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 Dorothy’s mother Anna needed her to work all the time because the family was not wealthy and Anna 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 into 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!
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.
Dorothy Ellingson’s San Quentin prison card, 1925. Collection of the California State Archives.
The Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1933
Paroled after six and a half years, it only took a year before Dorothy spent 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 clue about Dorothy’s past.) 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.
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 explanation for why she stole the goods — 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.