Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Black Dahlia

WARNING: This article contains graphic images and descriptions of violence. If you are at all squeamish, look away now. You have been warned. 

"Half the cops in LA are looking for you." "Only half?"
 - from The Blue Dahlia, 1946

It was 1947 in Los Angeles, California. The dying years of the Golden Age of Hollywood. WWII had been over for almost two years, and America was enjoying an economic boom that would last over 20 years. The end of the war also had an effect on Hollywood: it was during this time, as weary war veterans returned shaken, haunted, and hardened by the horrors of WWII that a new film genre was born that combined streetwise cynicism and a nihilistic worldview with the the detective yarn and German Expressionist style. That genre: Film Noir, a genre which centered around cynical detectives, shadowy criminal underworlds, femme fatales, and murder most foul. It was January 15th of 1947 that these obsessions of the genre seem to have brutally launched into the real world. The infamous Black Dahlia Murder captured the public's attention, and it has never ceased to instill a morbid fascination in people's minds. Hollywood's favorite themes - sex and violence - were united by the media spectacle of a grisly, never solved murder, that seemed to some up Hollywood's darker side: obsession with youthful beauty, the desire to be rich and famous, the exploitation of the naive, and the morbid celebrity of martyrdom. Edgar Allan Poe had said "The most poetical topic in the world is the death of a beautiful woman." While there is nothing "poetic" about murder, Poe's words cannot help but linger over this ghastly crime.

Elizabeth Short:
Born on July 29, 1924, Elizabeth "Bette" Short was born in Boston, the third of five daughters. Her father, Cleo Short, built mini golf courses until the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which left the family impoverished. In 1930, his car was found parked on a bridge. It was believed he committed suicide; only later did Short discover her father was alive and living in California. Short spent much of her childhood at the local Medford, Mass. movie theater, watching all the latest Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger movies, along with Gone with the Wind, a film that left a big impression on young Elizabeth, and started her dreaming of Hollywood stardom.

At 19, Short moved in with her father in LA, who was by then working at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. After an "altercation" left her own, she found employment at Camp Cooke, where she caught the romantic attention of many a young soldier (she was voted the "camp cutie"). In 1943 she was arrested in a Santa Barbra bar for underage drinking and sent home to Massachusetts.

Elizabeth Short's mugshot

From there, she wandered the country, from Chicago to Florida to California and back again. Working as waitress whenever she could to pay the bills, her lust for life was staggering; she frequented night clubs and was the life of the dance floor, favoring swing jazz. Never short of attention from men, she was never alone unless she wanted to be. That all changed, however, when on New Year's Eve 1944, in Florida, she met Major Matthew Gordon, with the Flying Tigers. Swept off her feet, Short instantly agreed to Gordon's marriage proposal. She wrote to her mother in a letter:

"I'm so much in love, I'm sure it shows. He is so wonderful, not like other men, And he asked me to marry him." 

Major Matthew Michael Gordon, Jr. 

When the Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1944, Short, having returned to her hometown of Medford, began excitedly planning her wedding to Gordon down to the last detail, convinced he would longer ran the risk of being shot down by enemy fighters. But it was not to be; Short received a telegram from Gordon's mother informing her that he had been killed in a crash on his return from India. Short sunk into a deep depression. Finally, she packed her bags with a copy of Gordon's obituary and returned to Miami.

In 1946 Short returned to LA to visit Lt. Joseph Gordon Fickling, an old boyfriend she had met in Florida; he was then stationed at NARB, Long Beach. For the six months prior to her murder, Short remained mostly in the LA area. She lived in a two-bedroom apartment with eight other women, mostly other out-of-towners. She was described as being seen with a different boyfriend every night, and one roommate described as "Always going out to prowl Hollywood Blvd." She kept no close friends, and preferred not to keep someone's company for too long.

Robert "Red" Manley, submitting to a lie detector test.

The last person to see her alive was 25-year-old married salesman Robert "Red" Manley, who saw her out walking alone at night in San Diego and offered her a lift home. On January 8th, 1947, upon losing her living quarters, Short and Manley spent the night at a local motel but according to Manley, Short slept in her clothes and the pair did not have sex. The next day he drove her to LA and helped her check her luggage at the bus stop. She told him she was going to see her sister in Berkley, whom she said was staying at the Biltmore Hotel, the largest and most glamorous hotel west of Chicago, exactly the short of place Short liked to hang out at. It was there that Elizabeth Short was last seen before her week-long disappearance, only to reappear in dirt lot in Hollywood.

The Murder:
On January 15th, 1947, housewife Betty Bersinger was down a residential street in central LA with her three-year-old daughter when she saw what she thought was a broken department store mannequin lying in the grass of a vacant lot. Upon further inspection of the pale figure, she realized that is was in fact the horribly mutilated corpse of a young woman. Terrified, Bersinger fled to a nearby house and called the police. Police arrived at the scene fairly quickly. The body of the woman was unrecognizable; she had been neatly cut in half at the waist, the intestines piled neatly under the buttocks. Rope marks on the wrists and ankles indicated she had been tied up, and possibly tortured. The body had been scrubbed clean of blood and positioned in the lot, with the upper and lower have a foot apart, arms raised above the head, legs spread wide in an obscene mockery of seduction. In the most memorably macabre detail, the mouth had been slashed into a Glasgow Grin.

40 cops descended on the neighborhood, only to find the crime scene being trampled by hoards of onlookers and rubberneckers. After fending the crowds off, they began scowering the neighborhood for any clues they could find. They discovered that her father, Cleo Short, lived a mere three miles from the vacant lot, though he said he hadn't spoken to his daughter in three years. Still angry at her about her "lifestyle", he refused to identify her body. At the coroner's office, more horrifying details emerged: it was determined that Short was killed by massive internal hemorrhaging due to severe blows to the head. It appeared that she had been sodomized after her death, though no traces of sperm were found anywhere on the body. In a truly stomach churning detail, they discovered her stomach was filled with human feces. The sheer level of sadism and depravity in the murder staggered the imaginations of those working the case. 

Once the murder hit newsstands, more than 50 men and women confessed to the crime, ranging from outright lunatics to attention seekers. The FBI was inundated with letters to J. Edgar Hoover, trying to frame enemies of the letter writers for the crime. William Randolph Hearst's newspapers immediately sensationalized the case, picking up on Short's nickname "The Black Dahlia" after interviewing a co-worker of Short's at a drugstore (it was a play on the 1946 film noir The Blue Dahlia). Someone (possibly the killer) mailed to the Examiner a package containing Short's birth certificate, Social Security card, and Matt Gordon's obituary, along with an address book containing the names of 75 men. The contents of the package had been soaked with gasoline so as to remove fingerprints. All of the men were investigated, but gave the same story - they gone on a date with Short, but ended when it become apparent she wasn't interested in a physical relationship. The list of suspects grew enormously, ranging from acquaintances to doctors to a sleazy burlesque theater owner to an "alcoholic drifter named Jack Anderson Wilson" (though there is little proof to back the claims about most suspects). The case remains open.

The Black Dahlia Murder continues to horrify and fascinate in equal measure. It has become part of the lore of Hollywood's "Golden Age", as much a representation of the dark, bloodsoaked side of Tinseltown glamour as the Tate-LaBianaca murders in August of 1969. The Black Dahlia is ingrained into our culture, having been the subject of a 1987 James Ellroy novel The Black Dahlia, the 2007 movie of the same name based on the book, and countless Halloween costumes. She even made an appearance on the first season of American Horror Story. Mankind's fascination with the evil he is capable of will never cease, nor will the deeds themselves. But we must always remember that we are seeing is not glamorous; it is the suffering of the innocent at the hands of the cruel and evil.

Elizabeth Short was buried in Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery, in the company of six family members and a few police officers. Her mother moved to Oakland so as to be near her daughter's grave, eventually returning to the east coast in the 1970s where she lived into her 90s.

Elizabeth Short's grave-marker.

Elizabeth Short, Rest in Peace.


  1. We read about this one as a kid... Great Post... Many , these days have never heard of this brutal murder..

  2. Holy Heck! I never knew the details of her story. This was a compelling read. Thanks!

  3. I've spent hours researching this case. Compelling story.

  4. Well done recap of the case. You touch on several details many authors miss or ignore. The brutal, sadistic nature of this crime points to someone with a taste for such grisly entertainment. This wasn't the work of a one-time killer, but someone who probably committed many such crimes that went unnoticed. The fact that this demented individual was never caught is all the more chilling.