to 50 counts of collecting rent on properties the government took away from him for failing to pay five years of taxes on them.

The properties were awful. They were wooden shacks with no running water, no toilets and no outhouses. But, even after the properties were taken away, Zantzinger, with breathtaking nerve:

* Continued to collect rent.

* Raised the rent.

* Took some tenants to court for non-payment.

* And won.

Somebody in Charles County wasn't paying very careful attention -- until three days ago, when Zantzinger finally pleaded guilty to charges that could theoretically give him 50 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. When he walked out of court, some heard an echo of his trial of three decades ago.

Remember?

The Hattie Carroll trial was moved from Baltimore to Hagerstown. Zantzinger said he'd been drunk and didn't remember any incident. His attorney said: Carroll was overweight and had high blood pressure. She could have had a stroke even if he hadn't hit her.

A three-judge panel found Zantzinger guilty of manslaughter and, in a gesture that provoked Bob Dylan to write his song that jolted the nation's conscience, they sentenced him to just six months in jail.

Remember?

Well, maybe not.

"I read about Hattie Carroll in the newspapers," Leonard Collins said yesterday. He's the Charles County state's attorney who prosecuted theslum property case against Zantzinger.

Asked if Zantzinger was an unusual man, Collins replied:

"Do you mean, is he the only landlord with a [manslaughter] conviction Bob Dylan wrote a song about?"

Remember the song?

"No, not really," Golden Evans said yesterday. He's president of the Charles County NAACP and was among those who demonstrated at the county courthouse demanding prosecution of Zantzinger.

"I'm 63 years old," Evans said. "I heard about that case back in '63. Zantzinger got six months, served some of it, and then came out a free man. Oh, yeah, I remember the case. The song? No, I don't think many of the demonstrators knew about it."

Does anybody remember?

A telephone call is placed to New York City, to Columbia Records, which has been Bob Dylan's recording company for three decades.

"Is there any chance of getting a call put through to Bob Dylan?" a Columbia publicist is asked.

The publicist is told the background. She says she has never heard of William Zantzinger or "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."

Another publicist comes to the telephone.

"Oh, yes," she says, "I'm familiar with all that."

She is told of the latest Zantzinger court case. She is asked if a call can be placed to Bob Dylan.

"I'll check," she says. "Now, the name of that song. It's 'The Lonesome Death of Mattie Carroll?' "

Dylan, it turns out, is unavailable. He's out on a concert tour somewhere. If anybody sees him, they might mention there's a postscript to an old folk song just waiting to be written.

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