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Elizabeth Short: The Black Dahlia

Crime Files
Elizabeth Short: The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia

Elizabeth Short was born in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. Her father, Cleo, abandoned his large family in October 1930, feeling unable to support them after the 1929 stock market crash left him bankrupt. Short and her four sisters were raised in Medford, Massachusetts by their mother, Phoebe Mae. Suffering with asthma as a child meant that Short spent her summers in Massachusetts but went to family friends in Florida for the warmer winters.At age 19, she moved from her hometown and went to live with her father in Vallejo, California, hoping to pursue her dream of being in the movies. In early 1943, they moved to Los Angeles and she managed to get work in the Camp Cooke Post Exchange (now Vandenberg Air Force Base), near Lompoc. Short didn’t stay long and left after a fight with her father, moving to Santa Barbara. It was here that the Juvenile Authorities arrested her on 23 September 1943 for underage drinking and sent her back to Medford.Over the next few years, she moved around Florida, occasionally going back to Massachusetts for visits. Short predominantly earned money by working as a waitress at various restaurants but was often short of money. Her glamorous image and good looks meant that she was never without doting admirers who would pay for her meals and buy her clothes and gifts. Short’s exact movements during this time were later documented in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s files. They contained a detailed account of her whereabouts – both living and working – from September 1943 to the early months of 1946, entitled ‘Movements of Elizabeth Short Prior to 1 June 1946’.

People who knew her, described Short as courteous and soft-spoken, a woman who didn’t smoke, drink or swear and who aspired to appear glamorous. Her lust for life meant she frequented nightclubs, loved the music and was always surrounded by men. During her time in Florida, she met Major Matthew M. Gordon Jr. on 31 December 1944 at a New Year’s Eve party and they fell in love. He was part of the 2nd Air Commandos and involved in training for deployment in the China/Burma/India operations. Whilst in India, Gordon wrote to Short, proposing marriage. She eagerly accepted but he sadly died on 10 August 1945 in an airplane crash before he could return to America. It was later erroneously reported that the couple did in fact marry and had a child who died. Gordon’s family denied any connection between him and Short, following her murder a few years later.In July 1946, Short visited Long Beach, California to see an old boyfriend, Lt Gordon Fickling whom she had met in Florida during the war and with whom she had kept in touch. In the six months prior to her death, she moved frequently, living variously in rooming houses, hotels, apartments and some private homes. She never stayed longer than a few weeks before moving again. She was known to have shared a cramped, two-bedroom apartment with eight other young women, in Hollywood from 13 November to 15 December 1946. Fickling’s last letter from Short was dated 8 January 1947 (a day before she was last seen alive) and in it she told him she planned to move to Chicago to become a fashion model.


20 July 1924 – Born in Hyde Park, Massachusetts Early 1943 - Moved to Vallejo, California, age 19 Mid 1943 - Moved to Los Angeles 23 September 1943 - Arrested in Santa Barbara for underage drinking 31 December 1944 – Met Major Matthew M. Gordon Jr. 14 August 1945 – Received news of Major Gordon’s death May to October 1946 - Lived in Mark Hansen’s home on several occasions July 1946 – Returned to Southern California to be near Joseph Gordon Fickling 13 November to 15 December 1946 – Livied in Hollywood with eight young women Early January 1947 – Was asked to leave the family with whom she was staying 8 January 1947 – Fickling received letter from Short 9 January 1947 – Last seen alive by Robert Manley 15 January 1947 – Short’s body discovered 24 January 1947 – Anonymous package containing Short’s belongings mailed to the Examiner newspaper 25 January 1947 – Short’s handbag and one of her shoes found in a dumpster

The Aftermath

Decades unsolved

Short was buried in the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California because she had loved the state of California and her sister lived nearby in Berkeley. Six family members and a few police officers attended the quiet ceremony.Myths and misconceptions surrounding the Short killing were rife and soon after her murder, newspapers reported that she had been nicknamed “Black Dahlia”. It was supposedly coined during her time spent in Long Beach in the summer of 1946 and was a play on the then-current film ‘The Blue Dahlia’, about an ex-bomber pilot suspected of murdering his unfaithful wife, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Some believed the nickname was due to the fact that Short behaved mysteriously, dyeing her hair black, having a preference for black clothes and often wearing dahlias in her hair. An investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney reported that it was a name invented by the newspapers covering the murder and that her friends had known her simply as Bette. Film studios denied that she had ever worked as an actress or even as an extra in movies. Short’s sister, Muriel, claimed that in one of her last letters home, Short had written that she was to be given a screen test by an important film director, although Muriel could not remember the director’s name.The horrific nature of the crime stirred intense public interest and over time, approximately 60 people, mostly men but including a few women, confessed to the murder. Over the years, the stories surrounding the Short murder became increasingly outrageous. Fiction writers claimed variously that Short was a prostitute, that she was a woman who enticed her assailant, that she wanted to be killed, that her lifestyle made her ideal victim material, that she had participated in pornographic films and that she was pregnant at the time of her murder. None of this was true and no evidence was found to substantiate the claims. The coverage in the press was always sensationalist and often incorrect. Another myth was that Short was unable to have sexual intercourse due to a condition known as Infantile Genitalia. The autopsy report described Short’s reproductive organs as anatomically normal and stated that she was not pregnant.

Joseph A. Dumais, a 29-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, confessed to the murder a few weeks after Short’s body was found. It was later discovered that Dumais was in Fort Dix at the time of the murder and he was cleared of any involvement.Leslie Dillon, a 27-year-old bellhop and aspiring writer began writing from Florida to LAPD psychiatrist Dr J. Paul De River in October 1948. Dillon had formerly lived in Los Angeles and proposed another man, Jeff Conners, as a suspect. It transpired that Conners had been living in Los Angeles around the time of the murder and that Dillon had been in San Francisco and both men were cleared of involvement.One theory was that the perpetrator was a woman and the reason Short’s body had been bisected was to make it easier to move, as the killer was not strong enough to carry it in one piece. One suspect is simply referred to as “Queer Woman Surgeon” in the LAPD case files. Newspaper stories claimed that Short was lesbian or bisexual whilst the district attorney files state that “Short had no use for queers”.Public relations specialist and former professional singer, Janice Knowlton, in her book ‘Daddy was the Black Dahlia Killer’, blames her own father, George Knowlton, for the murder. Whilst there is little reliable information on him, Knowlton lived in Los Angeles at the time of the Short murder and died in a motor vehicle accident in 1962. Janice Knowlton claims that through therapy, she regained childhood memories of being forced to watch her father torture, murder and cut up Short’s body. Her book was a flop and she committed suicide with a prescription drug overdose in 2004.

In the early 1980s, actor and crime writer John Gilmore accused Jack Anderson Wilson, an alcoholic drifter also known as Arnold Smith, of the Short murder. In an interview, Wilson apparently revealed details about the murder that only the killer would know, such as a vaginal defect, which would have prevented Short from having sexual intercourse. Wilson was not a suspect until Gilmore brought him to the fore.Norman Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times was accused of involvement in the Short murder by Donald Wolfe in his book ‘The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles’ (2005). Wolfe also mentions Jack Anderson Wilson in the book.Another suspect was Dr Walter Alonzo Bayley, a Los Angeles surgeon, who lived a block away from where Short’s body was found. Whilst he had not personally known Short, his daughter was a friend of Short’s sister Virginia and brother-in-law Adrian and had been a matron of honour at their wedding. Bayley was 67 at the time of the murder and had no known history of violence or criminal activity. He died in January 1948 of degenerative brain disease.Folk singer Woody Guthrie was accused of the murder, due to some sexually explicit letters he had written to a woman he fancied. The woman, disturbed by what he had sent, showed them to her sister, who lived in Los Angeles and contacted the police. Guthrie was cleared of any involvement with the murder.Mary Pacios, a childhood friend of Short’s, blames movie director Orson Welles as he had once performed a magic act where he ‘sawed’ a woman in half. She believed this gave the killer the idea for Short’s murder.There was a speculated link between the Short murder and the Cleveland Torso Murders (also known as the Kingsbury Run Murders) that took place in Cleveland between 1934 and 1938. The Los Angeles Police Department investigated the case in 1947 but discounted any relationship between the two.Crime authors linked the Short murder and the 1945 Chicago murder of Suzanne Degnan, who was dismembered. It transpired that when Short’s body was discovered, William Heirens, also known as the “Lipstick Killer”, had confessed to the Degnan murder and was already in jail.The unsolved status of the Short murder has inspired dozens of books, a video game and even an Australian swing band. Generations of armchair detectives have speculated over who the murderer was. Based on the 1987 novel by James Ellroy, Brian De Palma’s film ‘The Black Dahlia’ starred Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank and Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short and was released in 2006.

The Trial

case never closed

Suspects testified before the 1949 Grand Jury hearings. This Jury also investigated the possibility of police corruption in the case and requested the 1950 Grand Jury to continue the investigation. Under the advice of District Attorney Fred Henderson, it was agreed that the case would never be assumed by the District Attorney’s office. All evidence and files would remain with the LAPD Homicide Division and they would be issued with progress reports. The 1950 Grand Jury seemed to have lost interest in the case and by October 1950, had stopped issuing progress reports. Chief H. Leo Stanley advised closing the investigation but the unsolved case has remained an open file to this day.

The Arrest

Catch the Killer

The Black Dahlia murder investigation was conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department and was the largest since Marian Parker’s murder in 1927. It necessitated the borrowing of officers from neighbouring police forces in order to investigate every person who had known Short, starting with 20 of her former ‘boyfriends’. These people, numbering in the hundreds, were all treated as suspects, who had to be eliminated one by one.In February 1947, as a direct result of the Short murder, California became the first state requiring the registration of convicted sex offenders. It was a breakthrough for LAPD psychiatrist Dr J. Paul De River who had been making recommendations for this legislation for a number of years.The police spent precious manpower interviewing thousands of people and the Biltmore Hotel's registration records were examined from December 1946 to January 1947 but none of the suspects' names appeared. A house-to-house search was conducted, the police searching for blood-soaked clothing, but they gained no solid leads. At one point in the investigation, the detectives were convinced that the clean bisection of Short’s body pointed to the murderer having medical knowledge. They focussed on medical students and some doctors made it onto their list of suspects. By June 1947, police had eliminated approximately 75 suspects and by December 1948, the number had reached 192.Various witnesses reported seeing different cars in the area, including a black sedan that had been driving slowly along the driveway of the vacant lot at around 6 am, with its headlights off. It had stopped against the curb, idling, but no one had seen the driver. Whilst there were hundreds of suspects and intensive investigation and interviewing, no perpetrator was ever found.

The SuspectsThe last person to see Short alive on 9 January 1947 was Robert “Red” Manley, a 25-year-old married salesman. The pair had apparently stayed a night in a local motel and Manley had driven her the following day to Los Angeles, to check her luggage in at a bus station. Short had told him she was going to Berkeley to stay with her sister, whom she was meeting at the Biltimore Hotel. Manly accompanied her to the hotel lobby but left at 6:30 pm to return to his family in San Diego. Police booked him as a suspect but he was released after he passed a polygraph test. Later, he was given sodium pentathol (the ‘truth drug’) but was absolved a second time. Manly suffered a mental breakdown and in 1954, after claiming he heard voices, was committed to Patton State Hospital by his wife. He died on 9 January 1986.On 24 January 1947, nine days after the murder, a package was mailed anonymously to the Examiner newspaper, still smelling strongly of the petrol the sender had used to wipe it clean of fingerprints. There was speculation that it had been sent by Short’s killer. Inside were some of Short’s belongings, including her birth certificate, social security card, some photographs, Major Matthew Gordon’s obituary and an address book, containing the names of 75 men. All of these men were traced and their stories found to be similar. They had met Short at a nightclub or on the street, bought her drinks or dinner but not seen her again after she made it clear she was not interested in a physical relationship.On 25 January 1947, Short’s black patent leather handbag and one of her black open-toed shoes was found in a dumpster, several miles from the crime scene. Manley confirmed them as hers, as the handbag still smelled of her strong perfume and the shoes were the same he had paid for to be resoled in San Diego.The police and the newspapers were contacted by several people who claimed they had seen Short during the week between her disappearance on 9 January and the discovery of her body on 15 January. All reports of alleged sightings were investigated and ruled out. None of the people actually knew Short and in some cases, police identified other women witnesses had thought were Short.22 final suspects were investigated by the Los Angeles district attorney’s office:1.    Mark Hansen2.    Carl Balsinger3.    C. Welsh4.    Sergeant “Chuck” (name unknown)5.    John D. Wade6.    Joe Scalis7.    James Nimmo8.    Maurice Clement9.    A Chicago police officer10.    Salvador Torres Vera (medical student)11.    Doctor George Hodel12.    Marvin Margolis (medical student)13.    Glenn Wolf14.    Michael Anthony Otero15.    George Bacos16.    Francis Campbell17.    “Queer Woman Surgeon”18.    Doctor Paul DeGaston19.    Doctor A.E. Brix20.    Doctor M. M. Schwartz21.    Doctor Arthur McGinnis Faught22.    Doctor Patrick S. O’ReillyMark Hansen, a 55-year-old Dane who owned Florentine Gardens, a Hollywood nightclub that featured burlesque acts was a major suspect. He had known Short while she was in Los Angeles and she had lived in his home on several occasions between May and October 1946. Hansen had received a telephone call from Short on 8 or 9 January, making him one of the last people to have spoken to her. The address book sent in the anonymous package to the Examiner newspaper was embossed with Hansen’s name. He had never used it and had given it to Short. Hansen remained a key suspect until 1951 and was linked to three others, Doctor M. M. Schwartz, Doctor Arthur McGinnis Faught and Doctor Patrick S. O’Reilly. Hansen had no criminal record or history of violence and no charges were brought against him. He died of natural causes in 1964.Doctor Patrick S. O’Reilly was a medical doctor who knew Short through Hansen. O’Reilly reportedly frequented the Florentine Gardens and attended sex parties with Hansen. O’Reilly had a history of violent, sexually motivated crime and had been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon but no charges were brought against him.Physician Doctor George Hodel only became a suspect in 1949 when his neighbour, Lillian DeNorak accused him of molesting her. He was placed under surveillance from 18 February to 27 March 1949 and tried and acquitted in December 1949. Lillian was later committed to a state mental institution. Hodel died in 1999 and his son, LAPD detective Steve Hodel published his book ‘Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder’ (2003). In it he depicts his father, George Hodel, as a misogynist and a pervert, holding orgies at the family home and raping his 14-year-old daughter. He goes on to claim his father was the Black Dahlia killer and committed other unsolved murders over two decades.

The Crimes

Horrific Crime

The 22-year-old Short was last seen alive in the foyer of the Biltmore Hotel at 5th Street and Olive in downtown Los Angeles on the evening of 9 January 1947. A week later, on 15 January 1947, local housewife Betty Bersinger found Short’s body in a vacant lot in the Leimert Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Bersinger was walking with her three-year-old daughter to the cobblers and thought at first that the waxy white figure lying near the pavement was a store mannequin discarded in the lot. The gruesome truth was that it was a woman’s naked, badly mutilated body, cut in half at the waist and lying face up in the dirt. At 10:40 am, Bersinger ran to a nearby home to call the police, saying, “A person needs attending to” and hung up without leaving her name. She phoned again a few days later to identify herself as the caller.

Two detectives were assigned to the case, Finis Brown and Harry Hansen, but by the time they reached the crime scene, it was overrun with reporters and onlookers, all carelessly trampling the evidence. Agnes Underwood, a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Express was one of the first at the scene. The body had been positioned as if the killer wanted it discovered. The dead woman’s arms had been placed above her head at 45-degree angles and her lower half was lying about a foot away, with her straight legs spread wide open. Her wrists and ankles bore rope marks, suggesting she had been tied up prior to death and possibly tortured. Her mouth had been slashed three inches open on both sides, making it into a hideous clown-like grin. Her nipples had been cut off and her vagina stuffed with grass. Her intestines had been removed and were positioned neatly under her buttocks and her body washed clean of blood.The detectives concluded that due to the lack of blood on the body and the surrounding grass, the murder had taken place elsewhere. They knew from the dew still present under the body, that it had been placed in the lot after 2 am but before dawn and that she had been dead approximately ten hours. They had no clue as to her identity, so they sent her fingerprints to FBI headquarters in Washington and a match was found. Short had her fingerprints taken on two previous occasions, when she was arrested for underage drinking and when she worked in the mailroom at the military base post room in California. Short’s mother confirmed that her last known address was in Pacific Beach, San Diego. The coroner’s office cited the cause of death as massive internal haemorrhaging caused by blows to the head. No traces of sperm were found anywhere on her body.