The Notorious Black Dahlia Murder

            On January 15, 1947, the remains of Elizabeth Short were found just feet from the sidewalk by a young mother walking with her child. Due to the position and condition of her remains, the young mother at first believed that she was seeing a mannequin that had been dumped and not the body of a murder victim. Short was cut in half at the waist, but, despite this and several cuts over her body, there was no blood at the dump site. It is likely that the scene of the murder was somewhere else, and over the decades since the murder occurred many suspects have been named and places suggested (FBI 2016). The victim had been drained of blood, in fact, and scrubbed clean by whomever the perpetrator was (Biography.com 2020). Short, who was 22-years old and an aspiring starlet, was dubbed the Black Dahlia in the press due to the short black dresses she often wore and a movie out at the time called the Blue Dahlia (FBI 2016).

            It was through her fingerprints that Short was identified. Her prints were on record for two reason: she had applied for a clerk job with the commissary of Camp Cooke, the local army base and she had been caught drinking while underage just a few months later and arrested in Santa Barbara. It was less than an hour after the fingerprints were sent via soundphoto (the predecessor to the fax) that Short was identified (FBI 2016). The horrific murder resulted in an in-depth investigation that followed every lead and lead to several false confessions. There was only one possible witness to the body being dumped, and all they could give the police was that they saw a black sedan parked nearby early that morning (Biography.com 2020).

            Elizabeth Short was born in Hyde Park, MA in 1924, to Cleo and Phoebe Short (Korzik). For a short period in 1927, the family relocated to Portland, ME before moving to Medford, MA. Her father, Cleo, worked building miniature gold courses until 1929 (Everyday 2019). She grew up in Medford, MA with her mother and sisters, while her father abandoned them in 1929 when the stock market crash occurred (Korik). Cleo faked his death in 1930 by leaving his car by a bridge, leading to the belief that he had jumped into the Charles River. Following his supposed death, Phoebe Short moved with their daughters into an apartment and began to work as a bookkeeper (Everyday 2019).

            Elizabeth was plagued by asthma and bronchitis and, following lung surgery at only 15-years old, she began to spend time in Miami, FL with family friends during winter. The hope was that the milder winter would help with her lungs. She did this for three years and dropped out of high school during her sophomore year (Everyday 2019).

 When Short was 18, Cloe sent a letter to Phoebe from California, apologizing for what he had done. He wanted to rejoin his family, but Phoebe did not want to see him again after his departure years earlier. Elizabeth moved in with her father in California when she was an adult after he offered her a place to stay until she found a job. Early in 1943, Elizabeth moved in with her father, but it took less than a year for their relationship to strain. She was kicked out of the home because her father did not approve of her dating choices and felt that she was lazy. She worked shortly at Camp Cooke and even won a contest there that lead to her title as “Camp Cutie of Camp Cooke.” However, due to her emotional fragility and desire for a relationship that would result in a marriage, she had trouble making connections and often ended up staying in at night (Korzik).

            After a run-in with police, Short was sent back to Massachusetts, but returned to California not long after. She reportedly began to see a pilot named Gordon Fickling when she returned, but their courtship was cut short as Fickling was shipped to Europe. After spending some holidays in Medford, MA with her family and heading to Miami, FL for a while where she dated more servicemen with the intention of finding a husband, she fell in love again with another pilot. Unfortunately, this pilot, Major Matt Gordon, was killed in action and was unable to keep his promise to marry her. After a period of mourning where she was known to have told some that Gordon was her husband and that they had lost a child together, Short reached out to her friends from her time in California and rekindled her relationship with Flicking. She returned to California, intent on pursuing her dreams of stardom again and continuing her rekindled love (Korzik).

            While living in Hollywood, CA, Short began to live with friend Dorothy French, who had offered her a place to stay after finding Short sleeping in a theater seat at the Aztec Theater where French worked. She continued a life-style of late-night parties and dating during her time with the French family, including reportedly seeing a salesman who was married with a pregnant wide, Robert “Red” Manley. Manley claimed later that while he found Short attractive, the two had never slept together. He admitted to sleeping in the same hotel room during their short courtship, but claimed that while Short slept in the chair while he slept in the bed available in the hotel room. On January 9th, just a few days before Short’s remains would be found, Manley claimed that she had asked him to take her to meet her sister as the Biltmore Hotel and that she told him she was going to be returning to Massachusetts. According to Manley, he dropped Short off at the hotel and left for an appointment, last seeing her in the lobby of the hotel. Those working in the hotel were the last known to have seen Short alive (Korzik).

            It was 2013 when the most well known possible suspect was brought to the attention of the general public: Doctor George Hodel. Hodel’s son, Steve Hodel, joined forces with retired police officer Paul Dostie and a dog trained to search for decomposing flesh, Buster, to search the home of Hodel extensively (Biography.com 2020). Dr. Hodel was a distant father to his son and abandoned his family when Steve Hodel was only nine-years old, heading instead to the Philippines. After his father’s death, Hodel began to work through the possessions the doctor left behind. Among these belongings was a photo album that, at first, seemed innocuous enough. The pictures at the front were the usual – family photos – but towards the back were two pictures of a young woman. Reportedly, the first thing Hodel thought when he came across the pictures of the young woman with the dark, curly hair was that she looked remarkably like the Black Dahlia. Hodel began to dig into the case when he made the connection, using the intuition he had used for 23 years working as a homicide detective to gather information and evidence (Sobel Fitts 2016).

            Hodel began to put together the pieces that resulted in his conviction that his father was the murderer of Elizabeth Short, as well as possibly others. The procedure used on Short’s body to mutilate her was known was hemicorporectomy. In this procedure, the body is cut under the lumbar spine, where it can be cut without breaking any bones. During the time that Doctor Hodel was in medical school, this procedure was taught regularly. Hodel claims as well that a letter sent to police by the supposed killer of Short matched his father’s handwriting as well. Doctor Hodel’s name was present on the suspect list at the time of the murder as well, but Hodel is not the only person in the decades since Short’s murder to claim that he knows whom the killer is. Hodel is not even the only one to claim a parent is the killer. Hodel has published several books on the subject of his father being the murderer of Short, his first making the New York Times best sellers list in 2003 (Sobel Fitts 2016).

            Doctor Hodel was, of course, not the only suspect in the case of the Black Dahlia murder. No true answer has ever been found, but names have come forward several times in these decades since. Walter Bayley was a surgeon who lived only a block away from where Short’s remains were found until 1946, when he divorced his wife and moved. He had a connection to Short: Barbara Lindgren, his daughter, was friends with Elizabeth’s sister, Virginia, and her husband, Adrian West. Bayley passed away in 1948 and was found to have been suffering from a degenerative brain disease. According to his widow, his mistress knew a terrible secret about him that lead to her being his main beneficiary. This terrible secret could have been the Black Dahlia murder, but others posit that it was that Bayley was performing illegal abortions. While his name has been suggested due to his surgical knowledge and the fact that he had lost a son in a tragic car accident whose birthday would have been just two days before Short was found, Bayley was not an official suspect according to the LAPD (Korzik).

            Other suspects include the editor of the Los Angeles Times, Norman Chandler, who some suspect may have gotten Short pregnant while she was supposedly working as a call girl for a local Madam. Leslie Dillon, who worked as a bellhop and had once been a mortician’s assistant, was also suggested. Dillon never confessed to the murder, though he reportedly had an interest in sadism, but insisted a friend of his, Jeff Connors, was actually the killer. Joseph Dumais falsely confessed to the murder during the investigation, but the soldier had been seen on base during the time that Short was missing. Theater owner Mark Hansen was one of the last people to talk with Short over a phone call before her death and was known to have contradicted himself when talking about the phone call. George Knowlton was suggested by his daughter, Janice, who was 10-years old at the time of the murder. According to Janice, her father had been involved with Short and she had seen him beat her to death. Janice Knowlton has since published a book, Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer, where she chronicles the circumstantial evidence that ties her father to the case (Korzik). It has also been suggested that, due to the similarities in Short’s murder and the crimes committed in Cleveland, Short may have been a victim of the Cleveland Torso Murderer. Just like the victims of the Torso Murderer (AKA the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run), Short was dismembered and tortured (Siegel 2016).

             This case, one of the most well-known cold cases in modern history, will likely never be solved. Suspects will be brought forward, more evidence will be found that many will find links to the suspects they feel fit. The story will continue on until such a time as we can adequately say, “this is the person who did it.” That time may come, but after more than 50 years, it is likely this case will remain officially unsolved.  

FBI. “The Black Dahlia.” FBI, FBI, 18 May 2016, www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/the-black-dahlia.

“Black Dahlia.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 8 Jan. 2020, www.biography.com/crime-figure/black-dahlia.

Sobel Fitts, Alexis. “I Know Who Killed the Black Dahlia: My Own Father.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 May 2016, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/26/black-dahlia-murder-steve-hodel-elizabeth-short.

Korzik, Morgan. “The Life of Elizabeth Short.” The Black Dahlia, blackdahlia.web.unc.edu/the-life-of-elizabeth-short/.          

Everyday, Vintage. “The Short Life of Elizabeth Short Aka the ‘Black Dahlia.’” Vintage News Daily, 31 July 2019, vintagenewsdaily.com/the-short-life-of-elizabeth-short-aka-the-black-dahlia/.

Siegel, Dick. “The Chilling Link Between the Black Dahlia Murder and Cleveland’s Infamous ‘Torso Killer.’” The 13th Floor, 21 Apr. 2016, http://www.the13thfloor.tv/2016/04/20/is-there-a-link-between-the-black-dahlia-murder-and-clevelands-torso-killer/.   

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