Who Killed the Black Dahlia?
The Tragic Life and 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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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.
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 newspaper’s “Soundphoto” equipment.
Meanwhile, an examination of the body was started by the coroner’s office. It began to detail an incredible and horrifying variety of wounds to the young woman’s body, although the official cause of death was “hemorrhage and shock due to concussion of the brain and lacerations of the face.”
An autopsy revealed multiple lacerations to the face and head, along with the severing of the victim’s 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 girl’s 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 weren’t 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. Beth’s pretty face got her noticed. She had done some modeling before coming to Hollywood and men couldn’t keep their eyes off of her.
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 Hansen’s clubs. On any given day, a visitor to Hansen’s 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 didn’t 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 Beth’s 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 family’s main source of affordable entertainment. She found an escape at the theater that she couldn’t 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 Barbara.
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.
Gordon’s 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 fiancée. 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 actor’s strikes that were going on. Dorothy felt sorry for her and offered her a place to stay at her mother’s home. She meant that Beth could stay for a few days, but she ended up sleeping on the French’s couch for more than a month.
A dramatic newspaper photo of
Robert “Red” Manley. He later
became a suspect in Beth’s murder
but was eventually cleared.
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 didn’t 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 didn’t wait around for Beth’s 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.
The investigation into the Black Dahlia’s murder was the highest profile crime in Hollywood of the 1940’s. 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. Beth’s 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 pouring in.
People everywhere were talking about the
“Black Dahlia” murder
s the investigators traced Beth’s 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, Beth’s mother made the trip to Los Angeles to claim her daughter’s body. Her father, who had not seen her since 1943, refused to identify her. Sadly, Phoebe Short had learned of her daughter’s 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 Beth’s body was found, a mysterious package appeared at the offices of the Los Angeles “Examiner”. A note that had been cut and pasted from newspaper lettering said “Here is the Dahlia’s Belongings…. Letter to Follow”. Inside of the small package was Beth’s 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.
One of the letters received by
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.
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, The Black 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 solution.
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. Black Dahlia 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 landscape.
[H/T American Hauntings]