Sex. Beauty. Violence. Elizabeth Short, the “Black Dahlia”

Written By: Terri Pressley

Time has immortalized Elizabeth Short as the pinup girl of LA noir, and the story of the unemployed 22-year-old has inspired dozens of books, Web sites, a video game, a movie, and even an Australian swing band. The quest to pinpoint her killer has become a hobby for generations of armchair detectives.

Aspiring actress, Elizabeth Short nicknamed the "Black Dahlia," was only 22 years old when she became the victim in a notorious 1947 murder case. (The name was a bit of word play based on the title of the 1946 movie ‘The Blue Dahlia’.) On January 15, 1947, Short's body, discovered in a Los Angeles vacant lot, was severed in two at her waist and severely mutilated. The gruesome nature of the crime and the Hollywood connection made the case a public sensation.

Hollywood Boulevard today does not look that different from the Hollywood Boulevard of 1946. Many of the structures built in the 1920′s and 1930′s still line the street. Many of the businesses remain, most notably, the Musso and Frank Grill, between Las Palmas and Cherokee, which has served customers continuously since 1919.

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre at the west end of the Boulevard and the Pantages Theatre at the east end still operate. The Roosevelt Hotel is open, The Snow White Waffle House, now the Snow White cafe, is still in business. The Pig and Whistle has reopened and serves cocktails, lunch and dinner at the same old address. The Hillview Apartments is renting again, after a major renovation.

Decades after being hidden, the Kress department store sign has been restored and rises high above Hollywood Boulevard at Whitley. The Broadway Hollywood, no longer a department store, still proudly displays its original sign. Across the street, with its blue neon sign still intact, sits the venerable Taft Building. Across the Boulevard on the north side, the Frolic Room, a neighborhood bar since the 1930′s, is still open for business.


Rumors and speculation were widely being published as fact in 1947 and inaccuracies and exaggerations continue to plague accounts of Elizabeth Short’s life as well as the crime to this day. Uncovering the real facts and true circumstances surrounding Short’s life and especially her last days is extremely difficult.

On the cold and overcast morning of January 15, 1947, a homemaker named Betty Bersinger was walking down a residential street in central Los Angeles with her 3-year-old daughter when something caught her eye. At first glance, Bersinger thought the white figure laying a few inches from the sidewalk was a broken store mannequin. However, a closer look revealed the hideous truth: It was the body of a woman who had been cut in half and was lying face-up in the dirt. Bersinger shielded her daughter's eyes, and then ran with her to a nearby home to call the police.

The dead woman’s body seemed to have been posed. If the placement of Elizabeth’s body was deliberate, its positioning was a puzzle. The posing of a dead body, even today, occurs in less than one percent of all homicides, and so it seems probable that Short’s killer was sending some kind of message.

It has been asserted in one theory that the killer was paying a gruesome homage to the art of Man Ray. Two of Man Ray’s photos, ‘Les Amoureux’ (The Lovers, 1934); and ‘Le Minotaure’ (The Minotaur, 1935) are supposedly the basis for the posed position of Short’s body. Les Amoureux shows a pair of very red lips stretched across a horizon providing a possible template for the slitting of Elizabeth Short’s mouth from ear to ear. If one accepts this theory, then Le Minotaure helps to explain the posing of Elizabeth Short’s body.

Her arms, were raised over her head at 45-degree angles, the lower of half of her body was positioned a foot over from her torso, the straight legs spread wide open. The body appeared to have been washed clean of blood, and the intestines were tucked neatly under the buttocks. From the lack of blood on the body or in the grass, they determined the victim had been murdered elsewhere and dragged onto the lot, one piece at time. There was dew under the body, so they knew it had been placed there after 2 a.m., when the outside temperature dipped to 38 degrees.

The victim's face was horribly defiled: According to autopsy reports, there was quote, "a deep laceration on the face 3" long, which extends laterally from the right corner of the mouth.....There is a deep laceration 2 1/2" inches long extending laterally from the left corner of the mouth." (Those who witnessed the body lying in the ditch said that it appeared she was smiling.) Rope marks on her wrists and ankles indicated that she was restrained, severe bruising was present in several places on Short's head and neck, there were several small cuts to her upper lip, and her breasts had been removed. However, the hyoid bone was intact and there was no evidence of trauma near the thyroid glands or trachea, which would be indicative of strangulation. Multiple cuts and scratches also marked her chest, torso, and arms. A small, square shaped piece of skin was missing from her thigh - found later shoved far into her vagina, along with a fair amount of grass. For whatever reason, her killer or killers had cut off the small rose tattoo on her thigh and placed it inside her body and the pubic hair was found in the rectum. It also appeared that Short had been brutally sodomized post-mortem. Her stomach filled with quote "greenish brown granular matter, mostly feces and other particles that could not be identified." Most surprisingly, there was no presence of sperm anywhere on her body.

By measuring the two halves of the corpse, the detectives estimated the victim's height to be 5'6 and her weight to be 115 pounds. Her mousy brown hair was recently colored, her fingernails bitten to the quick.


In the 1940s, the police and the press existed within a symbiotic relationship. Reporters used the cops for inside scoops and the cops used reporters to disseminate information to the public that they hoped would help solve crimes.

In the Black Dahlia case, detectives gave the Los Angeles Examiner fingerprints lifted from the dead woman and reporters used their "Sound photo" machine — a precursor to a modern fax machine — to send enlargements of the prints to FBI headquarters in Washington.

FBI technicians compared the prints with 104 million fingerprints they had on file, and quickly made a match to one Elizabeth Short. Short's fingerprints were taken for a mailroom job she had had at an army base in California as well as for an arrest for underage drinking in Santa Barbara. The FBI also sent the paper Short's government application photo. When reporters saw how attractive the 22-year-old victim was, they knew they had a sensational tale on their hands.

Sex, Beauty, Violence. The story had it all, and it soon made front-page news across the nation. "Police seek mad pervert in girl's death," ran the headline in the Washington Post. Elizabeth Short embodied the feminine ideal of the 40s, with her shapely legs, full hips and breasts, and a small, up-turned nose. She dyed her mousy brown locks raven black, painted her lips blood red, and pinned white dahlia’s in her hair. With her alabaster skin and startling sky blue eyes, she looked like porcelain doll.

Before Elizabeth was murdered, a mad man terrorized Ohio. Dubbed the 'Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run’ and the 'Cleveland Torso Killer' all of his victims were dismembered in some way, with very smooth, precise cuts. Even though the famed Elliott Ness worked the case, the Cleveland Torso murderer was never apprehended. One day the atrocities stopped, and Ohio never saw the killer's handiwork again.

Could it be possible that this psychotic killer from Ohio would travel to California, indulge in one more murder, and then vanish? It is possible. Kingsbury Run's 'Mad Butcher' was most certainly willing and able to inflict the kind of injuries Short suffered and more than a few serial killers are nomadic. (Take Ted Bundy and Henry Lee Lucas, for example. Bundy roamed several states killed college co-eds, and Lucas, along with Otis Toole, claims to have murdered hundreds.) But- serial killers do not simply stop on their own. They either die themselves or end up in prison, usually on unrelated charges. Is this what happened to the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run?

Elizabeth Short was born on July 29, 1924 in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. She was a little girl when her father Cleo abandoned the family, leaving care for five girls in the hands of Beth’s mother Phoebe Mae. Elizabeth suffered from serious respiratory disease. She would spend most of the year with the family in Medford but went to Florida to stay with family friends in the winter.

The family had no contact with Cleo who was thought to have committed suicide but that proved to be false after he attempted to reconcile with Phoebe who ultimately rejected him. Knowing that her father is alive and lives in California, Elizabeth Short decides to move to California to live with him when she turned 19. Elizabeth had the dream of becoming a movie star and moving to California seemed like the step in right direction to pursue her dream. Her father lived in Vallejo and worked at the Mare Island Naval Station. After a short stay in Vallejo, Elizabeth and her father moved to Los Angeles but that did not last long.

From the beginning, Short's newfound relationship with her father was fraught with strife. She had not seen him for years and he was haunted by the regret. They were strangers living the same house, with clashing ideas of how things should be. Cleo Short expected his teenage daughter to serve him, a maid of sorts, cooking and keeping house. However, Short was a free spirit who wanted nothing to do with domesticity.

It was early 1943 when Elizabeth Short moved out and left for Santa Barbara. She soon found a job in the mail room at Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base) where she was surrounded by entire regiments of lonely soldiers on the verge of being sent to war. She left a trail of longing in her wake wherever she went. Young men clamored for her attention, voted her "camp cutie," and told her she could be a movie star. It soon ended when she was arrested a few months later for underage drinking and was sent back home to Medford.

Over the next couple of years, Short drifted back and forth across the country, taking trains from Medford to Chicago, to Florida, to California and back to Massachusetts again. She came back to California, this time to Hollywood.

At the Hollywood Canteen, Beth met a pilot named Lieutenant Gordon Fickling and fell in love. He was exactly what she was looking for and she began making plans to marry him. Unfortunately, her plans were cut short when Fickling shipped out to Europe.

Short then took a few modeling jobs but became deeply discouraged and she went back east. She spent the holidays in Medford and then went to Miami, where she had relatives with whom she could live. Short began dating servicemen, always with marriage as her goal, and fell in love again on New Year’s Eve 1945 with a pilot, Major Matt Gordon. The two made a commitment to each other shortly after he was sent to India. Unfortunately, he was killed in a plane crash August 10, 1945 on his way home from India.

Short came back to California in an effort to re-establish her relationship with Fickling who was living in Long Beach. Their relationship was short lived and left her in need of a place to live. In December 1946 Short moved in with Dorothy French.


It was mid-January 1947, when Short was last seen at the Biltmore Hotel, where she had been staying before planning to move back to Massachusetts with her sister. It was reported that she was to meet a man by the name of "Red" Manley. He had claimed that he could help Short break into the film business. After their meeting, Manley drove her to the Biltmore and waited with her in the lobby. She was supposed to meet some friends, but they never showed up. Manley informed her that he had to leave. Short bid him farewell and walked out of the hotel onto Olive Street. The date was January 9, 1947. She was never seen alive again.

The suspects were many. Robert Manley, the last known person to be with Elizabeth Short, was the first. He had driven her from San Diego to the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles on January 9, 1947.

Mark Hansen, owner of the Florentine Gardens, became the next prime suspect when the killer mailed an incriminating packet to several newspapers. The packet contained photos, a birth certificate, business cards, names cryptically written on pieces of paper, and an address book with Hansen's name embossed on the cover.

Two hundred suspects in all were interviewed, sometimes polygraphed, but all were eventually released. Exhaustive efforts were made to run down any and all leads as well as tracing the many false confessions made to the killing of Short, confessions made by both men and women.

Despite all of the effort made by investigators, the case remains one of the most famous unsolved cases in California's history.

In February 1947, as a direct result of the Black Dahlia murder, California became the first state in the nation to require the registration of convicted sex offenders. The police psychiatrist, Dr. de River had a hand in drafting the legislation—legislation he had been recommending for a number of years.

Elizabeth Short has become a tragic testament of the horror human beings can inflict on one another. Her brutal murder is one of the most infamous crimes in American history and has become deeply embedded in the American psyche.

Her ghost, and the secrets that it keeps, haunt us still.

Comments

  1. DavesWeb has some interesting thoughts on this case (http://www.davesweb.cnchost.com/wtc13.html) and in a page I can no longer find in the "Inside the LC" series, he brings some further implications that tie the murder to some pretty key players in the early west-coast "rock music" scene (http://www.davesweb.cnchost.com/nwsltr93.html is the first page of it, but there are 22 or more and the Elizabeth Short story is toward the end)

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