The Black Dahlia: The Case Reviewed
(Wide World Photos)
Elizabeth Short, the woman known as the Black Dahlia was born July 29, 1924 in Hyde Park, Massachusetts to Phoebe and Cleo Short. Elizabeth, known as Bette* in her hometown of Medford, was the middle daughter in a family of five girls: Virginia, Dorothea, Elizabeth, Eleanora and Muriel. The girls were brought up by their mother to be polite, proper, and independent. Virginia studied opera and performed at Jordan Hall in Boston. Dorothea enlisted in the service during World War II and became a cryptologist. All the girls were well liked and described by neighbors as having friendly personalities.
Cleo, Bette's father, was a successful businessman, building miniature golf courses—until the stock market crash of 1929. In 1930 he deserted his family and faked his own death. Mrs. Short, who was his bookkeeper, closed the business and went to work to put food on the table. Times were hard.
Bette was a sickly child with asthma and lung problems. She left Medford High School in 1940 because of her health; the New England winters were especially difficult for her. Traveling to Florida, Bette stayed with family friends and worked as a waitress. She wrote to her mother twice a week. For the next couple of years, Bette would leave for Florida in the winter, returning home in the spring. A pretty child, Bette had turned into a beauty with translucent blue-green eyes, a stunning figure—always stylishly dressed. Her neighbors liked to watch Bette as she walked down the street. Bette talked of modeling and of her dreams to be a movie star.
In 1943, her father surfaced. Cleo sent money for Bette to join him in Vallejo, California. The reunion didn't last. After three weeks, Bette left and found a job at the Camp Cook Commissary near Santa Barbara. There she earned the title, "Camp Cutie."
Bette did not return to California until mid-1946. She worked in the Boston area during the good weather and confined her winter travel to Florida with a brief trip to Georgia. In Miami, Bette, who did not lack for dates, on New Year's Eve 1944 met the love of her life, Major Matt Gordon, a Flying Tiger. Matt wrote to his sister that Bette was someone he was seriously interested in and asked his sister to correspond with Bette. He gave Bette a watch as a pre-engagement gift. "He is not like other men," she wrote her mother. Bette returned to Medford to await Matt's return. A few days after the war ended she received a telegram from Matt's mother that he had been killed en route home. "My sympathy is with you," the telegram said.
Spring of 1946, Bette headed west for California by way of Chicago where she had a brief rendezvous with Gordon Fickling, a serious beau she had met in Florida prior to Matt. In July she joined Gordon Fickling in Long Beach, California. The reunion did not work out.
People who knew Elizabeth Short described her as friendly, soft spoken and courteous, someone who didn't drink, smoke, or swear—someone stunning, who liked to appear glamorous. Ann Toth, a roommate and friend, described Elizabeth Short as “Tender. Young and tender.”
The next few months, Bette was broke, seemed lost, moving about. Her twice-a-week letters home continued— always upbeat, positive, not mentioning difficulties. For a few weeks in October and November Bette shared a room with Ann Toth at the home of Mark Hansen, owner of the Florentine Gardens. Bette's last Hollywood address was on Cherokee Street where she shared a room with four other girls.
December 8th, Bette took a Greyhound bus to San Diego. Bette was befriended by Dorothy French and stayed with the French family in Pacific Beach until January 8th when Bette left with Robert Manley. On January 9th around 6:30 or 7:00 PM Robert Manley left Bette at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, where, she told him, she was meeting her sister. At 10:00 PM the bell captain said good night to Bette and watched her walk into the night.
The Crime and Timeline of the Crime
A mother and daughter were returning home from shopping, and were taking a short cut through a vacant lot. The mother caught sight of what appeared to be a store mannequin, albeit laying in two pieces, tosses haphazardly in the grass.
As the pair got closer, the mother shoved her daughter aside and shielded the little girl's eyes. It was not a mannequin at all but a young girl, her body not only bruised and battered but cut in half, nude, sprawled in the grass like a discarded doll.
(Wide World Photos)
VERDICT OF CORONER'S JURY
STATE OF CALIFORNIA, County of Los Angeles
In the Matter of the Inquisition upon the body of
Elizabeth Short, Deceased,
Before BEN H. BROWN, Coroner.
We, the Jurors, summoned to appear before the Coroner of Los Angeles County at room 102, Hall of Justice, Los Angeles County, California, on the 22nd day of January A.D. 1947, to inquire into the cause of the death of Elizabeth Short, having been duly sworn according to law, and having made such inquisition and hearing the testimony adduced, upon our oaths, each and all do say that we find that the deceased was named Elizabeth Short, a female, single, native of Mass., aged about 22 years, and that she came to her death found on the 15th day of January, 1947 at Norton St. Between 39th and Coliseum Drive, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, and that this death was caused by hemorrhage and shock due to concussion of the brain and lacerations of face; and from the testimony introduced we find said injuries to have been inflicted on the deceased by some person or persons unknown at this time to this jury and at some location unknown to this jury; and we find this to be a homicide and recommend that every effort be made to apprehend the perpetrator or perpetrators responsible therefor, all of which we duly certify by this inquisition in writing, by us signed this 22nd day of January, 1947.
Choteau W. Paul, Foreman
Paul I. Todd
H. W. LaChat
S. R. Moore
R. W. Rose
H. E. Brier
F. D. Tucker
Book Excerpt. LINK
Serial killer operating in the Kingsbury Run area of Cleveland from 1935 through 1938; twelve victims attributed to suspect, an additional seven or eight victims are questionable.
Suspect sent communications to the Cleveland police. Dissection varied. Some of suspect's victims were bisected at the waist, washed, and drained of blood. All victims were killed quickly and then decapitated—an important departure from the signature of the Black Dahlia killer.
On September 5, 1934, a driftwood hunter found the lower portion of a woman's torso buried in the sand at Euclid Beach, eight miles east of downtown Cleveland. The victim's legs were severed at the knees, her skin discolored by the application of a chemical preservative.
A year later, on September 23, 1935, boys playing in Kingsbury Run found two headless male bodies, nude but for stockings worn by the younger victim. Both had been emasculated, and their severed heads were found nearby.
On January 26, 1936, a Cleveland butcher was alerted to the presence of "some meat in a basket," behind his shop. Investigating, he was stunned to find two human thighs, one arm, and the lower half of a woman's torso. The upper torso, lower legs and missing arm were found behind a vacant house on February 7, several blocks away, but fingerprints had already identified the victim as Florence Polillo, a 41-year-old prostitute. Her severed head was never found.
Four months later, on June 5, two boys found the severed head of a man in Kingsbury Run, a mile from the spot where Andrassy and his nameless companion were found in September 1935. Railroad workers found the matching body on June 6, but victim number five remained anonymous, despite publication of numerous distinctive tattoos.
The Suspects Reviewed
There was no hotel register on Yucca Street which contained the name of this suspect on the evening of December 6, 1946. He was finally located in St. Louis. Sgt. Brown went there where he was given a lie detector test and questioned. He admitted being with victim until December 8, 1946, but convinced Sgt. Brown that he was not the sergeant court-martialed. He was informed that Claude Welsh was in Hollywood at the time of the murder. It has not yet been established that he [Welsh] ever met the victim. It has since been ascertained that the sergeant who knew victim at Camp Cooke, against whom she testified in the court-martial was Sergeant “Chuck” (last name unknown). This information was secured from interviewing numerous friends of victim at Camp Cooke who worked in the commissary and information from officers stationed there in 1943. Thus far it has been impossible to find any record of such a court-martial proceedings.
Sergeant “Chuck” (last name unknown) was seen with victim on numerous occasions at Camp Cooke in the spring of 1943. She testified that he had assaulted her to the court-martial proceedings there and he was ordered overseas as a result of it. She attempted to obtain his personal property which it was necessary for him to leave behind.
Mattie Comfort, 3423-1/2 South Arlington, Republic 4953. She said that she was with Doctor Hodel sometime prior to the murder and that she knew nothing* about his being associated with the victim. Rudolph Walthers, known to have been acquainted with victim and also with suspect Hodel, claimed he had not seen victim in the presence of Hodel and did not believe that the doctor had ever met the victim. The following acquaintances of Hodel were questioned and none were able to connect the suspect with murder
His right breast was removed by surgery. The right breast of victim Short was removed apparently by a person skilled in the use of a surgical knife.
On February 23, 1937, the upper half of a woman's torso was found at Euclid Beach, almost precisely where the first (and unacknowledged) victim was discovered in September 1934. The lower trunk was found in Lake Erie, off East 30th Street, on May 5, while the head, arms, and legs remained forever missing.
The last "official" victims - male and female, killed at different times - were found on August 16, 1938, by workmen at a lakeside rubbish dump. The new "John Doe" was nothing but a skeleton, decapitated in familiar style, missing two ribs, plus both hands and feet. Murdered no later than February 1938, he might have died as early as December 1937. The female victim was cut into nine pieces, but all were accounted for. She had been killed some time between February and April 1938, her identity forever disguised by advanced decomposition.
On May 3, 1940, three male corpses were discovered in abandoned box cars at McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh. All had been decapitated, and the heads were missing; one was otherwise intact, while two had been dissected at the hips and shoulders. Killed in the cars where they lay, the men had been dead from three to six months, and all three bodies had been scorched by fire.
In 4 Against the Mob, journalist Oscar Fraley contends that Eliot Ness - then Cleveland's director of public safety - not only identified the Butcher in 1938, but also brought him to a semblance of justice. Dubbed "Gaylord Sundheim," in defense against libel suits, the suspect was described as a homosexual pre-med student and member of a prominent Cleveland family. Interrogated by Ness in autumn 1938, "Sundheim" escaped prosecution by committing himself to a mental hospital where he died around 1940 or '41. In the interim, he tormented Ness with a barrage of obscene, menacing notes, that terminated with his death.
There is a grisly post script to the Butcher's story. On July 23, 1950, a man's headless body, emasculated and dismembered, was found in a Cleveland lumber yard, a few miles from Kingsbury Run. The missing head turned up four days later, and the victim was identified as Robert Robertson. Coroner Samuel Gerber, responsible for handling most of the Butcher's "official" victims, reported that "The work resembles exactly that of the torso murderer."
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.
Two of the best bodies of research that I have found into the case have been done by authors John Gilmore and Larry Harnisch. Gilmore is the author of the bo0k Severed, which I have always found to be one of the best and most complete investigations of the murder. Gilmore was the first to write about several aspects of the case that have since been taken for granted, including that Beth's sexual organs were undeveloped and that the Wilson / Smith scenario was the most likely solution for the crime. And while this book remains very readable (and recommended) it has, since it's release, been criticized for many errors. To be honest, I haven't really found them but then I have never claimed to be an expert on the case, as so many others claim to be. To this date, I continue to find Severed to be the most comprehensive and credible book on the case so far.
According to newspaper reports shortly after the murder, Elizabeth Short received the nickname "Black Dahlia" at a Long Beach drugstore in the summer of 1946, as a word play on the then-current movie The Blue Dahlia. However, Los Angeles County district attorney investigators' reports state the nickname was invented by newspaper reporters covering the murder. In either case, Short was not generally known as the "Black Dahlia" during her lifetime.
I've now been told that Los Angeles police are attempting to match prints of Hodel's father, Dr. George Hodel, to material still on file from the 56-year-old case. Short, 22, was sliced in two, drained of blood, and left in a vacant lot in Leimert Park.