01/12/2009 11:33 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and a Lingering Mystery About William Zantzinger

The death of a certain William Devereux Zantzinger was quietly announced January 3rd on an obscure Maryland website, The New York Times and the Washington Post finally picked it up and ran obituaries on January 10th.

What news outlets wrote about this passing -- or rather pointedly didn't write -- is intriguing.

Zantzinger (with the "t" removed from his name) is the antagonist in the famous folk song about a hotel worker in Baltimore, Hattie Carroll. She died eight hours after his drunken, unprovoked assault at a charity ball. He was charged with murder, later reduced to manslaughter. A smug-filled trial produced a paltry six month sentence on August 28th, 1963.

As it so happened, this was the same day Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech at the historic March On Washington, 34 miles from the crime scene. The youthful Bob Dylan, who performed at the D.C. event, would later tell the nearby tale.

Zantzinger was a privileged, 24 year old southern Maryland good 'ol boy, an heir to a 600 acre tobacco farm who had "high office relations in the politics of Maryland." Carroll was 51, "a maid in the kitchen" and mother of 11 who "got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane, that sailed through the air and came down through the room, doomed and determined to destroy all her gentle, and she never done nothin' to William Zanzinger." It's a hell of a song, artistic license included.

"Billy," as he was known, gained infamy anew thirty years later, in the 1990's, when he was convicted of collecting rent from impoverished black folks on properties he hadn't owned in five years. He'd lost the homes, rural shacks without indoor plumbing, because of failure to pay taxes. Continuing to pocket the money, he sued some tenants when they didn't pay and evicted others. He even raised the rents!

Again, this was long after he'd stopped being the landlord, and nobody knew it, including the courts into which he dragged these unfortunate souls. This incredulous scam netted tens of thousands of dollars before he was caught.

A real piece of work, this guy. Still, my curiosity meter is pinging louder now that he's gone.

His obits tell us nothing about survivors, although news accounts from '63 said he was married with two small boys at the time of the Hattie Carroll incident. That's almost 50 years ago.

Oddly, this information was purposely withheld in the wake of his death. From the Times: "His death was confirmed by an employee of the Brinsfield-Echols Funeral Home, who said Mr. Zantzinger's family had prohibited the release of more details." The Post had something similar, and neither paper sniffed for anything, opting instead to just rewrite their own dust-covered clippings. Ditto the Baltimore Sun (who at least added a fresh quote from a late prosecutor's son). Suffice to say, the intelligence lockdown by the Zantzinger clan proved effective.

In fact, even details about when and where the service was held remained unavailable to the locals. The southern Maryland newspaper that first reported Billy's death cryptically noted that one must call the mortuary for funeral arrangements. OK, that's weird. He wasn't a secret agent, for God's sake.

Despite a desire to keep the press at bay, it's one thing to insist on privacy, something else entirely to withhold common stuff like names of surviving relatives. Mafia don families are more open. Why the secrecy, and why the media acquiescence surrounding a death that it deemed newsworthy in the first place?

Granted, Billy was an embarrassment in life, young and old, as the public first learned when an upstart songwriter made us all feel for Hattie. Her life and death wouldn't have otherwise been honored beyond a buried account in a few East Coast newspapers.

And yes, everyone understands that family shame carries weight, often wrongly. The sins of the father shouldn't be visited upon the sons, not to mention daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, etc.

Yet that's precisely why there's no earthly reason for survivors to go nameless, assuming there's nothing awkward or ironic to hide. After all, Billy's misdeeds aren't their fault, and were widely chronicled in the past.

An extensive profile of Billy ran in the Post in 1991. He later gave an interview for a 2001 Dylan biography. It turns out he didn't lead a sheltered, hermit-like existence, and the Zantzinger name is well known in southern Maryland and the nation's capital, where the father was a state legislator and real estate developer in the 1940's and 50's.

Billy's brother Richard Chew Zantzinger, Jr. spent 14 months on a sailboat in 1969-70, circumnavigating the globe while running away from I.R.S. problems and a mid-life divorce. He then wrote a colorful book about his exploits. Billy's own eight year old son joined a leg of his uncle's sojourn at Johannesburg, South Africa.

This crowd hasn't exactly lived in the shadow, wallflowers begging to be left alone.

The strength of Dylan's long ago lyric lies in its juxtaposition of powerful wealth and abject poverty, between a dilettante in tails who twirled a cane "around his diamond ring finger" and a poor woman who "never sat once at the head of the table." For this reason the tragedy had resonance at the height of the civil rights movement. It's also why the death of Carroll's tormentor is a worthy story in 2009. The Dickensian theme at the heart of the saga endures.

Then there's the matter of reporting fundamental facts of interest to a general readership. When Charles Harrelson died in prison a couple of years ago, serving life for murdering a federal judge, it wasn't hidden that one of his surviving sons was the actor Woody Harrelson. Sure, we already knew the connection from Woody himself, but news accounts wouldn't have left it out, regardless.

If Zantzinger's survivors hold social or economic status (and a cursory Google search suggests both), it's legitimate to tell us. Not in a National Enquirer exposé sort of way; rather, as part of the record.

For instance, William "Willie" Devereux Zantzinger, Jr. took early retirement last year after almost two decades in the investment business. He'd become Partner and Director of Trading at the successful asset management firm Gardner Lewis. Why did everyone fail to mention him as a surviving son in reporting on his father's death?

Who knows, there may be other contemporary examples of Zantzinger prominence, or "high office relations" as the Bard put it.

Families can say what they want (or not) in "paid" obits. That's their personal choice. Death notices generated by professional news departments have a journalistic standard to meet, and that's different.

News is news, and some may disagree, but I think the media should have dug deeper on this one, instead of accepting -- out of hand -- the information roadblock that was erected. Color me curious.