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Forgotten Hollywood: The Mystery of the Black Dahlia Killing

On January 15, 1947, the mutilated body of a young woman was found in the Leimert Park area of Los Angeles in an empty lot, severed at the waist. According to the Los Angeles Times, “She was face up, a few inches from the sidewalk, just north of the middle of the block. Her blue eyes were open, her hands were over her head with her elbows bent at right angles; her knees were straight and legs spread. Flies were hovering around the body.” She was missing her intestines and was slashed across the face from ear to ear. There were cuts and bruises on the body because whole sections of skin had been removed, and the body was drained of blood. A cement bag with blood was found nearby. An autopsy showed she died of a cerebral hemorrhage because of blows to the face.

The woman was identified by the FBI as Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress, from blurred fingerprints sent to them via “Soundphoto,” a kind of fax machine. Her prints were in the FBI files because she had been arrested for underage drinking in 1943 by Santa Barbara police.

Because of the gruesome nature of the crime, a media frenzy ensued after the discovery of the body. Reporters had swarmed the crime scene and then the LAPD offices, some even answering the tip lines, which police believed hindered the investigation as information was withheld from them. Screaming headlines ran every day in the papers whose circulations surged. The Los Angeles Examiner had its second-highest sales the day after the murder (the first was the announcement of the Allied victory in WWII), putting out an “Extra” edition. The Los Angeles Times described the murderer as a ‘sex fiend.’

The sensationalizing of the murder in the press portrayed Short as a party girl who picked up men and frequented nightclubs. How did an unemployed waitress pay her rent as she moved from hotel to apartment every few months, they wanted to know, hinting that she was a streetwalker. One account described her as a girl “whose romances had changed her, according to friends, from an innocent girl to a man-crazy delinquent.” One newspaper even published a photo of her dead face after removing the “marks of violence.”

The Examiner, in particular, had a field day with the coverage, running front-page stories on the murder every day for over a month. The editors behaved egregiously with Short’s mother, calling her to pretend that her daughter had won a beauty contest and trying to get as many details about Short from her, only then breaking the grisly news. They flew her out to identify the body, hiding her from the police and the press to protect their scoop.

Short was 22 years old when she was murdered. Newspapers commonly gave names to murder victims of sensational crimes and Short was dubbed the ‘Black Dahlia’ in a reference to the Veronica Lake film noir of the previous year, The Blue Dahlia, and because of her striking black hair and the black clothes she favored.

An internal police bulletin titled “WANTED INFORMATION ON ELIZABETH SHORT Between dates January 9 and 15, 1947” described Short: “Subject on whom information wanted last seen January 9, 1947 when she got out of car at Biltmore Hotel [in downtown Los Angeles]. At that time she was wearing black suit, no collar on coat, probably Cardigan style, white fluffy blouse, black suede high-heeled shoes, nylon stockings, white gloves full-length beige coat, carried black plastic handbag (2 handles) 12 x 8 in which she had black address book. Subject readily makes friends with both sexes and frequented cocktail bars and night spots. On leaving car she went into lobby of Biltmore and was last seen there.”

A big development occurred on January 24 when the killer contacted the press. An envelope addressed to “The Los Angeles Examiner and other Los Angeles papers” was mailed, which included a letter assembled from words cut out of the movie ads of a newspaper page including the phrase “Heaven is HERE!” from the ad for Stairway to Heaven. It said, “Here is Dahlia’s belongings.” The belongings included Short’s birth certificate and an address book, her business cards and some photographs, all cleaned with gasoline in a similar manner to the body to remove prints. 75 men from the address book were interviewed but none were charged.

A warrant was served to USC Medical School which was nearby as police suspected a medical expert could possibly be the killer because of the way the body was severed. But this turned out to be a dead end.

The last person to see Short alive was pipe clamp salesman, Robert ‘Red’ Manley, who drove her to the Biltmore from San Diego where she was staying with friends. She told him she was going to meet her sister there and move with her to Berkeley. Manley told police he left her there and went back home to his wife, but he was booked as a suspect by the LAPD. He passed several polygraph tests and was exonerated. He was eventually committed to a mental hospital by his wife.

At least 750 investigators from the LAPD and other police departments were put on the case. More than 60 people, including some women, confessed to the murder, especially after a reward of $10,000 for information about the case was posted. Exhaustive leads were followed, locations all over Los Angeles were searched, and hundreds of interviews were conducted. When they hit a dead end in Los Angeles, police tried to make a connection with crimes in other cities like the Cleveland Torso murderer, another unapprehend serial killer that dismembered victims between 1934 and 1938 in Cleveland.

To this day, the murder remains unsolved.

Several books have been written on the mystery of the Black Dahlia, all trying to prove the killer’s identity.

An LAPD detective, Steve Hodel, made it his life’s work to prove that it was his doctor father, George, who killed Short. He wrote a bestselling book, “Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder,” in 2003 which laid out all his research. It included the fact that his father was one of the prime suspects and that his handwriting matched notes sent to the LAPD by a man purporting to be the killer. Hodel documented receipts for five-pound bags of concrete of the same size and brand that were found near Short’s body which were believed to have been used to transport her body. He wrote about his father’s violent tendencies such as his sadomasochism, the suspicion that he had killed his own secretary and the rape accusations against him by his own daughter.

The police had wiretapped the Hodel home and on one of the tapes, Hodel Sr. was recorded as saying, “Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They can’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead. They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her.” Even though at least eight witnesses made a connection with George Hodel and Short, and the LAPD had an extensive file on him, he was never charged.

A nightclub owner, Mark Hansen, with whom Short had stayed briefly, and whose address book was among the effects mailed to the press, was also a suspect, according to a book by Piu Eatwell called “Black Dahlia, Red Rose” published in 2017. Eatwell writes that Short was killed at the Aster Motel in a room found “covered in blood and fecal matter,” and that Hansen’s motive for murdering her was because she rejected his advances and knew too much about his scheme for robbing hotels.

Another book, Donald H. Wolfe’s 2006 “The Mob, the Mogul, and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles” theorizes that it was gangster Bugsy Siegel who killed Short at the behest of Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler who had a sexual relationship with her and wanted her gone because he got her pregnant. Wolfe contends that his theory is plausible as powerful people regularly bribed the corrupt LAPD to cover up their crimes.

In her 1995 book, “Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer,” Janice Knowlton writes that she saw her father, George, beat Short to death with a hammer and that he forced her to accompany him to dispose of the body. She was ten years old at the time.

Several fiction books have also been written on the murder, the most famous of which is James Ellroy’s 1987 “The Black Dahlia” which was made into a movie in 2006 directed by Brian De Palma with Mia Kirshner playing Short. John Gregory Dunne also wrote a fictional account of the murder in his 1997 book “True Confessions” which was made into a movie starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall. On television, the Black Dahlia murder was part of the first season of American Horror Story on FX in 2011.

The enduring fascination of this case, considering the thousands of cold case crimes in Los Angeles, might be explained because of the particularly brutal nature of the killing and the sensation that it made at the time, with no killer ever found. Time magazine named it one of the most famous unsolved cases in the world.

Short’s remains are buried at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California.