The Black Dahlia is an old Hollywood case that remains a huge mystery. Elizabeth Short was an aspiring actress who dreamed of becoming a star; she had the looks, talent, and charisma. Although she was a beautiful girl, it wasn’t easy making it in such a cut-throat industry. However, Elizabeth worked hard and was determined to make her mark on the world. You know what they say: be careful what you wish for.
Elizabeth Short certainly made her mark, but not in the way she had hoped. She gained fame when her body was found in a horrific manner and her case made headline news. She was dubbed the Black Dahlia and everyone was fascinated (and terrified) by what happened to her. Who would hurt such an innocent girl?
Here is the full story of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia.
Meet Elizabeth Short
On July 29th, 1924, Elizabeth Short was born in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. When Elizabeth was a baby, her family moved to Medford, Massachusetts. Her father, Cleo Short, worked as a miniature golf course designer and builder. In 1929, when the Great Depression hit, Cleo left his wife Phoebe Short along with their five daughters.
Cleo proceeded to fake his own suicide. He left his car empty by the bridge in order to mislead authorities into believing that he jumped off of it and into the river. Phoebe was left to deal with her resulting depression and was forced to raise four girls all on her own.
Her Single Mama
In order to support her family, Phoebe worked several jobs, but most of the family’s money came from public assistance. One day, Phoebe got a letter from Cleo, who had moved to California. He apologized and told Phoebe that he wanted to come home. However, Phoebe refused to see him again.
Elizabeth, who was better known as Betty, Bette, or Beth, grew up to be a beautiful girl. She was always told that she looked older and acted more mature than her actual age. Elizabeth suffered from asthma and lung problems, but she was still considered to be lively and energetic among her friends.
Beautiful and Mature
Elizabeth was fascinated by movies, which was her family’s main source of affordable entertainment. For Elizabeth, the theater was a form of escapism from her mundane day-to-day life. One of her Medford Classmates, Anna Dougherty, described her: “Bette was a porcelain China doll with beautiful eyes – [they were] blue, but sometimes would change depending on the color she wore and became greenish.”
Her neighbor, Eleanor Kurz said, “Mrs. Short was very strict with other girls. They moved into the triple-decker next to the Visiting Nurse’s Association about 1937, but Bette wasn’t with them when they moved in. She was at a summer camp for kids who had TB.”
When Elizabeth got a little bit older, Cleo said she could live with him in California until she found a job. Elizabeth had already worked in movie theaters and restaurants, but she knew that if she was going to move to California, she would become a star. Driven by her excitement for movies, Elizabeth packed her bags and headed to live with her father in Vallejo, California in 1943.
However, it didn’t take long for Elizabeth’s relationship with her father to become strained. Cleo would reprimand her for her laziness, poor housekeeping, and even her dating habits. He ultimately kicked her out in 1943 and she was forced to fend for herself.
A Hopeless Romantic
Elizabeth applied for a cashier job at the Post Exchange at Camp Cooke. The serviceman immediately noticed her and she won the “Camp Cutie of Camp Cooke” title in a beauty contest. Still, Elizabeth was emotionally vulnerable and desperate for a long-term, permanent relationship, sealed in marriage.
Word started to spread that Elizabeth was not an “easy” girl since she would often prefer to stay at home in the evenings instead of going out on dates. She became memorable at Camp Cooke and left to stay with a friend near Santa Barbara.
Getting in Trouble
On September 23, 1943, Elizabeth had her first and only run-in with the law. She was with a group of rowdy friends at a restaurant, and they were so disruptive that the owners called the cops. At the time, Elizabeth was underage. She was booked and fingerprinted, but not charged. The police officer felt bad for the girl and arranged for her to be sent back to Massachusetts.
But it didn’t take long for Elizabeth to return to California; this time to Hollywood. In Los Angeles, Elizabeth fell in love with a pilot named Lieutenant Gordon Fickling. He checked off all the boxes for Elizabeth’s perfect man and she planned on marrying him. However, her plans were put on hold when Fickling was shipped out to Europe.
Heartbreak and Tragedy
Elizabeth landed a few modeling gigs but was feeling discouraged about her career. She spent the holidays back east in Medford and then headed to Miami to visit family. She still had marriage on her mind when she started dating servicemen. She fell in love with yet another pilot, Major Matt Gordon. He promised Elizabeth that they would get married when he returned from India.
Sadly, Gordon was killed in action, leaving Elizabeth heartbroken and alone, once again. Elizabeth was having a difficult time and while she was mourning, she even told people that she was married to Matt and that the baby died in childbirth. When she started feeling better, she tried getting back to her old life by calling her old Hollywood friends.
Falling in Love, Again
One of these friends was her ex-boyfriend Gordon Fickling. Since she looked at him as a potential replacement for Matt Gordon, she started writing to him and the couple met in Chicago when he was in town for a few days. Soon enough, she was falling head-over-heels for him once again. Elizabeth decided to join him in Long Beach before moving to California to follow her dreams of becoming a movie star.
On December 8, 1946, Elizabeth left L.A. to take a bus to San Diego. Right before she left, Elizabeth was apparently worried about something. Elizabeth was staying with Mark Hanson at the time and he was questioned the next morning, on December 19, 1949, by a man named Frank Jemison.
Elizabeth’s New Roommate
Frank Jemison asked, “While she was living at the Chancellor Apartments, she came back to your house and got mail?” Hansen replied, “I didn’t see her but she was sitting there one night when I came home with Ann about 5:30, 6:00 o’clock – sitting and crying and saying she had to get out of there. She was crying about being scared – one thing and another, I don’t know.”
While in San Diego, Elizabeth made friends with a woman named Dorothy French. She was a counter girl at the Aztec Theater and found Elizabeth sleeping in one of the seats after an evening movie. Elizabeth told Dorothy she left Hollywood because she was struggling to find acting jobs, especially with the actor strikes happening at that time. Dorothy felt bad for her and told her to come stay with her at her mom’s house for a couple of nights. Elizabeth ended up staying there for over a month.
Robert “Red” Manley
Elizabeth did some housework for the French family and continued her late-night partying and dating habits. She was smitten with a man named Robert “Red” Manley, an L.A.salesman who had a pregnant wife at home. Manley claimed that although he was attracted to Elizabeth, he never slept with her.
The pair saw each other on-and-off for about two weeks, and Elizabeth asked him to give her a ride back to Hollywood. He agreed and on January 8th, 1947, he picked her up from the French home. He went to party with her that night and even paid for her hotel room. When the two of them got back to the hotel, he took the bed and Elizabeth slept on the chair.
Last Person to See her Alive
On January 9th, the very next morning, Manley had an appointment and returned to pick Elizabeth up at the hotel around noon. She told him that she was going back to Massachusetts but first, she needed to meet her sister at the Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood.
Manley drove her there but didn’t hang around. He couldn’t wait for Elizabeth’s sister to get there since he had to make an appointment at 6:30 P.M. The last time Robert Manley saw Elizabeth, she was in the hotel lobby making phone calls.
An Old Hollywood Mystery
As it turned out, Manley and the hotel staff were the last people to see Elizabeth Short alive. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, after January 9th, 1947, the only person to see Elizabeth was her killer. She was missing for six days before her body was found the morning of January 15th, 1947, in a vacant lot.
So, what exactly happened to Elizabeth Short? Who murdered the aspiring actress? And how did she land the infamous nickname “Black Dahlia?” Here is everything we know about this Hollywood mystery.
A Morning to Remember
It was a cold, dreary morning on January 15th, 1947, when a local housewife named Betty Bersinger left her Norton Avenue home in the Leimert Park section of the city. She was on her way to a shoe repair shop with her three-year-old daughter. As they were walking up the street and reached the corner of Norton and 39th, they passed several vacant lots bordering the sidewalks.
When World War II hit, it slowed down development in the City of Angels. Since the war ended less than two years prior, construction hadn’t yet started up completely. This left many lots abandoned and creepy, which already put Betty on edge that morning.
It’s Just a Mannequin…
As she walked along the sidewalk, Betty noticed something white in the weeds. At first, she didn’t think much of it; people throw trash into vacant lots all the time. When she saw the object, she assumed someone threw away a mannequin.
It seemed like a strange object to throw away, but even weirder than that was the fact that the mannequin was cut into two halves. Betty continued to walk forward but something drew her back to the mannequin. When she took a closer look, she realized that that mannequin wasn’t a mannequin at all.
…Or Is It?
The object they were looking at was an actual human being: a woman who was cut in half. As you could imagine, Betty screamed in panic and took her toddler away from the gruesome and traumatizing sight. She immediately ran to a house nearby so that she could call the police.
Within minutes, Officers Frank Perkins and Will Fitzgerald arrived at the scene. When they saw a woman’s naked body cut in half, they were able to verify Betty Bersinger’s story and called for backup right away.
Finding a Body
The Los Angeles Police Department noticed that the woman’s body appeared to have been posed. She was lying on her back with her arms raised over her shoulders, and her legs were open in a twisted display of seductiveness. But that wasn’t the extent of this horrific scene.
There were cuts and wounds all over her body and her mouth was sliced to extend her smile from ear to ear. With rope marks on her wrists, ankles, and neck, investigators believed that she was tied down and tortured for several days.
Clues From the Crime Scene
Her naked body was cleanly cut in half just above her waist. There was no blood in her body, nor on the grass underneath her. It was determined that she must have been killed somewhere else and her body was cleaned of blood before being dumped in the lot overnight.
The eerie scene was just as gruesome as it sounds. What happened to this woman was absolutely horrendous. Who can commit such a sickening crime? Detective Lieutenant Jesse Haskins described the condition of the body when he first got to the crime scene.
A Horrific Sight
“The body was lying with the head towards the north, the feet towards the south, the left leg was five inches west of the sidewalk… The body was lying face up and the severed part was jogged over about ten inches, the upper half of the body from the lower half… there was a tire track right up against the curbing and there was what appeared to be a possible bloody heel mark in this tire mark.
And on the curbing which is very low, there was one spot of blood; and there was an empty paper cement sack lying in the driveway and it also had a spot of blood on it… it had been brought there from some other location… The body was clean and appeared to have been washed.”
High Priority Case
While the LAPD investigated homicides often, the appalling nature of this case made it a top priority. It wasn’t every day that a woman was found split in two right next to the sidewalk. Captain John Donahoe assigned two senior detectives to work the case: Detective Sergeant Harry Hansen and Detective Finnis Brown.
By the time Hansen and Brown received their orders and arrived at the scene, news of the dreadful murder had already spread. The crime scene was teeming with reporters, photographers, and the curious public. Hansen was livid that careless officers and civilians were all over the crime scene and destroying evidence, so he forced everyone to clear the area immediately.
No Time to Waste
While the detectives looked into the crime scene, the woman’s body was moved to the Los Angeles County Morgue. The LAPD wanted to identify her as soon as possible. They lifted her fingerprints and had to make sure they were safely sent to the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.
However, bad weather got in the way. There were severe winter storms going on at the time that could have potentially delayed the identification request for up to an entire week, which is way too much time to waste for a homicide investigation.
Identifying the Victim
The LAPD got some help when Warden Woodland, the editor of the Herald-Express, assisted the police in their investigation. The newspaper had just purchased a new technology at the time called the “Soundphoto” machine. Woodland believed that he could send the woman’s fingerprints to the FBI using the Soundphoto equipment.
Woodland suggested his idea to LAPD Captain Jack Donahoe, who thought it was brilliant and promptly set the plan in motion. They needed to identify this woman and were open to doing so in whichever way possible. It looked like the Soundphoto idea was their best bet.
When the fingerprints were initially transmitted to the FBI, they weren’t clear, which meant they could not be read. Herald-Express photographer Russ Lapp suggested they reverse the lab process and use the prints as negatives before sending them back to the FBI.
Lapp also blew up the prints to 8×10, which made them large and clear enough for FBI specialists to read accurately. With these readable fingerprints, the FBI was finally able to identify the victim as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. All the information they had on the young woman was that her last residence was at Santa Barbara and worked at Camp Cooke.
The Coroner’s Report
As the FBI was identifying the body of Elizabeth Short, her body was being looked at in the coroner’s office. The autopsy revealed multiple lacerations to the head and face. There was no sperm found on the body because the killer washed her clean.
There were various cuts over her private area in criss-cross patternsIt appeared that all damage was done postmortem, including the gruesome severing of the victim’s body at her waist. The cause of death was officially ruled a “hemorrhage and shock” due to “concussion of the brain and lacerations of the face.”
The Investigation Begins
The Herald-Express was breaking information on the murder case and the LAPD identified the woman. However, the mutual relationship between the LAPD and the newspaper began to shift. William Randolph Hearst, The Herald-Express owner, was extremely rich and had stable reporters finding leads and valuable evidence in Elizabeth Short’s murder case.
He told the LAPD that he would share this crucial information with them, but for a price. Hearst proposed that the newspaper would continue investigating clues and would be granted exclusives, and the detectives would have access to all the information that the reporters got a hold of.
Telling Her Mom
LAPD Captain Donahoe was not particularly happy with these terms. However, he was desperate for information as he just wanted to solve the case, so he decided to take the offer. A Herald-Express re-write man, Wayne Sutton, was assigned to find the mother of Elizabeth Short.
He located Phoebe Short in Medford Massachusetts. Once he found her, he was instructed to give her the terrible news of her daughter’s death. However, he wanted to obtain information about Elizabeth first, since he knew that her mom would be too devastated to reveal anything after hearing the news of her daughter’s death.
She Won a Beauty Contest
Sutton got information about Elizabeth by pretending that she won a beauty contest in Los Angeles. Phoebe loved bragging about her stunning daughter and was willing to tell Sutton everything he wanted to know. Once he got the necessary information about Elizabeth, it was time to tell Phoebe the brutal truth.
Phoebe Short was in denial and didn’t believe him. She couldn’t fathom the idea that her child was dead, let alone murdered. The LAPD had to contact Medford cops and have them go to the residence to tell Phoebe the heartbreaking story in person before she would accept the truth.
Soon, the Herald-Express was swamped with anonymous tips and reports, some of which proved to be quite useful. One unidentified caller reported that Elizabeth kept photo albums in a trunk that went missing in the move from Chicago to Los Angeles. And the Herald-Express was determined to relocate it.
They somehow managed to find it at the Greyhound Express station in downtown Los Angeles. Now, they could tell Elizabeth’s story with pictures of herself, her friends, and her lovers. On January 17th, 1947, Elizabeth’s picture was on the front page of the Herald-Express. The paper referred to her as “The Black Dahlia,” a name that stuck for more than 70 years later.
Why “Black Dahlia”?
In the 1940s, it was common for newspapers to give interesting names to murder victims as well as their killers. Elizabeth Short was no exception. The Los Angeles Times reported that people at a Long Beach drug store dubbed her “Black Dahlia” as a joke, in reference to the murder mystery film, The Blue Dahlia, which was released just nine months before her murder.
Elizabeth was a regular customer at the drug store when she lived in Long Beach and was remembered for her black hair, black clothes, and her fair complexion.
The “Werewolf Murder”
But Black Dahlia wasn’t the only name she was called; it was just the one that stuck. Before Black Dahlia caught on, Elizabeth’s killing was dubbed the “Werewolf Murder.” However, a reporter found out about the Black Dahlia nickname.
The newspaper went with it and thus, the Black Dahlia case was born. Even once Black Dahlia became wide-spread and well-known, her killer was still referred to as the “Werewolf” by various sources. But, whenever the name Black Dahlia was brought up, the public knew it was Elizabeth Short.
The Investigation Continues
Investigators working on the Black Dahlia case had two theories on her killer. One was that she never met the unsub before her death, and the other was that she did in fact know him. The police were convinced that Elizabeth knew her killer since her body’s mutilations were signs of a personal vendetta.
FBI criminal profiler and author John Douglas felt certain that the killer knew Elizabeth well and even had an emotional attachment to her. The horrendous violence inflicted upon her body, and then leaving it on public display indicates that the killer wanted to see Elizabeth and the wrongful actions that he believed she had done to him.
Analyzing the Killer
In order to analyze the killer’s mind, The Herald-Express asked for Dr. Paul De River’s expert opinion on the case. De River wrote several articles for the paper alluding that the killer is a sadist who wanted to dominate the poor girl.
He suggested that “During the killing episode, he had an opportunity to pump up effect from two sources – from his own sense of power and in overcoming the resistance of another. He was the master and the victim was the slave.” De River also hinted to the killer possibly being a necrophiliac, saying, “it must also be remembered that sadists of this type have a super-abundance of curiosity and are liable to spend much time with their victims after the spark of life has flickered and died.”
The examiner received a call on January 23, 1947, from someone claiming to be Elizabeth Short’s killer. He explained to the editor, J.H. Richardson, that he wasn’t happy with the way the story was being told in the newspapers. He also offered to mail Elizabeth’s belongings to them to prove he was telling the truth.
The Examiner received a package from an anonymous sender the following say which included a letter made from magazine clippings. The package contained Elizabeth Short’s birth certificate, business cards, photographs, and an address book that said “Mark Hansen” on the cover. Hansen, who has been linked to Elizabeth in the past, became a prime suspect in her murder.
Putting Together Clues
Later that day, Elizabeth’s shoe and handbag were found in the trash, just a few miles away from the vacant lot where her body was thrown. Robert “Red” Manley identified these things before LAPD no longer saw him as a suspect.
This could have been a significant mistake on the killer’s part. He probably never thought that these items would be linked to Elizabeth Short’s murder… but they were. The location of the items exposed that the killer was probably within walking distance from both, the area where he dropped her things and the vacant lot.
More Cryptic Letters
It didn’t take long for more letters to come flying into the various Los Angeles newspaper offices, including The Herald Express and The Examiner. These letters also had messages made from newspaper and magazine clippings.
These clippings were consistent with how the first letter looked – the one that came in the package that police received from the alleged killer, with Elizabeth’s belongings. One of the letters sent to The Herald-Express read: “I will give up in Dahlia killing if I get 10 years. Don’t try to find me.”
False Leads and Complex Messages
Countless anonymous tips began flooding into the LAPD for Elizabeth’scase. Unfortunately, most of these tips that were called in turned out to be hoaxes. The incoming letters were given to the LAPD from the newspaper offices. Even the Los Angeles District Attorney received some letters and immediately directed them to the LAPD.
The letters seemed to be from the murderer and it looked like he was trying to taunt the detectives working the case. His messages were complex and confusing which caused detectives to spend hours trying to decode them.
Taunting the LAPD
Everything that the LAPD received from the supposed killer was rinsed with gasoline, including the letters, Elizabeth’s security card, and pictures. That meant that the forensic examiners couldn’t get any fingerprints off the evidence.
Obviously, this made it extremely difficult to find the anonymous sender and possible killer. Some of the letters seemed to contain false information, based on the way investigators deciphered them. Unfortunately, it sent the detectives on a wild goose chase and didn’t help in solving the Black Dahlia case.
Desperate for Leads
The LAPD was convinced that Elizabeth’s killer had some sort of medical training due to the way she was cleanly sliced in two. An FBI letter from February 25th, 1947, read:
“The manner in which Elizabeth Short’s body was dissected has indicated the possibility that the murderer was a person somewhat experienced in medical work. The Los Angeles Police Department has undertaken to develop suspects among the medical and dental schools in the area, as well as among other students who have anything to do with human anatomy.”
Looking For a Doctor
The University of Southern California helped the LAPD and sent them a list of all their medical students. This was made very clear in the FBI letter from March 6, 1947:
“Reference is made to your letter of February 25, 1947, submitting a list bearing the names of students enrolled in the Medical School of the University of Southern California and requesting that these names be searched through the criminal indices of the Identification Division…” The police and FBI were praying that their killer is on that list.
Suspect Number One
But as it turned out, the first person suspected and arrested for the murder of Elizabeth Short was not one of the medical students. It was a man named Robert “Red” Manley; remember him? Manley was the last known person to see Elizabeth Short alive.
Manley cooperated with the investigation. But he had a solid alibi for January 14th and 15th. Plus, he passed two lie detector tests. Police didn’t really have a choice but to let him go. He seemed innocent and there was no evidence proving he committed such a horrendous crime.
The original investigators treated every person who knew Elizabeth Short as a suspect due to the Black Dahlia case’s complexity. Police had processed and eliminated a list of 75 suspects by June 1947. By December 1948, the detectives had considered a total of 192 suspects.
About 60 people confessed to killing Elizabeth Short. It’s a strange thing with killers, who sometimes want to take credit for a publicized crime that they didn’t commit. Only 20 of those 60 were considered viable suspects by the Los Angeles District Attorney. Sadly, detectives couldn’t crack the case so, the Black Dahlia death remains a mystery.