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Tim Rowland: A heroic effort, an historic conviction

March 24, 2013

It’s an honor the black kitchen helper never had in life, as folk singer Bob Dylan angrily pointed out in his ballad, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

In the winter of 1963, Carroll was pouring drinks for a well-heeled crowd that was dancing the night away at a Spinsters Charity Ball at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore. In all likelihood, the 51-year-old mother of 11 would have died an early death, even if the evening had played out uneventfully. Her heart was riddled with disease, and today physicians might have characterized it as a ticking time bomb.

It was Billy Zantzinger’s misfortune to light the fuse.

The 24-year-old tobacco scion had arrived at the ball dressed as the dancing dandy Fred Astaire, complete with top hat and toy cane. He also arrived with a powerful thirst, one that he had begun to quench earlier in the day. According to news accounts at the time, he toppled over onto his wife during a dance, abused the help and became more belligerent as the evening progressed.

Sidling up to the bar, he demanded another glass of bourbon and became incensed when the busy Carroll told him it would take a minute. Zantzinger shouted a racial slur and swung his cane, striking Carroll, who soldiered on but later collapsed and died of a stroke.

Zantzinger was initially charged with murder, but after a celebrated trial in Hagers-town, he received a mere six months in jail and a $500 fine. The court allowed him time to get the tobacco harvest in, and Zantzinger jocularly expressed pleasure at missing out on the winter snows.

For Dylan, this was low-hanging fruit.

His powerful final verse builds up the reach and fairness of the American justice system — “strings can’t be pulled ... and even the nobles get properly handled” — only to shatter the myth by spitting out the meager sentence, and inviting one and all to sob at the injustice. The song immortalized Carroll in the racially charged ’60s; in 1964, Dylan was singing it before a national “Steve Allen Show” audience.

The truth is rarely that simple. The three prosecutors — Charles E. Moylan Jr., Lynn Meyers and the late David Poole — needed to do more than speak for a black woman in an era when black rights were still not considered a given.

Because even if race had not been an issue, Moylan explained earlier this month, there was no clear cause and effect linking the drunken Zantzinger to Carroll’s death. True, he was a menacing presence, but Carroll’s heart might have given out at any moment over any disturbance.

But after many a long night that summer, the three prosecutors in Hagerstown uncovered a little-known tenet of English common law that allowed them to prove Zantzinger was culpable, even though the death certificate stated that Carroll died of natural causes. With the help of an assistant state medical examiner, prosecutors convinced the court that Zantzinger’s threat spiked Carroll’s blood pressure, rupturing a vessel in her brain and causing her death.

What Dylan and the nation saw as a miscarriage of justice was actually a heroic effort on the part of the prosecution to show the nation that wealthy white men were no longer free to abuse black servants as they saw fit. With precious few cards in their hand, Moylan, Meyers and Poole won a historic conviction.

That conviction was celebrated this month at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, celebrated by a packed house that was primarily white and primarily would have consisted of the upper social circles that Zantzinger himself would have once claimed five decades ago.

But today, no one is on his side. Attitudes change laws, as we are seeing with gay marriage and marijuana usage. But sometimes, laws are needed to change attitudes.

Little more than a decade before the ghost of Hattie Carroll came to town, Hagerstonians sat on their hands as Willie Mays opened his professional career by hitting two doubles and a homer. That was a Friday. On Saturday, he knocked a ball off a house outside the outfield fence and, Mays recalled, “they started clapping a little bit.” By Sunday, and a couple of hits later, “they’re all clapping.”

Reality is strong motivation. And 12 years later, in the same city, the nation got a taste of a new legality reality, proclaiming that, as Dylan also said, the times were a changing.

Not everyone realized it. Most didn’t. But God bless Moylan, Meyers and Poole, among others, for being 50 years ahead of their time.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address istimr@herald-mail.com.

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