ON THE EVENING OF FEBRUARY 9, 1963, a socialite tobacco farmer named William Zantzinger struck Hattie Carroll with his cane when she didn’t bring his drink as fast as he wanted it. Carroll, who had been working the bar at the Baltimore hotel where Zantzinger was attending a ball, died the next day. An investigation into Carroll’s death concluded that Zantzinger’s cane had left no marks on her body. The 51-year-old died, reports say, due to her own hardened arteries and weak heart.

Hattie Carroll didn’t live in an era when beatings were routinely captured on videotape, but there were plenty of witnesses to attest that a drunk and disorderly Zantzinger had struck her before she collapsed. In order for her alleged assailant to mount a defense, another reason had to be invented for her death — something that could be traced back to a defect in her own body. Hattie Carroll had a bad heart — just as Martin Lee Anderson, the 14-year-old whose beating at a Florida juvenile boot camp was captured on video, had “sickle cell trait.” That’s what killed him, reported a medical examiner last week — 43 years and a week after Carroll’s killing — not the kicks and punches he got from guards at the facility.

At least Anderson got an autopsy; Carroll had none. Then again, Anderson’s was conducted by Dr. Charles F. Siebert, a man who, a little more than a year ago, remarked that “the prostate gland and testes are unremarkable” after examining the body of Donna Faye Reed, who died in a Florida tornado. (Reed, of course, was a woman.)

Times may have changed since Carroll was “slain by a cane,” as a 22-year-old Bob Dylan immortalized it in his Brechtian ballad “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” but the notion still persists that when a black person dies in a scuffle with a white person or authority, he or she must somehow be to blame. When it can no longer be argued that the victim provoked the violence or resisted authority, it still remains possible that there was something in the victim’s physiological makeup — like the poorly formed tracheas former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates held responsible for the deaths of so many blacks held in chokeholds — that caused a lethal reaction to an ordinary blow. It lightens the guilt, and it lightens the sentence: Zantzinger was found guilty of manslaughter, and spent six months in jail.

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