LAPD detectives Harry Hansen and Finis Brown headed the investigation
into Elizabeth Short’s murder. The case was a challenge from the moment they
arrived on Norton Street. The lack of physical evidence at the body dump site
posed a problem.
Police officers knocked on doors and interviewed hundreds of citizens to find the place where Beth was murdered, but they were unsuccessful.
Beth’s mother, Phoebe, was cruelly tricked by the Herald-Express into believing that her much loved daughter was a beauty contest winner, only to be told minutes later that she was a murder victim.
Murder victims lose their right to privacy; all of their secrets are revealed. To fill column space while multiple leads were being tracked, the Herald looked to psychiatrists, Beth’s acquaintances, and even mystery writers, to speculate on the case, which they did with creative abandon.
The psychiatrist whose expert opinion was sought by the
Herald was Dr. Paul De River, LAPD’s shrink. He wrote a series of articles for
the paper in which he attempted to analyze the mind of the killer. De River
wrote that the killer was a sadist and suggested that: “during the killing
episode, he had an opportunity to pump up affect from two sources — from his
own sense of power and in overcoming the resistance of another. He was the
master and the victim was the slave”.
In one of his most chilling statements, De River hinted at
necrophilia — he said: “It must also be remembered that sadists of this
type have a super-abundance of curiosity and are liable to spend much
time with their victims after the spark of life has flickered and died”.
People who had only a fleeting acquaintance with Elizabeth Short were interviewed and they weighed in on everything from her hopes and dreams to her love life. Beth was, by turns, described as “a man-crazy delinquent”, and a girl with “childlike charm and beauty”. Many people who claimed to be close to her said that she aspired to Hollywood stardom. The interviews yielded nothing of value in the hunt for Beth’s killer.
While the experts opined, Aggie was busy canvassing
Southern California for leads. Underwood had been with the Herald-Express for
twelve years when the Black Dahlia case broke wide open. In her 1949
autobiography, Newspaperwoman, she said that she came across Elizabeth’s
nickname when she was checking in with Ray Giese, an LAPD homicide
detective-lieutenant. According to Aggie, Giese said: “This is something
you might like, Agness. I’ve found out they called her the ‘Black Dahlia’
around that drug store where she hung out down in Long Beach.”
A few days passed and the mystery man known only as Red, was located. He was Robert M. “Red” Manley, a twenty-five-year-old married salesman. Early on the morning of January 20, 1947, Aggie interviewed Manley. The first thing she said to him was: “You look as if you’ve been on a drunk.” Manley replied: “This is worse than any I’ve ever been on.”
Aggie told him that he was in one hell of a spot and
advised him to come clean. Harry S. Fremont, an LAPD homicide detective looked
over at Manley and said: “She’s right, I’ve known this lady for a long
time, on lots of big cases, and I can tell you she won’t do you wrong.”
Manley told his story, and Aggie was smart enough not to
interrupt him. He told of having picked Beth up on a street corner in San Diego
early in December. And he also revealed that the night he’d spent with Beth in
a roadside motel had been strictly platonic. He concluded with: “I’ll
never pick up another dame as long as I live.”
The story ran in the Herald with the headline: ‘Red’ Tells
Own Story of Romance With ‘Dahlia’, and Aggie got the byline. She was the only
Los Angeles reporter to get a byline in the case.
The morning following her interview with Red Manley, Aggie was unceremoniously yanked off of the case. She said: “…the city editor benched me and let me sit in the local room without a blessed thing to do.”
The no-assignment routine resumed the next day.
Aggie said that she sat for about three hours then started on an embroidery
project! Anyone who came into the city room that day and saw Aggie with her
embroidery hoop just roared with laughter. She kept at it until quitting time.
Day three — Aggie prepared to do more embroidery when she
was told by the assistant city editor that because of an overnight decision she
was to go back to LAPD homicide and continue her work.
Aggie barely had time to pull out her notebook before she was pulled off the case again! This time it was for good. An announcement was made that Aggie’s new assignment would be the city desk. She was flabbergasted. She had just become one of the first women in the United States to hold a city editorship on a major metropolitan daily.
Why was Aggie removed from the Black Dahlia case? There are
those who believe that there was a cover-up and that Aggie was getting too
close to a solution to Short’s murder, so someone with enough juice had her
promoted to keep her out of the way. That makes little sense to me, as city
editor she’d have been directing the activities of all the reporters working
the case, and she wasn’t a person who could be bought. The timing of Aggie’s
promotion remains an intriguing part of the Black Dahlia case.
NEXT TIME: The Black Dahlia
case goes cold — or does it?
Jane Doe #1, was found in a weedy vacant lot in Leimert
Park on the morning of January 15, 1947. The Los Angeles Times, reluctant
to tarnish the city’s image, relegated the shocking sex murder to page two.
Just because they balked at splashing the disgusting
details of the murder across the front page, doesn’t mean that the Times didn’t
indulge in lurid hyperbole worthy of a Hearst newspaper – note the headline
Los Angeles police detectives intended to send the victim’s
fingerprints via airplane to the FBI in Washington, D.C. as they always did,
but a massive storm in the east made it impossible. What could they do?
The Examiner owned a Soundphoto machine, an early
fax, and while it had never been used to transmit fingerprints everyone agreed
it was worth a try. The fingerprints were successfully transmitted and subsequently
identified Jane Doe #1 as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. The Examiner
expected something in return for their largesse. Because of the crucial role
they played in getting the identification, the Examiner leveraged a deal with
the police—their continued cooperation with the police in exchange for exclusives. LAPD Captain Jack Donohoe wasn’t overjoyed. He
didn’t relish the paper’s constant meddling, but he knew reporters would pursue
the case with or without police approval.
The deal was the lesser evil.
During the initial phase of the investigation many of the stories
that Beth told her family and acquaintances surfaced in newspaper articles, and
although much of the information has subsequently been disproved the lies remain.
On January 17, 1947, under the headline: “Mrs. Phoebe Short
Can’t Believe Slain Girl Hers,” the most persistent of Beth’s lies was repeated
by her mother. Phoebe told reporters, “She was working in Hollywood doing bit
parts for the movies until two weeks ago.
She said she left Hollywood (for San Diego) because of the movie strike,
which made it difficult to get work as an extra.”
Beth was pretty enough to work as a film extra, but there
is no credible evidence that she ever did.
In another letter, Beth told Phoebe she was working in an
Army hospital in San Diego, or in some connection with the armed services. It
was a lie.
To learn more about Beth, and maybe uncover a suspect, detectives
questioned dozens of people. No one seemed to know her well.
By January 18, Phoebe Short and her daughters were on their way to Los Angeles from their hometown of Medford, Massachusetts and the police were no closer to a solution to the crime.
I was interviewed recently about the Black Dahlia case by Penny Griffiths-Morgan for her Haunted Histories podcast which originates in the U.K. (I have provided a link to the episode below.) I find it intriguing that a 73-year-old Los Angeles murder mystery has drawn global interest. What is it about the case that resonates with people even today?
It must be
the Hollywood connection.
contemporary article I have read about the case has described Elizabeth Short
as an aspiring actress or starlet, which makes her murder the ultimate
Hollywood heartbreak story with a violent twist.
are two stories here. One is the myth of the Black Dahlia, a fictional
character based on the life of Elizabeth “Beth” Short.
story, and the one I believe to be true, is that of a depressed, confused, and needy
young woman looking for marriage.
The myth has
been repeated so often it is accepted as true, but by mythologizing Beth’s story
we have largely ignored the real person at its heart.
We have lost
sight of the troubled young woman who came to California to find her father—not
to break into the movies.
The tragedy in Beth’s life is not that she didn’t achieve Hollywood stardom, she never sought it. There is no credible evidence that she went out on a cattle call, spoke to an agent, or asked any of her acquaintances, the ones with Hollywood ambitions, to get her an audition.
Beth was looking for what most people her age in the postwar period longed for—marriage and a home. She vigorously pursued the romantic vision of a husband in a uniform with shiny brass buttons and a bungalow with a white picket fence.
Judging by an undated letter she received from Lieutenant Stephen Wolak, she didn’t hesitate to press for marriage. Wolak’s letter reads in part,
“When you mention marriage in your letter, Beth, I get to wondering. Infatuation is sometimes mistaken for true love. I know whereof I speak, because my ardent love soon cools off.”
response to Beth’s letter is a frank assessment of their relationship—which in
his estimation was not serious. You can gauge
her desperation from his response.
How many other
men in uniform with whom Beth corresponded received letters with suggestions of
A depressed and lonely young woman with daddy issues looking for love by sacrificing her pride isn’t the stuff of novels or movies.
Beth’s tragic life saddens us and makes us uncomfortable; but the myth of the Black Dahlia is an epic tale worthy of a Greek tragedy.
I imagine in the years to come we will continue to hold fast to the myth. It is one hell of a story.
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.
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!”
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.
After 73-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
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.
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.
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.
NEXT TIME: Jane Doe #1 is identified.
Fowler, Will (1991). “Reporters” Memoirs of a Young
Gilmore, John (2001). Severed: The True Story of the
Black Dahlia Murder.
About 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short and
Robert “Red” Manley left the motel where they had spent the night.
What did Beth and Red talk about during the couple of hours that it took them to drive back to Los Angeles from San Diego? Red noticed some scratches on her arms and asked her about them. She spun a tale of an “intensely jealous” boyfriend – an Italian “with black hair who lived in San Diego”, and claimed that it was he who had scratched her. In truth the scratches were probably made by Beth herself, the result of itchy insect bites. Beth lied to Red a few times more before their day together ended.
Red and his wife Harriet had been having problems. There were so many adjustments to being married with a child, and Red wondered if they were meant to be together.
In the way that only a spouse on the verge of cheating can do, he justified his interest in Beth in his own mind by considering it a “love test”. If he remained faithful to his wife, despite the temptation of being near a beautiful woman, he would conclude that his marriage was meant to be.
Following a platonic night in a motel room, Red’s marriage was certified as made in heaven. But he had a problem; he’d been out of touch for a couple of days. How would he explain his lack of communication? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test could easily come up with an excuse for being incommunicado for a couple of days.
In my mind’s eye I see Beth and Red seated across from each
other on the bench seat in his Studebaker, each lost in thought. Beth may have
been wondering what she’d do once she hit L.A. Maybe she’d
go to friends in Hollywood. If she was lucky someone would have an empty
bed for her. Her immediate difficulty was Red. How would she get away from the
well meaning guy for whom she felt nothing?
Once they arrived in the city, Beth told Red that she needed to check her luggage at the bus depot. He took her there and Beth was ready to wave good-bye to him and be on her way – but he wouldn’t leave. He told her that he couldn’t possibly leave her in that neighborhood on her own. She insisted that she would be fine, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Beth had a few minutes while she checked her bags to conjure up a plan to ditch Red. When they returned to his car she told him that she needed to go to the Biltmore Hotel to wait for her sister, Virginia. It was a lie. Virginia was in Oakland, hundreds of miles to the north.
Red drove her several blocks back to the Biltmore Hotel. The main lobby was on Olive Street, directly opposite Pershing Square. Beth thanked Red. He had been a gentleman. He’d paid to have taps put on the heels and toes of her pumps, and of course he’d paid for meals and the motel room. She thought that he would drive off and leave her, but once again he said that he didn’t feel comfortable just putting her out of the car.
He parked, and the two of them waited in the Biltmore’s lobby for a couple of hours. Finally, Red realized he couldn’t wait any longer. He said he had to go. She told him she would be fine and that she expected her sister to arrive at any moment.
Red left her at approximately 6:30 p.m. Beth watched him go – gave him a few minutes, and then she exited the hotel and turned south down Olive Street.
She may have been headed for the Crown Grill at Eighth and Olive. She’d been there before and perhaps she hoped to bump into someone she knew; after all, she needed a place to stay.
When asked if they’d seen Beth, most of the patrons were reluctant to talk to the police. By day the bar catered to the lunch crowd, lots of men escorting women who were not their wives. By night the clientele was mostly gay men. Because homosexuality was illegal there were only a few places where men could meet.
No one who was will to talk could say for sure that Beth had been in the bar on the 9th — and if she was there, no one saw her leave.
No one would ever see Elizabeth Short alive again.
On October 13, a paragraph in the Los Angeles Times’
Southland section covered a raid on a “Hippie Commune” in Death Valley National
Park twenty-one miles west of Badwater, CA. The raid, conducted by sheriff’s
deputies, national park service rangers and the CHP, turned up several
sawed-off shotguns, handguns, rifles, and ammunition. The raid went off without a hitch which, given
the number of weapons found, is a small miracle.
Fifteen people were arrested. A scruffy little man named
Charles Manson was among those taken into custody. A Sheriff’s deputy dragged
him out of the 12×16-inch cupboard in which he was hiding.
The raid had nothing to do with the August murder spree
which took the lives of seven adults and Sharon Tate’s unborn son. Manson
wasn’t yet a suspect. The raid was all about the auto theft ring operated by the
While Manson sat in jail on the auto theft charges, did some
free members commit murder on his behalf?
Manson’s paranoia about squealers had already resulted in Donald
“Shorty” Shea’s murder on August 26.
The following five cases have connections to the Manson
Family. Some of the connections are
compelling, others are peripheral.
On November 5, John “Zero” Haught was found in his Venice
Beach home with a single gunshot wound to his head after losing a game of
Russian Roulette. At least that is the story told by witnesses Catherine Gillies,
Bruce Davis, Sue Bartell, and Madaline Joan Cottage “Little Patty” – all of
them Manson family members.
Each witness was interviewed separately and recounted Zero’s
death. Investigators thought the accounts sounded rehearsed. They were
suspicious, but couldn’t prove a thing.
When Leslie Van Houten learned of Zero’s death, she made it
clear she didn’t buy the Russian Roulette story. She was incredulous that he was playing the
deadly game by himself as the witnesses stated. An anonymous man told a newspaper
reporter he was there when the shooting occurred, and that one girl had pulled
the trigger. The man was never
identified and the death is officially a suicide.
On November 7, an early morning walker discovered the
mutilated bodies of teenagers Doreen Gaul and James Sharp. The victims were
stabbed so many times that police thought they were shot gunned to death. The overkill
was like the Tate/La Bianca murders and there is a Manson/Scientology/The
Process (a cult) connection. But without proof the murders remain unsolved.
Reet Jurvetson, known for over 40 years as Jane Doe 59, was
another victim of random violence in 1969. Years after her death Manson was
asked about Reet. He said he didn’t know
her and knew nothing about her murder. Was he telling the truth?
December 1, 1969, Joel Pugh, estranged husband of Sandra
Good, was found dead in a London hotel room.
His wrists and throat were cut. No suicide note was found. Was it a
coincidence that Bruce Davis was in the UK at the time of Pugh’s death?
In recent years, the LAPD has said that as many as a dozen
murders may be linked to Manson and the family. While decades of dust gather on
the open case files, at least the Tate/La Bianca murders are solved.
We can thank now-deceased Susan Atkins for busting the case
wide open. The hippie girl who looked like a babysitter to her Sybil Brand
Institute cellmates told them some horrific stories that they, at first,
figured were bullshit. But after Susan described in gruesome detail Sharon
Tate’s last moments, without showing remorse, the inmates went to the jail
authorities to turn her in.
If not for Susan, the perpetrators of the August murders may
not have been identified for many more months.
On December 1, 1969, LAPD’s Chief Edward Davis held a press
Standing behind 15 microphones, Chief Davis announced the
official end of the case.
“I am Edward Davis, chief of police of the City of Los
Angeles. Today warrants have been issued for the arrest of three individuals in
connection with the murders of Sharon Tate Polanski, Abigail Anne Folger, Voytek
Frykowski, Steven Earl Parent and Thomas John Sebring.”
He explained that the same people were also involved in the
murders of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca.
“The development of information from the two separate
investigations, the Tate and La Bianca cases, led detectives to the conclusion
that the crimes in both cases were committed by the same group of people. At one time two lieutenants and 17 men were
working on only the Tate case. The Tate
investigators interviewed 625 people, some four and five times each.”
Chief Davis referred to a break in the case that occurred
two weeks prior to the warrants. He didn’t mention her by name, but he meant
Also not mentioned by name was the first victim of the
summer murder spree, Gary Hinman. Chief Davis referred only to the “Topanga
Canyon murder case.”
Chief Davis wrapped up the press conference as a late arrival,
Mayor Sam Yorty, took the stage.
“Sorry, I got here so late,” said the mayor. “The city
government and the Police Department are very grateful to the news media for
the cooperation we have had . . . many people could have damaged our case if
they hadn’t been so cooperative . . .”
The round-up of the Family members implicated in the
murders was underway. The case against them was solid enough to bring to the
December 5, 1969, Susan Atkins testified before the Los
Angeles grand jury. Prosecutors got first degree murder indictments against
Manson, Watson, Krenwinkel, Van Houten and Kasabian.
December 21, 1969, Leslie Van Houten talked to cops about
her possible cooperation. One week later she recorded a confession with attorneys,
but decided against cooperating with prosecutors.
By Christmas 1969, Manson and his co-defendants, Tex
Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten were in jail
facing capital murder charges.
With Manson and his band of murderous nomads behind bars,
Angelenos breathed a sigh of relief. The ‘60s ended on a miserable note. They thought
the ‘70s would be better. They were wrong.
During the 1970s the risk of homicide increased six-fold
from the 1950s, and by the early 1980s the term serial killer began to turn up
in mainstream media reports.
There’s a great double feature on Movies! tonight, THE STREET WITH NO NAME and WHITE HEAT. Two of my favorite films noir. If you don’t have the channel (it is 13.3 in my L.A. neck of the woods) here, for your viewing pleasure, is The Street With No Name starring Richard Widmark, Mark Stevens, Lloyd Nolan and Barbara Lawrence.
Ignore or read the subtitles — in any case, enjoy the movie!
Yesterday was the 117th anniversary of Aggie Underwood’s birth. In her honor the Central Library downtown is hosting a party on Saturday, December 21, 2019 at 2 pm.
I will speak about Aggie and her many accomplishments from her time as a switchboard operator at the Record to her groundbreaking promotion to city editor at the Evening Herald and Express. And yes, there will be cake.
Aggie inspired me to create this blog and her Wikipedia page on December 12, 2012. Aggie loved the newspaper business as much as I love writing for the blog and connecting with all of you.
Deranged L.A. Crime readers are an impressive group. They include current and former law enforcement professionals, crime geeks (like me), and the victims of violent crime. I have even been contacted by a serial rapist (a despicable scumbag).
Each December I reflect on the year that is ending and make plans for Deranged L.A. Crimes. In 2020, the blog’s reach will extend to encompass all of Southern California, which includes the following counties: Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Kern, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Imperial.
I look forward to new stories, personalities and challenges.
Please join me as we enter the Roaring Twenties. This time, no Prohibition.