On the morning of January 15, 1947, Los Angeles resident Betty Bersinger was walking with her young daughter through Leimert Park when she came upon an unexpected sight. In a vacant lot on South Norton Avenue, there was what appeared to be a naked body completely split into two halves at the waist. The scene was so shocking that Mrs. Bersinger immediately dismissed it as simply being a store mannequin that had been thrown away. It wasn’t until she got closer that she made a gruesome realization – she was looking at the very real body of a young woman who had been slain, drained of blood, cut in two and posed.
Mrs. Bersinger ran away in terror and alerted the authorities. The eventual arrival of the police and the media triggered the start of one of the most infamous criminal investigations in history, one which still remains a dark mystery – the case of the Black Dahlia.
The Crime Is Discovered
It wasn’t long before the grisly discovery attracted an audience to play witness to a scene that made even hardened police officers shudder. Besides the fact that the young woman’s body had been cut in two between the second and third lumbar vertebrae, it had also suffered extensive mutilation to her face, breasts, and genitals that appeared to have been done post-mortem. There were also signs that the woman had been tied up with ligature restraints and sexually assaulted before her death.
The autopsy concluded that she had been killed about ten hours prior to her discovery and the official cause of death was “haemorrhage and shock due to concussion of the brain and lacerations of the face.”z
The killer was clearly very proud of his work and wanted to display it as best as possible. There was not a single drop of blood at the scene, not on the body and not on the ground. The murderer took the time to clean the corpse with gasoline and then pose it in a degrading position with the hands above the head and the legs spread wide open, with the intestines gathered in a pile beneath the lower half of the body. The victim was left just a few feet away from the sidewalk. It was pretty obvious that the killer not only made no attempt to conceal his gruesome deed, but actually wanted it to be discovered.
Who Was She?
Identifying the body proved to be quite easy. The Los Angeles Police Department brought in the FBI to help with the investigation and they already had the victim’s fingerprints on file. Just 56 minutes after sending the prints to Washington via a primitive fax machine called a “Soundphoto,” the woman was identified as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short who once applied for a clerk job at the Camp Cooke army commissary in California. They even had a mugshot of her as Short had been arrested once for underage drinking.
Elizabeth Short was born on July 29, 1924, in Boston, Massachusetts, the third of five daughters of Cleo and Phoebe Mae Short. Her childhood was also filled with tragedy. Initially, her father had been a moderately successful businessman who built miniature golf courses. But then the stock market crashed in 1929 and he lost almost all of his savings. The following year, Cleo’s car was found abandoned on the Charlestown Bridge in Boston and everyone concluded that he had committed suicide by jumping in the river. Left alone with five children to raise, Phoebe Mae had to sell their house and move into a small apartment while working as a bookkeeper to support her family. To add to her troubles, Elizabeth was a sickly child who suffered from severe asthma attacks and bronchitis and needed lung surgery when she was just 15 years old.
Elizabeth’s story took an unexpected turn in 1942 when the family received a letter from her presumed-to-be-deceased father. As it turned out, he did not kill himself, but he did decide to leave his family and start a new life in California and now, years later, he finally worked up the courage to tell them the truth and apologize.
This idea of starting over in a new place appealed to Elizabeth who had recently dropped out of high school, but who was also told by her doctors that it would be better for her to spend winters somewhere with a milder climate to alleviate her respiratory problems. Therefore, when she turned 18, she left Massachusetts and joined her father in Vallejo, California. This new relationship, however, did not last long. Elizabeth and Cleo argued a lot so, in early 1943, she moved out once she found the aforementioned job at Camp Cooke. She bounced between places for a while before she relocated to Florida.
There, she met an Army Air Force officer named Major Matthew Michael Gordon Jr. Unfortunately, their romance was cut short by World War II as the pilot was deployed to the Indian Theater. Whilst recovering from injuries sustained in a crash, Gordon wrote to Short to propose marriage. She accepted, but never got to see her fiancé again as Gordon died in another crash, just a few weeks before the end of the war.
In 1946, Elizabeth decided that she needed another change of scenery so she moved once more, this time to Los Angeles. She worked as a waitress and lived in a one-room apartment behind a nightclub. It was alleged that she occasionally resorted to prostitution to make ends meet, although this was never proven. It is also commonly asserted that she was hoping to make it big in Hollywood as an actress, but she had no acting credits to her name.
The Black Dahlia
The media had a field day with this case as the entire country became enraptured with the murder of Elizabeth Short. She was known as the “Black Dahlia,” although the origins of this famous moniker are a bit murky. Some said that the newspapers came up with the nickname, while others claimed it was something that her friends called her, or the staff at the restaurant where she worked. One journalist specified that the papers popularized the name, but that the writers heard it from police officers who originally learned it from friends and colleagues of Elizabeth Short. The reasoning behind the nickname is, again, a bit iffy. It referenced a movie that was popular at the time called The Blue Dahlia, but changed the color due to Elizabeth Short’s dark hair and her penchant for wearing black lace dresses.
It’s pretty safe to say that, if the media had not become so obsessed with this murder, the case of the Black Dahlia would probably not be as well-remembered today. Case in point – just a month later, another gruesome killing took place in Los Angeles dubbed the “Lipstick Murder.” This time, the naked and severely beaten body of a 44-year-old woman named Jeanne French was found inside a West LA apartment. The killer seemingly wrote the words “F*** You BD” on the victim’s torso with red lipstick and even signed his work with the name “TEX.”
The Los Angeles Herald-Express ran with the headline “WEREWOLF STRIKES AGAIN! KILLS L.A. WOMAN, WRITES ‘B.D.’ ON BODY,” and concluded that “BD” could only stand for “Black Dahlia” and that the same killer was responsible for both crimes. As it turned out, the message actually said “PD” which was, most likely, short for “police department,” but it was indicative of how the newspapers were desperate to milk the story of the Black Dahlia for everything it was worth.
Without a doubt, the most egregious and exploitative example of journalism came courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner who stooped to new lows to get the scoop on Elizabeth Short’s early years. Soon after her body was identified, reporters from the Examiner called up her mother before she learned that her daughter had been murdered. Instead, they told her that Elizabeth had won a beauty contest and were looking for background info on her life. Only afterwards did Mrs. Short find out the horrible truth about what had really happened.
The last known person to see Elizabeth Short alive was a 25-year-old salesman named Robert “Red” Manley who was dating her at the time. The two had returned from a trip to San Diego on January 8th and Manley dropped her off in front of the Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood the following day.
Unsurprisingly, he was the police’s first suspect and was picked up for questioning a few days after Short’s body was found. Manley had previously been discharged from the army and had been described as being mentally unstable after suffering multiple nervous breakdowns. Fortunately for him, he had a solid alibi for the time of the murder, plus he also agreed to take a lie detector test on two separate occasions and passed them both.
Red Manley was in the clear, but the real killer was seemingly none too pleased that somebody else was getting the attention he deserved. A few days after the murder, a man purporting to be the killer called the office of the Los Angeles Examiner. Speaking with the editor, he expressed his disappointment at how the case was being presented. He also claimed that he intended to turn himself in, eventually, but wanted to let the police pursue him a bit further. Lastly, the caller promised to confirm that he was, indeed, the real killer, by sending some of Elizabeth Short’s belongings. Clearly, he was confident that, unless he revealed his identity, there was no way for the authorities to discover who he was.
The next day, an envelope arrived at the newspaper which contained Short’s birth certificate, business cards, photographs, and an address book with the name “Mark Hansen” written on the cover. Hansen was a nightclub owner who occasionally allowed Elizabeth to sleep at his house because she was a close friend of his girlfriend. He was also one of the last people to speak to Short and became a suspect early in the investigation.
That same day, the victim’s handbag and one of her shoes were found on top of a trash can, a couple of miles from where her body was discovered. There were no identifying items in the purse, but Red Manley recognized it as belonging to Short. For a moment, it seemed like a pretty big mistake from an otherwise thorough and careful killer, and police got their hopes up that they could find some fingerprints. Alas, they were not so fortunate. The murderer had been a bit careless, but not enough. Even though he probably never expected the handbag to be identified, he still had the forethought to wipe it down with gasoline. Same thing went for the package he sent to the Examiner.
Speaking of which, that turned out to be the first of many communications that the killer or, at least, someone claiming to be the killer, had with the media and the police. More and more letters started arriving at the offices of the Los Angeles newspapers covering the Black Dahlia. Most of them were pieced together from magazine and newspaper clippings. One of them said “I will give up in Dahlia killing if I get 10 years. Don’t try to find me.” He never followed up on that offer so it is unclear if he meant it genuinely or if it was just another way to taunt the police. Lab tests revealed that these letters all used the same kind of paper and envelopes as the original package that included Elizabeth Short’s belongings so it is generally considered that they came from the killer.
That soon changed as numerous anonymous tips and confessions started pouring in, most of them proven to be hoaxes. Things only got worse after one of the Los Angeles City Councilmen offered a $10,000 reward for any information on the Black Dahlia killer. Police had to sift through 500 tips coming from people described as “an array of housewives, soldiers, winos, farmers, and clergymen.” Even decades later, LAPD said they still received around half a dozen confessions each year.
At least some people were a bit more creative with their false confessions. About a month after the murder, police found the scene of an apparent suicide. A pile of clothes were found on the beach and, inside one of the shoes, was a note that read: “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.” The note was not signed and no body washed ashore that could have potentially been the author so authorities have dismissed this as another grim hoax.
The problem was that, despite thousands of man hours, dozens of investigators, and even FBI assistance, the LAPD made little headway other than these hoaxes and false confessions. Pretty early in the investigation, police became convinced that the killer had some sort of medical training so they enlisted the FBI to look at medical and dental students in southern California for possible suspects. This yielded dozens of leads, but none good enough to result in an arrest.
There was also the matter of an actual witness who probably saw the killer. A man who lived in the area came forward, saying that he drove by the empty lot where Elizabeth’s body was found on the night of the murder. He wanted to throw away some garden clippings but, as he approached the lot, he saw another man there at around 9 pm. The witness described the possible killer as middle-aged, thin, medium height, wearing a tan coat and a dark hat, driving a light-colored 1935 sedan. The neighbor left in his car, but went once around the block and drove past the lot again. His second arrival startled the other man enough that he went inside his own car and sped off.
Could this have actually been the Black Dahlia Killer? Is it possible that the neighbor interrupted him before he had finished everything he intended to do to Elizabeth Short? Unfortunately, like most aspects of this case, these questions can only be answered with speculations.
Who Killed Elizabeth Short?
A few months into the investigation, the LAPD had around 75 suspects whom they considered good enough to scrutinize. By the time it went to a Grand Jury a couple of years later, they had close to 200 and yet, the only arrests ever made in this case were for obstruction of justice pertaining to false confessions. As most of you probably already knew when you started watching this Biographic, the killer of the Black Dahlia has never been identified, but quite a few noteworthy suspects have been put forward.
We already talked about Red Manley, but we didn’t go into detail regarding Mark Hansen, the man whose address book was sent to the newspaper along with Short’s belongings. He was (and, actually, still remains) a chief suspect. Not necessarily because of his address book since he gave that as a gift to Elizabeth Short, but because he gave contradictory statements while being investigated by detectives. Further inquiries revealed that Hansen had tried to seduce Short while she was staying at his home, but that she rebuffed his advances. He was never charged with anything, but there were rumors that Hansen used his wealth and connections to law enforcement to extricate himself from the investigation.
We move on to Leslie Dillon, a 27-year-old bellhop who inserted himself in the investigation by writing to discuss the case with the LAPD’s psychiatrist, Dr. J. Paul de River. He also used to work as a mortician’s assistant, so he knew how to handle a corpse, clean it and drain it of blood.
Dillon first wrote to Dr. de River asking for info on the case, claiming he had an interest in sadists and psychopaths for a book he intended to write. He then expressed his belief that a friend of his named Jeff Connors was the man who killed Elizabeth Short. During his correspondence, Dillon showed intimate knowledge of the murder and, eventually, the psychiatrist became convinced that the bellhop was the real killer and that Jeff Connors was, in fact, a violent extension of his own personality.
The LAPD brought Dillon into custody, but were later surprised when San Francisco police called them to let them know that they found Jeff Connors. He was, indeed, real, and he worked in Los Angeles at the time of the murder as a handyman for Columbia Studios. However, other than Dillon’s opinion, there was nothing to connect him to the crime. As far as the bellhop was concerned, police were eventually forced to move on after finding evidence to suggest that Dillon may have been in San Francisco at the time of the murder, but this was never proven conclusively. For a while, Leslie Dillon was the police’s main suspect and, even in modern times, multiple crime buffs, writers, and former detectives still consider him the Black Dahlia Killer.
While looking at hundreds of suspects, police never really lost sight of the medical connection. They were fairly certain that Elizabeth Short’s killer had to be someone with some basic medical knowledge to do the things he did to her body. Whenever a doctor appeared in their crosshairs, they always paid closer attention. One such suspect was Patrick O’Reilly, a doctor who met Short through Mark Hansen at his nightclub. Out of everyone, O’Reilly clearly had the most disturbing violent streak as he had previously been convicted for assault with a deadly weapon for taking his secretary to a motel where he beat and tortured her almost to the point of death. It seemed like he had the sadistic proclivities and the medical know-how to commit the Black Dahlia murder, but the case against him remained unproven once more.
As it usually happens in these cases, investigators had to consider the idea that this may not have been the killer’s first murder. Looking back at similar crimes, one potential candidate jumped out at them – the Cleveland Torso Murderer. Also known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, this serial killer murdered and dismembered at least a dozen people in the late 1930s. His viciousness equaled, even surpassed that of the Black Dahlia Killer so it was natural to consider that they may be the same person. Even so, there was never any evidence to connect the cases other than the violence of the murders. Some of the other more outlandish suspects included gangster Bugsy Siegel and actor Orson Welles.
Many of the people who worked the case always felt deep down in their heart of hearts that they knew who the killer was, even though they couldn’t prove it. Ralph Asdel was the last living detective from the original investigation. When he died in 2003, he remained convinced that a man that he tracked down and interviewed based on the testimony of the only eyewitness was, in fact, the killer. Aggie Underwood, pioneering Los Angeles crime reporter and, according to her, the first journalist to arrive at the scene of the Black Dahlia murder, also believed she knew the identity of the man who killed Elizabeth Short but, when pressed for an answer, she only said that “he’s dead and it doesn’t matter anymore.”
We end this story with a look at the man who is currently at the top of the suspects list for many people – George Hodel. He came to the attention of the police in 1949 when he was charged but acquitted of sexually assaulting his own daughter. He was a doctor, so he had the medical knowledge. He was suspected of involvement in the death of his secretary from a drug overdose and he was also interviewed in 1949 in a different killing known as the “Green Twig” Murder. At one point, police even bugged his home, but couldn’t obtain incriminating evidence.
Hodel died in 1999, but he came back into the spotlight as a prominent suspect courtesy of his son. Steve Hodel is a retired LAPD detective who has become convinced that his father killed Elizabeth Short all those years ago. Going through his father’s belongings, he found evidence such as personal photographs of a young woman he believes to be the aspiring actress, as well as letters from his father whose handwriting matches the letters from the killer sent to newspapers decades ago. Steve Hodel has spent the last two decades trying to convince others that George Hodel was the man who killed Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia.