This article is one of a series on the murder of Elizabeth Short and potentially related killings around Los Angeles during the 1940s. The following article gives further background on Short and events prior to the murder.
Unsolved Mysteries: Who Was the Black Dahlia?
Discovering the Woman at the Center of America’s Most Notorious Unsolved Crime
Other linked articles will be included at the end of this article. Many thanks for reading.
The Killing of the Black Dahlia
January 15, 1947, wasn’t the kind of day you associate with the glitz and glamour of life in Los Angeles. It was cold and dull, a world away from the Hollywood of our minds. Less than ten miles away from the center of the film universe, however, a crime was about to shock a nation and create one of the most enduring mysteries of the 20th century. In the darkness of those early cold hours, at an unused lot, somebody was unloading the remains of Elizabeth Short. Disfigured, dismembered and discarded, the killing’s brutality would shock and sensationalize, America’s press descending on Hollywood and lifting the lid on the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. From gangsters and prostitutes to the celebrity elite’s hedonistic partying, there would be few places left untouched in one of the most brutal unsolved murders in the annals of American crime.
Despite the proximity to Hollywood, Betty Bersinger’s world in the Leimert Park section of South Los Angeles was far from glamorous. While she was beautiful, her life centered around her three-year daughter, not the splendor of the silver screen. Betty was a housewife and was headed to a shoe repair shop with her daughter on that cold morning; it would be a trip that would write her into criminal history. Passing between Coliseum Street and West 39th Street, Bersinger would have noted the many vacant lots on South Norton Avenue’s west side, and one, in particular, caught her eye. Perhaps she observed with distaste yet another piece of discarded trash. It appeared to be a mannequin. Betty continued on.
Nevertheless, the figure had awakened something in her senses, something uncanny and not quite right. As she approached further, it became clear that this was no mannequin at all; it was a corpse that had been severed in half. Betty Bersinger screamed.
First on the scene were LAPD officers Will Fitzgerald and Frank Perkins, who quickly verified that Betty was correct and called for backup. Investigating, officers noted that the corpse seemed to have been posed. The victim was lying on her back with her arms raised and her legs lewdly spread. The two halves of the body lay around a foot apart, the intestines being tucked neatly under the buttocks. Besides the clear bisection, there were cuts to the body, and pieces of flesh were missing from the thigh, navel, and right breast. The skin removed from the thigh had been a rose tattoo that she liked to show off. The flesh had been inserted into the vagina. Meanwhile, the cheeks of the face had been cut from the edges of the mouth toward the ears in what is today known as a “Glasgow Smile,” a brutal disfiguration commonly associated with street gangs that had originated in Scotland. The body had been wholly exsanguinated, giving the corpse’s skin a pale and ghostly white appearance.
Besides the body being completely drained of blood, there was none at the scene of the find, and police quickly concluded that the vacant lot was merely a dumpsite, the murder having taken place elsewhere. There was dew underneath the body, so they knew it had been placed there sometime after 2am. Given the find’s very public nature, it seemed reasonable that the body had thus been transferred in a vehicle. The discovery of rope marks on her wrists, ankles, and neck suggested that she had been held a prisoner.
The police activity at the lot soon drew a crowd, and it wasn’t long before the press was on the scene, photographers eager to get pictures and in danger of contaminating the crime scene. The media and civilians were soon cleared from the area and the body removed, headed for the Los Angeles County Morgue. In the meantime, police discovered a heel print amidst tire tracks they believed may have been the transport vehicle. Also found was a cement sack that contained watery blood, likely used to house the corpse.
At the morgue, the autopsy delved deeper into the injuries inflicted upon the body. Beyond the obvious, the coroner noted significant bruising to the front and right side of her scalp, severe enough to have caused internal bleeding. There were lacerations on the right forearm, upper left arm, and the chest’s lower left side. There was undoubtedly some sexual element to the crime, with the anal cavity dilated 1.75 inches and slashes to the public area. While no semen was found, the body had been washed, and any assault may have been with a foreign object as the anus also showed lacerations. Faeces were found in the stomach. The cause of death was a combination of shock from the blows to the head and hemorrhaging from the incisions to the cheeks. Medical examiners also ascertained that the bisection of the corpse was done in a very particular way, utilizing a method known as hemicorporectomy where the body below the waist is amputated, transecting the lumbar spine between the second and third lumbar vertebrae. The bisection was postmortem.
Understanding the immediate sensation and pressure about to come down on LAPD, police wanted a quick identification of the body. They sent fingerprints to the FBI over Soundphoto, a device usually utilized by the press to transmit news photographs. Police were aided in this effort by the Herald-Express. The FBI soon identified the victim as Elizabeth Short.
Elizabeth Short was a 22-year-old Boston native who had relocated to California to join her father. After falling out, she had engaged in several relationships, at least one known to have been abusive. She was eventually committed to being married, her intended being killed during the Second World War. Grieving, accounts tell of Elizabeth falling in with dodgy characters as she sought to stay in LA. She variously rented a room behind the Florentine Gardens nightclub and equally had been forced to stay with others to avoid being homeless. She was struggling, despite managing to obtain work as a waitress. However, despite these struggles, she managed to maintain several relationships, with the latest being Robert Manley, known as “Red,” although this brief liaison wasn’t said to be sexual by Manley. However, it should be noted that Red was married and perhaps not inclined to reveal the affair’s full extent.
Red was the last person seen in Short’s company, having dropped her at the Biltmore Hotel. Short had told Manley that she was meeting her sister there, but this was a lie, some speculating she may have been meeting another man or simply wished to be rid of Red. Manley had been discharged from the army for mental instability and complained that he heard voices in his head. Despite this, he had a watertight alibi for the time of Short’s murder and successfully passed two separate polygraph tests. It seems likely that the killing had a profound effect on him, and he was committed to the Patton State psychiatric hospital in San Bernardino in 1954.
From the very beginning, the press involvement in the case was controversial, frequently crossing the bounds between objective reporting and actively inserting themselves into the matter. The issue is comparable to their involvement with the Jack the Ripper killings in Great Britain, one of the few cases to achieve the same level of sensation and notoriety as the Black Dahlia. It was mere hours after Short was positively identified that the Los Angeles Examiner contacted Short’s mother, Phoebe. Playing a ruse, the journalist Wayne Sutton told her that her daughter had won a beauty contest, and they were seeking information. Only after the Examiner believed they’d milked all they could from her did they say her daughter had been murdered. However, the cruelty didn’t end there, and after promising to fly Phoebe to LA to help with the investigation, they ensured that she was kept well away from the police as they sought to continue to use their source for new headlines.
The relationship between the LAPD and the Herald-Express was both unhealthy and borderline improper. The newspaper was owned by the billionaire William Randolph Hearst. In exchange for providing the LAPD with leads their journalists had uncovered, police agreed to give exclusives to Hearst in return. Seeking to keep the sensationalism going, the Examiner and other newspapers such as the LA Times now needed to one-up the Herald-Express and began to add hints of sex and scandal, suggesting that Short had been a prostitute and the victim of a “sex fiend.” The claims not only hindered the investigation but left a lasting legacy with some still contending to this day that the victim had worked as either a high-class escort or street prostitute. There is no evidence for either. On January 17, the Herald-Express first referred to Short as “The Black Dahlia,” a nickname she’d acquired at a drugstore in the city.
The first big break in the case came just six days after the discovery of the body. JH Richardson, the then editor of the Examiner, took a call in his office from a man claiming to be the Black Dahlia killer. The mysterious man wished to talk about how the newspaper covered the case and offered to send Short’s belongings to the newspaper to prove that he was who he claimed to be. Soon enough, the Examiner received a package that contained several personal items that were addressed to “the Los Angeles Examiner and other Los Angeles papers.” On the front was a letter reading: “Here is Dahlia’s belongings letter to follow.” Both the address and note had been created by cutting words from newspaper headlines. Everything had been thoroughly cleaned with gasoline. While the LAPD managed to pull a few partial fingerprints, they were compromised during transit to the FBI and couldn’t be adequately analyzed. The packet itself had contained Short’s business cards, birth certificate, photographs, and an address book. Embossed on the front of the address book was a name — Mark Hansen. That same day, more of Short’s possessions were found on top of a trash can two miles from the dumpsite. The handbag and black suede shoe had also been wiped clean with gasoline. They were identified by Robert Manley.
Police had already suspected that Short’s killer may have been known to her, with the body’s positioning and “Glasgow kiss” telling of a personal grudge against her. Upon investigations, it was revealed that Short had stayed with Mark Hansen before her death, and he quickly became the new prime suspect in the murder despite the fact he would have been unlikely to send the press an address book with his own name on it. Legend tells of how this address book was full of Hollywood names and subsequently covered-up by the LAPD. This is fiction, and Hansen would later police he had given Short the book as a gift.
Mark Hansen’s name frequently appears in investigations surrounding the Black Dahlia killing. Not only was his name on the address book, but it is linked to several other suspects, and Elizabeth Short was known to him. The nature of that relationship has come under much scrutiny over the years. Hansen had owned several theaters, two boarding houses, and a part-owner of the Florentine Gardens nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard. He was born in Aalborg, Denmark, in 1890, and despite his success as a businessman, he was somewhat nondescript, showing little evidence of any inclination toward sadism or criminality. However, he had a reputation as a ladies’ man, only hiring young and attractive women at his club. He was reported to attend sex parties, showing a private hedonistic side.
Short had lived with Hansen over two weeks in October of 1946 and ten days in November. Hansen eventually asked her to leave because of what he saw as her undesirable associations. This would be somewhat ironic considering the likes of gangster Mickey Cohen were known to frequent the Florentine Gardens. Hansen’s activities at the club had long attracted the police’s interest, and LAPD officers were rumored to have taken bribes to ensure that the club stayed open. Despite this, there is no actual evidence that Hansen was linked to organized crime, and besides Cohen, the Gardens was frequented by Hollywood stars, other celebrities, and many average citizens.
Some have claimed that Hansen and Short were romantically involved, while others contend that she had rejected his advances. Others suggest that she had “led on” the businessman, angering him when she made it clear she wasn’t really interested. Yet others suggest that there was nothing between the two, and Hansen had merely allowed a desperate woman to stay at his home, being worried about the characters surrounding her. The various versions of the truth are standard with the Black Dahlia case, with much of the evidence convoluted and contradictory. Running a successful nightclub in 1940s LA likely meant that not all of Mark Hansen’s activities were entirely legitimate. Yet, there is nothing to suggest he possessed the level of psychosis seen in the Black Dahlia killing. He had no record of violence in his life and, by all accounts, had felt genuinely sorry for Elizabeth Short and concerned for unnamed associations she was involved with. However, that isn’t to say that there weren’t hazardous men lurking in his circle and nightclub, some of whom would eventually come to the police’s attention.
Soon enough, the press and Los Angeles District Attorney began to be assailed by letters taking the same form as the message that had been attached to the packet. Formed from headline cutouts, the letters seemed to suggest some level of crisis with the killer. One to the Herald-Express read: “I will give up in Dahlia killing if I get 10 years. Don’t try to find me.” Another from the Examiner said, “Here it is. Turning in Wed., Jan. 29, 10 am. Had my fun at police. Black Dahlia Avenger.” Naming a location, the police duly waited for a suspect to appear, and instead, a second letter was received that afternoon. It read: “Have changed my mind. You would not give me a square deal. Dahlia killing was justified.”
Whether these letters are genuine is a matter that is open to debate, and police at the time didn’t believe any subsequent message was authentic. During the previously mentioned Jack the Ripper case, the police, and press received many letters purporting to be from the killer that stalked Whitechapel in London. While some are believed to be authentic, many were “pranks” and misdirection. In 1931, a journalist named Fred Best confessed that he and a colleague at The Star newspaper had faked the infamous “Dear Boss” letter and “Saucy Jacky” postcard to generate new sensational headlines and increase sales at the newspaper. However, that is not to say that killers taunting police and enlisting the press in their self-promotion is unknown.
On the contrary, there are countless cases of such phenomena amongst killers such as the Zodiac, the Unabomber, and the Son of Sam. This taunting has several reasons, the primary function being to reaffirm the killer’s belief in their superiority in a power game. The killer will often have a personal grudge against those he taunts, adding to mental anguish and increasing the number of those affected by the original crime. Equally, some killers believe they have a righteous message that needs to be broadcast, convinced that public opinion will turn to their side once their ideology is understood.
With each letter received, the press coverage brought more and more tips, and most of them were useless. The case very quickly became a circus, the LAPD being swamped with information and constant press intrusion. However, police were happy for the false claims about Short and the killing to circulate, managing to hold actual facts close to their chest in view of an eventual arrest and interrogation. Over the coming weeks, the newspapers suggested that the Black Dahlia had been a lesbian and had been a sexual tease, leading men on and then disappointing them. The implication that Short had lived a dangerous life and was partially responsible for her own death was implicit.
Elizabeth Short’s killer almost certainly knew her. The injuries inflicted showed a personal nature and are revealing. The “Glasgow Smile” originated amongst street gangs in Scotland and became known throughout England. Knowledge of this nasty piece of torture would not be typical. It may show the killer had spent time in the UK or was knowledgeable about such matters through an acquaintance, perhaps showing some existing link to criminality or even law enforcement. There is some misconception about how this injury is inflicted. Usually, the incisions at the side of the mouth begin small and made by the assailant; the cuts are not made entirely toward the ears. The perpetrator then proceeds to beat the victim, forcing the face’s muscles to contract and naturally tear the incisions bigger. The victim is in agony. Notably, Short was beaten about the head, which may have been part of the implementation of the Glasgow Kiss, rather than a separate attack. The killer may well have expected Short to survive as most those who receive the injury do, although some died the same way the Black Dahlia did from hemorrhage.
The injury is disfiguring and, imposed on a woman by a man, was likely an effort to ruin her face. It is a mark of ownership, one that tries to erase the gaze of other men. Equally, it may be mocking, the victim “smiling forever” in death. There is some evidence of sexual motivation with anal rape not ruled out, and Short’s public hair was recently removed. Short had a rose tattoo on her thigh that she allegedly liked to flash men. This was removed, and the skin had been inserted into her vagina. The positioning of the body, meanwhile, is curious. While some have suggested that the corpse’s bisection was merely an aid to transport, this seems unlikely. Short only weighed 115 pounds, a weight not beyond most men.
Given that the perpetrator clearly had somewhere that he could hold Short prisoner and effectively bisect and exsanguinate the body, there would have been ample opportunity for further dismemberment and likely even disposal of a body. The intestines being tucked neatly under the corpse laid on its back also show time was taken to pose the body when simply tossing the remains from a vehicle would have been much more comfortable and safer for the killer. Therefore, the bisection and positioning are not likely to have been functional. Instead, Short was displayed and posed to the world, this being part of a so-called criminal signature. Her legs spread, the killer was inviting Los Angeles to look upon his work and observe what had happened to his victim, likely feeling wronged by Short. The mutilation of the corpse is sexually vindictive, stripping her of the tattoo and smile she flashed. One of the letters received by the press did say the killer believed the murder was “justified.”
Having dismissed Hanley and Hansen as suspects, police eyes turned toward doctors and medical students, the bisection of the corpse almost certainly requiring advanced medical knowledge. This was both the view of the LAPD and the FBI, with lead investigator Harry Hansen saying that the killer was a “top medical man” and “a fine surgeon.” Police thoroughly investigated medical and dental schools in the area, including the University of Southern California Medical School, located a few miles from the dumpsite. Carrying out extensive background checks, nobody raised any red flags. However, they wouldn’t be the last medics to be linked with the case.
Mainly proposed by LA Times copy-editor Larry Harnisch, Walter Bayley was a surgeon who lived a mere block south of the lot where Elizabeth Short’s body was found. He had left his wife in October of 1946, just months before the killing, and notably, he was possibly known to Short, his daughter Barbara being a friend of the Dahlia’s sister, Virginia. While Bayley had no history of violence or criminality, following his own death in 1948, it was revealed he’d been suffering from a degenerative brain disease. This disease may have made his behavior erratic, with the condition known to cause violent behavior in normally calm individuals. However, Bayley was never a suspect in the original case and can’t be confirmed to have even known Short. Equally, despite their separation, Bayley still lived with his wife at the time of the killing, undoubtedly complicating any opportunity to carry out the murder.
Dr. Patrick O’Reilly, on the other hand, definitely knew Short. An associate of nightclub owner Mark Hansen with whom she’d stayed not long before her death, O’Reilly was a medical doctor and a dangerous sexual predator. Both O’Reilly and Hansen attended sex parties together in Malibu, and the doctor had a history of sexually motivated crime. He had previously been convicted of assault after taking his secretary to a motel and brutally beat her for what was described as: “no other reason than to satisfy his sexual desires.” It seems possible that O’Reilly may have killed the Black Dahlia and then deliberately sent the address book with Mark Hansen’s name on to the police. Looking to frame his own friend for the killing, O’Reilly will have known that Hansen both knew Short and had many dubious links that would make him suspicious. O’Reilly was an orthopedic surgeon.
Despite 750 members of the LAPD working on the case, the leads soon began to dwindle, and despite numerous confessions, no one suspect emerged. 60 confessions were mostly dismissed, with some of those claiming to have been involved charged with obstruction of justice. Despite this, nothing new would transpire, and the case had gone cold with just weeks passing since the killing. That is not to say the investigation was shoddy; on the contrary, police interviewed thousands, searched storm drains, abandoned buildings, and lots, and carried out an extensive and top-level case. At the time, police blamed the failure with the case squarely on the Los Angeles press, while subsequent inquiries would blame several other factors, including corruption and internal conflict at the LAPD. While the active case may have gone cold, it would certainly not be the last that America heard of The Black Dahlia, with two fresh suspects coming to the fore in the years immediately following the killing.
In October of 1948, a 27-year-old bellhop named Leslie Dillon inserted himself into the case when he wrote a letter to a Los Angeles Police Department psychiatrist named Dr. J. Paul De River. Dillon was a former mortuary assistant and, by that point living in Florida. He claimed to have read about the case in a crime magazine that had featured commentary from De River, Dillon wishing to discuss his own theories on the topic and write a book on sadism and sexual violence, two subjects on which he declared a considerable interest. Dillon soon revealed that he had his own suspect, a friend he identified as “Jeff Connors,” who he claimed had killed Short after she threatened to expose “an affair not considered proper.” De River came to believe that “Connors” didn’t really exist and that Dillon had killed the Black Dahlia himself.
De River’s behavior after the initial contact is shocking. Perhaps seeking the glory of catching the Black Dahlia killer himself, he forsook the official investigation and began a rogue operation off his own back, enlisting detectives from the Gangster Squad. He agreed to meet with the bellhop, and the duo settled on Las Vegas, Dillon being concerned about returning to Los Angeles. After the meeting, also involving the Gangster Squad, the pair drove to San Francisco to search for the now fabled “Connors” and could not find him; Dillon claimed his friend had left LA following the murder. The suspect now began to offer more details of the crime, including claims “the killer” would have flushed flesh and public hair down the toilet, and a tube could be inserted into the incision on the upper thigh to drain the blood. He claimed he’d carried out this exact operation during his time as a mortician’s assistant and that the Black Dahlia had been murdered at a motel.
The Gangster Squad now took Dillon into custody and transported him to LA, astonishingly holding him against his will at a hotel as they tried to extract a confession. He later told the press he had been stripped naked and handcuffed to a radiator. Finally, he was traken to Highland Park station on January 10, 1949. With a suspect under lock and key, Harry Hansen and other police soon began pouring over Dillon’s life and any possible genuine link to Elizabeth Short’s killing. They soon discovered that the suspect had been in San Francisco at the time and couldn’t have been involved. He was clearly a fantasist, and despite claims, he had no training that would have allowed him to bisect the body, his duties involving driving an ambulance. However, “Connors” did indeed exist and was really called Arthur “Artie” Lane, formerly being employed at Columbia Studios as a janitor.
Artie Lane admitted he knew Leslie Dillon, yet denied having ever spoken about the Black Dahlia killing with him. Interestingly, however, he also admitted that he knew Elizabeth Short, knowing her by sight alone from Colombia. Lane would go on to confess that he had been at a bar with her and his wife the night before Short’s murder, a matter he claimed to have reported to police the following day after news of the murder broke. Asking why he’d left LA, Lane said he was worried that some of his friends were being looked at over the murder. Questioning his associates, police interviewed Lane’s ex-wife Grace Allen. Allen claimed that Artie was another fantasist and had never known Elizabeth Short at all, giving him a watertight alibi for the night in question. However, adding a whole new layer to the case was that Grace Allen was known to Mark Hansen. Like Short, she had stayed with Hansen, even considering him a friend. With no actual evidence and nobody talking enough to go further, Dillon and Lane were dismissed. At the time, the LAPD thought the duo to be the best suspects they’d ever had.
In January of 1949, a grand jury was formed to investigate the LAPD’s conduct concerning the Black Dahlia case and other unsolved murders in the city. The Dillon affair was the impetus, and the force stood accused of being inadequate in their investigations into these cold cases. The grand jury had heard that a “top medical man” and “a fine surgeon” had been responsible for killing Elizabeth Short. They also heard that the victim had engaged in a relationship with a doctor by the name of George Hodel. The accusation came from Lillian DeNorak, who lived with the doctor. DeNorak alleged that Hodel was frequently found at the Biltmore Hotel, the place that Short was last confirmed to have been seen. The claims might typically have been dismissed, mainly as DeNorak was judged to be mentally ill and was committed to the State Mental Institution at Camarillo. Yet, George Hodel was about to stand trial for his freedom and reputation under an accusation of incest with 14-year-old daughter Tamar.
Tamar Hodel had accused her father of molestation, claiming she had been impregnated and forced to have an abortion, carried out at his own hand. Even though eyewitnesses swore to the claims’ validity, Hodel walked free from court as his defense team successfully portrayed Tamar as mentally unstable. However, the police had been alerted to other claims Tamar had made during investigations, namely that her father had killed Elizabeth Short. Tamar alleged that her father said: “they’ll never be able to prove I did that murder.” Making inquiries, eight clear witnesses would attest that George Hodel had known the Black Dahlia. Noting his medical background, Police suddenly had a scent.
In recent years, some pointed the finger at Hodel for his secretary Ruth Spalding’s death in 1945. While officially a suicide, documents show that Spalding may have been ready to blow the whistle on financial irregularities at his medical practice. She would likely have known of the illicit back-alley abortions that Hodel was rumored to perform if there was any veracity to the claims. When Spalding took an overdose, Hodel was not only there but had burnt some of her papers by the time police were eventually called. Investigating further, police discovered that Hodel lived a decadent and hedonistic lifestyle, being obsessed with both surrealism and sadism. Bugging his house, some of what Hodel said implicated him. On one notable occasion, transcripts reveal he said: “supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They can’t prove it now.” Ready to move in on their suspect, it appeared got wind of the investigation and promptly fled abroad, first to Hawaii and then to the Philippines.
Through appearances can be deceptive, and often innocence can be seen as guilt when portrayed in the right light.
Though several popular books at the 2019 TNT mini-series I Am The Night, Hodel has risen to be the most prominent suspect in the case. However, it should be noted that there is no evidence that Hodel ever knew Short, with no actual confirmed sightings of the two together and most people around him denying any knowledge of her. Despite his medical background, he was not a surgeon, and it was actually challenging to find an actual doctor who would carry out an abortion, with most carried out by either students, nurses, or the likes of physical therapists. Not many would risk their careers.
Meanwhile, the transcripts for his house taken as a whole point away from him as a suspect, and it should be remembered that Hodel was found not guilty of molestation in a fair court. At that trial, Tamar’s own mother and grandmother attested that she was mentally unwell and a pathological liar, having accused nineteen others of sexual abuse in the past. The image of the rich man getting away with rape and murder through connections and money is a cliche that many are quick to believe. With the unforgiving and sensationalist LA press at his door and his reputation in tatters, it is little wonder Hodel fled.
There have been claims that the Elizabeth Short killing may have been the work of a serial killer, with Hodel fingered as a possible culprit. Police at the time entertained the idea but eventually didn’t believe it to be the case. Yet, there was a startling number of killings around that time that some have linked to the Black Dahlia murder, and the culprit in the Short case appears to have shown an incredibly confident streak in covering up the crime. These potentially linked cases to the Black Dahlia include the Green Twig Murder, the vanishing of Jean Spangler, and the murder of Georgette Bauerdorf. While a link was eventually dismissed, LAPD also initially believed Elizabeth Short’s killer may have struck again as early as February 10, 1947, when the body of Jeanne French was discovered nude and beaten to death. On the body were the words “FUCK YOU PD” and “TEX” written in lipstick. Some have suggested that “PD” is actually “BD” and a reference to the Black Dahlia with images from the crime scene seeming to show “BD.” However, this is a mistake, and all reports clearly state it is intended by the killer to be “PD.” The authorities had no reason to say otherwise.
The use of lipstick to convey a message would also raise the specter of the Chicago Lipstick Murders. The killings of two women and the horrific dismemberment of a six-year-old girl had shocked America in 1946, and the case was officially solved. The murders had featured messages written in lipstick on a wall, giving the subject the notable name. However, there was significant doubt that the alleged culprit William Heirens was actually guilty, Heriens claiming he had been tortured by police and forced to confess. Interestingly, Captain Donahoe of the LAPD went on the record to say that the two cases were “likely connected.” One witness also said that Elizabeth Short was obsessed with the matter, leading to speculation that she may have come across the real killer. However, the likelihood that she just happened to walk into his clutches in an entirely different city is a stretch.
The Lipstick Murders wouldn’t be the only serial killings linked to the case, however, with the infamous unsolved Cleveland Torso Killings often proposed as a precursor to the Black Dahlia. The murders featured the dismemberment of twelve victims, both male, and female, over three years between 1935 and 1938. Investigated by Eliot Ness, the case remains unsolved to this day, and opinion has remained divided on any link to Elizabeth Short. The LAPD extensively investigated any potential ties between the killings and dismissed the claims. However, Eliot Ness’ biographer Oscar Fraley has claimed that Ness knew the killer’s identity in both cases but could not make an arrest. The veracity of this claim cannot be confirmed.
Indeed, the lack of confirmation on facts is one of the significant obstacles in the Black Dahlia killing. Inexplicably, the LAPD still refuses to release the files in the affair, despite all likely suspects being long dead alongside any figures who may have cast the force in a bad light through their corruption and nefarious tactics. With the facts as ascertained by the police often unknown, they remain open to misinterpretation, falsehood, and sensationalism. The Black Dahlia thus becomes all things to all people.
To some, the murder is an intricate plot involving gangsters and police corruption. To others, the killing was all about symbolism and art, the work of a master criminal. Others suggest a sordid affair involving prostitution and LA’s underbelly of vice. The killer is variously a surgeon, a hoodlum, a movie director, or a simple lunatic. The victim herself was either a confident flirt who sexually teased men as she sought a Hollywood career, or she was a prostitute. Others suggest she was pregnant, a lesbian, or just an average woman who’d lost her way in the City of Angels.
There is no one agreed-upon answer to the Black Dahlia killing, nor even one agreed to story. The case has long passed from one based on facts and entered the realm of myth and legend. From movie glamour to seedy gangsters and from corruption to vice, it is a story that many wish to push into the realms of Hollywood glamour and art. And while the killing of Elizabeth Short encapsulates so much of a time in Los Angeles’s history, many lose sight of the killing’s brutality and violence. There is no glamour here. The Black Dahlia murder was nasty, sordid, and vicious. This almost wholly created mythical status has detached the public from just how sadistic the murder of this innocent woman actually was. Indeed, the murder has still become a mini-industry, with all manner of media produced surrounding the case. Seeking to find new angles, new layers of speculation continue to be added, some bordering on the absurd. Unless there is a new miraculous discovery of evidence, there is never likely to be a conclusion to the case, and the opportunity for justice has long vanished. It never needed to be that way.
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