Yesterday's Crimes: The Jazz Baby Mother Slayer

Dorothy Ellingson was off to an early start.

By age 12, she was already knocking back gin and running with jazz musicians at the New Shanghai Café in Prohibition-era Chinatown. After four years of this, her mother, Anna Ellingson, finally put her foot down on Jan. 13, 1925, and tried to keep Dorothy from “running wild at jazz parties.”

It didn't work.

[jump] Dorothy got her brother's Army pistol, shot her mother in the back of the head, and pilfered $45 from her mom's purse on the way out the door. Dorothy spent the rest of the night partying at a friend's apartment while her mother's corpse grew cold in the family's Richmond District flat.

When Ellingson was arrested two days later, newspapers as far away as New York and Miami carried the story of the “16-year-old Swedish girl” who “killed her mother in a fit of jazzmania.” Matricide moved newsprint, and reporters dubbed Ellingson “the moth girl,” “the jazz girl murder,” or — my personal favorite — “the jazz baby mother slayer.” Jazzmania somehow never made it into the DSM, although it was floated as a legit defense at the time.

In the wake of the murder, prohibition officials promised raids on SF's “jazzland.” Described as “the wickedest spot in America”, this “kindergarten of vice” was just off Bartlett Street in the Mission. Who knew?

Police also combed through Ellingson's diary and charged some of her boyfriends in the jazz scene with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Keith Lord, a banjo picker with a band called the Frisco Five, told police, “[Dorothy] said she was 19.”

Some things never change.

Ellingson's trial began in March 1925. After collapsing in the courtroom several times and threatening to choke her own attorney, she was sent to Napa State Hospital for treatment in April before returning to San Francisco later that summer to resume trial. Despite Ellingson's courtroom histrionics, Dr. Jau Don Ball, “chief defense alienist,” testified Ellingson was “slightly abnormal, but completely sane.” On Aug. 22, 1925, Ellingson was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin (which held women prisoners until 1932).

Ellingson was released on parole in February 1932 after serving six years and six months. “I deeply regret that I never did appreciate my parents,” she said upon her release.

A year later, she tried to commit suicide after being accused of stealing jewelry and a black velvet dress from her roommate. All charges from this incident were dismissed, and Ellingson ended up getting married two years later and becoming a mother herself.

She died on Sept. 16, 1967.

“Yesterday's Crimes” revisits strange, lurid, eerie, and often forgotten crimes from San Francisco's past. 

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