August 11, 2020 1:40 pm
On the morning of January 15, 1947, the body of Elizabeth Short was found in a vacant lot on the west side of South Norton Avenue, midway between Coliseum Street and West 39th Street in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. She was naked, her body severed into two pieces and drained of blood. To this day, her murder remains unsolved.
Elizabeth Short was born on July 29, 1924 in Boston Massachusetts. She was the youngest of five girls. The family moved to Portland, Maine, but later moved to Medford Massachusetts where she spent the majority of her life. Her father built miniature golf courses up until the stock market crashed in 1929. Unfortunately, the family lost most of their savings during this time. Then in 1930, her father’s car was found abandoned on the Charlestown Bridge. He wasn’t located and it was believed that he had committed suicide by jumping into the Charles River. As a result, Elizabeth’s mother, Phoebe May took the five girls and moved into an apartment and took on a job as a bookkeeper.
Elizabeth suffered from bronchitis and severe asthma attacks and even underwent lung surgery when she was only 15. Doctors suggested she move to a milder climate during the winter to alleviate further respiratory issues, so her mother sent her to Miami Florida, where she spent her winters with family friends. Over the next three years, Elizabeth had 2 homes, spending most of her time in Medford Massachusetts with her family, and winters in Miami, Florida. When she reached her sophomore year in high school (10th grade) she decided to drop out of School.
In a strange turn of events, in 1942, Elizabeth’s mother received a letter from her presumed-dead husband. He was alive, and had run away and started a new life in California. That December, Elizabeth packed her bags and moved across the country to live with her father in Vallejo, California. But things weren’t meant to be. Elizabeth and her father began having arguments, and by January, Elizabeth packed her bags and moved out. She moved from friend to friend, staying where she could, while working at the Base Exchange at Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base). A few months later, she picked up and moved to Santa Barbara, and on September 23, 1943 she was busted for drinking underage in a local bar. She was arrested, and sent back to her mother in Medford Massachusetts.
Elizabeth returned to Florida, visiting her family in Massachusetts only on occasion. While in Florida she met a man, Major Matthew Michael Gordon, Jr. an Army Air Force officer at the 2nd Air Commando Group. He was training for deployment to the China Burma India Theater of Operations of World War II. He was involved in a plane crash in India, and while he recovered, Elizabeth told friends that he had proposed marriage. However, before the couple could wed, Gordon died in another plane crash on August 10, 1945.
In July 1946, Elizabeth packed up and returned to California, moving to Los Angeles where she visited Army Air Force Lieutenant Joseph Gordon Fickling, whom she had met during her time in Florida. She remained in Los Angeles, working as a waitress and renting a room behind the Florentine Gardens nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard. Although she had no known acting jobs or credits, many described her as an aspiring film star, or would-be actress.
On the morning of January 15, 1947, Mrs. Betty Bersinger was walking down the sidewalk, pushing her 3-year old daughter Anne in a stroller, and heading to a shoe repair shop. As she walked, she noticed what appeared to be a mannequin lying in the grass. But, as she looked closer, she discovered it was not a mannequin at all. It was a body. She grabbed her daughter and ran to a nearby house where she called the police. Within minutes, police were on the scene.
The body was that of Elizabeth Short. The first shocking detail was that she had been severed at the waist, her torso lying face up, arms raised over her head bent at right angles, her lower half was a foot away, lay with her legs spread wide apart. Her intestines were found tucked away beneath her buttocks, and she had several cuts on her thighs and breasts, where entire portions of her flesh had been sliced away. Her skin was pale and appeared to have been washed. No blood was found on the scene, in fact, her body had been completely drained of blood. Her face was mutilated, her lips cut into an exaggerated smile, also known as the “glasgow smile.”
On the scene, detectives found a heel print and tire tracks. There was also a cement sack containing watery blood nearby.
The medical examiner determined that her time of death had been approximately 10 hours before she was discovered, placing her death sometime during the evening of January 14, or early January 15.
The body was identified with the help of the FBI by using her fingerprints, which were matched to Elizabeth from those taken when she was arrested in 1943. Once she was identified, reporters from the Los Angeles Examiner immediately contacted her mother and told her that her daughter had won a beauty contest. However, this was only a ploy to extract as much personal information as they could about Elizabeth before revealing that she had, in fact, been murdered. They offered to pay for her to fly out and stay in Los Angeles during the investigation, yet this was exposed to be another ploy to keep her from talking to other reporters while they worked on their story. The press, specifically the Examiner and the Los Angeles Herald-Express, sensationalized the case, even describing the outfit Elizabeth had last been seen wearing was a black tailored suit with a tight skirt and a sheer blouse. She was nicknamed as the “Black Dahlia” thanks to her affinity for black clothing, and the strikingly dark color of her hair. She was described as an “adventuress” who “prowled Hollywood Boulevard,” and the Los Angeles Times deemed her murder a “sex fiend slaying.”
The autopsy was performed on January 16 by Frederick Newbarr, the Los Angeles County coroner. His report stated that Elizabeth was 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed about 115 pounds. She had light blue eyes, brown hair, and badly decayed teeth. She had ligature marks on her ankles, wrists, and neck. She had an “irregular laceration with superficial tissue loss” on her right breast. She also had superficial lacerations on her right forearm, left upper arm, and the lower side of her left chest.
Elizabeth’s body had been cut in half by a technique taught to doctors to help people with severe and potentially fatal illnesses such as osteomyelitis, tumors, severe traumas, and intractable decubiti in, or around, the pelvis. This surgery requires amupating the body below the waist by transecting the lumbar spine, thereby removing the legs, genitalia, urinary system, pelvic bones, anus, and rectum. This type of surgery has only been performed a few dozen times according to medical literature. Interesting, she had very little bruising along the incision line, which suggests that it was performed postmortem, or after death. He also noted another “gaping laceration” that measured 4.25 inches and ran from the belly button, down to just above where her pelvis would have been.
Moving to her face, the coroner reported that she had lacerations on either side of her face, which extended from the corners of her lips and measured 3 inches on the right side, and 2.5 inches on the left, giving her the “glasgow smile.” She had bruising on the front and right side of her scalp with a small amount of bleeding on the back of her head, consistent with her being hit. Interestingly, she did not suffer a fractured skull. The cause of death was determined to be hemorrhaging from the lacerations on her face, and shock from the blows to her head and face. The report also indicated that Elizabeth’s anal canal was dilated at 1.75 inches, which suggested she may have been raped. Samples were taken from her body to test for the presence of sperm, but the results all came back negative.
In life, Elizabeth had become enamored with Robert “Red” Manley, a salesman from Los Angeles. Despite the fact that he was married, he admitted that he was attracted to Elizabeth, but had never slept with her. They saw each other off and on, so it was not out of the ordinary when she asked him for a ride back to Hollywood. He agreed and on January 8, he picked her up from the French residence, a home she worked at doing housework. He took her to a hotel, paid for the room and the two of them attended a party. At the end of the night, they both returned to the hotel where he slept on the bed, and Elizabeth slept in a chair.
The next morning, Robert had an appointment, and returned to the hotel around noon to pick Elizabeth up. She said she would be returning to Massachusetts, but needed to meet her married sister in Hollywood at the Biltmore Hotel first. Robert drove her there, but did not stay as he had another appointment that evening. The last time he saw her, she was in the hotel lobby, making a phone call. Hotel employees were able to confirm the sighting. After that, no one saw her until the morning of January 15, when her body was discovered.
On January 23, The Examiner received a phone call from a man claiming to be Elizabeth’s killer. He told the editor that he wasn’t pleased with how they were reporting the story, and offered to mail them Elizabeth’s belongings to prove his claim. A few days later, The Examiner received a manila envelope, the addressing and words all taken from cut-and-pasted newspaper clippings. On the face of the envelope was the message, “Here is Dahlia’s belongings [,] letter to follow.” The envelope contained Elizabeth’s birth certificate, business cards, photographs, and an address book with the name “Mark Hansen” embossed on the cover. Mark Hansen, a nightclub owner, had previously let Elizabeth stay with him in the past, and quickly became a suspect. Several partial fingerprints were lifted from the envelope and sent to the FBI for testing, but unfortunately the fingerprints were compromised in transit and could not be properly analyzed.
That same day, a handbag and shoe were found in a trash can, just 2 miles from where Elizabeth’s body had been found. These items had also been wiped down with gasoline, erasing any evidence they may have held. Robert Manley was able to identify the items as belonging to Elizabeth. Although initially considered a suspect, he was cleared when his alibi for January 14 and 15 checked out, and he was able to pass a lie detector test.
More letters came into various newspaper agencies. They were all made from newspaper and magazine clippings, and were consistent with the first letter that had been received containing Elizabeth’s belongings. One of the letters sent to The Herald-Express read, “I will give up in Dahlia killing if I get 10 years. Don’t try to find me.” Anonymous tips and more letters came in, none of which were able to lead detectives any closer to their killer.
One letter was actually handwritten. On January 26, The Examiner received a letter that read, “Here it is. Turning in Wed., Jan. 29, 10 am. Had my fun at police. Black Dahlia Avenger.” The letter also named the supposed place where the killer would turn himself in, yet on the morning of January 29, the killer did not appear. Instead, at 1pm that day, The Examiner received another cut-and-pasted letter reading, “Have changed my mind. You would not give me a square deal. Dahlia killing was justified.”
A media frenzy ensued, leading to inaccurate information being circulated throughout the public. Some of these reports indicated that Elizabeth had been tortured for hours prior to her death. Police didn’t interfere with the reports, knowing if they did, the real cause of death would be exposed.
Other reports about Elizabeth’s personal life claimed she had been declining romantic advances from Mark Hansen. A stripper told police that she “liked to get guys worked up over her, but she’d leave them hanging dry.” This claim encouraged reporters to move on the theory that Elizabeth had been a lesbian, and they began questioning employees and patrons of gay bars. This did not turn up any new evidence, and the claim remains unsubstantiated.
By February 1, no new leads led reporters to announce that the case had “run into a Stone Wall.” Lead investigator, Captain Jack Donahue, told the press that he believed her murder had taken place in a remote building or shack on the outskirts of Los Angeles, and her body was subsequently transported into the city where it was disposed of.
Based on how her body had been dissected, investigators looked into the possibility that the murderer may have been a surgeon, doctor, or someone with medical knowledge. By mid-February, police were ready with a warrant for the University of Southern California Medical School, which was located near the site where Elizabeth’s body had been discovered. They requested a complete list of the program’s students. The University agreed, so long as the student’s identities remained private. Despite background checks, no new suspects were identified.
On March 14, what appeared to be a suicide note was found written in pencil on a piece of foolscap (a paper generally cut to the size of 8 ½ x 13), and tucked into a shoe in a pile of men’s clothing by the ocean’s edge at the foot of Breeze Ave. Venice. The note read, “To whom it may concern: I have waited for the police to capture me for the Black Dahlia killing, but have not. I am too much of a coward to turn myself in, so this is the best way out for me. I couldn’t help myself for that, or this. Sorry, Mary.” The pile of clothing was spotted by a beach caretaker, who reported it to John Dillon, lifeguard captain. Dillon immediately notified Captain L.E. Christensen of the West Los Angeles Police. The clothes included a coat and trousers of blue herringbone tweed, a brown and white Y shirt, white jockey shorts, tan socks, and tan moccasin leisure shoes, size 8. The clothes left no clue as to the identity of the owner.
Police questioned several people listed in Mark Hansen’s address book including Martin Lewis, who had also been an acquaintance of Elizabeth’s . Martin was able to provide an alibi and was cleared of suspicion.
The initial case was worked by a total of 750 investigators from the LAPD and other departments including 400 sheriff’s deputies and 250 California State Patrol officers. Numerous locations were searched for clues, including sites along the Los Angeles River, but no new evidence was turned up. City Councilman, Lloyd G. Davis, posted a $10,000 reward (equivalent to $114,501 in 2019) for information leading to the arrest of Elizabeth’s killer. Once the reward was posted, several people came forward and confessed, which were all dismissed as false. Several of those who did confess were subsequently charged with obstruction of justice.
By 1950, the police had still not made an arrest, though they did discover a new, and likely, suspect. Dr. George Hodel lived and worked in Hollywood, but most considered him to be a shady character. He was believed to be an “underground abortionist,” performing unlawful abortions. He first came under public scrutiny in October 1949 when he was accused of molesting his fourteen year old daughter, Tamar Hodel. Despite three witnesses testifying that they had seen him having sex with his daughter, he ws acquitted of the charges in December.
Dr. George Hodel
When Dr. George Hodel was implicated in the murder of his secretary, police had reason to believe he could have been involved in the Black Dahlia murder. They bugged his home, and recorded the following:
“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. Maybe I did kill my secretary.”
Although his name was mentioned to the grand jury, along with five other suspects, he was never considered for indictment. By the time police had enough evidence to arrest him, Dr. Hodel had left the country where he started a new family.
Dr. Hodel’s son, Steve, grew up to be a respected homicide detective with the LAPD. Steve believes his father to be the Black Dahlia killer. Among his claims are that his father’s handwriting matches that of the strange letters received by police. He also uncovered photos of a woman, whom he believes to be Elizabeth, in his father’s personal photo album. Perhaps the most incriminating fact would be that Dr. Hodel would have had the medical background to perform the precise amputation of Elizabeth’s body.
It is unknown to this day who killed the Black Dahlia. Though we may have our suspicions, this case will likely never be solved.