< Back to Files

Elizabeth Short: The Black Dahlia

More

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.