By Peter Carlson
Sunday, August 4, 1991; 9:34 AM

William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll

With a cane that he twirled round his

diamond-ring finger

At a Baltimore hotel society gathering . . . -- Bob Dylan "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"

It happened 28 years ago, on February 8, 1963, at a formal affair called the Spinsters Ball. Billy Zantzinger, who had just turned 24, showed up in white tie and tails, with a carnation in his lapel, a top hat on his head and a 25-cent wooden carnival cane in his hand. He also showed up drunk -- exuberantly, boisterously, pugnaciously drunk.

"I just flew in from Texas!" he bellowed as he entered the Emerson Hotel ballroom. "Gimme a drink!"

He got his drink and plenty more, and then, fully fueled, he started joking around with his cane, twirling it in a parody of Fred Astaire, rapping it on the punch bowl when he wanted service, tapping women who waltzed by. It was all in good fun, no harm intended. But as Billy got drunker, the joke turned ugly. He hit a bellhop with the cane, he yanked the chain on the wine steward's neck, he collapsed atop his wife, Jane, on the dance floor, then hit her with his shoe and got in a fistfight with a guest who tried to stop him. And when a black waitress failed to address him as "sir," he hit her across the buttocks with his cane, then hit her again, harder, until somebody grabbed him and she fled in tears to the pantry.

At some point during this chaotic evening, according to newspaper accounts, Billy Zantzinger bellied up to the bar and asked Hattie Carroll, a 51-year-old mother of nine and part-time barmaid, for a bourbon. She was busy and didn't pour it as fast as he thought she should, so he called her a "nigger" and a "black bitch" and he whacked her on the shoulder with his cane. She gave him his drink, but as he sauntered off, she slumped against the bar, looking dazed. "That man has upset me so," she told co-workers. "I feel deathly ill." Her words sounded garbled, like she had a mouthful of marbles, and her worried colleagues summoned an ambulance.

Eight hours later, Hattie Carroll died of a massive stroke. And Billy Zantzinger was charged with murder.

From the beginning, the case was a cause celebre -- a symbol of racism in Maryland, which was still largely segregated, particularly in its southern counties, where Billy Zantzinger oversaw his family's 630-acre tobacco farm. This was 1963, the year Bull Connor's cops fire-hosed black demonstrators, the year Medgar Evers was shot by a sniper, the year a Klan bomb killed four black girls in a Birmingham church, the year blacks and whites fired at each other from cars during the desegregation of Cambridge, Md. In this atmosphere, Billy Zantzinger found himself playing the villain in a racial morality play: He was the "rural aristocrat," as Time magazine put it, charged with murdering an ailing black grandmother.

That description was a bit overstated but not too far from the truth. Billy Zantzinger was the son of a prominent Washington real estate man who had served a term in the Maryland legislature and a stint on the State Planning Commission. His sister had made two debuts -- one at home and one at the Chevy Chase Club -- and both were covered by The Washington Post, which noted that the orchestra played a song written especially for her, which included the lyrics, "Sallie, Sallie, won't you please get off your horse and dance the Charleston with me." Billy too was a horseman; he loved galloping after foxes at the Wicomoco Hunt Club. He'd graduated from Sidwell Friends School in the late '50s, married and taken over the operation of West Hatton, the family farm in Charles County, a farm staffed largely by black workers who, unlike the waitress in Baltimore, did not forget to address Billy Zantzinger as "sir."

In the media, the case was painted in stark contrasts -- white against black, rich against poor, socialite against servant -- and the Washington Afro-American wondered: "Are they really going to try a well-to-do Southern Marylander for the death of a colored woman?"

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© 1991 The Washington Post Company