20: The Black Dahlia

Elizabeth Short’s murder was considered to be the crime of the century. And it’s a mystery that many are still fascinated by, decades later. So when Brian De Palma directed a 2006 movie of the same name, many moviegoers wanted to see a true crime story of The Black Dahlia. They were sorely disappointed. Let’s dive into the real story of The Black Dahlia and find out just how accurate the movie was.

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Transcript

Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

The movie starts with a boxing match set up between two police officers. Josh Hartnett’s character is Detective Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert, a boxer-turned-cop with the nickname Mr. Ice. His partner is Aaron Eckhart’s character, Lee Blanchard, another boxer-turned-cop nicknamed Mr. Fire. So the movie starts with a boxing match set up between Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice to help get a city bond voted in that’d raise money for the LAPD.

None of this happened. In fact, the characters of Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard are fictional. They’re made up, as is the storyline of the two detectives being boxers.

The film’s title, and the title of the novel it was based on, is probably one of the few things that comes from truth. It was the nickname given to an aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short. And like in the movie, Short was brutally murdered and mutilated almost exactly sixty years before the movie’s release on January 15th, 1947.

But for a film named after Elizabeth Short, it doesn’t really focus on her much. The only times we see her, really, are in screen tests that Bucky watches. That’s the only way we get to know her. In one of those tests we find out Elizabeth was from Boston.

And that is true. Elizabeth Short was born in Boston, Massachusetts on July 29th, 1924. Another small fact the movie got correct was when Elizabeth’s father says he had five daughters. Elizabeth was the third born to Cleo and Phoebe May Short.

At the age of five, Elizabeth’s life would change forever when her dad, Cleo, lost almost all of his money in the 1929 stock market crash that kicked off The Great Depression. After struggling to make ends meet, Cleo parked his car on a bridge in 1930 and simply disappeared. Everyone assumed he committed suicide, and Phoebe was forced to raise the five children on her own. She managed to get a job as a bookkeeper and moved into a small apartment.

Months later, Phoebe received a letter from California. It was from Cleo. He was still alive. The letter didn’t offer much, just a simply apology for leaving.

We don’t know a lot about Elizabeth’s childhood. It’s not because of lost records, but mostly because her childhood didn’t seem to stand out. So she simply blended into the crowd.

We do know she dropped out of high school after only one year. We also know she had asthma and that she dated a lot of young soldiers. For two summers, Phoebe sent her to Miami. The b reason historians have come to was to that the warmer climate would help with her asthma. This is just my own speculation, but with five daughters and Elizabeth being 16 at the time, one has to wonder if she was starting to act inappropriately with some of those young soldiers and that was the reason for her being sent to Miami.

These were the summers of 1940 and 1941 when Elizabeth, or just Beth as she was called by her friends, was 16 and 17. While she was in Miami, she waited tables. And like many young women of the time, she caught the eye of many soldiers as they came and went due to the impending war.

In early 1943, at only 18 years old, Beth moved to the San Francisco bay area to live with her father, who by this time was helping the war effort as he worked at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. When Beth moved in with her dad, the two moved to L.A. That was short-lived, though, and Elizabeth moved out after they argued. We don’t know what the argument was about, but seeing that Cleo had spent the last ten or so years as a bachelor, now living with his teenage daughter, it’s natural to assume fights ensued. Especially considering Beth didn’t have a father figure in her life up until this point, so that would’ve been something new to her.

In the movie, Beth is portrayed as an aspiring actress. She’s in the L.A. area to try to get her big break. While we just learned there were other reasons for her being in L.A., she did claim to be an aspiring actress. She worked as a waitress to pay the bills while she tried to catch her big break. But she never really focused on being an actress, and never settled down into one place for very long. It was almost as if she was wandering aimlessly through life, trying to find a purpose.

When she moved out from her dad’s house, she moved in with a soldier she’d met. But then she left him, too, after the two had an argument. From there, she made her way to Santa Barbara and applied for a job as a clerk at the nearby military base Camp Cooke. This is where she was arrested on September 23rd, 1943 for going to a bar at age 19. This arrest provided authorities with the mug shot they’d use to identify her only a few years later.

Earlier, I mentioned the screen tests we see in the movie. The movie never focuses on what movies these are for, but it is supposed to tell us how Elizabeth was an aspiring actress. According to the movie, that’s why she came to L.A., to try to get her big break.

After getting arrested for underage drinking, the police decided to send her back her mom in Massachusetts. They put her on a bus, and for the next couple of years Beth went back to the routine of living at her mom’s place in Medford, just outside Boston, in the summer and moving to Miami in the winters. While she was in Boston, she worked at a restaurant near the Harvard campus and in Miami she worked at a café. In both places, she was always dating someone new.

This wasn’t mentioned in the movie, of course, but while Beth was in Miami, in the winter of 1944, Beth met a couple of soldiers who stuck around for more than a single date. They were Major Matthew Gordon and Lieutenant Joe Fickling. As World War II raged on, Matthew was deployed to India.

While he was there, he wrote a letter to Elizabeth where he proposed. She accepted.

Sadly, the marriage would never happen. Matthew died in a plane crash on August 10th, 1945—just five days before Japan ended World War II by surrendering to the United States. After hearing of her fiancé’s death, Elizabeth returned to L.A. so she could be near the couple’s mutual friend, Lieutenant Joe Fickling.

On January 7th, 1946, with the war still fresh on everyone’s minds, the United States was about to be shaken with the news of a brutal murder. It happened in Chicago, and at first was just the disappearance of a six-year-old named Suzanne Degnan. When police showed up at the scene, they found a note that said:

“GeI $20,000 Reddy & wAITe foR WoRd. do NoT NoTify FBI oR Police. Bills IN 5’s & 10’s.”

Then on the other side, the note said:

“BuRN This FoR heR SAfTY.”

The mystery was local at first, but soon hit the front page of newspapers around the nation when the police started to discover body parts. First it was Suzanne’s head in a storm drain just a block from the family’s home. Then her right leg in an alley. Her torso in another storm drain and her left leg in a different alley. It wasn’t until a month later when her arms were found in a sewer three blocks away. As best as the police could tell, Suzanne had been murdered in a apartment building nearby. There she was dismembered, the room cleaned, and spread around the city.

Beth was fascinated by the murder many called “the crime story of the century.” She tried to find out as much as she could.

In April of 1946, Beth left Massachusetts and drifted around the country. We don’t know why, but for some reason she went through Miami first, then headed back north to Indianapolis and finally to the scene of the crime, Chicago.

While she was meandering around the country, in June of 1946 the police captured William Heirens. William confessed to three murders, including Suzanne.

So by the time Beth made it to Chicago, William was on trial as a confessed serial killer. Beth used this as an opportunity to learn more about the Suzanne Degnan killing as she pretended to be a reporter from Boston covering the trial of William Heirens.

We don’t have all of the details, but one of the people she fake interviewed for the Boston paper she claimed to be from would later say, “Elizabeth Short was one of the prettiest girls I ever met, but she was terribly preoccupied with the details of the Degnan murder.”

After only ten days, Beth seemed to grow tired of her investigative journalism. Joe Fickling, the Lieutenant she had met with Matthew Gordon a few years before, had written to her asking her to move to L.A. to be with him. She obliged, and made her way back to L.A.

Sadly, again this relationship was never to happen. After only being together for a few weeks, the couple broke up in the beginning of August. Since she was close to Hollywood, Beth went back to trying to be an actress. This time, she moved in with a friend for a couple days. She’s tough to pin down exactly, but we know she stayed at an old hotel for a few days, a rooming house for aspiring actresses for a few more, an apartment for yet another few days. Basically she was bouncing around.

She claimed she wanted to be an actress, but she never really put forward a serious effort. Before when she was in L.A. she supported herself by being a waitress, but this time around she didn’t. She supported herself by going to bars and nightclubs and getting men to give her money. Some were well-to-do, but most weren’t. As you might imagine, this wasn’t very stable. Beth found herself with a new date almost every night of the week just to put a roof over her head and get some food.

But her financial situation was only getting worse. When she wasn’t with a man, she was living at the Chancellor Apartments and with each passing day falling a little further behind in rent. According to Juanitia Ringo, the apartment manager, “I felt sorry for her even when she got behind on the rent. She looked tired and worried. When I went up for the rent last December 5th, she didn’t have it. I don’t think she had a job. That night she got the money somewhere and left the next morning.”

According to some historians, this money magically showed up from another of Beth’s admirers, a man named Ed Burns. But yet others despute the existence of Ed Burns. We’ll likely never know for sure where Beth got the money to catch up on rent.

What we do know, though, is she managed to pay the rent but left the Chancellor and took a bus to San Diego. Again, some argue that Ed provided the funds for this.

After arriving in San Diego, she didn’t have anywhere to go so she checked her luggage at the Greyhound depot and made her way to the Aztec movie theater. She dozed off, awakened later by a woman by the name of Dorothy French. Dorothy was a 21-year-old cashier at the theater. While we don’t know what the exact story was Beth told her, we do know Beth spent the next month living with Dorothy, her mother and younger brother.

Beth went back to her old ways. Parties and a new man every night. One of these men was Robert Manley, nicknamed “Red” by his friends. Red was a 26-year-old traveling salesman from Los Angeles who was on business in San Diego. Despite being married with a young son, Beth hit it off with him. After a delightful dinner, the two set up a second date for January 6th, 1947. Beth said she worked at an airline office, but when Red showed up no one knew who an Elizabeth Short.

Red called Beth the next day. After what must’ve been an awkward conversation about the evening before, Beth asked Red to drive her back to L.A. He obliged, since he was headed back anyway. But first, he had a few sales calls to finish up. So that evening, after he was done, the two went for drinks and got a motel room for the night.

The next day, they got on the road. Later, Red would be called in to testify. From his testimony, we have an idea of what happened.

After about half a half, they stopped in Encinitas, California. Red had another sales call to make there. After he checked in with his client, Red and Beth stopped at a local diner for a burger. Then, they got back on the road.

There wasn’t a lot of conversation in the car. According to Red, Beth had said it was “just that time of the month” and she wanted to be left alone. Being married himself, he certainly had a lot of thinking to do so he obliged.

They made another stop about an hour later at Laguna Beach to fill up with gas. Red stayed out with the car while Beth hit the restroom in the station.

According to him, Beth wanted to be dropped at the Greyhound station so she could check her things there. Red claimed that Beth made him believe she’d never been in L.A., so he convinced her that the Greyhound bus was in the bad part of town and he should drop her off at the Biltmore.

Throughout the whole trip, Red claimed, Beth said she was going to meet her sister, Mrs. Adrian West, at the Biltmore. Robert Manley dropped Elizabeth Short off at the Biltmore Hotel on January 9th, 1947.

Beth went to the restroom while Red went to the front desk to see if Mrs. West was there yet. There was no record of a Mrs. West, so Red bade farewell to Beth and left. He was happy to be rid of her, and looked forward to returning to his own family.

He got in his car and drove off at 6:30 p.m.

It was the last time anyone would see Elizabeth alive.

We haven’t really talked much about the movie, because it doesn’t show any of this. But it does show the moment when Elizabeth’s body is found. In the movie, it’s a long shot from a distance when you see a woman walking along a street, see something, and start screaming as she tries to track down a car in vain.

Part of that is true. At 10:00 a.m. on January 15th, 1947, Betty Bersinger was walking her three-year-old daughter along South Norton Avenue between Coliseum Street and West 39th Street when she noticed something in the grass. At first, she thought it was a store mannequin someone had thrown away.

Then horror struck as she realized what it really was. She didn’t chase down a car like in the movie, but instead ran into a nearby house where she called the police. The first two police officers who arrived were Frank Perkins and Will Fitzgerald. More followed quickly as the two immediately called for help.

In the movie, once the body is discovered there’s a scene where the press swarms the crime scene as the cops try to keep them back. This actually happened. By the time we see police at the crime scene, there’s a lot of them there. But in truth, by the time officers Perkins and Fitzgerald showed up the word had already started to spread like wild fire about Short’s murder. The two officers called for detectives, but by the time they came the scene was swarming with reporters and with plenty of curious onlookers.

The movie has the case assigned to a Detective Russ Millard, played by Mike Starr. In truth, it was Detective Sergeant Harry Hansen and his partner Finis Brown that got the case. When he arrived, Harry was livid. The scene was being trampled by reporters, bystanders and even some careless police officers that were there. Immediately, he ordered everyone to clear the area.

The movie was pretty accurate with the mutilation of the body.

Elizabeth’s body had been given a hemicorporectomy. That’s a medical procedure that’s usually the last resort for someone as it slices the body beneath the second and third lumbar vertebrae. This is the only place the body can be severed in half without breaking a body. In addition, Beth’s face had been slashed from ear to ear, creating what’s referred as a Glasgow smile or a Chelsea grin. Her thighs and breasts had been cut with portions of flesh cut away. Her body had been washed clean—despite all of this mutilation there wasn’t a drop of blood.

As this wasn’t enough, the body had clearly been posed by the killer in some sort of a sick, seductive pose. The upper half of her body was a full foot away from the lower half. Her hands were over her head, her elbows were bent at unnatural right angles and her legs were spread.

The movie makes note of bruising, suggesting that she’d actually been killed with a baseball bat. That’s partially true. The part that wasn’t was the pinning of a baseball bat. We simply don’t know if that was the murder weapon. But Beth’s cause of death was considered to be hemorrhaging due to blows on her face and head. She had bruising on her head that were consistent with blows to the head. Her skull wasn’t fractured, though.

On her wrists, ankles and necks were rope marks. This indicated Elizabeth had likely been tied and tortured for days.

Thanks to her military background at Camp Cooke, even if it was briefly, Elizabeth’s fingerprints were on record. The police sent her fingerprints to the FBI and it took only 56 minutes to identify the body. After that, it didn’t take long for the rest of the world to find out. As newspapers printed the story, public interest only became more and more intense.

It was the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper that contacted Beth’s mom, Phoebe. They told her that Beth had won a beauty contest, and tried to get as much personal information as they could about Beth. Then, after they had achieved what they wanted, they broke the news. Beth had been brutally murdered.

While Beth certainly wasn’t close to her mom, it still had to have been a shock. One can only imagine the emotions Phoebe was going through. The Examiner offered to pay for Phoebe’s flight and hotel if she’d come to L.A. to help with the investigation.

But this was a lie. Oh, they paid for her flight and hotel. But the Examiner only flew her out to L.A. so they could keep her as an exclusive source for herself. They specifically kept her away from the police and any other papers.

The day after her body was found, the Los Angeles Examiner broke records for sales. The only copy that had sold more was the announcement of the victory in World War II.

It was the Examiner, along with another L.A. newspaper, the Los Angeles Herald-Express, that brought forward the moniker, “Black Dahlia.” It was a mixture of Beth’s known preference of wearing black hair and black clothing along with a recent murder mystery released in Hollywood, George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia.

With so many articles circling, it didn’t take long for the nickname to catch on and be used everywhere. Elizabeth Short became The Black Dahlia.

As the police and FBI began to unravel the mystery, they quickly began to realize there was only more left to unravel. Thanks to Elizabeth’s life of parties and dating a new man every night, the police were left with countless people they needed to investigate.

They did a house-to-house search, but no leads came. Then they received a tip that the last place she was seen was at the Biltmore. From the Biltmore Hotel’s registration records, the police lifted the names of thousands of people they spent time interviewing. Because of the mutilation of the body, the police were convinced someone with medical knowledge had done it. How else could they cut the body in two so cleanly and drain all of the blood?

On January 23rd, 1947, the Los Angeles Examiner received a mysterious phone call from someone claiming to be the killer. They offered to mail some of Beth’s items to the newspaper. The next day, they followed through when a package arrived. Inside was Beth’s birth certificate, some business cards, photographs, paper with names written on them and an address book. The book had the owner’s name on it, a Mark Hansen. As you might expect, Mark became a suspect immediately.

He was a nightclub owner who had met Beth on multiple occasions as she came to his clubs to party. After digging into Mark’s background a little more, the police found out that Beth had called Mark on January 8th. This made Mark one of the very last people to talk to Beth. But then they found out that the address book that had been sent to the newspaper may have belonged to Mark at one point, but Beth had taken it and used it as her own.

The police could never tie the murder to Mark Hansen. Nor could they tie it to anyone else.

There were plenty of suspects. Because of the highly public nature of the case, the police received plenty of confessions. In all, 60 people confessed to the murder. These were mostly men, but there were a few women scattered in.

Of these, the Los Angeles District Attorney narrowed down the list of suspects to be about 25 people. Mark Hansen was one of them, as was Robert Manley. Was Red telling the truth? Did he actually take her from San Diego to L.A. and drop her off without incident? Or did he lie in his testimony? But Robert dropped off the list of suspects when he had an alibi for the days after he dropped Beth off at the Biltmore and passed two polygraph tests.

Due to the sheer scale of the investigation, the LAPD was way behind. They couldn’t follow up on every lead. In fact, it was because of the Beth Short case that, in February of 1947, California became the first state in America to require the registration of convicted sex offenders.

In the movie, we find out what happens to Beth at the end when we find out she died at the hands of the Linscott family. The Linscotts are an upper class family with Emmett and Ramona, played by John Kavanagh and Fiona Shaw, respectively. Then of course there’s Madeleine, played by Hilary Swank, and Martha, played by Rachel Miner. Altogether, these four make up what we find out is a rather insane family who isn’t afraid to use their wealth and social standing to do whatever they want—even commit a brutal murder.

This ending is actually pretty smart on the part of both the novelist, James Ellroy, and Josh Friedman, the screenwriter. Why? So in the movie, the story itself is explained in a way that only Josh Hartnett’s character, Bucky, knows the truth. But he can’t explain anything.

While we know the way the movie portrayed it didn’t happen because all of those characters are fictional, the truth is we simply don’t know what really happened to Beth. So is there a lone detective out there, like Josh Hartnett’s character, who found out the truth but couldn’t prove it? Maybe.

To this day, you can get lost in the whirlwind of conspiracies that surround the Beth Short murder case. Although we’ll never know if someone out there does know the truth, perhaps the inspiration for this sort of ending came from Eliot Ness.

According to Eliot’s biographer, Oscar Fraley, Eliot may have known who the killer was:

“This lady socialite who was working with him came to him and said, ‘A member of one of our influential families fits your profile.’  So Eliot said, ‘That’s fine, let’s meet him.’ This man admitted that he had been to medical school, so Eliot thought surely he had the guy.”

 

But Oscar wasn’t talking about someone who only killed Beth. He was talking about another serial killer who may have been responsible for many more deaths.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the popular TV series Unsolved Mysteries covered The Black Dahlia murder and did a decent job of explaining this connection. In it, they link ties to another unsolved mystery, the Torso Killer in Cleveland, Ohio. Eliot Ness was the Public Safety Director in Cleveland at the time, and another who gained popularity posthumously when the fictional The Untouchables movie was released. As he was pursuing the Cleveland Torso Killer, a serial killer who had dismembered at least 12 victims between 1935 and 1938. The killer’s victims were left posed and mutilated much in the way Beth’s body was. Many of the victims in Cleveland showed signs of being cleaned as well, although none of them were quite as clean as Beth’s had been.

While there’s no documentation to back this up, many people thought Eliot Ness knew who the Cleveland Torso Killer was. He’d been given two lie detector tests, both of which he failed, and after admitting himself to a mental hospital the slayings in Cleveland stopped.

Then Eliot received a letter from the suspect. According to the show: “In that letter, the Torso Killer describes the fact that he has left Cleveland and has come to California, as he described it ‘sunny California’ and is now performing medical experiments upon his guinea pig victims here in Los Angeles.”

Another lead came along in 1999 when one of the suspects, a physician by the name of George Hodel, passed away at the age of 91 due to heart failure. After he died, his son Steve started to go through his dad’s things. As he did Steve, who was a former LAPD homicide detective, started to learn some things about his dad that left him unnerved.

George Hodel had undergone his own public trial after his teenage daughter, Tamar, had accused him of sexual abuse in 1949. He was acquitted. Steve found out his father was also a suspect in the Lipstick Killer case, the murder of Suzanne Degnan that Beth had been captivated by.

In 2003, Steve Hodel published a book with his findings where he suggests his own father may have killed numerous young women as one of the only L.A.-based physicians performing abortions at the time. In 2012, Steve brought a cadaver dog to his dad’s former home. These specially trained dogs can detect the scent of human decomposition and “alert” when they smell it. On this occasion, the dog alerted in several areas of the house. A soil sample was taken of the alley outside, where the dog had alerted yet again, and the sample came back positive for human remains.

George Hodel moved to San Francisco in the 1960s, and Steve believes his father may have also been responsible for the Zodiac killings that plagued that city during those times.

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