The Black Dahlia: January 15, 1947

Bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held Los Angeles residents in its grip for several days, Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne walked south on the west side of Norton in Leimert Park, a Los Angeles suburb. Midway down the block Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds fifty feet north of a fire hydrant and about a foot in from the sidewalk.

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or a live nude woman who had passed out. 

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Betty Bersinger recreates her phone call to police.

It took a moment before Bersinger realized she was in a waking nightmare.  The bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk.

Bersinger later recalled, “I was terribly shocked and scared to death. I grabbed Anne and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”

Over the years several reporters have claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One person who made that claim was Will Fowler.

Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner approached Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an intriguing call on their shortwave radio.  It was a police call and Fowler couldn’t believe his ears. A naked woman, possibly drunk, was found in a vacant lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets.  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 watched for the woman. “There she is. It’s a body all right…” Fowler hopped out of the car and approached the woman as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk. Fowler called out, “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”

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Will Fowler crouches down near Jane Doe’s body.

That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. He said he closed the dead girl’s eyes. But was his story true?

There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first on the scene; and in her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first.

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Aggie Underwood on Norton Avenue, January 15, 1947

After 74-years does it really matter?  All those who saw the murdered girl that day saw the same horrifying sight and it left an indelible impression.  Aggie described what she observed:

“It [the body] 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.”

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Air brushed newspaper photo of Jane Doe

The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.

Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, took charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.

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The most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three-year-old transient, Cecil French. He was busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.

Cops were further alarmed when they discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car. He was dropped from the list of hot suspects.

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Ray Pinker

In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case until a much better one was discovered—the Black Dahlia.

Unsolved Homicides & Mysterious Disappearances of Women in Los Angeles During the 1940s

This month is the seventy-fourth anniversary of the murder of Elizabeth Short–the Black Dahlia.

I will write about the case in the blog again this year, as I have every year since 2013. In addition to writing about the case, I am offering a webinar (see below) on four unsolved homicides (including Elizabeth Short) of women in Los Angeles during the 1940s.

Elizabeth Short’s funeral

The unsolved murders are tragic; but at least family members and other loved ones had a body to mourn and to lay to rest.

Disappearances haunt the living. Did the person leave by choice, or were they taken against their will? As the years pass, the unanswered questions echo in lonely rooms. Broken hearts never quite mend.

In 1949, two very different women vanished in Los Angeles.

MIMI BOOMHOWER

On August 19, 1949, forty-eight-year-old socialite, Mimi Boomhower, known as the ‘Merry Widow’, disappeared from her Bel-Air home. When police arrived for a welfare check, the lights were on and a salad was left out on the dining table. One of Mimi’s dresses was laid out on her bed. Her car was still in the garage and there was no sign of a robbery.

Jean Spangler, a twenty-six-year-old dancer, model, and actress, left her home at 5pm on October 7, 1949. She was supposed to meet her ex-husband to discuss child support payments and then she was expected to be at a night shoot for a film. Jean didn’t arrive at either of her appointments.

JEAN SPANGLER

At 7pm on Tuesday, January 12, 2021, we’ll discuss the homicides, disappearances, and why Los Angeles was such a dangerous place for women in the 1940s.

A New Year’s Eve Tragedy

Jay William Campbell’s day job was milkman, but he loved to fly. On December 31, 1951, he and his 7-year-old daughter, Judy, drove from their Van Nuys home to the San Fernando Airport. As a special New Year’s Eve treat, Jay planned to take Judy for a plane ride. They’d been up together before and she thoroughly enjoyed it.

Judy was the image of her mother, Mary. Mary wasn’t along for the plane ride though—Jay had not mentioned it to her. When he left with Judy all he said was “Be ready at 4:30, I’ll take you and Judy out for dinner.”

Mary was encouraged by Jay’s attitude—things were looking up for 1952. It was a relief to see him interested in a family outing. They recently came through a rough patch in their marriage; in fact, a few weeks earlier she was ready to go to Reno for a divorce.

Mary didn’t want to end their marriage She loved Jay and wanted to work things out. In recent days they seemed to be putting their problems behind them. Maybe they could get back the love they had when they were first married.

They started out like many young couples did in the 1940s. Jay was already registered for the draft when they married in June 1942. The U.S. entered the war in December 1941, and it was only a matter of time before Jay would be in the service. Rather than be drafted into the army, Jay enlisted in the navy.

It isn’t clear when Jay’s emotional problems began, but they were severe enough by 1943 for the navy to discharge him as a psycho-neurotic.  

Mary described Jay’s state of mind. “He was up in the clouds one day and down in the dumps the next. He was always in an emotional turmoil.”

Theirs should have been the perfect post-war family, but Jay couldn’t resolve his problems. He was, according to Mary, “…a worrier by nature.” But Jay’s worrying took a troubling turn.  He was paranoid and jealous. He was convinced Mary was cheating on him with a family friend named Chet.

Mary denied the affair and tried to soothe Jay’s fears. In mid-December she wrote him a note and packed it with his lunch. The note read:

Jay Dearest–I gave you a reason to doubt my love for you and now I have to do something to chase away the doubt.  I couldn’t live without you at my side where you belong.   I’ll always want to be yours and please dear be as you are and don’t change.  I really love you.

Your Mary.

At 4:30 Mary heard a small plane over house. Jay hadn’t mentioned taking Judy for a plane ride, but he had mentioned dinner at 4:30. He could be buzzing the house, he’d done it before.

Mary stepped outside but didn’t recognize the aircraft; even so she had a premonition. As she watched the small plane appeared to stop for a second in sky; then it spiraled downward. The plane ripped into several 4800-volt power lines. The neighborhood was plunged into darkness. The only light came from the burning plane which smashed into the playground of Judy’s elementary school across the street.

Mary’s premonition came true. Fireman had to cut the twisted metal away from Jay and Judy’s bodies before they could pull them out. They died on impact. Among Jay’s personal effects was a color photo of Mary and Judy. The photo was a Christmas gift.

What happened?  Why did the plane go down? Jay was a competent pilot; he’d had a commercial license for 3 years. Was there a mechanical failure? The answer was in a note found in the glove compartment of Jay’s car.

The note was addressed to Mary and it read:

It seems that the price one has to pay for happiness isn’t so easy to pay.  I have lost everything so that you may start anew.  You have lost me and every part of me today, including Judy.  Can you ever tell yourself that Chet was worth it all?  Please pay Mort Kamm about $600 for his airplane. Keep telling yourself that everyone gets over everything.  It may help you, but I doubt it. I have always loved you even if you haven’t loved me.  Don’t ever live a lie again.

Your Jay and Judy.

The deaths were officially listed as suicide and murder.

Funeral rites were conducted in Wee Kirk o’ the Heather at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale on January 5, 1952. Judy was buried with the doll she received as a Christmas present from her mom and dad.

HO, HO, HOmicide: Holiday Noir–Christmas Holiday [1944]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. We are celebrating the holidays with holiday themed noir movies.

Tonight’s feature is CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly.

TCM says:

After receiving his commission on Christmas Eve, Lt. Charles Mason learns that Mona, his longtime girl friend, has married another man. When his plane from North Carolina to San Francisco is forced by bad weather to land in New Orleans, the heartbroken Charles meets alcoholic reporter Simon Fenimore, who takes him to a brothel run by Valerie De Merode. There Charles is introduced to hostess/singer Jackie Lamont, and agrees to take her to a midnight mass. After the church services, the two go to a diner, where Jackie tells Charles that her real name is Abigail and that she is the wife of convicted murderer Robert Manette.

HO, HO, HOmicide: Holiday Noir–Mr. Soft Touch [1949]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

We are celebrating the holidays over the next few days with holiday themed noir movies.

Happy Holidays!

Tonight’s feature is MR. SOFT TOUCH, starring Glenn Ford, Evelyn Keyes, John Ireland, Beulah and Percy Kilbride.

At Christmas time in San Francisco, Joe Miracle steals $100,000 from the River Club, which he used to own. After evading his pursuers, Joe hides out with Victor Christopher, the brother of his dead partner Leo, and Victor’s wife Clara. Clara has purchased a berth for Joe on the next ship leaving the city. The ship, however, will not depart until the following night. While Joe is trying to decide where he will hide until then, the police demand to search the apartment. At first Joe believes they are looking for the stolen money, but learns that they want to arrest Victor for disturbing the peace and beating Clara. When the police mistake Joe for Victor and arrest him for the night, Joe believes that his problems are solved, but Jenny Jones, a social worker, persuades the judge to give Joe a suspended sentence. 

WEBINAR: The Murder of Marion Parker

On December 15, 1927, twelve-year-old Marion Parker, daughter of Perry Parker a prominent banker, was abducted from Mt. Vernon Junior High School. 

The kidnapper went directly to the office of Mary Holt, the school’s registrar. The young man told her that Perry Parker was seriously injured in an automobile accident and was calling for his youngest daughter. Times were different then; Holt never asked the man for his identification, nor did she ask him what he meant by the youngest daughter since Marion was a twin, separated in age from her sister Marjorie by minutes.

The demeanor of the young man erased any doubt that Mary Holt had about his character or intent. He insisted that he was an employee at Parker’s bank. When police questioned her later, Holt said the man seemed sincere because he was quick to suggest that if she doubted his word, she should phone the bank.

If only she had.

William Edward Hickman, who nicknamed himself ‘The Fox’, murdered and mutilated the girl. The crime made him the subject of the largest manhunt in Los Angeles’ history until the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. 

Who was William Edward Hickman, and why did he kidnap and murder and innocent child?

Mid-Week Noir: Black Angel [1946]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open for a mid-week noir matinee. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

Today’s feature is BLACK ANGEL starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre and Broderick Crawford.

TCM SAYS:

Has-been alcoholic songwriter Martin Blair goes to Los Angeles exclusive Wilshire House apartments to visit his estranged wife, popular singer Marvis Marlowe, but is refused entrance by the doorman per Marvis’ instructions. Martin sends up a gift of a small heart brooch and, while waiting outside the building, overhears a man receiving permission to see Marvis. Despondent, Martin goes to a bar to get drunk, then, as he often does, his friend Joe takes him home to his apartment and locks him in for the night. After midnight that same night, musician Kirk Bennett goes to see Marvis and, finding her apartment door unlocked and hearing her recording of “Heartbreak” playing, goes inside to wait.

Deranged Webinars for December 2020 & a Preview of Topics for 2021

Below is the webinar schedule for the remainder of December 2020. Deranged L.A. Crimes webinars will be dark from December 23, 2020 through January 11, 2021.

If you missed the UNSOLVED HOMICIDES OF WOMEN IN LOS ANGELES DURING THE 1940s in November, a brand new version will be offered on January 12, 2021.

January 2021 marks the 74th anniversary of the murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. It is fitting that we look at that crime and some of the other unsolved murders of women during that deadly decade.

My other passion in life, besides true crime, is vintage cosmetics ephemera, and fashion.  On January 19, 2021, the topic is HAIR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW: HOW THE BOB CHANGED HISTORY. You’ll learn about the history of the bob hairdo, a style that has endured for over 100 years. This is my opportunity to display some of the girlie treasures from my vast collection.

Crime topics for 2021 will include: Harvey Glatman: The Glamour Girl Killer and Attic Sex Slave: The Strange Affair of Dolly Oesterreich and Otto Sanhuber.

I look forward to ‘seeing‘ you at the webinars.

Hairnet from the 1920s

WEBINAR–Dead Woman Walking: Louise Peete

Louise Peete had a sketchy past. Acquitted of murder in Texas, she sought a fresh start in Los Angeles. In 1920, Louise met wealthy middle-aged mining executive Jacob Denton. Jacob was a widower, having lost both his wife and child in the recent influenza epidemic. Louise quickly sized him up as a man she could charm.

She wooed him non-stop for several weeks but he refused to marry her. Louise concealed her annoyance and ordered Jacob’s caretaker to dump a ton of earth into the basement of the home because, she said, she planned to raise mushrooms. One of Jacob’s favorite foods.

Jacob disappeared on May 30, 1920.

Louise concocted an outrageous story for people who came by to call. She said Jacob argued violently with a “Spanish-looking woman” who chopped off his arm with a sword! Who was gullible enough to buy her explanation? Evidently, everyone. If pressed, Louise said Jacob survived the horrific amputation, but he was so embarrassed by his missing limb that he’d gone into hiding. If pressed further, Louise said that not only had Jacob lost an arm, he’d also lost a leg! She allayed everyone’s concerns by telling them he’d come out of hiding once he had learned to use his artificial limbs.

Jacob was missing for a few months before his attorney became suspicious. He phoned the cops and asked them to search the house. After digging for about an hour in the basement they uncovered Jacob’s body. All four limbs were intact, but he had a bullet in his head.

Investigators had questions for Louise, but couldn’t locate her. They finally found her and she returned to L.A. to face justice.

On February 8, 1921, a jury sentenced Louise to life in prison for Jacob’s murder.

Louise filed motions for a new trial to no avail. She spent 18 years in prison. Did Louise leave prison a changed woman?

Hell no.

Join me as I delve into the mysterious life and vicious crimes of Louise Peete.

The Cold Turkey Pinch

What’s a cold turkey pinch? In the 1930s,  it was cop speak for an officer who made an arrest with no effort—no gathering evidence, no investigation, nada. Read on.

cold turkey pinch

Thanksgiving Day on “The Nickel” (Fifth Street) in 1937 was grim. Thanks to Old Man Depression, misery was on the menu. The street lacked all the warmth, joy, and delicious aromas present in other neighborhoods in the city.

LAPD Detective Lieutenants Bailey and Olson pulled the holiday shift. They sat in the Chicago Café at 209 Fifth and watched as drunks shuffled past oblivious to those who saw them as easy prey.

The detectives sipped their coffees and kept their eyes peeled for predators. Drunk rollers were the vultures who robbed Skid Row inebriates of their few possessions.

A man, down on his luck, seated himself beside Bailey and said: “you wouldn’t mind staking a thirsty guy to a nickel beer would you.”  After looking the stranger up and down, Bailey bought the man a brew.

Chicago Café at 209 Fifth Street c. 1937 [Photo is from Schultheis collection courtesy LAPL]

The man sat quietly nursing his beer, then he turned to Bailey and pointed at a man in a booth who had passed out.  “Watch me”—then he walked over to the unconscious boozer and rummaged through his pockets.

When he returned to his seat he grinned at Bailey and Olson and said: “See what I got?” and held up a dollar bill. “Now I guess it’s my treat.”

“Yes, brother, I sure guess it’s your treat all right,” said Bailey as he pulled out his badge and arrested 35-year-old Jack Orchard, their would-be benefactor, for robbery.

May your Thanksgiving be much happier than Jack ‘s (although he got a free beer!) 

Have a great Holiday and stay safe.