Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Who Killed the Black Dahlia?

The Tragic Life & Death of Elizabeth Short

On this date, 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 3-year-old daughter with her and as they walked along the street, coming up on the corner of Norton and 39th, they passed several vacant lots that were overgrown with weeds. Bersinger 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 empty lots had been left looking abandoned and eerie. Betty felt slightly disconcerted but then shrugged it off, blaming her emotional state on the gray skies and the cold, dreary morning.

As she walked a little farther 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 into the vacant lot and this time, it looked as though someone had left a broken department store mannequin there. The dummy had been shattered and the two halves lay separated from one another, with the bottom half lying twisted into 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 realized 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 sight and ran to a nearby house. Sobbing, she telephoned the police.

It was at that moment, with one telephone call, that one of Los Angeles’ greatest unsolved mysteries captured the imagination of southern California and the rest of America. The legend of the “Black Dahlia” painted a vivid and bloody picture of a Hollywood story gone wrong. A young woman came west to find riches and glory, but tragically, found her greatest fame in death.

The emergency 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 savagely that her smile extended grotesquely 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 on 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. He also added Herman Willis, a bright young cop from the Metro Division, to help follow up on the leads that were sure to come in.

The grisly crime scene where Elizabeth Short’s severed body was found in a vacant Los Angeles lot. 

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 scene. Then, while he and his partners 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, the prints were sent to the FBI in Washington using the newspaper’s “Soundphoto” equipment. The newspaperman had, of course, asked for information in exchange for the use of the equipment.

Meanwhile, an examination of the corpse was started at 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. It also appeared that the woman had been sodomized and her sexual organs abused but not penetrated. 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. The subsequent of newspaper coverage of lurid the case brought tips, calls and false confessions pouring into police headquarters. More than 50 people would eventually confess to the killing.

Shortly after receiving the fingerprints, the FBI had a match for the Los Angeles detectives. The victim of the brutal murder was Elizabeth Short, 22, 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.”

Like all the other pretty girls before and since, Elizabeth Short (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 of 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 her. She created a character for herself, dressing completely in black, which emphasized her pale beauty.

Beth Short in Hollywood

In Hollywood, Beth roomed with a hopeful dancer who introduced her to Barbara Lee, a well-connected actress for Paramount. Lee took Beth to all of the right places, including the famous Hollywood Canteen, where Beth always hoped she would be discovered. 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 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 of Beth’s friends starting calling her “the Black Dahlia,” thanks to her dark hair and back lacy clothing and the nickname stuck. It fit well with the mysterious and glamorous persona that Beth had already created.

Although she is remembered today as the Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short did not start out as a sexy vamp who “haunted” the nightclubs of Hollywood. She was born on July 29, 1924, in Hyde Park, Mass. 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, 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 file for 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 deserting 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, 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 were 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, Beth remained in touch with her father (once she knew 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. Beth 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. Beth hadn’t been staying with her father long before the relationship between them became strained. Cleo began to launch into tirades about her laziness, poor housekeeping and dating habits. Eventually, he threw her out and 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, though, and desperate to marry a handsome serviceman, preferably a pilot.

Mug shots that were taken after Beth’s only, minor run-in with the law. 

 During this time, Beth had her only run-in with the law. A group of friends that she was 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.

At the Hollywood Canteen, Beth met and fell in love with a pilot named Lieutenant Gordon Fickling. 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 took a few modeling jobs but became discouraged and went back East. She spent the holidays in Medford and then went to Miami, where she had relatives with whom she could live for a while. Beth began dating servicemen, always with marriage as her goal. She fell in love again on New Year’s Eve 1945 with a pilot, Major Matt Gordon. A commitment was apparently made between them after he was sent to India. Beth wrote to him constantly and Gordon remained in touch with her. As a pre-engagement gift, he gave Beth a gold wristwatch that was set with diamonds and spoke about her (and their engagement) to family and friends. They would get married and have a proper honeymoon, he promised her, after he returned from overseas.

Beth went back home to Massachusetts and got a job, dreaming of her October wedding. Her friends often commented on how happy she was and after the war ended in Europe she became ecstatic about Gordon returning home. A short time later, she received a telegram from Gordon’s mother. As soon as it arrived, Beth tore the message open, believing that it was about plans for the upcoming wedding. Instead, Mrs. Gordon had written, “Received word War Department. Matt killed in plane crash on way home from India. Our deepest sympathy is with you. Pray it isn't true.”
Tragically, it was true and Gordon’s death left Beth a little unbalanced. After a period of mourning, she began to pick up the pieces of her old life and started contacting her Hollywood friends. One of those friends was former boyfriend, Gordon Fickling, whom Beth saw as a possible replacement for her dead fiancĂ©e. They began to write to one another and 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. The rekindled relationship didn’t last long and soon Beth was single again.

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 actors’ strikes that were going on. Dorothy felt sorry for her and offered her a place to stay at her mother’s home. The invitation was intended to last only for a few days, but Beth ended up sleeping on the Frenchs’ 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 Los Angeles with a pregnant young wife at home. They saw each other on and 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 motel 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.

A dramatic newspaper photo of Robert “Red” Manley, a salesman who had met Beth in San Diego. Initially, he was the LAPD’s main suspect in the case but was eventually cleared.  

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, so he didn’t wait around for Beth’s sister to arrive. Manley said Beth was making phone calls in the hotel lobby when he saw her last, becoming, along with the hotel employees, the last person to see her alive. As far as the police could discover, only her 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 1940s. 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 whose crazed confessions were still pouring in.

As the investigators traced Beth’s activities, they discovered their strongest suspect, Robert 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. An envelope contained a note that had been cut and pasted from newspaper letters. It read:

Here is the Dahlia’s Belongings –
Letter to Follow

Inside the small package was Beth’s social security card, birth certificate, photographs of Beth 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 them 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 “letter to follow” never arrived.

All of the leads in the Black Dahlia case came to dead ends and the investigation fizzled, and then came to a halt. Since the time of her death in 1947, many books have been written and many theories have been expressed about who killed Elizabeth Short. But no matter the number of theories, books and documentaries on the case, to this date it remains unsolved. No one has ever been charged with her murder 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.

Sadly, Beth found the fame in death that she never managed to achieve in life.

Troy Taylor's book, FALLEN ANGEL, tells the tragic true story of Elizabeth Short, the "Black Dahlia." It's available in an autographed edition from the website or as a Kindle edition from Amazon!

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