Mother Murder

Mother Murder

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.

—Excerpt from Dorothy Ellingson’s confession, January 15, 1925

What began as another quarrel between 16-year-old Dorothy Ellingson and her mother ended in matricide on the morning of January 12, 1925, in San Francisco. The newspapers dubbed Dorothy “The Jazz Slayer” and called her a “jazzmaniac.” Stories were printed about her love of late night partying with older men at clubs and illegal speakeasies all over the city. Her mother’s objections to her lifestyle led to the argument that culminated in murder.

Dorothy’s parents, Joachim (Joseph in news reports) and Anna were Norwegians who immigrated to America in the late nineteenth century. Initially they settled in Minnesota and Dorothy was born there in 1908. By 1920 they relocated to San Francisco, California. Joseph owned a tailor shop and 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 of “Business College.” Her education was probably better than average for a girl of that time.

Dorothy claimed her mother was good to her, did not hold her too tightly or prevent her from having a good time. She admitted enjoying the company of jazz musicians who played at the clubs around San Francisco, particularly in Chinatown. The main conflict, according to Dorothy, was that she got home in the wee hours of the morning after a night on the town, making it all but 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 later told reporters). However Anna needed her daughter to work all the time because the family was not wealthy and she was separated from her husband at the time of the murder.

After shooting her mother with her brother’s .45 caliber automatic Colt, Dorothy calmly gathered up her packed suitcase, cash and bankbook, and traveled via streetcar to a boarding house at 1047 Franklin Street. There she rented a room under the name “Dorothy Danrio” (inspired, perhaps, by the glamorous silent film star Dolores del Rio). Optimistically, she paid two weeks rent up front. Meanwhile, back at home, her brother found their mother’s body and called the police.

Dorothy settled in to her new digs and headed to a party at the home of a boyfriend in the Castro District. The next evening she enjoyed a show at the Castro Theater. SFPD detectives arrested her the following day for murder—it was a busy week for a young girl!

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The Oakland Tribune, January 15, 1925.

Dorothy tried, unconvincingly, to place the blame for the murder elsewhere, but soon she confessed. “I killed her in a fit of temper,” she explained.

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.

The Oakland Tribune, January 15, 1925

Despite her confession, Dorothy pleaded not guilty. She fainted 12 times during her trial and her behavior ranged from hysterical to catatonic. The judge temporarily stopped the trial so she could be taken to an asylum for evaluation of her mental state. She was found to be sane, so the trial continued. In August 1925, Dorothy, now 17, was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to one to 10 years in San Quentin prison.

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Dorothy Ellingson’s San Quentin prison card, 1925. Collection of the California State Archives.

Paroled after six and a half years, it only took a year for Dorothy to spend another night in jail courtesy of the SFPD. On March 5, 1933, she was booked in as “Dorothy Jentoff,” and charged with larceny for appropriating the clothing and jewelry of her former roommate, Mary Ellis (Mary had no idea who she was). She told police that she needed something nice to wear to a Saturday evening party. Her actual name came out after the arrest and she tried to commit suicide by inhaling gas. Mary refused to prosecute so the charges were dropped.

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The Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1933.

Dorothy married a truck driver, Robert Stafford, in 1936, and lived a quiet life out of the spotlight for almost 20 years. The couple had two children but later they separated.

In 1955, 46-year-old 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 under the name Diane Stafford, but her fingerprints exposed her true identity. Her reason for the theft—her daughter needed money.

Dorothy’s teenage son, who had a history of car theft and burglary, was incarcerated, coincidentally, in the Marin county jail in a cell across from his mother. He’d never heard the story of how she murdered her mother—his grandmother—in 1925, but she confessed it all to him while they sat 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,” noted Dorothy.

Dorothy Ellingson Stafford died on September 16, 1967, aged 59.

Featured photo: Dorothy Ellingson’s SFPD mugshot, 1925. Collection of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Puzzled Police

Puzzled Police

On March 4, 1938, Jean Williams was arrested in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for disorderly conduct. Born in New York City, Jean told the police she worked as a “nightclub entertainer.” After conducting a search of her person, police placed Jean, who was dressed in men’s clothing, in the cell room for males. This was apparently her first arrest in Scranton.

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Headline from The Evening News, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Saturday, March 5, 1938.

A friend arrived at the police station a short time later, asking why Jean had been arrested. After informing Captain John Lewis that Jean was female, the friend wanted to know why Jean was being held in a cell for male prisoners. Eventually he succeeded in convincing the police captain that Jean was a woman. She was transferred to the women’s cells and later discharged.

Scranton Police arrested Jean again for disorderly conduct on December 12, 1938. Her booking card indicates that she was 27 years old, tall and slender, with black hair and “maroon” colored eyes. In the “mustache” section of the card the police wrote “Hermaphrodite” in parentheses, as if embarrassed and needing to whisper the description. It’s unknown which cells she was placed in on that occasion.

Jean Williams_front_marked

Jean Williams_back_marked

Jean Williams’ police booking card (front and back). Collection of the author.

Jean identified as a female. Her face, with its delicate features and thin eyebrows, looks feminine, however she has a distinct adam’s apple, no breasts and she’s dressed as a male. The way her hair is tucked under at the back gives the impression that she’d recently been wearing a wig.

The confusion regarding Jean’s gender identity isn’t surprising. America in the 1930s was decades away from acceptance of people who didn’t fit clearly into traditional sex roles and appearances. The word “transgender” wouldn’t come into common use until the 1970s. It would take until almost the end of the 20th century, with advances in understanding of genetics, for the word “hermaphrodite” to be replaced by “intersex.”

Jean appears in only one Scranton city directory—the 1936 edition. Her profession is listed as “waiter” so she may have identified then as male. She worked at a Scranton tavern called the Ritz Café that was raided by police due to violations of the state’s liquor laws.

After December 1938 Jean could not be traced. Perhaps she’d had enough of being arrested by the puzzled police in Scranton, so she moved on.

Arresting Hope Dare

Arresting Hope Dare

When the Philadelphia police took Hope Dare’s mugshot on February 2, 1938, a reporter managed to get access to it and photograph it for news publication. Payoff involved? Possibly. The ex-Broadway showgirl had been charged with being a “suspicious character,” but she wasn’t on the lam. On the back of Hope’s mugshot-turned-news-photo is the comment “not a publicity photo.” Seriously?

Hope was the lover of a mobster lawyer named Richard “Dixie” Davis. Before taking up with Dixie, Hope was a chorus girl and dancer, during the early 1930s, with the Ziegfeld Follies in New York City. Ziegfeld reportedly described her as “the most beautiful redhead I ever hired.” In 1932 she’d been photographed at a New York nightclub with prizefighter, Jack Dempsey. However by the time her mugshot was taken in Philadelphia, Hope was pushing 30 and her glamorous showbiz career was over.

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News photo published in the Star-Gazette, Elmira, New York, September 29, 1932.

Born Rosa Lutzinger in Iowa at the end of 1908, her father disappeared before she turned two. Her mother, Dolly, got remarried to a fireman from Las Vegas, New Mexico, and took her daughter there to live. Rose was a gorgeous girl who had dreams and big plans. She moved to the Big Apple and adopted a stage name—Hope Dare—that expressed her optimistic attitude along with a nod to life’s challenges and her willingness to take them on.

Her boyfriend, Dixie, was a smart and highly unscrupulous guy. He was born in 1904 to a poor family but he got himself into Syracuse University and then Columbia Law School. Money didn’t flow in fast enough while he was working at a distinguished New York City law firm, so he turned to defending policy lottery violators in Harlem at $15 a pop. By 1931 he was raking in a fortune as a lawyer for mobster Arthur Flegenheimer, better known as “Dutch Schultz.” Schultz referred to Dixie as his “kid mouthpiece.” When Schultz was murdered in a Newark restaurant in October 1935, Dixie took over his multi-million dollar “policy empire.”

Thomas Dewey, a future governor of New York, was appointed special prosecutor in Manhattan in 1935. Dewey set his sights on cleaning up organized crime in New York City, targeting Dixie and a number of other gangsters in this effort. Dixie vanished from the city in July 1937. Detectives eventually located him, in February 1938, living with Hope in Philadelphia. After battering down the door to their apartment the police took them into custody. Hope, who was wearing a black wig to hide her red hair, told police that her name was “Rose Rickert.” The charges against her were soon dismissed but Dixie was returned to New York to face the music.

Two in mugshot

Mugshot of Hope and Dixie taken on February 2, 1938 after their arrest in Philadelphia. From “The Strange Case of Hope Dare,” Life Magazine, August 15, 1938.

At the time of his arrest Dixie was a married man. The affair with Hope was widely publicized and, due to public humiliation, his wife Martha divorced him. Her comment: “The redheads always get them, don’t they?”

Dixie had already been disbarred for having advised criminals, Schultz in particular, in advance of their committing crimes. He was indicted for conspiracy to operate the numbers racket. Held at the Tombs prison in lower Manhattan, he was allowed to make “secret” visits to Hope at her apartment in return for his cooperation with prosecutors. Hope wanted him to get out of the racket so she pressed him to cooperate with Dewey.

Apartment view

Dixie Davis and Hope Dare in her NYC apartment on July 23, 1938. From Life Magazine article as cited above.

He received a lenient (one year) prison sentence for testifying against co-defendant, Jimmy Hines, and was released from prison in July 1939. Having turned state’s evidence, his career in the underworld was over. Hope and Dixie were married in a secret ceremony, guarded by detectives, after he was released from prison. He provided testimony against some of his other criminal associates and then the couple moved west, ending up in Los Angeles.

On December 30, 1969, two masked men broke into the Davis’s Bel-Air home. Dixie was away from the house but Hope was at home. The burglars tied her up at gunpoint and ransacked the house, stealing cash, furs and jewelry. After the men left Hope was able to get free and call police. Dixie returned home about 30 minutes after the holdup. Upon hearing the details he sat down in the living room, lost consciousness and suffered a fatal heart attack.

Hope lived another 30 years, dying on March 31, 1999, at the age of 90.

Featured photo: Hope Dare’s mugshot (news photo copy), Philadelphia Police Department, February 2, 1938. Collection of the author.

Cupid Pleaded

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Philadelphia Bureau of Police mugshot of Joseph Kanefsky taken on January 20, 1937. Collection of the author.

Pauline Wernovsky had been waiting a long time to marry her sweetheart. In fact she’d been waiting two and a half years for her fiancée, Joseph Kanefsky, to get out of Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, where he’d just finished serving two and a half years for burglary. On January 20, 1937, he and two prisoners and their girlfriends were charged with smuggling narcotics into the prison. Instead of marring Pauline it looked like Kanefsky was headed right back to the slammer.

Judge Parry, however, was sympathetic to Pauline plight. The persuasive young woman told him she would personally make sure her fiancée stayed straight, so he allowed Kanefsky to sign a $2000 bond, gave him two years probation and the couple were married before a magistrate then and there. As one newspaper put it, “Cupid pleaded successfully in Philadelphia Quarter Sessions Court for Joseph Kanefsky.”

The other four people arrested for dope smuggling were convicted of the charge.

Kanefsky, alias Joe Neff, has a self-assured look in his mugshot. His stylish hat is tipped at a rakish angle and his yellow-blue eyes have an intense gaze. He has just a hint of a smile playing on his lips. It’s as though he already knows that his pretty, dark-haired girlfriend is going to play the judge for a chump—his freedom to follow.

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Back side of Joseph Kanefsky’s January 20, 1937 mugshot.

Two and a half years later, in September 1939, Pauline and Joe were in front of a different judge, charged with illegal possession and use of narcotics. They were arrested while sitting in an automobile parked on a Philadelphia street and detectives testified they found a hypodermic needle and morphine in the car. Having previously played Joe’s “get out of jail free” card, both were sentenced to the Philadelphia House of Correction.

In May 1944 Kanefsky was in trouble again when he was caught trying to use prescription blanks stolen from a South Philadelphia physician’s office to obtain narcotics. He was charged with forgery and drug addiction.

Joe’s final reported arrest came on September 21, 1951 in New York City.

The detectives said they had spent some time watching him stroll along Broadway looking for customers. They said that when he was arrested a man who was walking along with him escaped.

—The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 22, 1951

Detectives found $329, a capsule of opium and 15 envelopes of heroin in Joseph Kanefsky’s pockets. He was charged him with possession and suspicion of selling illegal drugs.