Synopsis : Synopsis
She is surrounded by myth and falsehoods—Elizabeth (Bette*) Short—the woman known as the Black Dahlia. Born July 29, 1924 in the Hyde Park section of Boston. Massachusetts, Elizabeth met her fate at the hands of a fiendish killer on January 15, 1947.
An anonymous call to the police at 10:40 a.m. set events in motion—a woman described someone in a vacant lot on S. Norton Avenue between 39th and Coliseum. "A person needs attending to," the caller said, and abruptly hung up without giving her name.
A few minutes after eleven, Police Officers Frank Perkins and Wayne Fitzgerald in Radio Patrol Car 71 responded to the routine dispatch out of University Station... "Code 390... man down... 39th and Norton." They were not prepared for the sight that greeted them.
Perkins immediately made a call over the police radio to the watch commander at University Station, Lieutenant Freestone. "A bad one," Perkins told Freestone, describing the gouges and the mutilations. "The body's severed through the middle, and she's been cut from ear to ear." The body had been left in plain view at the edge of the vacant lot.
Aggness Underwood, the aggressive police beat reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Express, was one of the first at the scene. The paper ran a photo of Aggie standing near her car and talking to the two policemen
By the time Watch Commander Freestone arrived on the scene, the trickle of cars had turned into a steady stream. The crime scene was becoming a circus. The five Los Angeles dailies had sent their people. Police from other divisions cruised by and offered their help. The inevitable onlookers appeared, some just driving by. Others parked down the street, standing on their car tops, straining to get a better look.
Robert Meyer, a neighbor who lived at 3900 S. Bronson Avenue (one block over), told reporters that shortly after six, on the morning of January 15th, he opened his back door to let his dog into the yard. The night had been cold, unusually cold, almost freezing. The sound of a car in the still morning air drew the man's attention—an older dark Ford. The man glanced towards the large vacant field a couple of blocks away on S. Norton Avenue. The car had parked in the driveway leading into the weeds, the engine idling, the headlights off.
Years later, Gerry Ramlow, a Daily News reporter said, "If the murder was never solved it was because of the reporters. "Jack Donahoe, the new Chief of Homicide, had just transferred from Robbery. For the first few days, before Donahoe could bring the investigation under control, reporters roamed freely, sat at desks, and answered the phones. Sometimes information was passed on to the police; sometimes a tip was pocketed and the reporter rushed out to get the scoop.
"They were all over, trampling evidence, withholding information. Hearst spent a lot of money on the investigation. The reporters of Hearst's two dailies, the Los Angeles Herald Express and the Los Angeles Examiner, were very aggressive and had huge expense accounts, while we had only our ingenuity and gas money.”
After a few days, the newspapers stopped calling Bette an aspiring actress. Movie studios denied she had ever worked as a bit player or extra. The description of the black tailored suit which Bette had worn when she was last seen alive was changed to "a tight skirt and a sheer blouse."
The papers which had called for the arrest of the "torture den killer" and the "werewolf who stalked innocent victims in the dark," developed a new slant. Elizabeth Short had become the "Black Dahlia," an "adventuress" who "prowled Hollywood Boulevard." She was named the Black Dahlia by her Long Beach friends, the newspapers said, because of her jet-black hair, her black clothing, and her dark, mysterious ways.
The mother of Bette’s fiancé, Matt Gordon, distanced herself from Bette, telling reporters her son "had not really been engaged to Miss Short." Mrs. Gordon claimed the telegram about the flier's death had been sent "only as a courtesy." Gordon's sister-in-law, at first recalled that Matt had asked her to correspond with “Beth,” describing Beth as "refined... someone Matt was interested in." Later she said the relationship had not been serious.
Bette's family tried to avoid the hovering reporters stationed outside their apartment in Medford, Massachusetts. Their pastor, Reverend Henderson, made arrangements for Mrs. Short to leave for California. He told her not to worry about the expense and not to worry about her three youngest daughters. Reverend Henderson would stay behind and help them. Mrs. Short's oldest daughter, Virginia West, lived in California and would be at the airport when the plane arrived.
In one of Bette's last letters home, she had written that a movie director was going to give her a screen test. Bette’s sister couldn't remember his name, just that he was someone important.
Over the years the coverage of the Black Dahlia murder became more and more outrageous. Crime anthologists cited her as the classic example of a woman who "enticed" her assailant, a woman "who wanted to be killed," one whose lifestyle “made her ideal victim material." Fiction writers classified her as a "whore" and a "prostitute" and placed her in porno films, despite police statements and records that clearly indicate Elizabeth Short was not a prostitute and didn't sleep around. The rumored nude photos and porno films with Elizabeth Short never materialized.
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.”
Suspects were many. Robert Manley, the last known person to be with Elizabeth Short, became the first. He had driven her from San Diego to the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles on January 9, 1947. After Bette left the hotel, around 10:00 PM, she was not seen again until her body was discovered on January 15, 1947.
Mark Hansen, owner of the Florentine Gardens, became the next prime suspect when the killer mailed a packet to the newspapers. The packet contained photos, a birth certificate, business cards, names written on pieces of paper and an address book with Hansen's name embossed on the cover.
In February 1947, as a direct result of the Black Dahlia murder, California became the first state in the nation to require the registration of convicted sex offenders. The police psychiatrist, Dr. de River had a hand in drafting the legislation—legislation he had been recommending for a number of years.
By June of 1947 approximately 75 suspects had been eliminated by the police; by December of 1948 the total had reached 192.
Two years later, the 1949 Los Angeles Grand Jury investigated the murder and the possibility of police corruption. The 1949 Grand Jury Report, a slim document of twenty-one pages, uncovered "deplorable conditions indicating corrupt practices and misconduct by some members of the law enforcement agencies in the county... alarming increase in the number of unsolved murders... jurisdictional disputes and jealousies among law enforcement agencies." Despite their investigation, the Grand Jury found insufficient evidence to return an indictment for the murder of Elizabeth Short.
Over the years, 50 plus people, both men and women confessed to the murder. Every time a news article, a book, or a movie appears, the Los Angeles Police Department receives a plethora of tips. "It is amazing," said Sgt. St John, a detective who had the case until his retirement, "how many people offer up a relative as the killer."
It is highly unlikely the murder will ever be solved. Too many years have gone by, forensic evidence which had been negligible to begin with, has been lost. Authors continue to put forth their own theories, often substituting conjecture for fact and contributing to the misinformation surrounding this tragic victim and her murder. I hope this website will clear up some of this misinformation long associated with Elizabeth Short, the victim of the Black Dahlia murder, and help to finally give her the respect and sympathy she is due.
*Elizabeth Short is referred to as Bette Short on this website because that is the way she signed the high school yearbook of her classmate, Robert Pacios.
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