It began as just one more in the long string of quarrels between Dorothy Ellingson and her mother Anna. But this time the argument—their final one, as it turned out—culminated in tragedy: Dorothy shot her mother dead.
Later, after the 16-year-old was arrested, some members of the press dubbed Dorothy “The Jazz Slayer.” Others called her a “jazzmaniac.” News stories focused on her love of late night partying with “older men” at the clubs and speakeasies around San Francisco. The implication being that “modern” music and booze drove Dorothy so crazy that she committed matricide.
The Ellingson family’s story was a typical immigrant tale of the time. Dorothy’s parents, Joachim and Anna, came to America from Norway towards the end of the nineteenth century. Dorothy was born in Minnesota in 1908. By 1920 the family had relocated to San Francisco, where Joseph opened a tailor shop. Anna didn’t work outside the home. Dorothy’s only sibling, an older brother named Earl, worked as a stock clerk in a drug store.
By the age of fourteen Dorothy finished primary school and had completed a year at a business college. Her education was better than usual for a working class girl in those days.
Dorothy insisted her mother was good to her, did not hold her too tightly or prevent her from having a good time. She admitted she enjoyed the company of jazz musicians, who played at the clubs around San Francisco. (She particularly liked the clubs in Chinatown). The main source of mother-daughter conflict, according to Dorothy, were the hours she kept. She got home in the wee hours of the morning after a night on the town, making it impossible for her to get up and go to her stenographer job the next day. Her musician friends didn’t start work until 10 or 11 at night, so how could she be expected to keep a normal schedule? (“I have worked, off and on,” she told reporters). But Anna, who had recently separated from her husband, needed Dorothy to work all the time.
After shooting her mother with her brother’s Colt 45, Dorothy calmly gathered up her suitcase, cash and bankbook. She traveled by streetcar to a boarding house on Franklin Street. There she rented a room under the name “Dorothy Danrio” (an alias possibly inspired by the then-popular glamorous silent film star, Dolores del Rio). In an optimistic gesture, she paid two weeks rent up front. After settling into her new digs she headed to a party at the home of a boyfriend in the Castro District. The next night she enjoyed a show at the Castro Theater.
Meanwhile her brother arrived home and found their mother’s body. Apparently Earl had no doubt about who had done the deed. He called the police. Detectives began searching for Dorothy. They arrested her two days later.
At first Dorothy tried to place the blame for her mother’s murder elsewhere, but the cops weren’t buying it. They continued to interrogate the teenager. “I killed her in a fit of temper,” she finally confessed. “I was in the doorway and I saw my mother. I raised the gun and fired one shot. She fell back onto the bed. I opened the closet door in the bedroom and took the suitcase that was in there. Into the suitcase I put some bath towels and some other things, my personal effects. After the shooting I put the gun in the bathroom where I laid it on a trunk. I went into the drawer of my bedroom dresser and got about $45 there. I found the bankbook, which was in a box in a closet.”
“A strange complex is Dorothy Ellingson. Her face is one of a woman of 24 or 25. Her form, while developed, goes with the face. Occasionally there is a gesture of girlishness, a movement that would indicate that, despite her appearance, it is a little girl and not an adult lodged in this prison compartment,” claimed the Oakland Tribune in an article that was published before the start of Dorothy’s trial.
Despite the confession, Dorothy pleaded not guilty to murder. During the trial her behavior ranged from catatonic to hysterical. She fainted 12 times. The judge temporarily stopped the trial so she could be taken to a mental asylum for evaluation.
She was found sane and the trial resumed.
In August 1925, Dorothy, age 17, was found guilty of manslaughter. Sentenced to up to 10 years in San Quentin prison, she may have been the youngest girl ever sent to the state prison in California.
Paroled after six and a half years, it only took a year before Dorothy spent another night in the custody of the SFPD. On March 5, 1933, she was booked into jail as “Dorothy Jentoff” after she’d been charged with larceny for appropriating the clothing and jewelry of her former roommate, Mary Ellis. (Mary had no clue about Dorothy’s past.) Dorothy explained to police that she needed something nice to wear to a Saturday evening party.
Her real name came out when she tried to commit suicide by inhaling gas. The “jazz killer” sobriquet followed her in the press reports of the second arrest. It must have been a heavy burden to be reminded again that she had murdered her mother in order to go out and have a night on the town.
Mary refused to prosecute and the charges were dropped.
Dorothy married a truck driver named Robert Stafford in 1936. The couple had two children and lived a quiet life for almost 20 years. Eventually they separated.
In 1955 Dorothy pleaded guilty to the theft of $2000 worth of jewelry, clothing and cash from a former employer. She’d been living in San Rafael, California under the name Diane Stafford, but her fingerprints revealed her true identity. She said she stole the goods because her daughter needed money.
Coincidentally Dorothy’s teenage son, who had a history of car theft and burglary, was incarcerated in the Marin County jail at exactly the same time as his mother. He happened to be lodged in a cell across from Dorothy. He’d never heard the story of how she murdered his grandmother in 1925. She confessed it all to him while they sat together in the slammer. “He took it like a little man. He didn’t cry. He said it made him understand why I stuck by him through his problems,” said Dorothy.
Featured photo: news photo of Dorothy Ellingson taken while she was in jail awaiting trial for her mother’s murder. Collection of the author.