There are some murders that imprint themselves on our minds. Whether the circumstances are particularly gruesome or the methods somehow mysterious, there are a few crimes that burn brightly in the annals of history.
This crime is possibly the most notorious of them all.
In 1947, 22-year-old Elizabeth Short was found brutally murdered in an abandoned lot in Los Angeles, California. The mutilations that she underwent were extreme beyond measure, and the investigation mounted into her death was one of the largest in Los Angeles’ history. Despite this, no arrests were ever made, and the murder of Elizabeth Short, aka The Black Dahlia, has remained unsolved for over 70 years.
Elizabeth Short, aka, Black Dahlia
Elizabeth Short was born on July 29, 1924 to Cleo and Phoebe May Short. She was the third of five daughters, and her life appears to have been relatively normal for the first few years. Her father built miniature golf courses until the stock market crash of 1929 left the family destitute. In 1930, Cleo Short’s car was found abandoned on the Charlestown Bridge, where it was assumed that he’d committed suicide by jumping into the river below.
Elizabeth suffered from numerous respiratory problems as a child. At age 15, she underwent lung surgery. Afterward, doctors recommended that she move to somewhere with a better climate to prevent further issues. The family moved to Florida for a time, and Elizabeth dropped out of high school in her sophomore year.
Move To California
In 1942, Phoebe May received a letter of apology from her presumed-dead husband, revealing that he was actually alive, and had started a new life in California. Whatever the rest of the family thought of that, Elizabeth was thrilled. That December, she packed up and moved out to Vallejo, California to live with him. Unfortunately, Elizabeth hadn’t seen her father since she was 6, and the relationship was strained almost immediately. The frequent arguments led her to move out in January 1943.
Her life after this point appears to have been transient; she moved to Santa Barbara in mid-1943, where she was arrested for underage drinking. The authorities tried to send her back to Medford, Massachusetts, but she returned to Florida instead. While there, she met Major Matthew Michael Gordon Jr, a decorated Army Air Force officer.
She would later tell friends that he had written to her to ask for her hand in marriage while recovered from injuries he’d sustained in a plane crash while in India. She accepted his proposal, but tragically, he died in a second crash on August 10, 1945, less than a week before the war ended.
The next year, she relocated to Los Angeles to visit another soldier, Lieutenant Joseph Gordon Fickling. She spent the last six months of her life in and around Los Angeles. She had been working as a waitress, and was renting a room behind the Florentine Gardens nightclub shortly before her death.
Where She was Last Seen
On January 9, 1947, she was returning to LA after a trip to San Diego with her boyfriend, Robert “Red” Manley. Manley told police that he dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel, where she was set to meet her sister who was visiting from Boston. Some accounts from the hotel staff corroborate this, saying that they saw her using the lobby telephone.
Shortly after, there are alleged sightings of her at the Crown Grill Cocktail Lounge, which is about a half mile from the Biltmore. Oddly, there are no reported sightings of her after this point.
Discovery Of The Body
On the morning of January 15, 1947, a woman named Betty Bersinger was walking past a vacant lot in the Leimert Park neighborhood of LA with her three year old daughter. She saw what she thought to be a store mannequin, lying in two pieces. When she got closer, however, the horrible truth was revealed. The body of Elizabeth Short, mutilated beyond recognition, was lying in the grass. Betty ran to the nearest house and phoned the police.
The most obvious – and horrific – detail about the body was that she had been cut in half at the waist. The bottom half was placed about a foot from the top half, and she’d been posed. Her arms were above her head, elbows at right angles, and her legs were spread in an obviously sexual fashion.
While the police were processing the scene, a crowd of passersby and reporters gathered. The body was not covered for a while. A reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Express named Aggie Underwood took photos of the corpse and crime scene; these photos still exist today.
Other evidence was found at the scene; detectives found a heel print amid tire tracks near the body, and a cement sack that contained watery blood nearby. We’ll return to these details in a little while.
Catalogue Of Horrors
NOTE: This section contains graphic details of torture, sexual violence, and mutilation. Please use your discretion while reading.
An autopsy of Elizabeth Short’s body was performed on January 16, 1947 by Los Angeles County Coroner Frederick Newbarr. His findings revealed the extent of the horrors that Elizabeth Short had endured both before and after her death. He determined that she had been dead for approximately 10 hours before the body was discovered, making her time of death sometime during the evening of January 14 or early morning of January 15.
Her body had been washed by the killer and completely drained of blood, leaving her skin a pallid white. The corners of her mouth had been slashed all the way up to her ears in a “Glasgow smile.” She was covered in lacerations, and there were some on her thighs and breasts where the flesh was missing. She had no fractures on her skull, but there was bruising on the front and right side of her head, and a small amount of bleeding.
The technique that had been used to cut her body in half was called hemicorporectomy. Her lumbar spine had been transected at the second and third lumbar vertebrae. Newbarr noted “very little” bruising along this incision, suggested that this had been done after she was dead. Her cause of death was ultimately determined to be a mixture of hemorrhaging from the lacerations to her face and the shock from blows to her head and face.
The report also noted that her anal canal was dilated, suggesting the possibility that she had been raped. However, samples taken from her body were tested for sperm and came back negative.
Police were able to identify the body as Elizabeth Short after sending her fingerprints to Washington, DC using a primitive fax machine called Soundphoto. The prints matched the ones taken during her 1943 arrest. Immediately after she was identified, reporters began to prey on her mother, Phoebe. Reporters from the Los Angeles Examiner contacted Phoebe and told her that Elizabeth had won a beauty contest. They pried as much personal information about Elizabeth from Phoebe as they possibly could, and only afterward did they inform her that her daughter had actually been murdered.
In another sickening turn, the newspaper also offered to pay for airfare and accommodations if Phoebe would travel to Los Angeles to “help with the case.” Instead, reporters intentionally kept her away from the police to monopolize the information she provided.
Later, The Examiner, alongside the Los Angeles Herald-Express that had possession of photos of the crime scene, sensationalized the case. One article from The Examiner changed the description of the clothing she was last seen wearing from a black tailored suit to a “tight skirt and sheer blouse.” She was nicknamed “The Black Dahlia” after the owner of a drugstore in Long Beach, California said that his male patrons called her that. It’s also likely that the lurid name was a spinoff of the title of a film noir murder mystery that had come out the year before, The Blue Dahlia.
While the press was taking advantage of Phoebe Short and smearing Elizabeth in the headlines, the LA police department was hunting a killer. Most of their leads came in the form of letters and phone calls from people confessing to the murder.
On January 21, 1947, a man phoned the office of James Richardson, the editor for The Examiner. He congratulated Richardson for his coverage of the Black Dahlia case, and stated that he would turn himself in after leading police on a chase. He also told Richardson to “expect some souvenirs of Beth Short in the mail.”
Three days later, a suspicious manila envelope was discovered by a worker for the US Postal Service. It had been addressed to “The Los Angeles Examiner and other Los Angeles papers” with words that had been cut from newspaper clippings, ransom note style. There was also a large message on the face of the envelope that read “Here is Dahlia’s belongings, letter to follow.”
This envelope contained Elizabeth Short’s birth certificate, as well as various business cards, photos, names on scraps of paper, and an address book with “Mark Hansen” embossed on the cover. The packet had been carefully cleaned with gasoline in a similar manner to Elizabeth’s body, leading police to believe that it was genuinely sent by the killer. Despite this cleaning, multiple partial fingerprints were lifted from this envelope and sent to the FBI. Unfortunately, they were damaged while in transit and were never properly analyzed.
The same day the packet was discovered, a handbag and a black suede shoe were seen on top of a trash bin in an alley on Norton Avenue, approximately 2 miles from the crime scene. These items were recovered by police, but they had also been cleaned with gasoline, obliterating the possibility of fingerprint recovery.
On January 26, another letter arrived at the offices of The Examiner. This one was handwritten, and contained the following:
Here it is. Turning in Wed., Jan 29, 10 am. Had my fun at police. Black Dahlia Avenger.
The letter also named a location, which appears to not have been disclosed by police. Police went to the meeting spot at the specified time, but the alleged killer never materialized. Instead, The Examiner received yet another letter; this one was again constructed from words out of newspapers. It read:
Have changed my mind. You would not give me a square deal. Dahlia killing was justified.
Despite his frequent communications with police, this mysterious letter writer has never been identified. There are various theories about whether the letters are legitimate, or whether they were sent by the same person who sent the packet on January 21.
Police quickly tracked down the Mark Hansen who’s address book was found inside the packet. He was the owner of a local theater and nightclub who had allowed Short to stay in his home with friends for a time. Some sources state that he also confirmed that the shoe and handbag recovered did indeed belong to Elizabeth. Ann Toth, a friend of Elizabeth’s, told police that Elizabeth had recently rejected sexual advances from Hansen and implied that that could have been a motive for him to kill her. However, he was eventually cleared of suspicion.
Alongside Mark Hansen, police interviewed over 150 men whom they believed to be potential suspects. Robert Manley, the man who was known to have last seen Elizabeth alive, was investigated, but cleared after passing multiple polygraph exams. There were also multiple leads found in Mark Hansen’s address book, but none of these leads ever materialized into an arrest.
A total of 750 investigators worked on this case initially, including 400 sheriff’s deputies and 250 California State Patrol officers. Storm drains, abandoned buildings, and various spots along the Los Angeles River were searched for evidence, but to no avail. A City Councilman named Lloyd G. Davis posted a $10 000 reward for information leading to an arrest, but that only served to bring false confessors out of the woodwork. Several of these fraudsters were charged with obstruction of justice.
Between the graphic nature of the case and the ominous letters, the media were quickly all over the Black Dahlia case. The story was covered by both local and national publications, and many of the accounts were heavily sensationalized. Many reprinted the idea that Elizabeth had been tortured for hours before her death. This claim was false, considering that most of her injuries were inflicted post-mortem. The LA Police Department allowed these reports to circulate to keep her real cause of death – cerebral hemorrhage from blows to the head – a secret to help them discern who was the real killer.
Lurid reports about her personal life were also circulated, including details about her alleged refusal of Mark Hansen’s advances. An acquaintance of Elizabeth’s who worked as an exotic dancer told the press that Elizabeth “liked to get guys worked up over her, but she’d leave them hanging dry.” Reporters began investigating the idea that Elizabeth could have been a lesbian, but these claims remained completely unsubstantiated.
On February 1, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that the case had “run into a stone wall” and that leads had dried up for investigators. The Examiner continued to run stories, however, and the Black Dahlia was in the headlines for over a month after her body was discovered.
By the spring, the murder of Elizabeth Short had gone cold. The blame was placed squarely on the press by Sergeant Finis Brown, one of the lead detectives. He thought that their incessant probing for personal details and unverified reporting had compromised the case and allowed the massive number of false confessions to continue.
In September 1949, a grand jury was convened to discuss the LAPD’s failure to solve numerous high profile murder cases, including that of Elizabeth Short. After this, further investigation was conducted into Elizabeth’s movements before she arrived in Los Angeles. Detectives tracked her between Massachusetts, Florida, and California, but the interviews yielded no relevant information.
Suspects and Theories
The list of suspects for the Black Dahlia murder is miles long; the initial investigation alone garnered 60 confessions. There are a few names that stand out more than others, however. Mark Hansen remains a favorite of many due to the inclusion of his address book in the mysterious packet (though it seems a very odd thing for a murderer to do, doesn’t it?). Norman Chandler, a Times publisher who was alleged to have impregnated Elizabeth at some point. Robert “Red” Manley was the last to see her alive, and thus has never escaped suspicion. However, these suspects, and the many others that have surfaced over the years, have never been charged with the murder of Elizabeth Short.
There are multiple true crime authors who believe that the Black Dahlia killing is related to the Cleveland Torso Murders. These killings took place in Cleveland, Ohio between 1934 and 1938, and those who subscribe to this theory believe that the killer could have migrated to California and killed Short as well. However, this theory was investigated by the LAPD originally, and the relationship was dismissed.
Another possibly related case is that of Jeanne French, which occurred on February 10, 1947. French’s body was discovered on Grand View Boulevard in west LA. She was nude, and had been beaten severely. On her stomach, there were several messages written in lipstick: “Fuck You B.D.” And “TEX” below it. The Herald-Express was on the case, of course. They surmised that the “B.D.” stood for “Black Dahlia.” However, historian John Lewis states that the scrawl was actually “P.D.” and probably stood for “Police Department.” No other connections between the crimes have ever been made.
There are plenty of other theories that have arisen in books and articles over the years, but the truth is that none have ever been proven.
Elizabeth Short was buried at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. After her younger sisters grew up and moved out, her mother Phoebe moved to Oakland to be near her grave, though she eventually moved back to the East Coast in the 1970s.
Just two weeks after the discovery of her body, state assemblyman C. Don Field was inspired by the case to introduce a bill that called for a sex offender registry. California was the first US state to make the registration mandatory.
There have been numerous books and films devoted to the life and death of the Black Dahlia. After all, her case was listed by Time Magazine as one of the most enduring and infamous unsolved cases in the world. Amongst the more famous accounts is The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy, which was a fictionalized account that also dealt heavily with the political climate at the time. The case has also appeared in TV shows such as Hunter and American Horror Story.
Sadly, it’s unlikely that we will ever know what really happened to Elizabeth Short. Unethical reporting and a lack of forensic technology at the time makes it difficult to ever conclusively pinpoint a suspect. Many of the main suspects, witnesses, and investigators have since passed. The horrors that befell Elizabeth Short in 1947 have left a lasting mark on society’s psyche, so at the very least, she will never be forgotten.
Very interesting story! Hard to believe it couldn’t be solved after all these years. I remember hearing about this when I was growing up, very mysterious.