The murder of Elizabeth Short is synonymous with unsolved murders, etched in history as one of the most well-known tales of a brutal and horrific killing that was never solved. Yet, the name Elizabeth Short sadly gets overlooked far too often for the considerably more alluring title of the Black Dahlia Murder. Here is the story of a young woman who was taken well before her time by a vicious killer who was never caught.
A Ghastly Discovery
It was a cold yet bright morning at a little after 10:30 am on January 15, 1947. Amongst those that were out and about was local resident Betty Bersinger, who was running errands, accompanied by her 3-year-old daughter Anne. As she made her way along South Norton Avenue halfway between 39th Street and Coliseum in the Leimert Park area of LA she spotted something in the overgrown weeds of a vacant lot as she pushed her child’s stroller along the sidewalk.
What Betty Bersinger discovered on closer inspection was a grim and horrifying scene. The body of a bisected naked female with raven black hair had been discarded, posed in a sexually provocative nature. A petrified Betty Bersinger ran to a nearby home with her daughter in tow, making sure little Anne didn’t see the atrocity. Betty asked to use the phone to report her gruesome discovery.
The top half of the victim’s body had her hands placed above her head with her elbows bent. Her blue eyes had been left open. Several slash wounds on the victims face resulted in an almost evil clown-like smile. The bottom half, which had been severed from the top half near the belly button and placed just a few inches below the top half of the remains, had been staged with the legs wide open. Investigators immediately noticed one element completely absent from the scene…blood. The victim had certainly been killed elsewhere.
The two parts of the victim’s body were loaded onto a vehicle and taken to the morgue. Dr Frederick Newbarr performed the autopsy the following day on January 16. Newbarr declared the cause of death as:
“Hemorrhage and shock due to concussion of the brain and lacerations of the face”
Dr Newbarr’s report stated he believed the victim to be about 15 to 20 years of age. She was 5’5″ and weighed 115 lbs. Although the victim had suffered several blows to her head her skull had not been fractured. Along with the lacerations made to the woman’s face, these seemed to be the only wounds inflicted whilst the victim was alive, all others were made after death.
The victim’s body showed no sign of rigor mortis. It was, therefore, estimated she had been killed no more than twelve hours earlier. However, the possibility of been kept in a cold place that delayed rigor mortis couldn’t be ruled out. Before been dumped the victim had been drained of blood and scrubbed clean.
The victim had been restrained with marks on both wrists, ankles and neck. Despite what some future books and theorists have suggested, however, she wasn’t strangled and the report clearly states all the neck bones and cartilages showed no sign of trauma.
The trunk was severed with an almost straight incision, separated through the abdomen and between the second and third lumbar vertebrae. A lack of bruising showed this occurred post-mortem. The clean-cut as opposed to being “hacked apart” led some to believe the killer pertained a certain level of skill with a knife, such as a butcher or a surgeon.
Smears were taken to look for traces of sperm but none were present. The stomach was filled with faeces. Some have stated there belief that the victim was fed faeces as some sick act were as others have stated it was simply a natural occurrence that happened due to the bisection.
The report does a lot to eliminate several myths around the case and the state of the victims remains:
- All the victim’s organs were present, none had been removed as some have claimed.
- The breast were not sliced off, as too had been claimed by some who report on the case.
- Her teeth suffered from decay and bad hygiene in general but were not knocked out or removed by the killer.
- The killer didn’t remove an ear as a memento.
- The victim’s genitalia was not deformed or suffering any medical condition stopping the woman from having intercourse as has become one of the more popular myths.
- No cigarette burns were found on the body, again disproving several future versions of the story.
- No words, letters or cryptic clues had been etched into the flesh.
The press were all over the case right from the get-go, with many taking photos of the ghastly discovery of the victim (yet rightly refusing to print the pictures in there full graphic horror to their credit). However, back in 1940’s LA the press, for the most part, weren’t seen as the hindrance they are today. In fact competition between several of the cities biggest newspapers often saw journalist leading there own thorough investigations which occasionally gave the police leads and details they may never have garnered. They also happily worked with police with exclusives usually given in return.
In the case of the unnamed victim, the press showed their worth and came to the aid of the investigation. The victim’s fingerprints were to be sent to the FBI in Washington DC in hope of an identification but these were usually sent by airmail and could take up to a week to arrive. With bad weather only risking the possibility of a further delay the Los Angeles Examiner came up with the idea of sending the prints over the photo wire used by newspapers. For the Los Angeles Examiner, this meant they would get an exclusive as part of the cooperation.
The FBI collected the prints from the Hearst Newspapers office in Washington at around 11 am on January 16. Under an hour later they had a name for the victim. She was twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short.
The Life Of Elizabeth Short
Elizabeth Short was born on July 29, 1924, in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, at the time she was the third daughter of Phoebe and Cleo Short (Elizabeth would eventually be the middle child of five, all girls). The Short family moved home several times before settling in Medford, Massachusetts in 1927.
Three years later Elizabeth Short’s father Cleo, struggling to cope with family life after the stock market crash which led to the Great Depression, deserted his family. He left his car on the Charlestown Bridge leaving his wife and daughters to believe he had committed suicide.
During her childhood, Elizabeth suffered from severe asthma and other breathing difficulties. After one operation a doctor suggested that Elizabeth would be helped if she could spend the winter months in a less harsh environment. From the age of 15, her mother took the advice to heart and sent Elizabeth to spend the winter months in Florida with family friends.
By the age of sixteen, Elizabeth decided to move to Santa Barbara, California. Her stay, however, didn’t last as she was soon back with her mother in Medford. She would again make her way to California after a surprise letter received by her mother in 1942.
The letter was from Elizabeth Short’s father Cleo, revealing he had been alive all this time and had relocated to California. Now living in Vallejo, San Francisco Elizabeth went to live with her father.
The reunion, however, was short-lived. By 1943 Elizabeth had left after several disagreements with her father. After her death, Cleo said his daughter was more interested in servicemen and dancing than in housekeeping which led to the parting of ways.
After leaving her father’s Elizabeth flitted around between Medford and Florida until in 1944 she met Major Matthew Michael Gordon Jr. The two began a relationship with Short telling several friends the two were engaged to be married. Matthew Gordon, who was five years older than Elizabeth and originally from Colorado, was involved in a fatal plane crash on August 10, 1945. Having survived battles in World War 2 Gordon’s death occurred over India when testing a repaired aircraft. Major Gordon Jr’s mother would later refute the claim that her son and Elizabeth Short had ever been engaged.
Return To California
By the summer of 1946, Elizabeth Short again made her way to California. This time she had her heart set on breaking into Hollywood and becoming a star. Just like thousands of others her break never came and no acting credits have ever been discovered. Instead Elizabeth Short resorted to her role of drifting.
In December of 1946, a woman by the name of Dorothy French took pity on a woman at the Aztec Theater in San Diego where she worked. The woman was Elizabeth Short. She had been loitering in the theatre for several hours as if she had nowhere to go. Dorothy took Elizabeth back to the home she shared with her mother in Camino Padera on Pacific Beach. This would be were Elizabeth stayed until a little over a week before her body was found.
Whilst staying with the French family Elizabeth did a few waitressing jobs but mainly spent her days sleeping late and moping about. On the evenings she would go out to nightclubs, picking up men who would then supply her drinks for the rest of the evening before parting ways. Some theorist have suggested that Elizabeth Short may have been a prostitute but this was never proven and is largely ignored. The more common perception has been that she was merely a tease who used her looks and youth to get what she wanted.
One of the men Elizabeth Short had met was a twenty-five-year-old married man called Robert Manley. Also referred to as “Red”, Manley would be the last known person except her killer to see Elizabeth Short alive.
By the time the new year arrived the French family were of the belief there guest had overstayed their welcome and Elizabeth was asked to leave on January 8, 1947. Elizabeth contacted Robert Manley and asked him if he would come and collect her. Manley did as he was asked.
Elizabeth Short and Robert Manley spent the night at a nearby motel in Pacific Beach, San Diego before driving up to Los Angeles the following day. On arrival in Los Angeles, Robert Manley helped Elizabeth with her cases, which she checked in at the bus station, before dropping her at the Biltmore Hotel were Elizabeth had said she was meeting her sister.
Elizabeth asked Robert if he would ask for her sister Virginia West at reception whilst she went to powder her nose. At the reception, there was no one booked under such a name( Virginia West really was Elizabeth’s sister though she later said she had never arranged to meet Elizabeth that day). Robert waited awhile for Elizabeth to return but the married man started to become agitated at the amount of time passing by and at around 6:30 pm he decided it best to head home to his family. Elizabeth Short was never seen again alive.
Upon learning of Robert Manley he understandably became a very early person of interest in the case. The press once more showed there worth as they were the ones who identified the mysterious “Red” to be Robert Manley. Police followed the lead and Manley was questioned at Hollenbeck Police Station on January 19 throughout the night.
Manley admitted to knowing Elizabeth Short and spending a night with her in a motel on January 8, but he stated nothing had happened between them during the stay and after leaving her at the Biltmore the next day he spent the evening playing cards with his wife and some friends. After his alibi was backed up and he passed a polygraph test Robert Manley was released without charge (just to note Manley actually took two polygraph test, the first was inconclusive).
The Black Dahlia And A New Lead
On tracing the movements of Elizabeth Short it was discovered that she had been given the nickname The Black Dahlia amongst customers of a Long Island drugstore. She was given the name as a play on words to the film The Blue Dahlia starring Veronica Lake and because of her apparent penchant for wearing black clothing. Upon hearing of the nickname the press soon moved away from calling the murder of Elizabeth Short the Werewolf Murder and instead began recognising it as The Black Dahlia Murder.
On January 22, a week after the discovery of Elizabeth Short, a man called the editor of the Los Angeles Examiner James Richardson and made an audacious claim. The caller, who never gave a name told Richardson:
“Send you some of the things she had with her when she…shall we say…disappeared?”
Three days later the caller kept his word. A parcel, smeared in gasoline to remove any fingerprints, was received. A note attached, written in letters cut from newspapers, read:
“Here is Dahlia’s belongings. Letter to follow.”
The package contained newspaper clippings about the death of Major Matthew Gordon, photographs, her birth certificate, the bus station check-in stubb and an address book. The address book bore the name Mark Hansen on its cover.
The address book drew the most attention. Police had already questioned Mark Hansen a week prior during routine inquiries. Elizabeth Short had previously lived at Hansen’s home were she shared a room with Hansen’s then girlfriend, an actress named Anne Toth.
Under questioning, Hansen admitted to knowing Elizabeth but stating he had never been romantically involved with her and had no information about her disappearance. He did state that Elizabeth had stolen the address book from him although he had never used it himself. Nothing was found to link Mark Hansen to the murder of Elizabeth Short and he was soon released.
Further Letters And A Confession
On January 26, 1947, the Los Angeles Examiner received yet another letter, this time handwritten. This time it read:
“Here it is. Turning in Wed., Jan 29, 10 AM. Had my fun at police. Black Dahlia Avenger.”
Despite having doubts about whether the correspondent was been genuine detectives arranged to pick up the suspect on the day given. The writer of the letter and the possible killer of Elizabeth Short failed to appear.
Another letter, this time returning to using cut out letters from newspapers, arrived at the Examiner on Thursday, January 30.
“Have changed my mind. You would not give me a square deal. Dahlia killing was justified”
Investigators managed to lift several fingerprints from the letters but no matches were ever found.
The investigation into the murder of Elizabeth Short was proving to be difficult and it was only hindered further by a number of confessions. A man named Daniel Voorhees signed a confession in late January which simply read:
“I killed Beth Short”
Voorhees didn’t seem to be seen as a serious suspect by the police and Voorhees was never able to corroborate his confession with any details. However, it was slightly interesting that he called Elizabeth “Beth” as even though it wasn’t well documented by the press in the early reports on the case this was the name a lot of her friends used for her.
A woman also claimed to have killed Elizabeth Short at around the same time as Voorhees confessed. Emily Williams stated she caught the victim having intercourse with her boyfriend. Enraged Williams shot Elizabeth before cutting her in two. The confession was easily dismissed as Elizabeth hadn’t been shot.
In February more confessions were received including one from an army corporal and another from a man who claimed he could lead them to a torture chamber where she had been murdered by a female associate. Both proved to be dead ends. March saw yet more confessions, with twenty-three-year-old Melvin R Bailey confessing to the crime to police in St Louis. Bailey handed over a bloodsoaked handkerchief he claimed belonged to the victim as part of his confession. Again the suspect was released without charge.
In the few months following Elizabeth Short’s murder, the LAPD cleared almost one hundred suspects. Many of them being people who were simply time wasters, eating away at valuable time that could have been spent investigating the poor girl’s murder.
Was The Black Dahlia Murder really The Black Dahlia Murders?
Ever since the murder of Elizabeth Short took place it has continuously found itself linked to other murders. Could Elizabeth’s killer have more victims?
Peter Merylo, a Cleveland detective certainly considered it a possibility. Merylo was part of the team that unsuccessfully tried to hunt down the Cleveland Torso Murderer during the 1930s. The killer dismembered his victims (of which there were at least a dozen) before disposing of them. On the surface, it’s easy to see a resemblance. However, The Cleveland Torso Murderer cut his victims into many parts and would remove the head, which in several cases was never found. He/She would also make a definite attempt to hide his victims with many not found for quite some time after death, with Elizabeth Short there seemed very little attempt to hide the body. LAPD did look at the possible link beet seemingly dismissed it.
The 1944 murder of Georgette Bauerdorf is another case that several authors have tried to pair with the Black Dahlia case. This has even led to some pure fiction been stated as fact about how the two victims had known each other whilst working at the Hollywood Canteen, let us not let the fact that the Hollywood Canteen was closed and Georgette Bauerdorf already dead before Elizabeth Short arrived in LA get in the way of a good story. Besides this the murders themselves were very different with Georgette been raped and then suffocated when a piece of fabric was shoved down her throat, her body was found the following day in an overflowing bathtub in her apartment.
On February 10, 1947, less than a month after the murder of Elizabeth Short, the body of Jeanne French was found murdered in LA. The press at the time tried to link the case to that of the Black Dahlia but made little headway. Jeanne French was found with the message “Fuck You, P.D” written on her body in her own lipstick, a message which over the years has become more frequently reported as “Fuck You, B.D” making any link seem even stronger. In truth the murders were very different Jeanne French had her skull caved in by a blunt object before her attacker finished the job by brutally stomping her to death.
Over the following decade, the LAPD and press alike continued following up leads but it never led them any nearer to making an arrest. Several books on the Black Dahlia Murder have been written and all claimed to have solved the case with theories ranging from the possible but unlikely to the outright absurd (I’m going to cover a few in another article so stay tuned). Despite what many of these books may claim to this day, over seventy years later, Elizabeth Short and her family sadly never got the justice they deserved and the case remains unsolved and her killer unknown.
Update: A follow-up post covering some of the suspects can be found here: Who Killed Elizabeth Short? – Black Dahlia Suspects