“The Black Dahlia” was a nickname given to Elizabeth Short (July 29, 1924 – c. January 15, 1947), an American woman who was the victim of a gruesome and much-publicized murder. Short acquired the moniker posthumously by newspapers in the habit of nicknaming crimes they found particularly lurid. Short was found mutilated, her body sliced in half at the waist, on January 15, 1947, in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, California. Short’s unsolved murder has been the source of widespread speculation, leading to many suspects, along with several books and film adaptations of the story. Short’s murder is one of the oldest unsolved murder cases in Los Angeles history.
Elizabeth Short was born in Boston; she grew up and lived in the suburb of Medford, Massachusetts. She was the third of five daughters of Cleo Short and Phoebe Mae Sawyer. Her father built miniature golf courses until the 1929 stock market crash, in which he lost much of the family’s assets. In 1930, he parked his car on a bridge and vanished, leading some to believe he had committed suicide. Short’s mother moved the family to a small apartment in Medford and found work as a bookkeeper. It was not until later that Short would discover her father was alive and living in California.
Troubled by asthma and bronchitis, Short was sent to live for the winter in Miami at the age of 16. She spent the next three years living there during the cold months and in Medford the remainder of the year. At age 19, Short travelled to Vallejo, California, to live with her father, who was working nearby at Mare Island Naval Shipyard on San Francisco Bay. They moved to Los Angeles in early 1943, but an altercation resulted in her leaving there and finding work in the post exchange at Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base), near Lompoc, California. Short next moved to Santa Barbara, where she was arrested on September 23, 1943, for underage drinking. Following her arrest, she was sent back to Medford by the juvenile authorities in Santa Barbara. Short then returned to Florida to live, with occasional visits to Massachusetts.
In Florida, Short met Major Matthew Michael Gordon, Jr., a decorated United States Army Air Force officer who was assigned to the 2nd Air Commando Group and in training for deployment to China Burma India Theater of Operations. Short told friends that Gordon wrote her a letter from India proposing marriage while he was recovering from injuries sustained from an airplane crash. She accepted his proposal, but Gordon died in a second airplane crash on August 10, 1945, before he could return to the United States.
Elizabeth Short returned to Los Angeles in July 1946 to visit Army Air Force Lieutenant Joseph Gordon Fickling, an old boyfriend she had met in Florida during the war. At the time Short returned to Los Angeles, Fickling was stationed at NARB, Long Beach. For the six months prior to her death, Short remained in southern California, mainly in the Los Angeles area.
Murder and aftermath
The nude body of Short was found in two pieces on a vacant lot on the west side of South Norton Avenue midway between Coliseum Street and West 39th in Leimert Park, Los Angeles on January 15, 1947. It was discovered by local resident Betty Bersinger, who was walking with her three-year-old daughter around 10 a.m.; Bersinger initially mistook the body for a discarded store mannequin. Upon realizing it was a corpse, she rushed to a nearby house, where she phoned the police.
Short’s severely mutilated body was severed at the waist and completely drained of blood. Not only was the body bloodless, but her body had been obviously washed by the killer as well. Her face had been slashed from the corners of her mouth toward her ears, creating an effect called the Glasgow smile. Short also had multiple cuts on her thigh and breasts, where entire portions of flesh had been removed. Her lower half was positioned a foot away from her torso, and the intestines were tucked neatly under the buttocks. The body had been “posed” with her hands over her head, her elbows bent at right angles, and her legs spread. Near the body, detectives found a cement sack which contained droplets of watery blood, as well as a heel print on the ground amidst tire tracks.
The autopsy stated that Short was 5 feet 5 inches (1.65 m) tall, weighed 115 pounds (52 kg), and had light blue eyes, brown hair, and badly decayed teeth. There were ligature marks on her ankles, wrists, and neck. Although the skull was not fractured, Short had bruising on the front and right side of her scalp with a small amount of bleeding in the subarachnoid space on the right side, consistent with blows to the head. The cause of death was hemorrhage from the lacerations to the face and shock due to blows on the head and face.
Following Short’s identification, reporters from the Los Angeles Examiner contacted her mother, Phoebe Short, and told her that her daughter had won a beauty contest. After prying as much personal information as possible from Mrs. Short, only then did they inform her that that her daughter was actually dead. The newspaper then offered to pay her air fare and accommodation if she would travel to Los Angeles to help with the police investigation. It was however a ploy, the newspaper used the trip to keep her away from police and other reporters to protect their scoop. William Randolph Hearst’s papers, the Los Angeles Herald-Express and the Los Angeles Examiner, later sensationalized the case: The black tailored suit Short was last seen wearing became “a tight skirt and a sheer blouse” and Elizabeth Short became the “Black Dahlia”, an “adventuress” who “prowled Hollywood Boulevard”. As time passed, the media coverage became more outrageous, with claims that her lifestyle had “made her victim material”.
On January 23, 1947, someone claiming to be the killer called the editor of the Los Angeles Examiner, expressing concern that news of the murder was tailing off in the newspapers and offering to mail items belonging to Short to the editor. The following day, a packet arrived at the Los Angeles newspaper containing Short’s birth certificate, business cards, photographs, names written on pieces of paper, and an address book with the name Mark Hansen embossed on the cover. Hansen, an acquaintance at whose home she had stayed with friends, became a suspect. One or more persons would later write more letters to the newspaper, calling himself “the Black Dahlia Avenger”, after the name given to Short by the newspapers. On January 25, Short’s handbag and one shoe were reported seen on top of a garbage can in an alley a short distance from Norton Avenue, and then finally located at the dump.
Due to the notoriety of the case, more than 50 men and women have confessed to the murder, and police are swamped with tips every time a newspaper mentions the case or a book or movie about it is released. Sergeant John P. St. John, a detective who worked the case until his retirement, stated, “It is amazing how many people offer up a relative as the killer.”
Short was buried at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. After Short’s sisters had grown up and married, Short’s mother moved to Oakland to be near her daughter’s grave. Phoebe Short finally returned to the east coast in the 1970s and lived into her nineties.
Rumors and popular misconceptions
According to newspaper reports shortly after the murder, Elizabeth Short received the nickname “Black Dahlia” at a Long Beach, California drugstore in mid 1946 as wordplay on the film The Blue Dahlia. Los Angeles County district attorney investigators’ reports state that the nickname was invented by newspaper reporters covering the murder. Los Angeles Herald-Express reporter Bevo Means, who interviewed Short’s acquaintances at the drug store, is credited with first using the “Black Dahlia” name.
A number of people, none of whom knew Short, contacted police and the newspapers, claiming to have seen her during her so-called “missing week”—a period between the time of her January 9 disappearance and the time her body was found on January 15. Police and district attorney investigators ruled out each of these alleged sightings; in some cases, those interviewed were identifying other women they had mistaken.
Many true-crime books claim that Short lived in or visited Los Angeles at various times in the mid-1940s; these claims have never been substantiated and are refuted by the findings of law enforcement officers who investigated the case. A document in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s files titled “Movements of Elizabeth Short Prior to June 1, 1946” states that Short was in Florida and Massachusetts from September 1943 through the early months of 1946 and gives a detailed account of her living and working arrangements during this period. Although a popular portrayal amongst her acquaintances and many true-crime authors was of Short as a call girl, the Los Angeles district attorney’s grand jury proved there was no existing evidence that she was ever a prostitute, and the district attorney’s office attributes the claim to confusion with a prostitute of the same name. Another widely circulated rumor holds that Short was unable to have sexual intercourse because of a congenital defect that left her with “infantile genitalia”. Los Angeles County district attorney’s files state that the investigators had questioned three men with whom Short had engaged in sex, including a Chicago police officer who was a suspect in the case. The FBI files on the case also contain a statement from one of Short’s alleged lovers. Found in the Los Angeles district attorney’s files and in the Los Angeles Police Department’s summary of the case, Short’s autopsy describes her reproductive organs as anatomically normal, although the report notes evidence of what it called “female trouble”. The autopsy also states that Short was not and had never been pregnant, contrary to what had been claimed prior to and following her death.
The Black Dahlia murder investigation was conducted by the LAPD. The Department also enlisted the help of hundreds of officers borrowed from other law enforcement agencies. Owing to the nature of the crime, sensational and sometimes inaccurate press coverage focused intense public attention on the case.
About 60 people confessed to the murder, mostly men. Of those, 25 were considered viable suspects by the Los Angeles District Attorney. In the course of the investigation, some of the original 25 were eliminated, and several new suspects were proposed. Suspects remaining under discussion by various authors and experts include Walter Bayley, Norman Chandler, Leslie Dillon, Joseph A. Dumais, Mark Hansen, George Hill Hodel, George Knowlton, Robert M. “Red” Manley, Patrick S. O’Reilly, Woody Guthrie, Orson Welles, and Jack Anderson Wilson.
Theories and possibly related murders
Some crime authors have speculated on a link between the Short murder and the Cleveland Torso Murders, which took place in Cleveland between 1934 and 1938. As with a large number of killings that took place before and after the Short murder, the original LAPD investigators looked into the Cleveland murders in 1947 and later discounted any relationship between the two cases. Nevertheless, new evidence implicating a former Cleveland torso murder suspect, Jack Anderson Wilson (a.k.a. Arnold Smith), with Short’s death was investigated by Detective John P. St. John in 1980. St. John claimed he was close to arresting Wilson for the death of Short, but Wilson died in a fire on February 4, 1982.
Crime authors such as Steve Hodel (son of George Hill Hodel) and William Rasmussen have suggested a link between the Short murder and the 1946 murder and dismemberment of six-year-old Suzanne Degnan in Chicago. Captain Donahoe of the Los Angeles police also stated publicly that he believed the Black Dahlia and Lipstick murders were “likely connected”. Among the evidence cited is the fact that Elizabeth Short’s body was found on Norton Avenue three blocks west of Degnan Boulevard, Degnan being the last name of the girl from Chicago, and there were striking similarities between the writing of the Degnan ransom note and that of “the Black Dahlia Avenger”. For example, both used a combination of capitals and small letters (the Degnan note read in part “BuRN This FoR heR SAfTY”), and both notes contain a similar misshapen letter P and have one word matching exactly. Convicted serial killer William Heirens served life in prison for Degnan’s murder. Initially arrested at age 17 for breaking into a residence close to that of Suzanne Degnan, Heirens claimed he was tortured by police, forced to confess, and made a scapegoat in the Degnan murder.
A television dramatization, “Who Is the Black Dahlia?” (1975), featured Lucie Arnaz in the role of Elizabeth Short. The case has inspired numerous works of fiction, among them True Confessions, a 1981 film starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall. It was adapted from a 1977 novel of the same name by John Gregory Dunne. James Ellroy’s 1987 novel The Black Dahlia is a fictionalized account that, like Dunne’s, uses the case as an occasion for “an exploration of the larger fields of politics, crime, corruption, and paranoia in post-war Los Angeles”, according to cultural critic David M. Fine. Brian De Palma’s 2006 film The Black Dahlia, based on Ellroy’s novel, bears little relation to the facts of the case.