Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown
Crime Seen: 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.
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? It’s because without fully understanding who the victim is, it’s practically impossible to solve the case. So, step forward Elizabeth Short. She was a perfectly normal young woman (born in 1924) who had been living in LA for six months prior to her murder, and was due to leave on January 10, 1947, on the Greyhound Bus, for Boston, to be reunited with her mother there.
She 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. 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. That only increased 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 case until, eventually, attention turned elsewhere, as the case defeated all attempts to solve it.
However, many of the key locations still exist and, if you’re interested, you can visit them for your own investigation of this most baffling of cases. Perhaps you could learn some crucial facts about Elizabeth Short that will help you solve the crime. It often seems like every bar and hotel in Los Angeles has claimed a connection to her, but these eight locations are verifiably confirmed to have an important connection to the Black Dahlia case.
1. BILTMORE HOTEL, PERSHING SQUARE
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 several times over the next few hours, before leaving around 10 pm. It’s the last confirmed sighting of Elizabeth, 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. She told Manley that she was meeting her sister at the Biltmore, but she wasn’t, so why did she lie to him? 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.
We visit the hotel and discuss the case on our DTLA Murder Mystery Ghost tour, every Saturday night, at 6pm.
2. HERALD EXAMINER, DTLA
At that time the Los Angeles Herald Examiner was one of the main daily newspapers here. 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 Elizabeth Short’s murderer. 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? And how did he know forensic methodology?
3. FLORENTINE GARDENS, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD
Elizabeth lived in an apartment behind this Hollywood nightclub (which was still operating in 2020!) and seems to have worked there, part-time, as a waitress. Amongst the belongings of Elizabeth which were sent to the Herald Examiner was an address book originally belonging to the 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 promiscuous woman that many articles have made her out to be. 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.” 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 kill themselves? Doesn’t seem like it.
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 Elizabeth 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. Doctor’s 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 on themselves? Furthermore, of the very few doctors that have been serial killers, nearly all used drugs or poison to kill their victims.
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 movie The Blue Dahlia was filmed. It was a noir movie (a style 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 got the name the Black Dahlia, supposedly by acquaintances, in honor of the movie and the fact that she often wore black. The connection between Hollywood and the crime is immense (as so often happens in Los Angeles). For example many newspapers claimed that Elizabeth 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 desire to be an actress.
7. OLD GREYHOUND BUS TERMINAL, DTLA
It was from here, on January 10, that Elizabeth 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 Elizabeth go south on leaving the Biltmore? There were numerous cheap hotels in the neighborhood of the Terminal at the time. Or why not try one of the flophouses on Bunker Hill, a couple of blocks north of the Biltmore? The only explanation that seems to makes sense, is that she had arranged to meet someone who had offered her a place for the night. 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 she 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 Elizabeth stayed in September 1946, when she first arrived in Los Angeles, so she knew it, 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 Elizabeth from off a busy street without anyone noticing.
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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)