Art Callaham: Attorneys in 1963 trial owed debt of gratitude

March 24, 2013|By ART CALLAHAM

I couldn’t help but write about Hattie Carroll and our own local “trial of the century.” As I’ve completed some research on this event, I have come to the conclusion that we here in Hagerstown, and in Washington County, should feel nothing but pride in our community for seeing that justice prevailed in that groundbreaking trial.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Charles E. Moylan Jr., David K. Poole and Lynn F. Meyers, all Maryland attorneys who successfully prosecuted a “drunken bully” for an attack on an African-American woman. Those three heroes did that during the racially charged ’60’s and in a locality that at the time might have been deemed to be sympathetic to racial inequality.

So, let’s talk a little about history. The trial of Hattie Carroll’s attacker, William “Billy” Devereux Zantzinger, took place in Hagerstown in August 1963. To put this in perspective from a time standpoint, the trial was three months before the President John F. Kennedy assassination and about a year before the future governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox, was photographed wielding an ax handle to bar blacks from entering his restaurant.

In the 1963 NCAA Basketball Tournament, the State of Mississippi tried to force an all-white Mississippi State University team to not play Loyola of Chicago in a semifinal game with the reason being that Loyola started four black players. Further, in Mississippi, Alabama and throughout the South, racial tension in politics, education and life in general was at a heightened peak. This was also true in Maryland.

Although I have never seen it documented or reported, I suspect that the defense team might have been happy with the change of venue to arguably “white friendly” Western Maryland. The trial’s outcome, however, supported a sense of justice within our community probably not understood by those downstate.

At a reception at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts two weeks ago, retired Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr., a young state’s attorney in Baltimore at the time of the Hattie Carroll trial, related a fascinating account of the preparation and the trial. With the help of Poole and Meyers, Moylan found an “old English” law definition that simply stated that how a person is found and the events leading up to how the person is found may be used to gain a conviction.

For purposes of the trial, Hattie Carroll was “found dead,” and based upon precedence upheld in a Missouri trail, the events leading up to Carroll’s death could be used to convict a person in her death. A bit confusing, but in simple terms, what caused Carroll’s death could be used to convict a person whose actions lead to her death.

Overcoming expert medical testimony that indicated Carroll died of “natural causes,” the prosecution team was able to convince a three-judge panel that Zantzinger’s actions created the natural causes that resulted in Carroll’s death.

And Zantzinger’s actions were atrocious. According to court testimony, late on the night of Feb. 9, 1963, while Carroll was working the white-tie Spinsters Ball, Zantzinger arrived at the soiree already drunk and boisterous. The 24-year-old Zantzinger was a scion of a wealthy Charles County tobacco-farming family.

By all accounts, Zantzinger assaulted at least three workers at the Emerson Hotel and the Eager House restaurant with a toy cane. At the Spinsters Ball, Zantzinger is said to have struck a 30-year-old black waitress with the cane and called her by a racial epithet causing her to flee in tears.

Moments later, angry that Carroll did not serve his bourbon quickly enough, Zantzinger struck her across the shoulder and head with his cane, calling her by the same and an even worse epithet. Finally, Zantzinger is said to have attacked his wife, knocking her to the ground.

After that, Carroll told coworkers that she felt “deathly ill, that man has upset me so,” and collapsed. She was rushed to the hospital, where she died eight hours later.

Zantzinger was fined $500 dollars and given six months in the Washington County Jail for the “manslaughter” death of Carroll. Certainly, in today’s environment, with “hate crimes” and calls for eliminating racial injustice, that sentence might seem too lenient.

However, at the time, the mere fact that a wealthy white man could be convicted of a crime against a black woman in arguably a rural southern community spoke volumes about equal “justice for all” in our nation’s legal system. Moylan, Poole and Meyers are truly heroes.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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