7 Insane Things You Didn't Know About the Black Dahlia Murder
Elizabeth Short's Mugshot (www.laurajames.com)
Whether you're a hardcore crime fanatic or just your average Jane with a penchant for the macabre (hey, no judgement), you've surely heard of Elizabeth Short, A.K.A. "The Black Dahlia." You probably know how she was found: naked, bloodless, posed like a mannequin, and cut in half, wearing a "Glasgow smile." That alone is crazy. Here's where it gets crazier.
Mrs. Betty Bersinger, the woman who discovered Short's body (Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photos Collection via the Los Angeles Public Library)
Women Were First On The Case
In the early hours of January 15, 1947, Mrs. Betty Bersinger was walking with her three-year old daughter when she found Elizabeth Short's body in a vacant lot in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. She initially thought it was a mannequin due to its pose and pallor. (You know how you find mannequins in fields sometimes.) When she realized she was looking at a corpse, she immediately telephoned the police.
The first reporter to arrive was Agness Underwood with the Los Angeles Herald-Express, also known for her interview with Amelia Earhart. Despite her capable background, Underwood was abruptly taken from the case not once but twice and promoted to editor of the paper's city desk to keep her happy. The reporters who came after her ... did not help the situation.
From left to right Adrian West, Short’s brother-in-law; Mrs. Phoebe Short, mother; and Mrs. Virginia West, sister (Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photos Collection via the Los Angeles Public Library digital archives)
Reporters Tricked Short's Mother
Elizabeth Short's horrific murder so electrified the press that they decided not only to question the locals but to reach out to Short's family in Massachusetts. Reporters from the Los Angeles Examiner, rather than telling Mrs. Short about the tragedy, told her Elizabeth had won a beauty contest in order to get information about her life. Imagine Mrs. Short's despair when she found out that her daughter had been killed right after receiving such an honor.
Press interference continued throughout the case as the Black Dahlia murder made the newspapers more and more money. In fact, Elizabeth Short's death was literally front page news for 35 days straight. Preceded by the Cleveland Torso Murders in the 1930s and followed only a month later by the Lipstick Killer, the gruesome Black Dahlia more or less gave reporters a triple feature.
Threatening letter sent to the LAPD, presumed to be from the killer (Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photos Collection via the Los Angeles Public Library digital archives)
The Murderer Toyed With The Police
Apparently not content with killing and mutilating Elizabeth Short, the killer began contacting police within a week of the body's discovery. He started with a phone call, saying they should "expect souvenirs of Beth Short in the mail." The Herald Examiner began receiving letters three days later. Some were cut-and-paste, but others were handwritten. They did, indeed, receive many of Short's personal documents and effects, which must have been one depressing day in the mail room. Despite the boon of evidence, law enforcement officers couldn't get any fingerprints off it or positively identify the handwriting. Short's murderer loved toying with the press so much he outright told them he was doing it. The letters' similarity to those of the Zodiac Killer was not lost on Steve Hodel.
George Hodel outside the courtroom (lakompany.blogspot.com)
Two Different People Think Their Dads Did It
Steve Hodel, a former Los Angeles detective, has spent 23 years gathering evidence to posthumously I.D. his father as Elizabeth Short's killer as well as the perpetrator of the Zodiac murders. Why would he think such a thing? Well, George Hodel all but admitted it, for one. He was recorded on tape saying "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." (He was questioned and released about his secretary's death, by the way). He was a doctor, more than capable of the precise hemicorporectomy performed on Elizabeth Short. Also, the initials "G.H" were repeatedly mentioned in a posthumous letter from police informant W. Glenn Martin referencing both the Black Dahlia murder as well as the Green Twig murder only two years later. George Hodel was questioned and released for that one, too. Three times is a lot to be questioned about murder. Just sayin'.
Steve Hodel wasn't the only one to point the finger at dear old Dad. Janice Knowlton also believed that her father killed Elizabeth Short. She urged investigators to examine his property and told them that she saw him beat Short to death with a hammer, but they found no supporting evidence. Knowlton's own sister insisted that "she believed it, but it wasn’t reality." Not to be deterred by a little thing called "lack of evidence," Knowlton continued making calls to the police until her death.
A reward post for finding Elizabeth Short’s killer (https://info.umkc.edu)
So Many People Confessed, It Became "An Obstruction Of Justice"
The LAPD had six main suspects but very few good leads. There was only one witness, the body had been scrubbed clean with gasoline, and Short had been missing for days before her body was found. The investigation was cloudy enough even before City Councilman Lloyd G. Davis offered a $10,000 reward for any information on the killer (over $100,000 in today's currency). Law enforcement ended up with more than 150 potential suspects and more than 500 confessions. Since it was very unlikely this was a case of flash mob murder---it was before YouTube, after all---police figured most of those confessions had to be false. It was such a problem, in fact, that while no one was ever charged for the murder, there were some arrests in the Black Dahlia case---for obstruction of justice by false confession.
LAPD officers F.W. Meredith and E.C. Benson examine Elizabeth Short’s clothing (Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photos Collection via the Los Angeles Public Library digital archives)
The LAPD Handled It So Badly, They Were Sent Before A Grand Jury
At the time of the murder, the Los Angeles Police Department was not doing their best. They were still recovering from World War II, not to mention the Zoot Suit Riots, which left hundreds injured. Then there was their consistent failure to solve any of the "Los Angeles Horror Murders"---all lone women, grotesquely killed.
It turned out that "We're just, like, super overwhelmed" was not a good enough excuse to save the department from being sent before a grand jury two years later. Frustrated with the LAPD's failure to, you know, solve crimes, the grand jury more or less asked the question "Why does your homicide unit keep letting women and children get murdered without justice?" Chief William H. Parker took his position in 1950, less than a year later, but hey, that's probably just a coincidence. On the upside, there's some evidence that Short's case helped inspire California state assemblyman C. Don Field to write a bill demanding a sex offenders registry. So, you know, there's that.
Section of a photograph of Elizabeth Short (Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photos Collection via the Los Angeles Public Library digital archives)
Even 750 Investigators Couldn't Solve The Case
The Black Dahlia murder has been unsolved for over 70 years, but it's certainly not for lack of manpower. Between January 1947 and the spring of that same year, 400 sheriff's deputies and 250 California State Patrol officers tried, unsuccessfully (it seems rude to keep pointing it out), to solve the crime. Some, like Hodel, think it’s because the LAPD was actually trying to cover it up---and, with the release of police informant W. Glenn Martin’s letter, it sounds like that could be true. It remains one of the most infamous cold cases of all time.