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The Black Dahlia: The Elizabeth Short Case

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The author is interested in true crime stories, particularly fascinating unsolved murders.

Photo of Elizabeth Short from a police bulletin produced by the Los Angeles Police Department on January 15, 1947, the day her body was discovered

Photo of Elizabeth Short from a police bulletin produced by the Los Angeles Police Department on January 15, 1947, the day her body was discovered

Black Dahlia Case: Death of a Hollywood Icon

The Elizabeth Short case continues to fascinate the public (and this author) decades after her brutal torture-murder and dismemberment. She remains in the public curiosity as an icon of a lost, beautiful woman seeking fame in Hollywood, yet instead, meeting a gruesome end.

There is speculation as to why Short's case has remained in the public forefront for so long. One possibility is the iconic name the Black Dahlia. During the 1940s, there were many cases of young, beautiful women who were brutally tortured and murdered, yet none of these cases dominated headlines at the time to the extent of Short's murder.

The lead detective who investigated Short's case, Det. Harry Hansen, stated the media's nickname for Short, the Black Dahlia, was key in keeping her name so prominent in true crime history. The press invented the name Black Dahlia by basing it on a movie released the year before, entitled The Blue Dahlia. However, the dahlia in the movie was not a woman but a nightclub.

Elizabeth's Childhood

Born in July 1924, Elizabeth Short was raised in Medford, Massachusetts. She was one of five girls born to Cleo and Phoebe (née Sawyer) Short. Cleo made a fairly affluent living building miniature golf courses. He was somewhat quick-tempered and a heavy drinker.

The family lived comfortably until the Great Depression, when Cleo's business, like so many others, went bankrupt. Along with the failure of his business, the family accrued significant financial debt.

One day, Cleo's car was found on a bridge near his home, abandoned. It was widely believed that Cleo had committed suicide by throwing himself off the bridge into the river below. Cleo left Phoebe behind to deal with bankruptcy and poverty and to raise her four daughters with barely any income.

Phoebe found work as a part-time bookkeeper, but it wasn't enough to make ends meet, and the family had to resort to receiving welfare. This was a blow for the proud Phoebe, who had never taken money or hand-outs from anyone in her life.

Along with social assistance, the girls received free shoes offered by the county. They were pretty with tiny flowers, but they were instantly recognized as "welfare shoes."

Added to this, each Sunday, Elizabeth and the youngest daughter in the family, Meredith, then aged 2, ventured into town to receive a free supply of milk.Even at such a young age, Meredith remembered the humiliation of receiving free food and clothing.

However, poor circumstances didn't prevent Phoebe from bringing Elizabeth and Meredith to the movie theater on Sundays. Elizabeth made the occasion very special by dressing in her best dress and doing her hair. She made sure her mother and Meredith did the same.

It was a relief for the family to escape from reality by watching glamorous celebrities onscreen. It was here that the beginning of a desire to become a Hollywood actress entered the impressionable Elizabeth's mind.

During these years of struggle, Phoebe had to downsize their living accommodations every time the landlords raised the rent. This happened on three occasions until finally, the family of five lived in a very small house. Elizabeth shared the "sun porch" with Meredith as a makeshift bedroom.

Still, Elizabeth wasn't known to complain despite her humiliation. But she did invent stories of glamour for her high school friends, probably based on the films she saw. She resolved that she would one day leave Medford for Hollywood and never return. It was to be a promise that sealed her doom,

Later, her friends remembered Elizabeth as a beautiful girl who always dressed well and intrigued the boys at her school. She didn't have a steady boyfriend per se but went out on several dates during her teens.

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After her dates, Elizabeth returned home to sit on the edge of Phoebe's bed and regal her with tales of the evening's fun. Mother and daughter enjoyed a very close relationship.

Move to Vallejo, California

One day, Cleo Short suddenly reappeared in Phoebe's life. He told her he was sorry for the abandonment, but he'd been too stressed about finances to provide for her and the girls.

In the interim, the selfish man had moved by himself to Vallejo, California, not writing or letting his wife and daughters know that he was alive and well, nor sending any money to his struggling family. Cleo asked Phoebe if he could return to the family, but she firmly told him no. Cleo vowed not to contact her again, and he promptly returned to California.

Although she was initially shocked to learn her father was alive, Elizabeth saw him as her ticket out of Massachusetts. She contacted her father and asked him if she could live with him in Vallejo, California. He agreed, and several weeks later, he sent Elizabeth $200 to relocate, approximately $2,000.00 today. Elizabeth left for Vallejo immediately after receiving the money.

Once she arrived in Vallejo, father and daughter agreed that Elizabeth could live with Cleo, provided she kept house for him, meaning she would cook his meals, launder his clothes, and tidy and clean the house. Cleo worked full-time while Elizabeth applied herself to her job as a maid.

However, Elizabeth soon tired of her responsibilities and began to sleep during the day and go out on dates at night. She neglected her chores, and Cleo became angry. After a loud argument one day, Cleo threw his daughter out and told her not to return. Later he would tell police he wanted "nothing else to do with this" (his family).

He was also completely uncooperative during his daughter's murder investigation. At that point, Cleo was retired, drinking constantly, and a shadow of his former self. Cleo Short did not attend Elizabeth's funeral.

Move to Camp Cook and Romantic Entanglements

Elizabeth traveled around the Midwestern United States for a time with no particular goal. Eventually, she arrived at Camp Cook, an Army base, where she found employment as a waitress. By this time, Elizabeth had dyed her mousy brown hair coal-black. It emphasized her pale skin and sparkling sapphire eyes.

The very striking girl, although exceedingly shy, was voted Camp Cutie by the men at the Army base. Settling at the Army base was no accident. Elizabeth had a preference for the plentiful military men who fought during the Second World War.

While she lived at the base, Elizabeth often went hungry. She spent most of her earnings on beautiful clothes, henna, and makeup. Her beautiful appearance and male admiration were far more important to her than a trivial thing like food.

Gordon Fickling

Several weeks after she left Camp Cook and returned to Southern California, Elizabeth met a handsome, dark-haired officer named Gordon Fickling, and the two promptly began dating.

The relationship lasted several weeks, but Elizabeth's flirting irritated Gordon. He suspected she still dated other men, and he broke off his relationship with her.

While in Santa Barbara, 19-year-old Elizabeth was arrested for underage drinking at a nightclub while out on a date. It must have been devastating for the young woman, who was highly influenced by her Christian upbringing.

Matthew Gordon

After some time, Elizabeth traveled around several states and cities, including Chicago, Florida, and back to Massachusetts and her family. At some point, Elizabeth met another officer named Matthew Gordon. The two were smitten at first sight and soon were involved in a serious affair.

Finally, Gordon proposed marriage to Elizabeth, who accepted, but he was sent to India to test airplanes for the war the following week. While he was gone, Elizabeth wrote Gordon's mother one letter a day to stay in touch with his family, whom she hadn't met. For his part, Gordon had written to his sister and asked her to write Elizabeth, which she did.

One tragic day, Elizabeth received a short telegram from Mrs. Gordon informing her that her son was dead. He'd crashed an airplane the day before he was meant to return to America and his fiancée. "Our thoughts are with you," was the oddly worded telegram. Elizabeth left her home and returned to Miami. She would never see her mother and sisters again.

Elizabeth Short's mugshot on September 23, 1943, after being arrested in Santa Barbara for underage drinking

Elizabeth Short's mugshot on September 23, 1943, after being arrested in Santa Barbara for underage drinking

Move to Hollywood, California

Devastated, Elizabeth went in search of a place to live. She returned to her former boyfriend, Gordon Fickling, and the two decided to move in together, a very progressive relationship for its day. However, after only a few weeks, the two argued, and Fickling told her to leave. It would seem that Elizabeth seldom had luck in her relationships with men.

Elizabeth met a new friend who was also from Medford named Marjorie Graham. The two decided to travel to California together to seek fame and fortune. Finally, they arrived in Hollywood, where the two women roomed with several other women. It was a typical arrangement for young, single women in Los Angeles, and in this manner, the young women managed to pay the rent more easily.

For a time, Elizabeth and Marjorie lived with a 17-year-old girl named Samantha, who falsely professed to be 21. Samantha and Elizabeth had an intense dislike for one another, and eventually, Elizabeth moved out of the apartment. After a short time, Graham returned home to Massachusetts.

The Florentine Gardens

Elizabeth went to another location with seven female roommates. Some of the girls were models, actresses, and one young woman worked for Max Factor. Usually, Elizabeth was unemployed, although occasionally, she worked as a waitress.

Whenever the landlord arrived to collect the $1 a week rent, Elizabeth didn't have it, and she left the house to avoid a confrontation with him. Eventually, Elizabeth found work at a nightclub called the Florentine Gardens.

The Gardens was a hot spot where celebrities, military men, and even members of the Mafia all came together under one roof to drink and forge relationships. Her association with famous celebrities dazzled Elizabeth and kept her coming back to the Gardens. She was also known to frequent a nightclub by the name of Tom Brenamen's.

Mark Hansen

Hansen, the owner of the Florentine Gardens, took an instant liking to Elizabeth. He would eventually tell police that he "felt sorry for her" and that if it weren't for the wax in her back teeth that she used to fill cavities, rather than "being average," she would have been beautiful.

Hansen was an unscrupulous man who hired beautiful young women to perform as showgirls in his nightclub. The women didn't need any formal dance training; so long as they were beautiful, they had a job.

He was known as the sort of man who would give a young, pretty girl a place to stay when she was down on her luck. Eventually, Elizabeth would take him up on his offer, although the short-lived relationship would prove to be very tumultuous.

Anne Toth

While Elizabeth worked at the Gardens, she dated two henchmen of Mafia kingpin Micky Cohen. She also dated several military men. Elizabeth would hop into cars and allow the men to take her out for dinner, particularly since she was often hungry. She was naïve and trusting, and it didn't occur to her that her association with the Mob was an unhealthy alliance.

Finally, after she stopped working as a waitress at the Gardens, Elizabeth moved in with Hansen where she wouldn't have to pay any rent. While she lived there, Elizabeth met a beautiful actress named Anne Toth. Although they didn't socialize together, Anne and Elizabeth struck a chord and became friends right away.

Elizabeth took occasional modeling jobs in an effort to earn money, but since the competition in Hollywood was fierce, the work wasn't steady. She was well aware of her beauty and its effect on men.

She strutted down the street in slim-fitting skirts and high heels as men honked and whistled. She accepted dinners, gifts, and money for rent from several men she barely knew.

Elizabeth attended some auditions for small movie roles, but she never did a screen test. Ultimately, Elizabeth's efforts to break into movies failed. Perhaps had she lived longer than 21, this wouldn't have been the case, but the odds of a beautiful young woman succeeding in a town of hundreds of more beautiful young women were very slim. If a woman could secure regular employment in film by acting small, forgettable parts, she was lucky. This was quite rare for most girls.

After living with Hansen for only eight days, Elizabeth left. The jealous Hansen had discovered she still dated other men and was furious. Three days later, Elizabeth returned to Hansen's house. She and Anne Toth shared a bedroom.

One morning, Elizabeth awoke and went to the living room to find Hansen had begun a relationship with another girl. Furious, she and the girl got into a fight, with the mystery woman telling Elizabeth she was a "little girl" and to "go home." Hansen became angry with Elizabeth and ordered her out of his house. It was the last time Elizabeth would live with him.

Anne, however, proved to be Elizabeth's only real friend in Hollywood. She helped Elizabeth find a new place to live and loaned her the money to pay her first and last month's rent. After he was unable to find her, an astonished Hansen asked Anne where Elizabeth lived, but Anne wasn't forthcoming.

Elizabeth had moved, ironically, to a low-income apartment complex called the Gardens. It was also owned by Mark Hansen. Eventually, she and Mark resolved their differences, and Elizabeth occasionally visited Hansen at his home.

She was depressed living at the Gardens. She didn't like the caliber of people there, and she was unhappy that her career wasn't going anywhere.

Marilyn Monroe

The rumor that Elizabeth Short knew and socialized briefly with Marilyn Monroe began decades after her murder. It was even rumored that she and Monroe had a lesbian affair. There is no evidence to substantiate that Monroe and Elizabeth ever met one another, although it is possible they frequented the same "watering holes."

Police questioned Anne Toth as to whether Elizabeth had been a lesbian, and Anne vehemently denied the accusation. "Elizabeth used to say to me there are lots of queers here," Anne told them. "She was astounded by that."

Anne also told investigators, "Women don't wear makeup and nice clothes and make themselves beautiful for other women. They like each other, or they don't. Believe me, I would know if Elizabeth was a lesbian, and she wasn't."

The Grisly Murder of Elizabeth Short

On Saturday, April 15, 1947, a beautiful woman named Betty Bersinger was pushing her three-year-old daughter along the sidewalk at Norton and Avenue. The area where she walked was a vacant lot, part of a casual stroll.

As she walked along, Bersinger noticed what appeared to be a mannequin. It was chalk white, severed in half, and displayed in a lewd pose. Suspecting nothing out of the ordinary, Bersinger walked calmly to the nearest house to use the phone and alert the police of her find. She thought it would scare children on their way to school.

As she walked, the young woman wondered about her strange find. Did it make sense that someone would dump a nude mannequin at the vacant lot, very close to the sidewalk? When she contacted the police, Bersinger stated, "Someone better come and do something about it!"

Journalists arrived before the police. They were stunned at the gruesome sight of what was obviously not a mannequin but a murdered woman. The press was able to intercept police radio communication in that day, and it wasn't uncommon for them to reach crime scenes before the LAPD. Once police arrived, a prominent female crime reporter stated, "I don't think we'll be able to publish pictures of this one."

Elizabeth's entire body had been drained of blood, hence why she was so "white." Her internal organs remained inside her body. Her intestines had been partly removed from her lower half and tucked neatly beneath her buttocks.

Torture and Cause of Death

She had suffered days of torture—she was burned with cigarettes, slashed on her breasts and face with a knife, and a rose tattoo had been cut from her left thigh. She bore a gruesome Glasgow smile—the corners of her mouth had been cut with a knife; then, she'd been beaten about the head until her flesh ripped up to her ears. Her lower jaw fell open as the muscles and tendons were severed.

The torture had acquired the nickname Glasgow smile as it had been practiced by street punks in Glasgow, Scotland. Eventually it became more popular among rival gangs in Chelsea, England, and it also became known as a Chelsea grin.

Eventually, the coroner determined the cause of death was exsanguination due to the cutting of her mouth and bludgeoning of the head. One possible cause of murder was internal hemmorhage on the outside of her skull, where she had been beaten with a blunt object.

By the time she was carefully bisected at the waist, Elizabeth was either unconscious or dead. It was theorized that the killer either drained her body in his bathtub or perhaps had a drainage in his cellar and had done his grisly work there.

Elizabeth Short's gravestone

Elizabeth Short's gravestone

The Investigation

Police speculated the killer had anatomical knowledge since the bisection had been very clean and done between vertebrae rather than through them. They theorized that a medical doctor or surgeon was the killer, but it was also thought possible that a butcher or funeral embalmer could have been the culprit.

The investigation lasted for months, with police following every possible lead. In all, they knocked on 5,000 doors and followed 10,000 leads. Fifty "confessing Sams," as they were called, were interviewed. All of these so-called killers, including a woman, had made a false confessions.

A prominent doctor named George Hodel was a suspect, as was Richard Manley, a married salesman who was the last man to be seen in her company at the Biltmore Hotel, where Elizabeth was staying in her final days.

Mann had a strong alibi and submitted to two polygraphs at different times in his life. One was during the investigation. Another was decades later, and Manley again passed the test.

By this time, it was discovered that Manley suffered from a mental illness, and he had been in a mental institution for several months. Police were satisfied that Manley wasn't their killer.

Hodel had a more menacing profile. His 16-year-old daughter sued him in court for incest. It was listed then as "moral corruption." The jury found Hodel not guilty, but it was later believed that his daughter had become pregnant by her father. She had an abortion.

Currently, his son Stephen Hodel believes his father was the Black Dahlia killer and has published at least one account of what he believes are indisputable connections between his father and Short.

When Stephen's mother was questioned, she was astounded that police suspected her husband and commented, "I can't understand why you would try to tie my husband to this murder or that you think he was in any way associated with Elizabeth Short." She also denied that her husband had known Short or that she had ever visited the house.

Gordon Fickling was investigated into Short's death, but, like Mann, he also had an airtight alibi—he was nowhere near Los Angeles the week Short was abducted and killed. Asked whether he held a grudge against Elizabeth due to the failed relationship, Fickling was able to produce friendly letters between the two they had written weeks after she'd moved out of his apartment and moved onto Hollywood. Fickling had even sent Elizabeth money.

There were other suspects, including a transient with a criminal history, but police were unable to solve the case. Hansen was certain that they hadn't unknowingly interviewed Elizabeth's murderer, for instance, as though the killer might have been one of the "confessing Sams" to tease police, then worked away a free man. He was certain that Elizabeth's killer was someone they hadn't encountered and had left town and probably the state the day he dumped her body on the vacant lot.

Hansen and his team even investigated the Cleveland Torso Murders to see if there was a possible link between that case and Elizabeth's but to no avail. Although Hansen worked hard to find her killer, he had a low opinion of her, describing her as "promiscuous" and declaring she was a "hooker." This was untrue. Elizabeth was not known to sleep around, and it is believed she might have been a virgin when she died.

The press turned the murder into a media circus. In particular, newspapers falsely reported that Elizabeth was "promiscuous" and that she wore transparent clothing. Reports claimed she only wore black, which was untrue; Elizabeth also favored pink and pale blue.

As if it wasn't bad enough that Elizabeth had to suffer unbearable torture for a minimum of two days and perhaps three, her reputation was besmirched in the press for months after her death. A former roommate, Linda Rohr, didn't help her image. "Elizabeth was out with a different boyfriend every night," she told the press. "She was always out prowling for a date. The kid was hungry and broke."

Phoebe Short arrived in Los Angeles to identify her daughter's remains. She told the press she didn't understand the negative publicity about her child. "She was a good girl," she told the press. "She had been acting in small roles in some movies."

Of course, this was untrue, but it was misinformation that Elizabeth had written to her mother while she was in Los Angeles. Elizabeth never wrote about her financial problems, hunger, or loneliness in L.A. She wanted her mother to believe she was well and happy, and most of the time, that was indeed the case.

The Black Dahlia Haunting

Naturally, where high-profile murder cases are concerned, there are usually silly stories of hauntings. One man named James Ward professed he encountered Elizabeth's ghost on an elevator in a hotel. He claimed she was brunette and very attractive.

When the elevator stopped at her floor, she stood motionless and silent. He mentioned her floor, and the supposed ghost left the elevator. Of course, when he looked up again, she was gone. The next morning, he went out and found a newspaper that mentioned the murder case from 1947. The girl in the photograph, Elizabeth Short, was the ghost he'd seen in the elevator.

The Black Dahlia murder will probably never be solved. Both the killer and Elizabeth Short remain enigmas in the public imagination.

Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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