Black Dahlia is the nickname given by the press to Elizabeth Short, after she was brutally murdered and her naked body was discovered, separated in two parts from the waist, in a vacant lot in Leimert Park, Los Angeles in early 1947. She had a difficult childhood due to her father’s disappearance when she was very young. After reuniting with her father after a gap of 12 years things did not improve due to which she moved out to live on her own. She had several boyfriends and had to work as a waitress to make ends meet. There are also rumors that she worked as a prostitute due to which the murder has been labelled as a sex related crime. Elizabeth Short had aspirations to become a movie star but did not get a chance to fulfil her dream. After her death the editor of Los Angeles Examiner received a phone call from a man claiming to be her killer and followed it up with a post that contained individual letters cut out and stuck to read ‘Here are Dahlia’s belongings’. The envelope contained her photographs and other documents. Over 150 suspects were questioned and many false confessions made in order to get the reward $ 10,000 for information about her killer. However, all leads ended in a dead end and nothing is known about her actual killer till today.
Childhood & Early Life
Black Dahlia was born Elizabeth Short on 29 July 1924 in Hyde Park section of Boston, Massachusetts, USA to Phoebe Mae Sawyer and Cleo Short. She was the third eldest of five sisters. Her family relocated to Portland Maine for a while and finally settled in Medford Massachusetts, where she was brought up.
Her father was a wealthy man till the 1929 stock market crash that left him broke overnight. The following year his car was found abandoned on the Charlestown Bridge and it was believed that he had committed suicide by jumping into the river. Her mother moved to a small apartment in Medford and started working as a bookkeeper after the incident.
Elizabeth suffered from asthma and severe bronchitis due to which she had to undergo lung surgery at the age of 15. In order to avoid the cold she had to live with her relations in Florida during the winter months while she spent the rest of the year in Medford. She had to drop out of Medford High School in her sophomore year due to her condition.
In 1942, her father revealed that he was still alive and living a new life in California. On hearing this, Elizabeth was sent to Vallejo to live with her father at the age of 18. She did not get along with her father and moved out in January 1943 to pick up a job in the base exchange of Camp Cooke, Lompoc, California.
During this period she lived with several friends, including an Air Force sergeant who was abusive. She eventually relocated to Santa Barbara in mid 1943 where she was arrested for underage drinking in September 1943. The juvenile court ordered her to return to Medford but she moved to Florida instead.
Here she met a decorated US Army Force officer named Major Matthew Michael Gordon Jr who proposed to her. He was training for his mission in the China – India – Burma theatre of World War II. However, he died in an air crash in August 1945, just before the end of the war.
After his death, she moved to Los Angeles in July 1946 where she met Lieutenant Joseph Gordon Fickling who was stationed at the Naval Base in Long Beach. She started working as a waitress and rented a room near the Florentine Gardens nightclub on the Hollywood Boulevard.
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A Life Cut Short
On 09 January 1947 she returned to Los Angeles to meet her family, after a trip to San Diego with a married salesman named Robert Manley. Manley dropped her at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where she was to meet her sister. The hotel staff recollect having seen her using the telephone. The last she was seen was at the Crown Grill Cocktail Lounge on South Olive Street about half a mile from the hotel.
At about 10 AM on 15 January 1947 Betty Bersinger saw what she thought to be a discarded mannequin in a vacant lot in Leimert Park, Los Angeles that turned out to be Elizabeth’s naked body severed in two from the waist. She was shocked and ran to the nearest house from where she informed the police on telephone.
The area was quite underdeveloped and deserted so it took some time for the police and media to arrive at the scene. Reporter Aggie Underwood of the Los Angeles Herald – Express was one of the first media persons to get the story and reveal it to the world.
She was identified by matching her finger prints with her previous police records when she was arrested for underage drinking in 1943. The corps was laid on the ground, face up, with hands stretched above the head and mouth slashed from the corners to the ears to give a ‘Glasgow Smile’ look. The lower half of the body, from the waist downwards, was placed a foot away with legs wide apart.
The autopsy report put down the cause of death to be severe concussion and haemorrhaging from lacerations on the head and face. The time of death was estimated to be during the late evening of 14 January of early morning 15 January.
The body was severely mutilated with cuts all over and superficial tissue loss from her right breast. There were ligature marks on her neck, wrists and ankles and her anus was dilated, which indicated that she may have been tied up and raped. It was apparent that the lower half was separated after her death and deliberately laid out in the manner it was found.
On 21 January 1947, the editor of Los Angeles Examiner received a phone call from a man claiming to be the killer of Elizabeth Short. He congratulated the news paper on their coverage of the murder and followed it up with a post that contained individual letters cut out and stuck to read ‘Here are Dahlia’s belongings’. The envelope contained her photographs, business cards and birth certificate. Another package received by the paper contained a handbag and shoe proclaimed to belong to Short.
The evidence was handed over to the police, but they could not confirm any fingerprints from their records. They suspected a man named Mark Hansen, who owned a night club and was known to have made sexual advances on Short that were rejected. However, they could get no concrete evidence against him.
From the manner in which the body was sliced into two parts, one theory said that the killer may have been a surgeon. However, a check by the police did not produce any results.
A $ 10,000 reward was announced for any information leading to the killer of Short. Over 150 suspects were questioned and many false confessions were made in order to get the reward. However, all leads ended in a dead end.
Personal Life & Legacy
Elizabeth had a difficult childhood due to her father’s disappearance when she was six years old. He health issues further added to her woes during her childhood. After reuniting with her father at the age of 18 things did not improve due to which she ultimately moved out to live on her own.
She had several affairs as a teenager and had to work to make ends meet. She was good looking and had aspirations to become a movie star but did not get a chance to fulfil her dream. There are rumours that say she worked as a prostitute and had infantile genitalia. Yet others say that she was a lesbian who got men aroused and left them high and dry.
Upon her death, the media made her out to be easy prey, who was last seen prowling the Hollywood Boulevard in a tight black skirt and sheer blouse. They nicknamed her ‘Black Dahlia’ and deemed the murder to be a sex related crime.
The murder of Black Dahlia has been linked to the Cleveland Torso Murders in which victims were brutally murdered in a similar manner between 1934 and 1938. It also has similarity to the modus operandi of the Chicago Lipstick Murder. Many other parallels have been drawn between the killing a Black Dahlia and other women during the same period.
Short’s murder has been listed as one of the most gruesome killings of its time. Many books and movies have been made about the murder that includes James Ellroy’s book ‘The Black Dahlia’ and the film of the same name directed by Brian De Palma.