Elizabeth Short - The Black Dahlia
(Wide World Photos)
WHO KILLED THE |
The Tragic Life & Death of Elizabeth Short
On January 15, 1947 a housewife named Betty Bersinger left
her home on Norton Avenue in the Leimert Park section of Los Angeles,
bound for a shoe repair shop. She took her three-year-old daughter with
her and as they walked along the street, coming up on the corner of Norton
and 39th, they passed by several vacant lots that were overgrown with
weeds. She couldnít help but feel a little depressed as she looked out
over the deserted area. Development had been halted here, thanks to the
war, and the open lots had been left looking abandoned and eerie. Betty
felt slightly disconcerted and then shrugged it off, blaming her emotional
state on the gray skies and the cold, dreary morning.
As she walked a little further along, she caught a glimpse
of something white over in the weeds. She was not surprised. It wasnít
uncommon for people to toss their garbage out into the vacant lot and this
time, it looked as though someone had left a broken department store mannequin
here. The dummy had been shattered and the two halves lay separated from one
another, with the bottom half lying twisted into what was admittedly a macabre
pose. Who would throw such a thing into an empty lot? Betty shook her head and
walked on, but then found her glance pulled back to the ghostly, white
mannequin. She looked again and then realize that this was no department store
dummy at all -- it was the severed body of a woman! With a sharp intake of
breath and a stifled scream, she took her daughter away from the gruesome site
and ran to a nearby house. From here, she telephoned the police.
The call was answered by Officers Frank
Perkins and Will Fitzgerald, who arrived within minutes. When they found
the naked body of a woman who had been cut in half, they immediately
called for assistance.
The dead woman, it was noted, seemed to
have been posed. She was lying on her back with her arms raised over her
shoulders and her legs spread in an obscene imitation of seductiveness.
Cuts and abrasions covered her body and her mouth had been slashed so that
her smile extended from ear to ear. There were rope marks on her wrists,
ankles and neck and investigators later surmised that she had been tied
down and tortured for several days. Worst of all was the fact that she had
been sliced cleanly in two, just above the waist.
It was clear that she had been killed somewhere else and
then dumped in the vacant lot overnight. There was no blood on her body and
none of the ground where she had been left. The killer had washed her off
before bringing her to the dump site.
The horrible nature of the case made it a top priority for
the LAPD. Captain John Donahoe assigned his senior detectives to the case,
Detective Sergeant Harry Hansen and his partner, Finis Brown.
The body was soon covered from the
stares of onlookers but by this time, reporters and police officers had
trampled the scene.
By the time the detectives were
contacted and could get to the scene, it was swarming with reporters,
photographers and a crowd of curiosity seekers. Hansen was furious that
bystanders and even careless police personnel were trampling the crime
scene. Evidence was being destroyed, he knew, and he immediately cleared
the area. Then, while he and his partner examined the scene, the body of
the woman was taken to the Los Angeles County Morgue. Her fingerprints
were lifted and with the help of the assistant managing editor of the Los
Angeles "Examiner" (in exchange for information), the prints were sent to
the FBI in Washington using the newspaperís "Soundphoto" equipment.
Meanwhile, an examination of the body was started by the
coronerís office. It began to detail an incredible and horrifying variety of
wounds to the young womanís body, although the official cause of death was
"hemorrhage and shock due to concussion of the brain and lacerations of the
An autopsy revealed multiple lacerations to the face and
head, along with the severing of the victimís body. .
There was no sperm present on the body and most of the damage appeared to have
been done after she was dead. Even the hardened doctors and detectives were shocked
at the state of the girlís corpse.
Shortly after receiving the
fingerprints, the FBI had a match for the L.A. detectives. The victim of
the brutal murder was Elizabeth Short, a 22 year-old woman who originally
came from Massachusetts. During World War II, she had been a clerk at Camp
Cooke in California, which explained why her fingerprints were on file.
Once the detectives had this
information, they went to work finding out who knew Elizabeth Short,
believing that this would lead them to her killer. What they discovered
was a complex maze that led them into the shadowy side of the city.... in
search of a woman called the "Black Dahlia".
Elizabeth Short was an aspiring actress who usually dressed
entirely in black. Thanks to her nice figure and attractive face, men easily
noticed her. Her hair was black and her skin pale, providing a striking
contrast and a look that got her noticed, even in Hollywood, where
good-looking dames were a dime a dozen.
Like all of the other pretty girls before and since,
Elizabeth (who preferred the name Beth) came to Hollywood hoping to make it
big in the movie business. She was smart enough to know that looks werenít
everything and that to break into films, she had to know the right people. So,
she spent most her time trying to make new acquaintances that she could use to
her advantage and to make sure that she was in the right nightspots and clubs.
Here, she was convinced, she would come to the attention of the important
people in the business. Bethís pretty face got her noticed. She had done some
modeling before coming to Hollywood and men couldnít keep their eyes off of
|FALLEN ANGEL: |
THE TRAGIC TRUE STORY OF THE BLACK DAHLIA
BY TROY TAYLOR (2013)
Los Angeles. Home to Hollywood, sandy beaches, orange groves and movie studios. Itís been called the City of Angels. But there is one lost angel in black that has been haunting the cityís boulevards of broken dreams for decades. Her name is Elizabeth Short and in 1946, she came to Hollywood to make it big and to see her name up in lights. Instead, after her severed body was found in an empty lot, she was immortalized as the ďBlack Dahlia,Ē more famous in death than she ever was in life. Despite the efforts of hundreds of police officers and countless hours of investigation, her brutal murder was never solved.
What really happened to the Black Dahlia? Was she murdered by a madman, as city officials wanted everyone to believe, or was she the unlucky pawn in a game between corrupt cops, mob bosses and the illicit vice rings that ruled the city? Her tangled trail of death took her into a labyrinth of nightclubs, casinos, brothels and call-girl operations that catered to the Los Angeles elite and she never made it out alive. In this compelling book, Troy Taylor traces the last days of Beth Shortís life and reveals the wild mix of theories and conspiracies that have emerged since her death in January 1947. Find out who he believes killed the Black Dahlia and what really happened in the aftermath of her murder. Youíll never look at this terrifying story in the same way again! $17.00
Click Here to Order the Book!
Beth in Hollywood
In Hollywood, Beth loved to socialize, loved the Hollywood
nightlife and loved to meet men. One of the men who befriended Beth was Mark Hansen, a
nightclub and theater owner who knew many important show business people.
He eventually moved her into his house, along with a number of other young
actresses who roomed there and who entertained guests at Hansenís clubs.
On any given day, a visitor to Hansenís house could find a number of
beautiful actresses and models sunning themselves by the swimming pool.
Beth soon became a part of this group, although her
prospects for film work remained non-existent. She didnít have much of an
income and only seemed to eat and drink when others, usually her dates, were
buying. She shared rooms with other people and borrowed money from her friends
constantly, never paying it back. She never seemed to appreciate the
hospitality given to her by others either, rarely contributing anything to where she
was living and staying out most of the night and sleeping all day. She became
known as a beautiful freeloader.
Around this same time, the film THE BLUE DAHLIA, starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd was released. Some friends of Bethís started calling her the "Black Dahlia", thanks to her dark hair and back lacy clothing. The name stuck and Beth began to immerse herself into the glamorous persona that she had created -- and that may have led to her death.
Although she is remembered today as the "Black Dahlia",
Elizabeth Short did not start out as a sexy vamp that "haunted" the nightclubs
of Hollywood. She was born on July 29, 1924 in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. Her
parents, Cleo and Phoebe Short, moved the family to Medford, a few miles
outside of Boston, shortly after Elizabeth was born. Cleo Short was a man
ahead of his time, making a prosperous living designing and building miniature
golf courses. Unfortunately though, the Depression caught up with him in 1929
and he fell on hard times. Without a second thought, he abandoned his wife and
five daughters and faked his suicide. His empty car was discovered near a
bridge and the authorities believed that he had jumped into the river below.
Phoebe was left to deal with the bankruptcy and to raise
the girls by herself. She worked several jobs, including as a bookkeeper and a
clerk in a bakery shop, but most of the money came from public assistance. One
day, she received a letter from Cleo, who was now living in California. He
apologized for running out on his family and asked to come home. Phoebe
refused his apology and would not allow him to come back.
Beth (known as Betty to her family and friends) grew up to
be a very pretty girl, always looking older and acting more sophisticated then
she really was. Everyone who knew her liked her and although she had serious
problems with asthma, she was considered very bright and lively. She was also
fascinated by the movies, which was her familyís main source of affordable
entertainment. She found an escape at the theater that she couldnít find in
the day to day drudgery of ordinary life.
While she was growing up, Betty remained in touch with her
father (once she knew that he was actually alive). They wrote letters back and
forth and when she was older, he offered to have her come out to California
and stay with him until she was able to find a job. Betty had worked in
restaurants and movie houses in the past but she knew that if she went to
California, she wanted to be a star. She packed up and headed out west to her
father. At that time, Cleo was living in Vallejo and working at the Mare
Island Naval Base. Betty hadnít been in town for long before the relationship
between she and her father became strained. He began to launch into tirades
about her laziness, poor housekeeping and dating habits. Eventually, he threw
her out and Betty (now Beth) was left to fend for herself.
Undaunted, she went to Camp Cooke and applied for a job as
a cashier at the Post Exchange. It didnít take long for the servicemen to
notice the new cashier and she won the title of "Camp Cutie of Camp Cooke"
in a beauty contest. They didnít realize that the sweet romantic girl was
emotionally vulnerable and was desperate to marry a handsome serviceman,
preferably a pilot. She made no secret of wanting a permanent relationship
with one of the men with whom she constantly flirted. The word soon got around
that Beth was not an easy girl and pressure for more than just hand-holding
kept Beth at home most nights. Several encounters made her uncomfortable at
Camp Cooke and she left to stay with a girlfriend who lived near Santa
During this time, Beth had her only run-in with the law. A
group of friends that she was out with got rowdy in a restaurant and the
owners called the police. Since Beth was underage, she was booked and
fingerprinted, but never charged. A kind policewoman felt sorry for her and
arranged for a trip back to Massachusetts. After spending some time at home,
she came back to California, this time to Hollywood.
Back in LA, 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 ensnare him in matrimony. Unfortunately though, her
plans were cut short when Fickling was shipped out to Europe.
Beth then took a few modeling jobs but discouraged, she went back east. She spent the holidays in Medford and then went to Miami, where she had relatives with whom she could live for awhile. Beth began dating servicemen, always with marriage as her goal, but fell in love again with a pilot, Major Matt Gordon. A commitment was apparently
made between them after he was sent to India. Sadly, Gordon was killed in action, once again destroying Beth's dreams.
Gordonís death left Beth a little unbalanced. After a
period of mourning in which she spent telling people that she and Matt had been
married and that their baby had died in childbirth, she began to pick up the
pieces of her old life and started contacting her Hollywood friends. One of
those was former boyfriend Gordon Fickling, who Beth saw as a possible
replacement for her dead fiancťe. They began to write back and forth to one
another and then got together briefly in Chicago when he was in town for a
couple of days. Soon, Beth was in love with him again. She agreed to come to
Long Beach and be with him, happy and excited once again. A short time later,
Beth was back in California.
In December 1946, Beth took up "temporary" residence in San
Diego with a young woman named Dorothy French. She was a counter girl at the
Aztec Theater, which stayed open all night, and after an evening show, she found
Beth sleeping in one of the seats. Beth told her that she had left Hollywood
because work was hard to find due to the actorís strikes that were going on.
Dorothy felt sorry for her and offered her a place to stay at her motherís
home. She meant that Beth could stay for a few days, but she ended up sleeping
on the Frenchís couch for more than a month.
As usual, she did nothing to contribute
to the household and she continued her late-night partying and dating. One
of the men she dated was Robert "Red" Manley, a salesman from L.A. with a
pregnant young wife at home. He admitted being attracted to Beth, but
never claimed to have slept with her. They saw each other on an off for a
few weeks and then Beth asked him for a ride back to Hollywood. He agreed
and on January 8 picked her up from the French house and paid for a hotel
room for her that night. They went out together to a couple of different
nightspots and returned back to the motel. He slept on the bed, while
Beth, complaining that she didnít feel well, slept in a chair.
Red had a morning appointment but came
back to pick her up around noon. She told him that she was going back home
to Boston but first she was going to meet her married sister at the
Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood. Manley drove her back to Los Angeles. He had
an appointment at the home of his employer that evening at 6:30, so he
didnít wait around for Bethís sister to arrive. She was making phone calls
in the hotel lobby when he saw her last -- becoming, along with the hotel
employees, the last person to see Beth Short alive.
As far as the police could discover, only the killer ever
saw her after that. She vanished for six days from the Biltmore before her
body was found in the empty lot.
A dramatic newspaper photo of Robert
"Red" Manley. He later became a suspect in Beth's murder but was
The investigation into the Black Dahliaís murder was the
highest profile crime in Hollywood of the 1940ís. The police were constantly
harassed by the newspapers and the public for results. Hundreds of suspects
were questioned. Because it was considered a sex crime, the usual suspects and
perverts were rounded up and interrogated. Bethís friends and acquaintances
were questioned as the detectives tried to reconstruct her final days and
hours. Every lead that seemed hopeful ended up leading nowhere and the cops
were further hampered by the lunatics and crazed confessions that were still
People everywhere were talking about the
"Black Dahlia" murder
As the investigators traced Bethís
activities, they discovered their strongest suspect, Red Manley. He became
the chief target of the investigation. The LAPD put him through grueling
interrogations and even administered two different polygraph tests, both
of which he passed. He was released a couple of days later but the strain
on him was so great that he later suffered a nervous breakdown.
While the police worked frantically,
Bethís mother made the trip to Los Angeles to claim her daughterís body.
Her father, who had not seen her since 1943, refused to identify her.
Sadly, Phoebe Short had learned of her daughterís death from a newspaper
reporter who had called her, using the pretext that Beth had won a beauty
contest and the paper wanted some background
information about her. Once
he had gleaned as much information as he could, he informed her that Beth
had actually been murdered.
A few days after Bethís body was found, a mysterious
package appeared at the offices of the Los Angeles ďExaminerĒ. A
note that had
been cut and pasted from newspaper lettering said "Here is the Dahliaís
Belongings.... Letter to Follow". Inside of the small package was Bethís
social security card, birth certificate, photographs with various servicemen,
business cards and claim checks for suitcases she had left at the bus depot.
Another item was an address book that belonged to club owner Mark Hansen. The
address book had several pages torn out.
The police attempted to lift
fingerprints off the items but found that all of it had been washed in
gasoline to remove any trace of evidence. The detectives then began the
overwhelming task of tracking down everyone in the
address book and while
Mark Hansen and a few others were singled out for interrogation, nothing
ever came of it. In addition, the promised "letters to follow" arrived but
contained no solid clues
One of the letters received by the
To date, the Black Dahlia murder has never been solved. Over the years, though, many suspects have emerged, along with a number of false confessions and ridiculous stories and
theories. Because of the lurid and mysterious nature of the crime, it seems to
be one of those sorts of cases that everyone has an opinion about. In
addition, the initial investigation of the case revealed a number of suspects
that all eventually played out over time. There have been some
interesting theories within the police department to the
possibility that the killer was the same culprit in the
Cleveland Torso Murders
a few years before.
During the original investigation, investigators ran across
a number of leads and questioned many suspects, including nightclub owner Mark
Hansen and Red Manley, who were later cleared. Red simply had the bad luck to
get involved with a woman who turned out to be as complex as Beth -- and who
ended up dead. Manley was given the "third degree" at police headquarters and
only released after a polygraph test. He was exonerated but the case never
really ended for him. Suspicion and mental problems plagued him for the rest
of his life and in 1954, his wife had him committed to the Patton State
Hospital in San Bernardino. Reporter Will Fowler would later state that the
case "destroyed their life."
There were also many anonymous calls that turned up,
including one that stated that Beth's killers had been two police officers and
many false confessions. In at least three cases, landlords reported
"suspicious behavior" on the part of tenants they were trying to evict and a
woman in Barstow, California gave false information in hopes of getting back
at two old boyfriends who had jilted her. Other time-wasting confessions
included a pharmacist who told police that he "knew how to cut a body in
half". He initially claimed to have killed Beth but later admitted that he
"was kidding". A woman also confessed that Beth had stolen her boyfriend, so
she had killed her. When she was unable to pick her out of a photo array
however, it was confirmed that she had made the whole thing up.
One, more promising, lead involved an Army corporal and
combat veteran named Joseph Dumais. He was reported to the military police by
another soldier, who had argued with Dumais over money. After a 42-day
furlough, the corporal was found with blood all over his clothing and a stack
of newspaper clippings about the murder. He had little memory of what he may
have done during his furlough. He told investigators: "It is possible
that I could have committed the murder. When I get drunk I get rough with
women." Dumais was sent to a psychiatrist but was cleared of killing Beth.
Interest in the case continued for years and it has
appeared in many books and periodicals over time. However, it was really not
until 1987 (the 40th anniversary of the murder) and the release of James
Ellroy's excellent novel about the murder,
Dahlia, that interest in the case was revived and the quest for the
killer of Beth Short was renewed. Since that time, many theories have been
created and new books have appeared on the market -- each, of course, claiming
to have the case solved. Much of the research that has been done, notably by
writers like John Gilmore and Larry Harnisch, has been thorough and
compelling, but others fall far short in making a convincing case for a
So, who killed the Black Dahlia? Author and former head of
the FBI's behavioral sciences unit, John Douglas, had his own theories, based
on his own past experiences profiling serial and dangerous killers. After
reviewing the coroner's inquest, autopsy files and cases records, Douglas
described Beth's killer as a white man, no younger than his late 20's and
possibly older, with a high school education. He lived alone, worked with his
hands and was comfortable with a knife and blood, like a butcher or
slaughterhouse worker. He was also familiar with prostitutes and was compulsive,
patient and deliberate. He was also a heavy drinker and under financial
stress. He spent several days with the victim and, when drunk, let his
personal stress and the alcohol combine into a murderous rage. He cut Beth's
body in half to make transportation easier but also chose mutilation to make a
personal statement about the rage that he felt towards her. Severing the body
both dehumanized and defemininized her. Douglas also believed that the killer
chose the dump site for a reason, as in a personal connection to the
neighborhood, perhaps because of some financial setback caused by the fact
that the construction in the area was halted because of the war.
Douglas believes that if the murder had been committed
today, it would have been solved. He states that the killer would have given
himself away by his behavior after the crime, when he sobered up. He also
theorized that he might have become paranoid, fearing that he had left some
clue behind, and would have become obsessed with the case, reading all of the
newspaper coverage of it and collecting clippings. It's also likely that he
would have kept some souvenir of the crime and when he became convinced that
he would not be found out, he might taunt the police and newspapers with
knowledge he had that no one else did. This might explain the letters and
the items of Beth's that were mailed to the newspapers.
But why no other killings? Douglas believed that perhaps
the killer was never under the same sort of stress again or perhaps he died.
Most likely though, is that the murderer destroyed himself or was committed to a
mental institution. Or perhaps simply faded into obscurity, sure that he would
never be caught.
And while Douglas created a credible
personality of the killer, there have been other claims made as well.
The case was first analyzed by author Leslie Charteris, the creator of
"The Saint", who wrote about the case just three weeks after it occurred
-- but there have been many to follow. The story was written up by Jack
Webb, creator of "Dragnet", in his book The Badge,
in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon series
and in Will Fowler's The Reporters. The story has also appeared in countless
books on unsolved mysteries and true crimes and there are entire websites
devoted to Beth and her murder.
Two relatively recent entries to try and solve the Black
Dahlia murder include Black Dahlia Avenger and
Daddy was the Black Dahlia Killer, in which both
writers blame their deceased fathers for the crime. The 1995 book by Janice
Knowlton and respected crime author Michael Newton,
Daddy was the Black Dahlia Killer, was written after repressed memories
surfaced for Knowlton. As an alleged victim of incest and child abuse, he kept
her memories of her life with father -- and the murder of "Aunt Betty" --
below the surface for years. The book presents several well-known facts about
the case but there is nothing to substantiate the story that her father was
the killer other than the author's claims.
Avenger is unfortunately just as flawed. This book had many excited
when it learned that the author, Steve Hodel, was a veteran police detective
but his initial evidence in the case turned out to be some photographs that he
found in his late father's estate that he believed were of Elizabeth Short. I
wish that I could say that I thought the photos were genuine but I can't. The
book is a well-written and well-researched investigation into the past of
Hodel's father -- and his likely crimes -- but I don't think it a presents a
great case that his father killed Beth Short.
Some of the best-researched theories into the crime have been done by authors Donald Wolfe, John Gilmore and Larry Harnisch. Gilmore is
the author of the bo0k Severed and Gilmore spent years writing and researching the story. There is also compelling research that has
also been done by reporter Larry Harnisch into this case. Using John Douglas'
profile of the killer, Harnisch has managed to track down not only a suspect
who fits it but a doctor who lived in the neighborhood where Beth's body was
found but who also had a connection to Beth's sister and by extension, to Beth
herself. To this date, Harnisch has not published a book on the case but you can read more about his theories and information
on his website.
My favorite entry into Black Dahlia books and theories was written by Donald Wolfe, The Black Dahlia Files. He offers what I feel is perhaps the most compelling theory behind who killed Beth Short.
In 2013, I penned my own book on the case, Fallen Angel, and while I do not claim to be an expert on it, I have tried to take a common sense approach about the many theories that are out there and try to boil them down to what I feel is the most credible version of events that occurred both before and after Beth Short's murder. You can see more about the book here.
But no matter the number of theories, books and
documentaries on the case, to this date it remains unsolved. No matter who
considers themselves an expert on the case and who does not, the truth is that
no one was ever charged for the murder of Elizabeth Short and, as far as we
know, her death has never been avenged. She remains an elusive mystery from
the dark side of Hollywood -- and the even darker side of the American
Return to Dead Men Do Tell Tales
© Copyright 2003 / 2013 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.