“The Black Dahlia” – The Infamous Murder Of Elizabeth Short

TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE GOES INTO DETAIL OF MURDER AND HUMAN DISMEMBERMENT!

A headshot of Elizabeth Short
Information wanted police poster
Elizabeth Short posing for a picture

Welcome to the fifth installment of true crime specials that will be featured on my blog. While sports are a passion of mine so is true crime. I thought these specials would be a good way to shake things up a bit, I do hope you enjoy.

I first heard about the murder of Elizabeth Short in 2008. This is the case that helped me discover my love of true crime. I couldn’t get enough, I watched the movie and read books about it. That was all she wrote, my interest in the world of true crime was busted wide open. Seventy -three years later and this is still the most famous unsolved crime in Los Angeles history. Since 1947 people have been asking the question, who killed Elizabeth Short? 

This is going to be a long one so just bear with me lovely people.

Elizabeth Short was born on July 29, 1924 in the Hyde Park section of Boston, Massachusetts, to Cleo and Phoebe May Short. Elizabeth was the third of five daughters and the Short household was very cramped. In 1927 the Short family relocated to Portland, Maine, before returning to Massachusetts and settling in Medford. I’m in the middle of moving right now and packing is a pain in the ass. So, I give these people props for going back and forth but make up your damn minds! Short’s father built a series of miniature golf courses over the years and the business was fairly successful until the market crashed in 1929. The Short family lost nearly everything they had. In 1930 Cleo Short’s car was found abandoned on the Charlestown bridge and it was assumed he committed suicide by jumping into the Charles river. They believed he was unable to cope with his losses after the stock market tanked like many people during that time. 

I know this seems long winded but I’m trying to inform you guys how she ended up in Los Angeles. Believing that her husband was deceased Phoebe May moved the family into a small apartment in Medford and tried to stay afloat the best she could. You have to remember during that time not a lot of women were in the workforce and many did not bring in a steady income. Most household finances were solely the responsibility of men. At the age of fifteen Elizabeth underwent lung surgery and doctors suggested that she live in a warmer climate so her mother sent her to stay with family friends in Miami, Florida. For the next three years Elizabeth would spend her winters in Miami and summers in Medford. She dropped out of Medford High School her sophomore year. 

In late 1942 Pheobe May received an apologetic letter from her presumed to be deceased husband. The letter revealed that he was in fact still alive and had started a new life in California. That son of bitch, I would have punched him dead ass in his throat when I saw him again. The Short family decided to stay in Medford and not reunite with Cleo. December of that year a now eighteen-year-old Elizabeth decided to move to Vallejo, California, to live with her father whom she had not seen since she was six years old. Their time together was very short lived (you see what I did there?) and after constant arguments between the two Elizabeth moved out in January 1943. After leaving her father’s house Elizabeth moved in with friends and got a job at the Base Exchange on Camp Cook (now known as Vandenberg Air Force Base). It is rumored she met an Air Force sergeant at Camp Cook whom she dated for a while; the relationship ended after the sergeant became abusive. 

In mid 1943 short moved to Santa Barbara, California where she was arrested for underage drinking. Authorities sent her back to Medford but she instead decided to return to Florida. While there she met Major Matthew Michael Gordon, Jr., a decorated Army Air Force officer. They quickly began a relationship and Short told friends that Gordan proposed marriage while he was recovering from injuries, he sustained during a plane crash while deployed in India.  She accepted his offer but Michael Gordon, Jr. Died in a second crash on August 10, 1945, just one week before the surrender of Japan. Imagine surviving one plane crash just to turn around and die in a second one. My man had some TERRIBLE luck. RIP Gordy. With nothing keeping her in Florida Short relocated to Los Angeles, California in July 1946. This is where Elizabeth Short would spend the last six months of her life.

Elizabeth Short had big dreams of becoming a Hollywood actress and friends often described her as an “aspiring or would-be actress”. While in LA she rented a room behind Florentine Gardens nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard where she got a job as a waitress. Elizabeth Short would never realize her dreams, she never had any jobs or acting credits in the film industry. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the moment you have all been waiting for! I know you are beyond ready to hear about the morbid stuff you originally came for, so enjoy. 

On January 9, 1947 Short returned home after a brief trip to San Diego with twenty-five-year-old Robert “Red” Manley. He was a married salesman Elizabeth had reportedly been dating. You dirty dog, you sleezy piece of scum, but I digress. Manley stated that he dropped Short off at the Biltmore Hotel located on South Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, and that Short told him she was meeting her sister, who was visiting from Boston, that afternoon.  Some staff working at the Biltmore recalled having seen Elizabeth using the lobby telephone shortly after being dropped off. Soon after, she was allegedly seen by patrons of the Crown Grill Cocktail Lounge on South Olive Street, which was approximately 0.4 miles (0.64 km) away from the hotel. That was the last account if anybody seeing Elizabeth Short alive.  

Around 10:00 on the morning of January 15, 1947 young mother Betty Bersinger was walking with her three-year-old daughter when the two noticed what they believed to be a mannequin in a patch of grass next to South Norton Avenue. TRUE CRIME TIP NUMBER 123,456, IT IS NEVER A MANNEQUIN PEOPLE IF YOU STUMBLE ACROSS WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN A MANNEQUIN GET READY TO CALL THE POLICE! Upon looking closer Bersinger realized what she was looking at was not a mannequin but in fact the naked body of a young women…SHOCKER! She of course took her daughter in her arms and ran to the nearest house to call police. Bitch could have just called emergency services on her smart phone but whatever. If you get squeamish easily, I repeat, IF YOU GET SQUEAMISH EASILY DO NOT read the next couple of paragraphs, I will mention when it is safe for you to start reading agin if that will help.  

When police arrived on the scene, they found twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short’s severely mutilated body. She had been severed cleanly at the waist and all the blood had been drained out of her body. Her face had been slashed from both corners of her mouth to both ears, creating what is often referred to as a “Glasgow Smile”. If you are not aware of what that is just picture the face of Heath Ledger’s Joker. She had several cuts on her thighs and breast as well as entire portions of flesh missing. The top and lower half of her body had been about a foot away for each other and her intestines were tucked neatly under her buttocks. The corpse had been posed with her hands over her head, both elbows bent at right angles, and legs spread apart. Medical examiners on the scene determined that Elizabeth Smart had been deceased for approximately ten hours prior to the discovery, putting her death somewhere between the evening of January 14th and the early morning hours of January 15th. Before authorities could even make it to the scene of the discovery a crowd of passersby’s and reporters had gathered; Los Angeles Herald-Express reporter Aggie Underwood was the first to arrive and snapped some photographs of the body. The public would soon be able to see the gruesome pictures while reading their morning paper on January 16th.  The media and public would dub her “The Black Dahlia” due to her dark black hair and clothing.

Near the body, detectives located a heel print on the ground amid  tire tracks,[ and a cement sack containing watery blood was also found nearby. Back in 1947 they did not have DNA testing and it been said by recent authorities the blood would most likely have been too watered down to get any conclusive results. An autopsy of Elizabeth Short’s body began on January 16,1947 and was performed by Frederick Newbarr, the Los Angeles County coroner. Newbarr found ligature marks on Short’s ligature marks on her ankles, wrists, and neck. Suggesting that she had been tied up and possibly strangled to death. The corner stated that the way her body was cut in half was a new technique taught in the 1930s called a hemicorporectomy. This technique was only taught in medical schools and has very rarely been used in the medical field, even today. So, was the dude that killer her a doctor or possible med student? Oh, the questions I have! Newbarr noted very minimal signs of bruising at the incision site suggesting that Short was dissected after she passed away. He also noted that Short’s anal canal was dilated which implied that she might have been raped. Samples were taken from her body testing for the presence of sperm, but the results came back negative. 

YOU CAN START READING AGAIN MY SQUEAMISH PEOPLE! 

Authorities were able to identify Short from fingerprints they lifted off the body but before they could notify her family reporters from the Los Angeles Examiner contacted her mother, Phoebe May Short, in Boston, and told her that her daughter had won a beauty contest. It was only after prying as much personal information as they could from her mother that the reporters revealed that her daughter had in fact been murdered. Those sons of bitches, that is just absolutely disgusting. I can’t imagine any parent being informed of their child’s murder in such a manner. On January 21, 1947, a person claiming to be Short’s killer placed a phone call to the office of James Richardson, the editor of the Examiner, stating that he planned on eventually turning himself in, but not before allowing police to pursue him further. The caller also told Richardson to “expect some souvenirs of Beth Short in the mail”. On March 14, an apparent suicide note scrawled in pencil on a bit of paper was found tucked in a shoe in a pile of abandoned men’s clothing by the ocean’s edge at the foot of Breeze Ave. Venice. The note read: “To whom it may concern: I have waited for the police to capture me for the Black Dahlia killing, but have not. I am too much of a coward to turn myself in, so this is the best way out for me. I couldn’t help myself for that, or this. Sorry, Mary.” The pile of clothing had been discovered by a beach caretaker, who reported the discovery to John Dillon, lifeguard captain. Why didn’t you just call the police bro? 

Dillon immediately notified Capt. L. E. Christensen of West Los Angeles Police Station. Authorities were able to identify the owner of the pile of clothing by an address book found in a pair of pants pockets. Mark Hansen a wealthy local nightclub and theater own was named a suspect. Short’s friend and roommate told police that Hansen had been an acquaintance of Elizabeth but wanted to be more. She further claimed that Mark Hansen had made sexual advances towards Short but had been met with rejection. Police noted this a possible motive for the murder. Hansen was soon cleared of any wrong doing. Police would end up with over one hundred and fifty male suspects, including Robert Manley, one of the last people to see her alive. Manley was cleared of any wrong doing after passing a polygraph test. The police ran out of leads and by the spring of 1947 the case went cold.  

The notoriety of Short’s murder has spurred a large number of confessions over the years, many of which have been deemed false. During the initial investigation into her murder, police received a total of 60 confessions, most made by men.  Since that time, over 500 people have confessed to the crime, some of whom had not even been born at the time of her death. In 1991, Janice Knowlton, a woman who was ten years old at the time of Short’s murder, claimed that she witnessed her father, George Knowlton, beat Short to death with a clawhammer in the detached garage of her family’s home. The police looked into these claims but ultimately came up empty handed. In 2003 crime writer Steve Hodel went to the media and claimed that his father DR. George Hodel was responsible for Short’s murder. He revealed in notes from the 1949 grand jury report that investigators had wiretapped Hodel’s home, and obtained recorded conversation of his father with an unidentified visitor, saying: “Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary because she’s dead. Hodel also went on to say his father had been a surgeon and had the medical training required to cleanly dissect Short’s body. These leads were followed and authorities once again came up empty handed. The 2017 book Black Dahlia, Red Rose by Piu Eatwell focuses on Leslie Dillon, a bellhop who was a former mortician’s assistant; his associates Mark Hansen and Jeff Connors; and Sergeant Finis Brown, a lead detective who had links to Hansen and was allegedly corrupt. Eatwell wrote that the men murdered Elizabeth Short because she knew too much about the men’s get rich quick scheme that involved robbing hotels. 

Despite following all leads old and new police never got anywhere close to closing in on a single suspect. Seventy-three years later “The Black Dahlia Murder” still remains unsolved. Even if they did find out who murdered young Elizabeth Short, they most likely would not be brought to justice. If the killer(s) were in their twenties at the time of the murder, they would now be well into their nineties. If they were even older, they are now deceased. I suppose solving the murder would just bring closure and peace of mind to the public and Short’s living relatives. 

In death Elizabeth Short found the fame she had been looking for while she was alive and in a bitter sweet twist of faith she finally became a Hollywood star. Her story has been relayed in books, movies, and television shows. Elizabeth Short had finally become a household name. The murder of Elizabeth Short remains one of the most popular cases in Los Angeles and United States history.  

Sources:

“The Black Dahlia” – FBI.gov

“Elizabeth Short” – IMDB

“Black Dahlia – Murder, Movie & Case” – Biography.com

“The Black Dahlia – Top 10 Unsolved Crimes” – TIME

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