Bundled up because of the cold weather that had held Los Angeles residents in its grip for several days, Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne were walking on Norton Street in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Midway down the block Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds a few feet of a fire hydrant.
Bersinger thought she was looking at a discarded mannequin, or maybe a nude woman who had passed out.
The white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin or a drunk.
“I was terribly shocked and scared to death. I grabbed my little girl and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”
Several reporters claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder, including Will Fowler.
Fowler and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner heard an intriguing call on their shortwave radio. It was a police call about a naked woman, possibly drunk, who was found in a vacant lot. Fowler turned to Pagel and said:
“A naked drunk dame passed out in a vacant lot. Right here in the neighborhood too… Let’s see what it’s all about.“
Paegel drove as Fowler looked for the woman. He spotted the body and jumped out of the automobile as Paegel got his camera from the trunk. Fowler called out: “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”.
That was the story Fowler stuck to through the decades. He said he closed the dead girl’s eyes. But, it is possible that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first on the scene; and in her memoir, Newspaperwoman (1949), Aggie Underwood said that she was first on the scene.
Over the years Underwood covered murders, politicization, and Los Angeles mayhem. She once hid a wanted murderer in her home while her daughter’s Girl Scout troop was having a meeting, to keep the criminal and her story away from other reporters. She interviewed films stars and bad girls locked-up in the Lincoln Heights Jail. In 1936, she was present at the autopsy of actor Thelma Todd without passing out.
The last story Underwood reported was the famous murder in January 1947. She was one of the best crime reporters, but she was promoted to city editor in the middle of covering the Dahlia case. Black Dahlia conspiracy theorists sometimes point to the timing of her promotion as proof that she was close to discovering the identity of the murderer.
Many years after the Dahlia case went cold, Underwood told her grandsons that she knew who the murderer was. When asked for the name of the killer, all she would say was:
“…he’s dead and it doesn’t matter anymore.”
All those who saw the murdered woman that day saw the same horrifying sight and it left an indelible impression. Underwood described what she observed:
“It had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised about the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted. Front teeth were missing. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged, and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.”
The coroner recorded the victim as “Jane Doe Number One” for 1947.
Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, two longtime LAPD detectives, were in charge of the investigation. For the first 24 hours the two officers brought in over 150 men for questioning.
Among the early suspects was a 23-year-old transient, Cecil French. He was busted for molesting women in the downtown bus depot. The police discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Forensics found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car. He was dropped from the list of top suspects.
In her initial coverage Underwood referred to the case as the “Werewolf Slaying” because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on Jane Doe. Her werewolf moniker was used identify the case until a much better one came along: The Black Dahlia.
Almost everything I’ve read about the case describes Elizabeth Short as an aspiring starlet, which makes her murder the ultimate Hollywood heartbreak story with a big dash of brutal violence.
Short was a troubled young woman who came to California to find her father, not to break into films. The tragedy in her life is not that she didn’t achieve Hollywood stardom, she never sought it. There is no evidence that she went to an audition, or met with an agent.
Short was looking for what most young people wanted in postwar America: marriage and a home. She pursued the romantic vision of a husband in a uniform and a bungalow with a white picket fence.
Judging by a letter she received from Lieutenant Stephen Wolak, she was pressing to get married. Wolak wrote:
“When you mention marriage in your letter, I get to wondering. Infatuation is sometimes mistaken for true love. I know whereof I speak, because my ardent love soon cools off.”
How many other men in uniform did Short correspond with suggesting marriage?
A depressed and lonely young woman looking for love by sacrificing her pride is the stuff of novels and movies. Short’s tragic life became the myth of the Black Dahlia.
According to newspaper reports shortly after the murder, Short received the nickname “Black Dahlia” from staff and patrons at a Long Beach drugstore in mid-1946 as homage on the film The Blue Dahlia (1946). There are also claims that the media came up with the name because Short had dahlias in her hair. According to the FBI official website, she received the first part of the nickname from the press “for her rumored penchant for sheer black clothes”.
Reports by investigators state that the nickname was invented by newspaper reporters covering her murder; Underwood is mostly credited as its creators. Some sources claim that Short was referred to or went by the name during her life.
The celebrity status of Short’s death was driven by the relentlessness media. The Los Angeles Record carried it on its front page for 31 consecutive days, and sales of newspapers surged as the investigation continued. Part of the intrigue came from the unprecedented brutality of her murder. Before she was killed, Short had been forced to eat feces. Flesh and pubic hair had been shaved off her body and inserted into her vagina and rectum. Her uterus was removed. Long gashes extended her mouth into an eerie “Joker” smile.
The day after Short’s body was found, the Los Angeles Examiner sold more copies than it had any other day, except when it announced the allied victory in World War II. Sales were fueled by the tawdry way the tabloid press covered Short as a prostitute and/or lesbian.
During the initial investigation into the murder, police received 60 confessions, most made by men. Since that time, over 500 people have confessed to the crime, some of whom had not even been born at the time of her death. John St. John, a detective who worked the case until his retirement, stated:
“It is amazing how many people offer up a relative as the killer.”
Suspects have included the Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler and Orson Welles.
Short’s murder is one of the most brutal and culturally enduring crimes in American history; Time magazine listed it as one of the most infamous unsolved cases in the world.
Short’s short life and her death have been the basis of several books and films. There is James Ellroy‘s novel The Black Dahlia (1987), which also explores the politics, crime, corruption, and paranoia in post-war Los Angeles. Ellroy’s novel was adapted into a film of the same name directed by Brian De Palma in 2006 starring Scarlett Johansson. Short is played by Mia Kirshner. Short was also portrayed in heavily fictionalized accounts by Lucie Arnaz in the television film Who Is the Black Dahlia? (1975), and by Mena Suvari in the 2011 season of American Horror Story and again in the 2018 season, Murder House. In the soon to be released film Night Rain, an actor is unwittingly hired by her stalker to make a low budget period film about the Black Dahlia murder. I Am The Night is a limited television series on TNT starring Chris Pine, inspired by the memoir One Day She’ll Darken written by Fauna Hodel, documenting her unusual connection to her grandfather, George Hodel, a gynecologist and prime suspect in the Black Dahlia murder mystery.
My friend, Portland artist / writer Mary Pacios wrote one of the very best Black Dahlia books, Childhood Shadows: The Hidden Story Of The Black Dahlia Murder (1999). Pacios was a childhood friend of Short and she had access to officials close to the case who discussed unpublicized details of the murder and their own privately held theories of who killed Short. Pacios expected her research to last a few months, but she spent a strange 21 years blowing up many of the myths surrounding the victim and her murder.
The murder of the Black Dahlia has continued to haunt Los Angeles and armchair investigators 73 years later.