Sunday 9 February 2014

Hattie Carroll

"She was 51 years old and gave birth to ten children"
It's hard to believe that it's 51 years since the sordid events of 9th Feb 1963.  HL Mencken "The Sage of Baltimore" was several years dead in 1963 so he wasn't available to write one of his scathing polemics against injustice; so it was left to Bob Dylan to write his hauntingly moving tribute in "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll".  Hattie Carrol was a barmaid and general dogsbody in the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore.  That night local rich-boy Billy Zantzinger was on the tear in town getting steadily tanked up.  Which was unfortunate because he was an ugly drunk, prone to thuggery and bullying.  He'd already assaulted a number of employees in restaurants and bars when he lurched into the Emerson in the wee hours of the 9th of February. When Ms Carroll didn't bring more booze quick enough he hit her at the base of the neck with a toy cane that he'd been toting around all evening.  It wasn't a gun or an iron bar but he was enough to loosen a lump from one of Ms Carroll's morbidly hardened arteries and send the clot up into her brain.  She collapsed within minutes and died 8 hours later in hospital. While she was being taken away, young Billy laid into his wife, punching her out and hitting her with his shoe.  So his assault on Ms Carroll wasn't personal, but part of a generalised spoiled-child rage.

Zantzinger could afford to hire good lawyers and so he did. They weaseled their client out of a murder-rap and got him convicted of manslaughter blaming Ms Carroll for being stressed by his verbal abuse rather than killed directly by the piffling blow.  We've come along way from then: being drunk is much less credible as an excuse for doing evil.  Time reported "For the assault on the hotel employees: a fine of $125. For the death of Hattie Carroll: six months in jail and a fine of $500. The judges considerately deferred the start of the jail sentence until September 15, to give Zantzinger time to harvest his tobacco crop".   Oh, did I forget to mention that Hattie Carroll was black?  Her death and Dylan's song was another nail in the coffin of US apartheid but it took the whole of the rest of the 1960s to chip away at that ludicrous and anachronistic cancer in American society. As I elaborated two days ago, here in Ireland we're trying to dismantle the legal foundation for another gross inequality based on something that is surely not the fault of those who are oppressed by its unfairness.  Martin Luther King's famous ""I have a dream" speech was uttered 6 months after Hattie Carroll's death and that made a difference.  In 51 years time our children will look back through youtube archives and trib Rory O'Neill's passionate articulation of how prejudice comes from within as a similarly powerful catalyst.

Nearly 40 years afterwards on 18 December 2000, folk singer Kirsty McColl was killed while swimming in Mexico: run down and killed instantly by a power boat that was being driven too fast too near inshore.  The boat was owned by another rich man, supermarket millionaire Guillermo González Nova, but the culpable homicide rap was taken by one of the crew who claimed to be at the wheel.  This fellow's prison sentence was replaced by a fine and he was required to pay punitive damages to McColl's family.  In all, apart from the cost of lawyers, McColl's death was done and dusted by paying out $2,200.

WolframAlpha says that $500 in 1963 adjusted for inflation is equal to $2360 in 2000.  So we haven't really come that far have we?  Except to say that Kirsty McColl was white and was brushed aside as casually as Hattie Carroll.  Above all The Law doesn't want to stop rich men making money.

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