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Crime Seen: The Black Dahlia

the Black Dahlia
Elizabeth Short, AKA the Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia is one of the most famous unsolved murder cases in criminal history and a subject for numerous documentaries, books, TV episodes and movies. Law enforcement agencies, criminal experts, on-camera presenters and amateur sleuths have all attempted to solve the case, all without success. Rather like the Jack the Ripper murders in London at the end of the nineteenth century, the mystery at the heart of the case – who was the murderer and why did they commit the crime – has only added to the public’s fascination.

Since the murder was committed in 1947 the case has gone very cold, and now it’s extremely unlikely that it will ever be solved, but that hasn’t stopped the speculation, indeed it seems only to increase with each passing year. This January is the 77th anniversary of her tragic death, so it seems like an appropriate time to look at the details of this fascinating case. There have been numerous films and TV shows which have referenced the Black Dahlia, but none – in my opinion – have done anything more than deal with the sensational aspects of the crime. Let’s look at the facts.

The Victim: Elizabeth Short

The first question to answer about the case is, in many ways, the most important: who is the Black Dahlia? Why is answering this question so important? Because without fully understanding who the victim is, it’s going to be practically impossible to solve the case.

Elizabeth Short was born in 1924, in Boston, and she spent most of her childhood between there and Florida. The one truly unusual event in her childhood was that her father tragically committed suicide by jumping into the Charles River, in 1930, after the Wall Street Crash had destroyed his business of building miniature golf courses.

Or at least that was what everybody believed when they found his car abandoned by the Charlestown Bridge. However, in December 1942, he shocked the family by revealing by letter that he was in fact still alive and living in Vallejo, California. This is actually the reason that Short relocated to California in the first place, to reconnect with her long-lost father.

Unfortunately the family reunion didn’t last long, and she’d moved out on her own by January 1943. From Vallejo she worked her way down the coast, via Lompoc, before an underage drinking charge in Santa Barbara forced her relocation back to her mother on the East Coast and then Florida. That fact has been used to paint her as a ‘wild child’, but remember she was nineteen years old and there was a war on. It’s also the only run-in she had with the law.

She arrived in Los Angeles in July 1946 to visit an acquaintance from Florida who was in the Armed Services, not to become a movie-star, as often assumed.

She worked, mostly as a waitress, and rented a room on Franklin Boulevard, in Hollywood, for the next six months. She was due to leave LA on January 10, 1947, on the Greyhound Bus, for Boston, to be reunited with her mother there.

The Murder

Short never took the bus and, on January 15, she was found dead. Her naked, mutilated body dumped on an open lot on the western edges of the city, in a suburb called Leimert Park. A ‘Glasgow smile’ had been carved into her face and her body cut in half (with other lacerations and parts cut off), but the corpse was posed, with legs open and hands behind the head.

The coroner ruled that she had died about 10-12 hours before being found, her death likely caused by several severe blows to the head causing a brain haemorrhage, and she had ligature marks on her wrists, ankles and neck, indicating that she had been gagged and bound for some time. All the blood had been drained from the body before it was left in Leimert Park.

The horribly brutal nature of the murder, the fact that it was an attractive young woman and the lack of clues as to the identity of her killer created a firestorm of media interest. There were many newspapers operating in the Los Angeles area at the time and they competed with each other to print the most lurid and shocking details, even if it meant making them up.

That huge interest only increased further when a man, purporting to be the murderer, contacted a local newspaper with information about the crime that only someone who had witnessed it could know. For months newspapers and newsreels breathlessly followed the twists and turns of the developing investigation, and the authorities had no less than 750 law enforcement officials working on the case at its height.

By the Summer of 1947 though, attention had turned elsewhere, as the case defeated all attempts to solve it. To this day the murder of Elizabeth Short remains an unsolved cold-case.

Locations Associated with the Black Dahlia

Many places that were connected to the Black Dahlia case still exist and, if you’re interested, you can visit them for your own investigation of this most baffling of murder mysteries. Perhaps you could learn some crucial facts about Elizabeth Short that will help you solve the crime. You never know.

It often seems like every bar and hotel in Los Angeles has claimed a connection to her, but these eight places are verifiably confirmed to have an important connection to the Black Dahlia case.

1. BILTMORE HOTEL, PERSHING SQUARE

Around 5 pm, on the afternoon of January 9 1947, Elizabeth Short was dropped off at the Biltmore Hotel, on Pershing Square in downtown, by her boyfriend, Robert Manley. She was seen using the lobby telephones (remember them?) several times over the next few hours, before leaving about 10 pm. It’s the last confirmed sighting of Short, apart from a single witness who placed her on the corner of 7th and Olive Streets (a couple of blocks south) about ten minutes later, getting into a car which sped away into the night.

She told Manley that she was meeting her sister at the Biltmore, but she knew she wasn’t, so why did she lie? Who was she phoning? None of her friends reported getting a call from her that night.

These are the kinds of questions you would have to answer to solve the case, but if you could you would very likely know the identity of the murderer. For example if you could figure out why she lied to Manley about her sister you may well be able to deduce who she was meeting.

Also, the killer must have been very sure that she hadn’t told Manley who she was meeting, otherwise they surely would never have imprisoned her for five days, before killing her. And why did the murderer keep her captive for so long, and then kill her? That was a very risky move.

We visit the hotel and discuss the case on our DTLA Murder Mystery Ghost tour, every Saturday night, at 6 pm. Guests can get a Black Dahlia cocktail at the bar where the drink was invented.

The Black Dahlia at the Biltmore Hotel

2. HERALD EXAMINER, DTLA

Expect some souvenirs of Beth Short in the mail.

Elizabeth Short’s murderer?

At that time the Los Angeles Herald Examiner was one of the main daily newspapers here (there were several). Owned by Randolph Hearst (of Citizen Kane fame), the editor, James Richardson, received a phone call at his office in downtown on January 21, from a man who stated that he was responsible for killing Elizabeth Short. Furthermore, he promised to send some of her belongings to the newspaper as proof that he was telling the truth.

Three days later a package arrived with some of her possessions, including her birth certificate, the Greyhound Bus ticket, personal photographs and an address book with the name Mark Hansen embossed on it (Hansen owned a nightclub called the Florentine Gardens, see below). It had been cleaned with gasoline, a technique to remove fingerprints.

Why did the killer send the package to Richardson? Probably because the Examiner had run the Black Dahlia case as its lead story every day since the body was discovered (and would continue to, for a total of thirty-five days consecutively).

But, more importantly, how did they know forensic methodology? Google didn’t exist back then, and there were no CSI-type Television shows. It suggests the murderer may have had a law-enforcement background.

Another interesting fact to know is that it was reporters from the Herald Examiner who had informed Short’s mother, Phoebe, of her daughter’s death – after first telling her that her that her daughter had won a beauty contest, getting as much information as possible in advance of giving her the worst news imaginable to any parent.

Following that, the Examiner offered to pay for Short’s mother to fly out to Los Angeles. That seemed very generous and public-spirited of them. However, it turned out that the newspaper did that in order to protect its “scoop” and, unbelievably, tried its best to keep her away from the police (and other reporters).

3. FLORENTINE GARDENS, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD

Short lived in an apartment behind this Hollywood nightclub (which was still operating in 2020!) and worked there, part-time, as a waitress. Amongst the belongings of Short that were sent to the Herald Examiner was an address book originally belonging to its owner, Mark Hansen.

It later came out that she had rejected his romantic overtures, which would clearly seem to indicate that she wasn’t the sexually promiscuous woman that many articles and books have made her out to be.

Consider also that the the LAPD were already investigating Mark Hansen as a suspect so, if he was the killer, why would he send an address book with his name on it to the press? Doesn’t seem like he would have wanted that kind of publicity or extra attention from the police.

4. BREEZE AVENUE, VENICE

On March 14 what seemed to be a suicide note was found by a pile of clothing on the beach, at the end of Breeze Avenue, in Venice. It 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.

Maybe the killer killed themselves? Couldn’t live with the knowledge of what they’d done?

Then again, is it very likely that someone who clearly felt such immense rage and committed such a gruesome crime, suddenly developed a conscience and decided to commit suicide? Doesn’t seem so.

Venice California, Black Dahlia
Venice, California. Did the murderer of the Black Dahlia commit suicide here?

5. JOHN SOWDEN HOUSE, HOLLYWOOD HILLS

At the time of the murder this famous house (designed by Lloyd Wright, the well-known architect son of Frank Lloyd Wright) was owned by a doctor, George Hodel. He was a prime suspect and LAPD bugged the house, catching him saying this to a friend:

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.

Sounds suspicious, right? Also, the fact that Short had a hemicorporectomy performed on her by the murderer has led many to conclude that her killer had medical training. Two and two makes four?

Or maybe five in this case. It sounds to me like he was being sarcastic. Doctors hardly ever (if ever) perform below the waist amputations – anyone with a sharp knife and an extremely strong stomach can do it – and anyway, the killer clearly wanted to conceal their identity, so why would they do something that would immediately turn suspicion onto themselves?

Furthermore, of the very few doctors that have been serial killers, nearly all used drugs or poison to kill their victims. They can easily access narcotics, so why wouldn’t they use them?

And if they have a particular yen to cut people up then they’re already in the right profession, they don’t have to do it illegally.

6. PARAMOUNT STUDIOS, HOLLYWOOD

Why have I added this Hollywood studio to the list of locations associated with the Black Dahlia? Because it was here, in 1946, that The Blue Dahlia was filmed. It was a noir movie (a new genre that was very popular in the 1940’s) about a returning Second World War vet who becomes involved in the brutal murder of a young woman. Sound familiar?

It was from this movie that Elizabeth Short had been given the name the Black Dahlia, supposedly by acquaintances, in honor of the movie and the fact that she often wore black. So, in a tragic irony, she had the catchy nick-name before she was killed. Again, that’s been used to suggest that there was an element of fate to her murder, but there wasn’t.

The story of the Black Dahlia has become completely intertwined with Hollywood (as so often happens in Los Angeles), even though there actually isn’t any connection at all to the industry apart from the name.

For example many newspapers claimed that Short was an aspiring actress, since it fits the image of LA so well, but in fact there is absolutely NO evidence whatsoever that she had any ambitions to be an actress (she never attended any castings or did any classes, or even get professional headshots). It’s hard for some people to understand, but the vast majority of people moving to Los Angeles don’t want to be actors.

7. OLD GREYHOUND BUS TERMINAL, DTLA

It was from here, on January 10, that Short was due to leave LA, to return to her mother in Boston. It’s only a few blocks east of the Biltmore Hotel and would take around fifteen minutes to walk, so why did Short go south on leaving the Biltmore? There were numerous cheap hotels in the neighborhood of the Terminal at the time (including the Hotel Cecil, which in fact she likely never visited).

Another option would have been to try one of the flophouses on Bunker Hill, a couple of blocks north of the Biltmore. It was a popular location for filming Noir movies, and undoubtedly would have been known to her.

Greyhound Bus Terminal c1947

The only explanation for it that seems to makes sense is that she had arranged to meet someone who had offered her a place for the night. Someone she didn’t want Manley to know about. Most likely another man.

Or was it a wrong time, wrong place situation, where she just happened to get picked up by the killer? Seems like a lot of coincidences. They just happened to pick someone who was leaving town the next day and wouldn’t be missed for a considerable period of time? This case has more questions than answers!

8. HOTEL FIGUEROA, DTLA

To slightly undermine the last point, one possible reason why Short may have left the Biltmore and walked south was to go to this hotel, which at the time was a YWCA hostel. It was here that she stayed in September 1946, when she first arrived in Los Angeles, so she knew it well, it was cheap and it has a coffin-shaped pool…

But, if that was the case, why not get Manley to drop her there to begin with? Why go to the Biltmore at all? And it was still the wrong location in terms of the bus terminal, adding considerably to her journey there the next day.

It also seems incredibly unlikely that the murderer kidnapped Short on a busy street without anyone noticing, after she left the Biltmore. The whole thing must have been planned by the murderer well in advance. They must have been known to Short.

This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.

Black Dahlia: Cold Case?

Could the crime ever be solved now, so many years after the events? Possibly. If it turns out the murderer kept a memento, which is likely, and someone else ever comes across it and understands what it is, which is unlikely, the case of the Black Dahlia could one day be cracked. If it ever is, you can be sure we’ll have it covered here and on our tour!

However, something else to consider is that there were more than a dozen unsolved murder cases involving young women in the Los Angeles area between 1943 and 1949 (including Jean Spangler, whose purse was discovered in a remote corner of Griffith Park, although her body was never found).

Most people only remember the Black Dahlia now, however these other cases do suggest that there was a serial killer at work in LA during that period. And that really demonstrates the power of celebrity, something that Elizabeth Short undoubtedly, and tragically, achieved in death.

DTLA Murder Mystery Ghost Tour video

To learn about another crime in the area (and one of the worst in U.S. criminal history) read the Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre.

If you have any feedback on Crime Seen: the Black Dahlia – or if you manage to solve the case based in any way on what you’ve learnt here – please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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