Who Murdered Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia?

Updated on October 2, 2019
Jade Hassenplug profile image

I have a curiosity for humanity's darker side and I love doing research so I've combined those two things to write in depth articles.

Elizabeth Short, AKA The Black Dahlia
Elizabeth Short, AKA The Black Dahlia

Who Was She?

Elizabeth Short was an American woman who worked as a waitress. She had a difficult childhood and moved to California; she was an aspiring actress but never got a chance to pursue her dreams. Elizabeth went by the nicknames of “Betty” “Bette” and “Beth,” and she had light blue eyes and brown hair. Friends would describe her as beautiful, lively, and, friendly.

A lot of the media in 1947 slandered her image and referred to her as a call girl or prostitute, but she was not either of those things. She did party often, but that was normal for the time.

Early Life

Elizabeth Short was born on July 29, 1924, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father is Cleo Short and her mother was Phoebe Mae Short. She was the third of five daughters and shortly after Elizabeth was born, the family moved to Medford, MA.

Elizabeth’s father Cleo made money designing miniature golf courses, but when the stock market crashed in 1929, he lost most of the family assets and money. He then abandoned his family in 1930, when Elizabeth was just 5-years-old. He had parked his car by the bridge and faked his suicide and had authorities assume he jumped off.

Elizabeth’s mother Phoebe, had to then move into an apartment in Medford and get a job as a bookkeeper. She worked hard to support herself and her five children. Later, Cleo came forward and admitted he faked his death and had moved to California. Remorseful, he begged to come back home to Phoebe but she refused to let him come back.

Elizabeth was a lively and active child despite having asthma and lung problems. She loved movies and going to the theater, and she aspired to be an actress when she got older. She looked older than she was, and she acted mature for her age. In 1940, when Elizabeth was 16, she dropped out of high school and was sent to Jacksonville, Florida. Due to her asthma and lung conditions, she was vulnerable to bronchitis, and so she was to spend the winter in a warmer state. Elizabeth found work as a waitress and stayed working in Florida for the rest of the year.

Elizabeth Short age 16
Elizabeth Short age 16

Moving Around

After being in Florida for about a year, Elizabeth decided to move to Vallejo, California, to live with her father. He was now working in a Naval Shipyard. Both Cleo and Elizabeth later moved to Los Angeles in 1943. Elizabeth and her father would get into arguments over her laziness, poor housekeeping and dating habits. This resulted in her moving and switching jobs.

She got a job at a Post Exchange in Camp Cooke, an Air Force Base near Lompoc, California. Because of her beauty, the servicemen took notice of her. She won the title “Camp Cutie of Camp Cooke” in an on-base beauty contest. She was an emotional young woman who was vulnerable and wanted a steady relationship and marriage, leading to her not going out on dates very often. She was rumored as not an easy girl, and the servicemen began to make Elizabeth uncomfortable. She soon moved in with a friend who lived close to Santa Barbara.

On September 23, 1943, she was out having fun with a group of friends. They got rowdy and the police were called. She was drunk and underage at the time and thus had been arrested. She was fingerprinted and got a mugshot taken but was never charged. The police officers felt sorry for Elizabeth and sent her back to Florida. While living in Jacksonville, she would still make visits back to Massachusetts.

While in Miami, Florida, she met Major Mathew Michael Gordon Jr. He was a decorated United States Army Air Force pilot. He had suffered injuries from a plane crash in India and had decided to write a letter to Elizabeth proposing to her. She accepted and anxiously awaited his return. Sadly, on August 10, 1945, he died in a second plane crash before they could wed. Elizabeth was so distraught by this that she would sometimes exaggerate her relationship and claim they had married and had children together.

Later, Elizabeth moved back to California to try and pursue her acting dreams. While in Los Angeles, still working as a waitress, she met a pilot named Lieutenant Gordon Fickling. She fell in love quickly and began making plans to marry him, but the plans were put on hold when he was sent to Europe.

Elizabeth spent the summer of 1946 doing modeling jobs and building a portfolio. She spent time with friends at the beach and took pictures posing in bikinis and having fun.

Elizabeth was staying with a friend, Mark Hansen, in California when she left Los Angeles on December 8, 1946. Her friends said before she left she seemed worried about something. He told police when he came inside to get his mail he said she was sitting in the house with Ann around 5:30-6:00 (no mention of AM or PM), crying and talking about being scared.

After she left and went to San Diego, she became friends with a girl, Dorothy French. She was the counter girl at a theater that Elizabeth was sleeping in due to not having a place to stay. Dorothy allowed Elizabeth to stay with her family for a few days, but Elizabeth ended up staying for over a month.

Mugshot when she was caught drinking underage.
Mugshot when she was caught drinking underage.

Final Days

Elizabeth wasn’t the best house guest; she did little housework and continued her late-night partying. She eventually fell for a man named Robert “Red” Manley. He worked as a salesman and had a pregnant wife back in Los Angeles. Manley said he found Elizabeth attractive but swore he never slept with her. They would see each other on-and-off for several weeks. Elizabeth eventually asked him for a ride back to Hollywood. He agreed and she was picked up from the French household on January 8, 1947. They ended up partying together that night, and Manley rented a hotel. He claims he slept on the bed while she slept on the chair.

Elizabeth requested to be dropped off at the Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood to meet up with her sister before returning to Massachusetts. He obliged and dropped her off, but he claimed he didn’t stick around. He last saw Elizabeth on the phone in the lobby of the hotel before he left to make a 6:30 pm appointment.

Elizabeth went missing from the Biltmore Hotel and was not seen for six days before her mutilated body turned up in a vacant lot on January 15, 1947. She was last seen wearing a black suit, a beige full-length coat with no collar, a cardigan-style fluffy white blouse, black suede high-heel shoes, nylon stockings, white gloves, and carrying a black plastic handbag.

The Biltmore Hotel. Elizabeth was last seen alive in this building.
The Biltmore Hotel. Elizabeth was last seen alive in this building.

Murdered

On January 15, 1947, it was a cold dreary morning. Local resident Betty Bersinger and her 3-year-old daughter had been walking to a shoe repair shop around 10 am when they came across the remains of Elizabeth Short. They had been walking in Leimert Park on the 3800 block of South Norton Avenue. This area was mostly vacant lots and halted construction sights where people regularly tossed their trash. Betty noticed something white in the grass but thought it was a broken mannequin someone had tossed out. After walking closer Betty noticed it was not a mannequin but the naked dead body of a woman. Betty quickly ran to a nearby house to phone the police.

Elizabeth Short had been murdered after going missing six days prior. Her body had been drained entirely of blood but also had been scrubbed clean. She had been severed in half, beaten and mutilated. Her body had been placed in a specific pose with her legs spread and her arms above her head and bent at the elbows. Her face had also been cut from her mouth up to her ears giving her what is called a Glasgow smile.

If you would like to see the uncensored crime photos you can click here, but these photos are very graphic and not for people with weak stomachs.

Elizabeth Short's body covered with a blanket.
Elizabeth Short's body covered with a blanket.

Investigation

Officers Frank Perkins and Will Fitzgerald were the first on the scene. When they saw the graphic nature of the crime they immediately called for backup. Police discovered Elizabeth had rope marks on her wrists, ankles, and neck, along with significant signs she had been tortured before being killed. They also found a few empty 50-pound paper cement sacks that had watery droplets of blood on them. Also at the crime scene, they found tire tracks and one heelprint from a shoe.

The LAPD Captain John Donahoe assigned two senior detectives on the case, Detective Sergeant Harry Hansen and Detective Finnis Brown. By the time the two detectives got to the crime scene, it was crawling with reporters, news crews, and, generally curious public. Detective Hansen ordered everybody to leave the area and was angry with the police for the sloppy, careless work. He was worried they had essentially allowed the crime scene to be trampled and potential evidence to be destroyed.

Elizabeth's body was sent to the LA county morgue to conduct the autopsy. The autopsy revealed Elizabeth was 5'5" and weighed only 115 pounds at the time of her death. They also had to use her fingerprints to identify her and thus took the prints and sent them off to the FBI headquarters in Washington for identification. Severe winter weather delayed the transport and it would have delayed the identification request for up to a week. An assisting manager of the Herald-Express offered his help as the company had gotten new technology called a “Soundphoto” machine. They took photos of the fingerprints, made the image larger and transmitted them to the FBI who was able to quickly identify the woman as Elizabeth Short.

Due to the condition her body was found in, the police believe the person responsible had medical training. They had performed a biopsy and the cuts and marks had been done with medical finesse. Her skull had no fractures but had lacerations and bruising all over her face and head contestant with severe blows to the head. The medical examiner believes she may have died from hemorrhaging due to the beatings on her head.

Investigators believe Elizabeth was taken to a private residence by an unknown man whom she met up with at the Biltmore Hotel on the day she went missing. They think she was tied up and tortured for several days until she was murdered. They believe the assailant placed her body on the empty cement sacks and transported her body by car to the vacant lot and disposed of her. One witness claims to have seen a black sedan parked in the area in the early morning that the body was discovered. This was all the witness had to offer, however.

Once the news was out about the dead woman’s body, the media quickly started referring to her as the Black Dahlia. Some believe this name came about due to the murder mystery movie that was released 9 months before her death called “The Blue Dahlia.” They believe the color change is because she was always seen in black attire and had jet black hair with a fair complexion. Before she was known so widely as the Black Dahlia, her case was commonly referred to as the “Werewolf Murder.”

The Herald-Express

It was not uncommon for newspaper companies to try to get as much information from the police as possible for a good story but this time it was switched around. The LAPD had virtually no information but knew the newspaper did. Captain Donahoe had to make a deal with the owner of the paper, William Randolph Hearst. Reporters had been able to recover information that the police department couldn’t and had a ton of leads that mostly led to dead ends. They did get information on a trunk Elizabeth owned that was full of personal photos and letters. They were able to track it down to a Greyhound terminal in LA. They opened it and found the photos and a few other personal belongings from Elizabeth. The photos where mostly of her with friends and modeling shoots.

The Herald-Express had sent a writer, Wayne Sutton, to track down Elizabeth’s mother to gather information about her daughter. When he found Phoebe Short, he had told her Elizabeth had won a beauty pageant to get her to more openly discuss her daughter. After he had enough information he then told the truth and broke the news that Elizabeth was murdered. Phoebe didn’t believe him and thought it was a sick joke at first. LAPD contacted the local Medford police who then told Phoebe of her daughter's death.

Elizabeth’s killer called the newspaper on January 23, 1947, and spoke to J.H. Richardson. The killer claimed he didn’t like how Elizabeth’s story was being told in the papers and that he could send them proof that he was indeed her killer. On January 25, a package containing her personal belongings was delivered to the newspaper building. The package said:

“Los Angeles Examiner and other Los Angeles papers here is Dahlia’s belongings Letter to follow”

The package contained her birth certificate, business cards, photos, and a black address book with Mark Hansen’s name on it. Mark Hansen was the friend she had been staying with before she went missing and wound up dead.

The same day the package was received, a black handbag and shoe belonging to Elizabeth were found in a trash can only a few miles from the vacant lot she was found in. From the location of the handbag and body, it was assumed the killer lived within walking distance of both places.

The Herald-Express, along with various other newspapers, began getting letters pouring in about the Black Dahlia. These letters were consistent with the type of newspaper letter clippings as seen on the first one, but one stuck out. 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.”

The news also decided to destroy Elizabeth’s image and portrayed her as a prostitute and promiscuous when there was no evidence that she was. They even changed what she was last seen wearing from a black suit and fluffy white blouse to a tight skirt and sheer blouse. They claimed she was vulnerable to attack due to her lifestyle and behavior.

Letter sent by the alleged Black Dahlia killer.
Letter sent by the alleged Black Dahlia killer.

Possible Suspects

Detectives theorize that Elizabeth’s killer was most likely someone who knew her. The violent nature of the attack seemed like a personal vendetta filled with emotional attachment. It is likely someone who felt she had betrayed them or done them wrong in some way and he wanted her body to be found and show the world her wrongdoings.

Another theory about the killer is that he didn’t know Elizabeth and was a sadistic individual looking for a victim. He most likely got excitement out of being dominant over a victim and having control over life and death. Someone who also was into necrophilia from the evidence found on her body.

It is also believed the person who killed her had to have some medical experience due to the clean biopsy of the body and having her scrubbed clean and drained of blood.

Robert “Red” Manley was a strong suspect as he was the last person to have seen Elizabeth alive. On January 8, he picked her up in San Diego and dropped her off at the Biltmore in Hollywood on January 9. Manley was the one who was able to identify the discarded handbag and shoe that belonged to Elizabeth. He was able to pass two lie detector tests and had a solid alibi for his whereabouts on January 14th and 15th. He was later let go and dropped as a suspect. Manley died on January 16, 1986, of an accidental fall.

Mark Hansen was the friend who allowed Elizabeth to stay in his home while she was in Los Angeles. Elizabeth had stayed in the same room as Hansen’s girlfriend in his home near a nightclub he owned called the Florentine Gardens. Hansen was a nightclub and theater owner who had known Elizabeth from her time in Los Angeles and it was reported he had tried to make advances on Elizabeth but she rejected them. While being interviewed it was said Hansen made several contradictory statements but he had no criminal or violent history. The black address book that was in the package with Elizabeth's belongings had his name on the cover. He explained this by saying he never used it and had given it as a gift to Elisabeth to use as her own. Hansen was never officially charged with anything but he remains a suspect today. Mark Hansen died in 1964 of natural causes.

Dr. Patrick S. O’Reilly was thought to have known Elizabeth through Mark Hansen. Around the time of the murder, O’Reilly frequented the nightclub owned by Hansen and was said to have been good friends with him. O’Reilly also had his right pectoral surgically removed, similar to the mutilation seen on Elizabeth’s body.

O’Reilly was also convicted previously for assault with a deadly weapon when he took his secretary to a hotel and beat her nearly to death. His motivation was a sick desire to achieve sexual gratification without intercourse. This means he has a history of sexual violence towards women. It is also important to note that O’Reilly was once married to one of the LAPD captain’s daughters. No charges connected to Elizabeth’s case have been filed.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mark HansonPatrick O'Reilly
Mark Hanson
Mark Hanson
Patrick O'Reilly
Patrick O'Reilly

Dr. George Hodel

The last suspect still on the list to this day is Dr. George Hodel. He gets his own section because his son claims to have proof his father is the killer and that he has killed others.

Dr. George Hodel was accused of molesting his 14-year-old daughter in 1949. Three witnesses came forward in the trial saying they had seen him engaging in sexual acts with his daughter. Later in December 1949, Hodel was acquitted of the charges. Because of this accusation, the police started to look into Hodel as a possible murder suspect. They hid two microphones in his home and he was under surveillance from February 18, 1950 to March 27, 1950. They had 18 detectives monitoring the audio feed round the clock. For more information on the recording watch the video here.

On February 19 they heard something horrifying.

8:25 pm “Woman screamed. Woman screamed again.” Note that this woman was not heard before the screams.

Later on the same day, they got more disturbing audio while Hodel was talking with a confidant.

“Realize there was nothing I could do, put a pillow over her head and cover her with a blanket. Get a taxi. Expired 12:59. They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her.”

Surveillance caught Hodel saying more incriminating evidence as the days went on.

“Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead.”

The secretary he’s referring to was Ruth Spaulding. She died of a drug overdose while Dr. Hodel was present. He had burned some of her belongings before calling the police. He was investigated as her killer but with the lack of evidence, the charges were dropped. It was found out later that Spaulding was planning on blackmailing Hodel for his malpractices. He had been purposefully misdiagnosing patients to get more money from them for unnecessary lab tests and medications. It is thought that Elizabeth could have been one of his misdiagnosed and victimized patients.

Lillian DeNorak came forward as a witness and told the district attorney Lieutenant Frank Jemison that Dr. Hodel had identified Elizabeth Short as his girlfriend when DeNorak was living with Dr. Hodel. He was also noted to spend time at the Biltmore Hotel quite often. Dr. Hodel’s daughter, Tamara Hodel was told by her mother, Dorothy Hodel, that her father was out partying the night of the murder and was stated as saying “They’ll never be able to prove that I did that murder.”

George Hodel died in 1999 and his son Steven Hodel decided to visit his old family home and sort through his father's belongings. He found a small photo album that had two pictures in the very back. One was a nude photo but both women had curly black hair and were looking down. Steven believed these could be photos of the Black Dahlia but it was later discovered the photos were of a model who shared a resemblance to Elizabeth.

Steve is a former LA detective and he has used his resources and skills to delve into this case. He believes he has found indisputable proof his father killed Elizabeth Short along with others. The LA police department still have their doubts but he has the support of some DA’s and other law enforcement. His mother refuses to discuss the case and still firmly believes her former husband was innocent. While a lot of the evidence is technically inconclusive, they still share strong resemblances like the handwriting on the letters sent by the killer and Dr. Hodel’s handwriting. Steve Hodel has a book out called the Black Dahlia Avenger; a Genius for Murder as well as a website he keeps updated. He also was featured in an article you can read here.

A lot of people still doubt the evidence Steven found but others believe him fully.

Dr George Hodel
Dr George Hodel

Possible Murder Connections

There was a thought that the Black Dahlia murder could have been linked to the Chicago Torso murders but those largely took place between 1934 and 1938. There had been another murder in Chicago in 1947 that the LAPD looked into but later discounted any connection between these cases.

LAPD Captain Donahoe publicly claimed that he believed there may be a link between the Black Dahlia case and the Lipstick murders. The victims in both cases looked similar and the killer's handwriting was also similar. The ‘P’ was distinct in both writings and one word was an exact match. Both writings used capitalization and lowercase simultaneously. The murder and dismemberment of a young 6-year-old girl Suzanna Degnan in 1946 who was one of the victims of the Lipstick Killer shared similarities to the mutilation of Elizabeth.

Police Corruption Theory

In 1949 a grand jury was investigating the accusation of corruption within the LAPD. They found a report on the police corruption that included statements such as; Deplorable conditions… corrupt practices and misconduct… alarming increase in unsolved murders…and jealousy between law enforcement agents.

Corruption had been found in the highest ranks of the LAPD and found jealousy and secrecy was most common. Because of this, a lot of important case information would not be passed on to the people who needed it. The LAPD received a huge change in the entire department after this information was out and Police Chief Clemence Horrall was dismissed and replaced.

A lot of people think this kind of corruption is what led to certain suspects being let go or never convicted such as with Dr. O’ Reilly who was once married to a police Captain’s daughter. Dr. Hodel was exceptionally rich and could have easily bribed the department to look the other way on certain charges.

Elizabeth Short
Elizabeth Short

Now

After a little over 70 years, nobody has ever been charged with the murder of Elizabeth Short. Many people believe they know who killed her but no physical evidence is enough to prove anything. This murder shook LA for its gruesome nature and violent crime scene, it brought out the corruption in the police department and changed many people’s lives. The case remains open still and the suspects that are still on the list have long since died. It is feared her case will never truly be solved.

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