The Ruthless Murder of Elizabeth Short
Better known as “The Black Dahlia,” Elizabeth Short was found dismembered in Los Angeles. Her murder remains unsolved.
Elizabeth Short was born on July 29,1924, to Cleo and Phoebe Mae Short in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. Cleo and Phoebe lived at 115 Salem Street in Medford, Massachusetts. She was the couple’s third of five daughters, and her family called her “Betty.”
Elizabeth grew up to be an exotic beauty with striking blue eyes and black hair that contrasted her porcelain skin. She was vivacious and flirty. Elizabeth attended Medford High School until June of 1940 when she moved to Hollywood in hopes of becoming an actress.
Cleo and Phoebe became estranged around 1940; the Federal census shows Phoebe as head of household that year. Rumors that Cleo faked his own suicide and abandoned his family are entirely unsubstantiated. In fact, Elizabeth’s father left money in a trust to help his Phoebe care for their girls before he moved to Vallejo, California, in 1943.
Elizabeth wrote a letter to her father asking him to send money so she could live with him in California. She made it to Vallejo, but her relationship with Cleo was strained. He wanted his daughter to stay home nights. But Elizabeth drifted south to Los Angeles and was arrested for underage drinking. After the arrest, Cleo kicked Elizabeth out, and she returned to Medford.
In 1944, Elizabeth experienced respiratory problems brought on by asthma and bronchitis. Her doctor advised her to move to a warmer climate during the harsh Massachusetts winters. Elizabeth moved to Florida and met Major Matt Gordon Jr.
Elizabeth and Michael frequently exchanged letters and before long, the two fell in love. Matt purchased a wedding ring and planned to marry Elizabeth. Tragically, Matt died in an airplane crash over India on August 10, 1945. Elizabeth kept a telegram in her scrapbook from Matt’s mother, who offered her condolences to the would-be bride.
Life in Los Angeles
After the death of her fiance, Elizabeth returned to Los Angeles. While she hoped to become a movie star, she never worked in the film industry. Some say Elizabeth posed nude still shots, but no such images have surfaced.
No one is certain how Elizabeth got money, but she always ate and paid rent to whomever she happened to owe it. She lived at various Los Angeles hotels and apartments with different friends. Elizabeth possessed a black-book containing the names of 75 men. It is safe to assume she “dated for dinner.” Not an uncommon practice in 1940s Los Angeles.
Between May and October of 1946, Elizabeth lived in Hollywood with Mark Hansen, who owned the Florentine Gardens Night Club, and his girlfriend, Ann Toth. Ann promised to use her connections to get Elizabeth movie extra work.
The living arrangement didn’t last long. By November 13, 1946, Elizabeth moved to room 501 of the Chancellor Apartments, located at 1842 N. Cherokee in Los Angeles. By December, she decided to take a greyhound bus south to San Diego.
Dorothy French spotted Elizabeth sitting alone in an all-night movie theater called The Aztec. Dorothy, who worked there as a cashier, felt sorry for Elizabeth and brought her home to stay for a couple of nights. Elizabeth crashed on her couch for a month.
Elizabeth’s failure to contribute to the French household became a point of contention. Even when her ex-boyfriend, Gordon Fickling, wired her $100, she didn’t give a penny of it to Dorothy. Beth claimed she was looking for work, and even wrote home to tell her mother she had a job — neither of which was true.
What’s worse, Elizabeth was seeing a married man named Robert “Red” Manley. Elizabeth developed feelings for Red. Red, on the other hand, was only using Elizabeth to test his affection for his wife.
Elizabeth needed a ride back to L.A. to a job interview Red helped her get. Red thought if he took her, and nothing sexual happened, he still loved his wife. If he and Elizabeth took their month-long relationship to the next level, he would leave his wife and new baby to pursue other women. Red and Elizabeth went to a bar and spent the night at a hotel. Nothing happened between the two.
Beth and Red arrived in Los Angeles on January 9, and he drove her to a bus station to check her luggage. Red, the gentleman he was, wouldn’t leave Elizabeth alone in that neighborhood. She asked him to drive her to the Biltmore Hotel, where she would meet her sister. This was another lie on Elizabeth’s part; her sister was in Oakland.
Red waited with Elizabeth in the hotel lobby and left at 6:30 PM. Elizabeth walked down Olive Street, likely on her way to the nearby Crown Grill, where she may meet an acquaintance. But Elizabeth never made it to her intended destination and was never seen alive again.
January 10, 1947, Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her daughter Anna were walking down Norton Avenue. It was a brisk morning, just after 10:00 AM, when beth saw something a foot or so away from the sidewalk. She thought it was a broken store mannequin. When she looked closer, she saw the horrible truth. It was the naked body of a woman, and she was severed in half.
The terrified woman ran with her child to the closest house that, thankfully, had a telephone.
Los Angeles Examiner reporter Will Fowler heard the call come over the radio. He was two blocks away with photographer Felix Paegel. It was hard to miss the pale, bloodless corpse lying in the weeds. Before long, reporters and law enforcement swarmed the area.
Officers Frank Perkins and Will Fitzgerald arrived on the scene and were horrified by what they saw. The dead woman was cleaned, shampooed, and her skin sheet-white. Her killer severed through her torso. She was posed with her arms over her head.
It took 56 minutes to learn the dead woman’s name. Her fingerprints matched that of a girl who arrested for underage drinking back in ’43. Her name was Elizabeth Short.
Los Angeles County coroner Frederick Newbarr performed an autopsy of Elizabeth’s body on January 16, 1947. He noted that she had ligature marks on her wrists and ankles, suggesting she was bound. The killer cut tissue out of her right breast, left arm, and the left side of her chest.
There was evidence of blunt force trauma to Elizabeth’s head. She may have been raped. These injuries did not kill Elizabeth but told her story of a torturous and slow death. She died when the murderer slashed the corners of her mouth into a grotesque smile that extended to each ear.
After Elizabeth died, the killer bisected her using a procedure taught in 1930s medical schools called a hemicorporectomy. This is an extremely complicated procedure that requires the separation of the lumbar spine at the space between the second and third lumbar vertebrae. Once she was cut in two and drained of blood, she was placed in a cooler.
This was not the work of some out of control maniac, wildly hacking away at his victim; the killer had specialized training in hemicorporectomy. The guilty man had to be a doctor, mortician, or even a butcher with plenty of experience.
LAPD Captain John Donahoe assigned Detectives Harry Hansen and Finnis Brown to lead the investigation and prevent this monster from killing again.
The police formed an alliance with William Randolph Hearst, owner of the Herald-Express. His reporters diligently sought information regarding Elizabeth’s final hours — where she was and who she was with. They promised to continue their efforts on the contingency that LAPD granted their paper exclusives.
Reporter Wayne Sutton was tasked with locating Elizabeth’s mother, which he did. He knew he could pry information from Phoebe Short that would help him sell papers, and that if he told her the tragic news, she would be too grief-stricken to gather her thoughts. Instead, the reporter said that her daughter had won a beauty pageant and asked her to tell him everything she could about Elizabeth. After he got what he needed, he told Phoebe the horrible truth.
The tips started rolling in as soon as the paper printed the story. One tipster reported that Elizabeth kept photographs in a trunk that had gone missing. Reporters located it at the Greyhound station where Red had her check it after their San Diego trip.
The trunk was full of photographs that The Herald-Express promptly printed and referred to her as The Black Dahlia for the first time. The life of Elizabeth Short was practically erased by the death of the Black Dahlia.
The police believed the intimate nature of Elizabeth’s injuries were a sign of a personal vendetta. They were passionate injuries, which suggested she knew her killer. The criminal displayed her corpse, posed as if to humiliate her in death. They looked at every man Elizabeth had contact with.
The Examiner received a call from a man claiming to be Elizabeth Short’s killer on January 24. He expressed that he was displeased with the way the story was reported.
To prove his claims, the caller offered to send Elizabeth’s property to The Examiner. The next day, the paper received a package and a letter comprised of clipped magazine letters collaged together. Inside were Elizabeth’s birth certificate and other personal effects, including an address book with “Mark Hansen,” Elizabeth’s former roommate, written on the cover.
For this reason, police added Mark to their list of suspects. Logically, if Mark were the killer, he likely would not call and admit it, promise to send proof, and then send his own name.
Red needed to be ruled out as a suspect also, being the last man to speak with Elizabeth. Police found a handbag, and a shoe in a trash can on the day the package was received. Red identified these items as Elizabeth’s. Although killers frequently inject themselves into investigations, they usually steer investigators away from evidence. Red helped identify it. He was a cad and a terrible husband, but probably not Elizabeth’s killer.
Neither Mark nor Red had medical training. They surely didn’t know how to bisect a human with the skill shown by Elizabeth’s killer. However, Mark Hansen had a friend named Leslie Dillon, who may have.
27-year-old Leslie was a bellboy, writer, and former mortician’s assistant who lived in LA at the time Elizabeth died. The October following Elizabeth’s murder, Leslie began writing to Dr. J. Paul De River, the LAPD psychiatrist, about the case. Leslie fascinated with sadism and sexual violence. Leslie pretended his interest was strictly business — research for a book. Leslie told Dr. De River he suspected his friend Jeff Conners of the crime.
Over time, Dr. De River grew suspicious that Jeff Conners didn’t exist, but was a split personality of Leslie’s, The doctor theorized that Leslie killed Elizabeth. Leslie declined to meet Dr. De River in Los Angeles to discuss the murder in person but agreed to meet him in Las Vegas. Leslie shared intimate details about the killing and was arrested.
Investigators located Jeff Conners. His actual name was Artie Lane, and he was a janitor at Columbia Studios. Police never suspected him. Leslie convinced investigators that he was in San Francisco between January 9 and 15, 1947. This alibi was later disproven, and Leslie is now dead.
Dr. George Hodel lived and worked in Hollywood. He was a shady character. Dr. Hodel was a likely abortionist who raped his own daughter. Allegedly.
Aside from those crimes, Dr. Hodel was a suspect in the death of Elizabeth Short. Years earlier, he was implicated in the murder of his secretary. By 1950, he was the prime suspect in the eyes of LAPD, though they didn’t make it public. The police went so far as to bug his home, and recorded Dr. Hodel saying this:
“Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They can’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead. They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her. Maybe I did kill my secretary.”
Although he was mentioned by name to the grand jury along with five other suspects, he was never considered for indictment. None of the suspects were. By the time they had enough evidence to arrest him, Dr. Hodel had left the country and started a new family.
Dr. Hodel’s son, Steve Hodel, grew up to be a respected homicide detective with LAPD, who believes his father was the killer of Elizabeth Short. Steve authored several books explaining his evidence. He doesn’t shy away from the fact that his father had the surgical skill to perform a hemicorporectomy.
Since the day Dahliah died, the police identified over 60 suspects. 25 were viable. Most have been disproven. The case remains unsolved, and the Black Dahlia’s murder inspired countless books and films. Unfortunate for the starry-eyed girl from New England, Elizabeth Short would only achieve fame in death.