The mystery of the Black Dahlia murder remains unsolved to date. There are, admittedly, hundreds of thousands of unsolved murders. But why does this case seem to transcend time and generations? The answer is more gruesome than you’d expect.
On a gloomy January morning in 1947, the city of Los Angeles lay shrouded in an eerie silence. The pale sun struggled to break through the thick blanket of ominous gray clouds, casting long, sinister shadows across the streets.
It was a day like any other, but little did the residents of this sprawling metropolis know that their city would soon become the stage for a macabre tale that would haunt their dreams for years to come.
At precisely 10 AM, the mundane rhythm of life was disrupted by the presence of Betty Bersinger, a local housewife, who unwittingly strolled down Norton Avenue. Suddenly, her gaze fell upon something so disturbing that her very soul recoiled in horror.
The sight before her was chilling, surreal. At first, her mind refused to accept the gruesome reality before her eyes. In the midst of an empty lot, bathed in the feeble morning light, lay a figure that seemed almost ethereal, like a grotesque mannequin abandoned by a malevolent artist.
Its skin was deathly white, and for a fleeting moment, Bersinger entertained the notion that it was a cruel prank or some bizarre art installation.
But the truth, as horrifying as it was, could not be denied. She realized she was genuinely staring at a decapitated corpse and sprinted to call the police.
The Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, was the deceased woman whose body Bersigner discovered. Pieces of her flesh had been cut away from her body, and her body had been torn in half at the waist. She had been completely dismembered, but there was no blood anywhere, indicating that it had been well-cleaned before being placed at that Norton Avenue location.
On January 16, 1947, Elizabeth Short underwent an autopsy after the LAPD used her fingerprints to identify her. The woman’s body had signs of being chained and tortured, and shock and brain hemorrhage were listed as her official causes of death.
Who Was Black Dahlia?
The real name of Black Dahlia was Elizabeth Short. Her early life was one of struggles, a stark contrast to the sun-soaked glamour of Los Angeles that would later beckon her. Born on July 29, 1924, in the Hyde Park section of Boston, Massachusetts, she was the third of five daughters to Cleo Alvin Short Jr. and Phoebe May Sawyer.
Her family, beset by hardships, navigated through life’s turbulent waters. Her parents toiled hard during the testing periods of American history to make life smoother for their children.
However, their path was far from smooth. In 1927, the Short family briefly sought solace in the coastal embrace of Portland, Maine, before settling in the suburban embrace of Medford, Massachusetts, in the same year. Cleo Alvin, her father, tried his hand at building miniature golf courses but saw his dreams crumble with the devastating crash of the stock market in 1929.
The financial turmoil pushed him to a breaking point, and in 1930, his car was discovered abandoned on the Charlestown Bridge.
Now facing the grim reality of life as a single mother, Phoebe May took on the role of a bookkeeper to sustain the family. Amidst these struggles, Elizabeth’s health woes added to their burdens.
Plagued by bronchitis and debilitating asthma attacks, she underwent lung surgery at 15. It was a turning point in her life that prescribed a need for a change of climate to safeguard her fragile health.
As a result, she embarked on a cyclical journey to Miami, Florida, spending winters with family and friends over the next three years. Education took a back seat, and she eventually dropped out of Medford High School during her sophomore year, the path of her destiny veering toward the unforeseen darkness that awaited her in the City of Angels.
In the latter part of 1942, Short’s mother received a letter of apology from her long-presumed-deceased husband. This revelation revealed that he was alive and had established a new life in California. In December, at the age of 18, Short made the decision to relocate to Vallejo, California, to reunite with her father, whom she had not seen since the age of 6.
At that time, her father was gainfully employed at the nearby Mare Island Naval Shipyard on the picturesque San Francisco Bay. However, conflicts and disagreements between Short and her father resulted in her departure in January 1943.
Short embarked on a new chapter in her life by securing employment at the Base Exchange at Camp Cooke (now known as Vandenberg Space Force Base) near Lompoc. During this period, she briefly resided with a U.S. Army Air Force sergeant, a situation marked by reports of mistreatment and abuse.
Her time in Lompoc was short-lived, as she decided to move to Santa Barbara in mid-1943. Unfortunately, her stay in Santa Barbara was marred by legal trouble, as she was arrested on September 23, 1943, for underage drinking at a local establishment.
Juvenile authorities subsequently sent her back to Massachusetts, but instead, she chose to return to Florida, making only infrequent visits to her family in the vicinity of Boston.
While residing in Florida, Short crossed paths with Major Matthew Michael Gordon Jr., a highly decorated Army Air Force officer from the 2nd Air Commando Group. He was in training for deployment to the Southeast Asian theater of World War II. Short later confided in her friends that Gordon had proposed marriage through a heartfelt letter during his recovery from injuries sustained in a plane crash in India.
She accepted his proposal, but tragedy struck when Gordon perished in a second plane crash on August 10, 1945. It’s worth noting that Short’s sister, Dorothea, also served in World War II and was assigned the crucial task of decoding Japanese messages.
In July 1946, Short made her way to Los Angeles with the intention of visiting Army Air Force Lieutenant Joseph Gordon Fickling, an acquaintance she had met in Florida. Fickling was stationed at the Naval Reserve Air Base in Long Beach. The final six months of Short’s life were spent in Southern California, primarily in the bustling Los Angeles area.
In the days leading up to her murder, she had been employed as a waitress and had rented lodgings behind the Florentine Gardens nightclub on the iconic Hollywood Boulevard. Some sources have suggested that she harbored aspirations of becoming an actress, though no documented acting roles or credits exist in her name.
Elizabeth Short is Discovered Dead
On the fateful date of January 9, 1947, Short returned to her Los Angeles residence after a brief excursion to San Diego in the company of Robert “Red” Manley, a 25-year-old salesman who happened to be married. Manley recounted that he had dropped Short off at the esteemed Biltmore Hotel, nestled in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.
On that particular afternoon, Short was scheduled to rendezvous with her visiting sister, who had journeyed from Boston. According to some recollections, the Biltmore’s staff remembered witnessing Short using the lobby telephone. Shortly thereafter, patrons of the Crown Grill Cocktail Lounge, located at 754 South Olive Street, 600 meters from the Biltmore, claimed to have seen her.
The discovery that would send shockwaves through the community occurred on January 15, 1947. Short’s lifeless body, tragically severed into two gruesome pieces, was uncovered in a vacant lot on the west side of South Norton Avenue.
This desolate location lay midway between Coliseum Street and West 39th Street, nestled in the Leimert Park neighborhood, which at the time remained largely undeveloped.
The condition in which Short’s body was found was horrifying. Her corpse had been cruelly separated at the waist, and her blood had been drained, rendering her skin an ashen pallor. Her death occurred either in the late afternoon or early morning of January 14 or 15; medical examiners estimate that she had been dead for around 10 hours before she was discovered.
The murderer seemed to have washed the body. Short’s face was scarred from her mouth’s corners to her ears, giving her a “Glasgow smile” appearance. She had numerous cuts where large chunks of flesh had been severed from her thighs and breasts. Her intestines had been carefully tucked beneath her buttocks, and the bottom half of her torso was set back a foot from the top.
With her legs spread apart, her elbows bent at right angles, and her hands placed above her head, the corpse had been “suggestively positioned.”
One of the first people there was Express writer Aggie Underwood, who shot numerous pictures of the body and the crime scene. Detectives discovered a heel print beside the body among the tire prints and a cement bag with bloody water nearby.
The Autopsy of Black Dahlia
Short’s body underwent an examination on January 16, 1947, by Los Angeles County Coroner Frederick Newberry. Short was described in Newbarr’s autopsy report as being 5 feet 5 inches (1.65 meters) tall, 115 pounds (52 kilograms), with brown hair, light blue eyes, and severely decaying teeth.
Her neck, wrists, and ankles bore ligature marks, and her right breast had a “irregular laceration with superficial tissue loss.” In addition, Newbarr found superficial wounds on the lower left side of the breast, the left upper arm, and the right forearm.
A procedure known as a hemicorporectomy, which was taught in the 1930s, had fully divided the body in half. Transecting the lumbar spine between the second and third lumbar vertebrae and severing the gut at the duodenum resulted in removing the lower half of her body.
According to Newbarr’s report, the incision exhibited “very little” ecchymosis (bruising) along the incision line, indicating it had been made after the patient had passed away. Another “gaping laceration” was 4+1/4 inches (110 mm) long from the umbilicus to the suprapubic region.
The lacerations that stretched from the corners of the lips on either side of the face measured three inches (75 mm) on the right side and two and a half inches (65 mm) on the left.
The skull was not cracked, but there were signs of head trauma, including bleeding in the subarachnoid space on the right side and bruises on the front and right sides of her scalp. The cause of death was judged to be shock from strikes to the head and face and hemorrhaging from the lacerations on her face.
Short’s anal canal was dilated by 1+34 inches (45 mm), according to Newbarr, indicating that she may have been the victim of a rape. Her body was sampled to detect the presence of sperm, but the tests were unsuccessful.
Short was located after the Federal Bureau of Investigation received her fingerprints, which were already on file from her 1943 arrest. William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner reporters phoned Short’s mother, Phoebe Short, in Boston when she was identified and informed her that her daughter had won a beauty contest.
The reporters didn’t reveal that Phoebe’s daughter had been slain until they extracted all the personal information they could from her. To safeguard its scoop, The Examiner kept Phoebe away from the police and other reporters while offering to pay for her airfare and lodging if she traveled to Los Angeles to assist with the police investigation.
Later, the case was sensationalized by The Examiner and another Hearst publication, the Herald-Express. In one Examiner report, the black fitted suit that Short was last seen wearing was described as “a tight skirt and a revealing blouse.” She was given the moniker “Black Dahlia” by the media, and they called her an “adventuress” who “prowled Hollywood Boulevard.”
The murder was referred to as a “sex fiend slaying” in several newspaper sources, including one that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on January 17.
Who Could Have Killed Black Dahlia?
Numerous crime authors, along with police detective Peter Merylo, have explored the possibility of a connection between the tragic murder of Elizabeth Short, and the Cleveland Torso Murders, a series of gruesome killings that transpired in Cleveland, Ohio, from 1934 to 1938.
In their quest for answers, the original investigators from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) examined the Torso Murders in 1947. Eventually, they ruled out any direct link between the two cases. In 1980, new evidence pointing towards a former Torso Murder suspect, Jack Anderson Wilson, also known as Arnold Smith, emerged in relation to Short’s murder.
Detective St. John pursued this lead, claiming to be close to apprehending Wilson concerning Short’s murder. However, Wilson perished in a fire on February 4, 1982, before any conclusive resolution could be reached. The potential connection between the Torso Murders and the Black Dahlia case garnered renewed attention when featured on the NBC series “Unsolved Mysteries” in 1992.
During the episode, Oscar Fraley, a biographer of Eliot Ness, raised the possibility that Ness might have known the identity of the individual responsible for both sets of murders.
Another intriguing theory that has surfaced is the link between the Black Dahlia murder and the 1946 murder and dismemberment of 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan in Chicago, Illinois, often referred to as the “Lipstick Murders.” Captain Donahoe of the LAPD publicly expressed his belief that there could be a connection between the Black Dahlia case and the “Lipstick Murders.”
Short’s lifeless body was discovered on Norton Avenue, a mere three blocks west of Degnan Boulevard. This connection was further emphasized by the fact that both cases featured handwriting similarities, with the “Black Dahlia Avenger” combining capital and lowercase letters, much like the ransom note in the Degnan case.
Convicted serial killer William Heirens, who served life in prison for Degnan’s murder, claimed the police had tortured him, forced him into a false confession, and made a scapegoat. Heirens passed away in 2012 at the age of 83.
Additionally, a series of unsolved murders known as the “Lone Woman Murders” occurred in Los Angeles between 1943 and 1949. These cases involved the sexual mutilation of young, attractive women, leading authorities to suspect the possibility of a single unidentified serial killer at work. In 1949, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury investigated the failure of law enforcement to solve these cases, but unfortunately, none of them were resolved.
Indeed, the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia, stands as a haunting and enduring mystery in the realm of true crime. Despite the passage of many decades, the case continues to captivate the public’s imagination and has inspired numerous mystery novels and film noir movies.
Elizabeth Short’s tragic fate has left an indelible mark on the world of crime literature and cinema, ensuring that her story remains eternally shrouded in intrigue and mystery.
RIP Elizabeth Short.
Next, read about Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker of California, and then about Anneliese Michel, the Girl Behind the Inspiration of the Exorcism of Emily Rose!
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