Elizabeth Short was in Los Angeles on December 5, 1946. She left for San Diego on December 8. She had fewer than 6 weeks to live.
From the moment they entered the case, LAPD kept mum about the weapon used to batter Ramon Novarro to death. However, at trial the prosecution revealed the sad fact that Ramon was beaten with a cane, a memento from one of his films. It couldn’t have been more personal, nor more poignant.
Deputy District Attorney James Ideman said he intended to show that Paul and Thomas Ferguson tortured Ramon to death while trying to find out where he hid his money. Ideman described how the 69-year-old former film heartthrob was beaten and then taken into a shower and revived so he could be questioned further.
The seven man, five woman jury listened to Ideman’s description of Ramon’s violent end at the hands of the young hustlers who accepted his hospitality, and then left him on his bed with his hands tied behind him, to drown in his own blood.
Forever in need of money, Paul telephoned Ramon on the day of the murder and introduced himself as a relative of Ramon’s acquaintance, Larry (Paul’s brother-in-law). Paul arranged to see Ramon that evening. He arrived with his brother Thomas and following dinner and drinks they demanded money. Ramon was wealthy, but never kept large sums at home, in fact, that night he had $45 in his wallet.
The prosecution’s case hinged on three points: (1) fingerprints, (2) the fact that it was impossible for Ramon to have written the name “Larry” with his hands tied and (3) Thomas’ telephone call to his girlfriend in Chicago from Ramon’s house.
As far as anyone could tell, the brothers intended to blame each other for Ramon’s murder. The main points in their strategy were: (1) blame the other brother and (2) mental illness.
Victor Nichols, a real estate investor and friend of Paul’s, testified that Paul and Thomas came to his Hollywood apartment after midnight on October 31. They weren’t trick-or-treating, they were in trouble. According to Victor, Paul said: “Vic, I’d like to see you . . . we are in some trouble. Tom hit Ramon . . . Ramon is dead.”
Victor gave Paul a cup of coffee to sober him up as Tom slept on the sofa. Victor’s guests made him nervous. He didn’t want to be involved in a murder. After Paul finished his coffee, Victor suggested he awaken Tom and leave. When Victor asked, “How could you do such a thing?” Thomas replied: “I hit him several times very hard and he is dead.”
Victor gave them $8 for cab fare and sent them on their way.
Paul took the stand and gave his version of the night of the murder. He said he went into Ramon’s bedroom and found him lying on the floor. He was covered in blood and his hands were tied behind him. “I touched him on the shoulder. He felt starchy . . . tight, like paper . . . “, said Paul.
From his chair at the defense table, Thomas starred daggers at his brother and shook his head as if he couldn’t believe the lies coming out of Paul’s mouth.
Paul claimed he wanted to phone the police, but Thomas vetoed the plan and suggested they stage a robbery. His attorney asked Paul why he would go along with Thomas’ plan, he answered, “Stupidness.”
Paul’s attorney asserted his client had no reason to kill Ramon because he thought the actor was a “nice guy”, and because Ramon said he might become a “superstar”. Paul said, “He (Novarro) said I could be a young Burt Lancaster or another Clint Eastwood.”
By the time Ramon met the Fergusons, Paul already had a minor career in the seedier side of show business. He was a nude model, and may have appeared in porno films. Ramon knew nothing about Paul’s career, but perhaps he saw a reflection of himself in the good looking younger man.
The trial continued with the brothers blaming each other for the murder. Paul insisted he slept during the crime because he downed a fifth of vodka, some beer and tequila. Until Thomas awakened him and said, “This guy is dead” he was oblivious to Ramon’s screams and cries for help. How did Paul take the news of Ramon’s death? He said he was “just plain sad.” Thomas’ attorney asked Paul, “Why were you sad if you didn’t do it?”
“I was just sad because Ramon was dead . . . I had just had two weeks of bad luck and now I was thrown into this thing . . . I wanted to know why everything was happening,” Paul responded.
What was the bad luck plaguing Paul? His job sucked and his wife left him. Small problems compared to a man’s life. Paul admitted under oath that he considered suicide rather than face trial, but he rejected the idea. Asked why, Paul said, “I want to live.”
Neither Paul nor Thomas would admit to the murder, each blamed the other. There was some evidence to suggest Thomas was pressured by Paul and his mother to take the blame and he gave it a half-hearted try. As a juvenile he could not be sentenced to death.
On Wednesday, September 17, 1969, Paul and Thomas Ferguson faced the jury. If the plan was to save Paul from the gas chamber, it worked. Paul and Thomas received life sentences for first degree murder.
Prison agreed with Paul. Maybe it provided the structured environment he lacked on the outside. He was on the prison’s radio station and found his voice through creative writing. In 1975, he won a P.E.N. award for a short story, “Dream No Dreams.”
Thomas’ incarceration did not go well. He was constantly in trouble and spent much of his time in solitary for attempted escapes and other infractions of prison rules. It is easy to get drugs in prison, and Thomas got strung out on coke and glue.
Paul and Thomas never saw or spoke to each other again after they were released in 1976.
Parole wasn’t the start of a new life for either brother. Thomas was busted for rape in 1987. He spent four years in prison. When he did not register as a sex offender he was busted again. On March 6, 2005, Thomas went to a Motel 6 and cut his throat. He didn’t leave a note.
By 2012, Paul was once again in prison. This time it was for rape. Unless he wins an appeal, he can look forward to 60 years in a Missouri prison.
Two years passed with police no closer to a solution for the murder of Elizabeth Short. The 1949 Los Angeles Grand Jury intended to hold LAPD’s feet to the fire for failing to solve the Dahlia case and several other unsolved homicides and disappearances of women throughout the 1940s.
On September 6, 1949 the jury’s foreman, Harry Lawson, told reporters that a meeting of the jury’s administrative committee was scheduled for September 8. First on the committee’s agenda were the unsolved homicides. Lawson said:
“There is every possibility that we will summon before the jury officers involved in the investigation of these murders. We find it odd that there are on the books of the Los Angeles Police Deportment many unsolved crimes of this type.”
The Grand Jury further concluded:
“Because of the nature of these murder and sex crimes women and children are constantly placed in jeopardy and are not safe from attack.”
The jury criticized law enforcement:
“Something is radically wrong with the present system for apprehending the guilty, the alarming increase in the number of unsolved murders and other major crimes reflects ineffectiveness in law enforcement agencies and the courts and that should not be tolerated.”
I would argue that the jury and law enforcement had not yet adapted to changes in the post-war world. Cops were unaccustomed to stranger murders; and I believe several of the women whose cases they were investigating were killed or taken by either a complete stranger or a recent acquaintance.
Then, as now, when a woman is killed, the person responsible is usually her husband, boyfriend or another man in her life.
It is my contention that it wasn’t corruption within law enforcement agencies that prevented them from solving the crimes. The police were doing solid detective work, but their investigative methods hadn’t caught up with the times. There were men walking the streets of Los Angeles who were severely damaged by their war experiences–how many of them were capable of murder?
LAPD detectives were diligent in their investigation into Short’s slaying. They took over 2700 reports. There were over 300 named suspects. Fifty were arrested and subsequently released. There were nineteen confessions–none of which panned out.
In 1949 the DA’s office issued a report on the investigation into Short’s murder. In part the report stated:
“[she] knew at least fifty men at the time of her death and at least 25 men had been seen with her within the 60 day period preceding her death. She was not a prostitute. She has been confused with a Los Angeles prostitute by the same name…She was known as a teaser of men. She would ride with them, chisel a place to sleep, clothes or money, but she would then refuse to have sexual intercourse by telling them that she was a virgin or that she was engaged or married. There were three known men who did have sexual intercourse with her and according to them she got no pleasure out of this act. According to the autopsy surgeon her sex organs indicated female trouble. She was known to have disliked queer women very much as well as prostitutes. She was never known to be a narcotic addict.”
Their good intentions didn’t get the grand jury any concrete answers to the unsolved homicides or mysterious disappearances.
The jury was sidetracked by the continuing saga of local gangster Mickey Cohen and other issues which demanded their attention. In the end they passed the baton to the 1950 grand jury–which also found itself sidetracked by other issues.
Despite the efforts of the grand jury, and law enforcement, the homicides or disappearances of the following women remain unsolved to this day: Elizabeth Short, Jeanne French, Rosenda Mondragon, Laura Trelstad, Gladys Kern, Louise Springer, Mimi Boomhower, and Jean Spangler–and this is not a complete list.
What happened to the women who disappeared? It is unlikely that we will ever know. It is also unlikely that the identify of the killer(s) will ever be discovered. People will always speculate about the cases, and every few years a book about the Black Dahlia slaying will emerge claiming to have solved the decades long cold case. None of the books I’ve read so far has seemed entirely credible to me.
I find it impossible to accept theories that rely on elaborate conspiracies perpetrated by everyone from a newspaper mogul to a local gangster, to an allegedly evil genius doctor. A primary reason for my disbelief is simply that most people are incapable of keeping a secret. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Three (people) can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Eventually, someone talks.
I have my own theory about the Black Dahlia and the other unsolved homicides of women that horrified Angelenos during the 1940s, and I offered my opinion during an episode of the Hollywood & Crime podcast. Their first season dealt extensively with the Black Dahlia case and several of the other unsolved homicides. In the episode entitled Cold Cases, Jim Clemente, former FBI profiler and producer of the TV show Criminal Minds, and I discussed the murders, and we came to very different conclusions. You can find the series on iTunes, Stitcher, etc.
NOTE: This concludes my series of Black Dahlia posts for now. I invite you to stay with me as I unearth more of L.A.’s most deranged crimes.
A couple of weeks following the one year anniversary of the slaying of Elizabeth Short, LAPD detectives thought they’d finally caught a break in the case when twenty-three-year-old Charles E. Lynch telephoned the homicide squad and asked to be arrested for the murder.
Lynch was arrested and brought to the Central Jail for interrogation. The young transient was questioned at length by Detective Lieutenants Harry Hansen and Finis A. Brown who had been assigned to the case since the beginning. Dr. J. Paul DeRiver, police psychiatrist, accompanied Hansen and Brown to Lynch’s interview.
It didn’t take long for the seasoned detectives and the shrink to conclude that Lynch was lying to them; and when he was challenged on the details of his confession Lynch promptly repudiated it.
Of course the detectives wanted to know what had motivated Lynch to confess to the gruesome murder in the first place, and that’s when he told them that the idea came to him after he read a newspaper “one year anniversary” account of the crime.
The newspaper account of the Black Dahlia case may have initially motivated Lynch to confess, but his real inspiration came from a Benzedrine inhaler. He told Hansen, Brown and DeRiver that he bought an inhaler, tore off the wrapper, ate the contents and washed them down with a glass of water–it was then, Lynch said, that he decided to confess.
NEXT TIME: Conclusion of the Black Dahlia case.
For an interesting article on the influence of Benzedrine (aka Bennies) on American culture go to this article in THE ATLANTIC.
More on Benzedrine here.
On February 8, 1947 the Herald announced that the Black Dahlia case was solved. They had found the killer!
“Army Corporal Joseph Dumais, 29, of Fort Dix, N.J., is definitely the murderer of “The Black Dahlia”, army authorities at Fort Dix announced today.’
Dumais, a combat veteran, returned from leave wearing blood stained trousers with his pockets crammed full of clippings about Short’s murder. According to the Herald, Dumais made a 50 page confession in which he claimed to have had a mental blackout after dating Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles five days before her body was found.
The good looking corporal seemed like the real deal. He told the cops, “When I get drunk I get pretty rough with women.” Unfortunately, when police checked his story against known facts the solider’s confession didn’t hold up. Dumais was sent to a psychiatrist.
Two days after Dumais’ false confession the Herald put out an Extra with the headline: “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body”.
The victim of the “Werewolf Killer” was forty-five year old Jeanne French. Her nude body was discovered at 8 a.m. on February 10, 1947 near Grand View Avenue and Indianapolis Street in West L.A.
Jeanne Thomas French’s life was as fascinating as a Hollywood screenplay. She was an aviatrix, a pioneer airline hostess, a movie bit player and an Army Nurse. And at one time she was the wife of a Texas oilman. The way she died was monstrous.
A construction worker H.C. Shelby was walking to work around 8 o’clock that morning along Grand View Blvd. when he saw a small pile of woman’s clothing in weeds a few feet from the sidewalk. Curious, Shelby walked over and lifted up a fur trimmed coat and discovered French’s nude body.
French was savagely beaten–her body covered with bruises. She suffered blows to her head, probably administered by a metal blunt instrument–maybe a socket wrench. As bad as they were, the blows to her head were not fatal. Jeanne died from hemorrhage and shock due to fractured ribs and multiple injuries caused by stomping–there were heel prints on her chest. It took a long time for French to die. The coroner said that she slowly bled to death.
Mercifully, Jeanne was unconscious after the first blows to her head so she never saw her killer take the deep red lipstick from her purse, and she didn’t feel the pressure of his improvised pen as he wrote on her torso: “Fuck You, B.D.” (later thought to be be “P.D.”) and “Tex”.
French was last seen in the Pan American Bar at 11155 West Washington Place. She was seated at the first stool nearest the entrance and the bartender later told cops that a smallish man with a dark complexion was seated next to her. The bartender assumed they were a couple because he saw them leave together at closing time.
Jeanne’s estranged husband, Frank, was booked on suspicion of murder. The night before she died Jeanne visited Frank at his apartment and they’d quarreled. Frank said Jeanne had started the fight, then hit him with her purse and left. He said that was the last time he saw her. He told the cops she’d been drinking.
David Wrather, Jeanne’s twenty-five year old son from a previous marriage was also brought in for questioning. As he was leaving the police station he saw his step-father for the first time since he’d learned of his mother’s death. David confronted Frank and said: “Well, I’ve told them the truth. If you’re guilty, there’s a God in heaven who will take care of you.” Frank didn’t hesitate, he looked at David and said: “I swear to God I didn’t kill her.”Frank was cleared when his landlady testified he was in his apartment at the time of the murder, and when his shoe prints didn’t match those found at the scene of the crime.
Cops followed the few leads they had. French’s cut-down 1929 Ford roadster was found in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant, The Piccadilly at Washington Pl. and Sepulveda Blvd. Witnesses said that the car had been there since 3:15 the morning of the murder, and a night watchman said it was left there by a man. The police were never able to find out where Jeanne had been between 3:15 a.m. and the time of her death which was estimated at 6 a.m.
Scores of sex degenerates were rousted, but each was eliminated as a suspect. Officers also checked out local Chinese restaurants after the autopsy revealed that French had eaten Chinese food shortly before her death.
French’s slaying, known as the “Red Lipstick Murder” case, went cold.
Three years later, following a Grand Jury investigation into the numerous unsolved murders of women in L.A., investigators from the D.A.’s office were assigned to look into the case.
Frank Jemison and Walter Morgan worked the French case for almost eight months, but they were never able to close it. They came up with one hot suspect, a painter who worked for the French’s four months prior to the murder. He admitted to dating Jeanne several times. The cops discovered the painter burned several pairs of his shoes–he wore the same size as the ones that left marks on Jeanne’s body. Despite his odd behavior, the painter was cleared.
There were so many unsolved murders of women in the 1940s that in 1949 a Grand Jury investigation was launched into the failure of the police to solve the cases.
There haven’t been any leads in Jeanne French’s case in decades; however, there is always a detective assigned to Elizabeth Short’s murder case. A couple of years ago it was a female detective and, surprisingly, she received several calls a month. To this day there are people who want to confess to Elizabeth Short’s murder. The detective was able to eliminate each one of the possible suspects with a simple question: “What year were you born?
Dozens of men were interviewed as possible suspects in the murder of Elizabeth Short. None of the interviews panned out. A seemingly endless stream of false confessors appeared at various police stations around town; guys like Max Handler, a film bit player, who was the 25th man to claim he had murdered the Black Dahlia.
During a lie detector test Handler admitted his confession was false. Why would an innocent man confess? In Handler’s case it was to escape from the 400 tiny men with violins who were chasing him. In the photo he looks to have been on a lobotomizing bender. He subsequently cleaned up, changed his name to Mack Chandler and appeared as a detective in the 1953 noir film, Crime Wave.
Daniel S. Voorhies, a 33 year old army vet, also confessed to killing Short. He said he had an affair with her in L.A. There were a couple of problems with his story. The first was that he didn’t know how to spell her last name and, second, at the time he claimed and Short were having a torrid affair Beth was a very young teenager living on the east coast.
The local landscape was littered with crumpled up false confessions given by every sad drunk and deranged publicity seeker–and most of the confessors were men; but not all of them.
A gal named Minnie Sepulveda stepped up and said that she killed the Black Dahlia. She lied.
Mrs. Marie Grieme said she had heard a Chicago woman confess to the Black Dahlia murder. Her story was a dead end.
Even though none of the women who confessed were guilty, the cops began to think it wasn’t out of the question that Short’s slayer was female. After all, L.A. had had its share of female killers.
The Herald-Express ran side-by-side photos of three infamous homicidal women who were busted in L.A. Louise Peete (one of only four women ever to have been executed by the State of California) was a serial killer. She was busted for murder in the 1920s, did eighteen years, and following her release from prison committed yet another murder for which she paid with her life.
Winnie Ruth Judd committed two murders in Arizona. She was busted in L.A. when a trunk containing the dismembered remains of Hedvig Samuelson and Anne Le Roi got ripe and leaked bodily fluids in the baggage claim section of a local train station.
In 1922, Clara Phillips (aka “Tiger Girl”) murdered Alberta Meadows, the woman she suspected was a rival for her husband’s affections. She struck Meadows repeatedly with a hammer and, for the coup de grâce, she rolled a 50 lb. boulder on top of the corpse.
So, the notion that a woman could be Short’s killer wasn’t far-fetched at all. The Herald-Express featured a series of columns written by psychologist Alice La Vere. La Vere previously profiled Short’s killer as a young man without a criminal record, but she was very open to the idea of a female killer. She abruptly shifted gears from identifying a young man as the slayer to “…a sinister Lucrezia Borgia — a butcher woman whose crime dwarfs any in the modern crime annals — are shadowed over the mutilated body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short.”
Obviously La Vere was an expert for hire, and if the Herald-Express editors asked her to write a convincing profile of the killer as a mutant alien from Mars, she’d likely have done it. Still, she made some compelling comments in her column for the newspaper.
“Murders leave behind them a trail of fingerprints, bits of skin and hair. The slayer of “The Black Dahlia” left the most tell-tale clue of all–the murder pattern of a degenerate, vicious feminine mind.”
Even more interesting was La Vere’s exhortation to the cops to look for an older woman. She said:
“Police investigators should look for a woman older than ‘The Black Dahlia’. This woman who either inspired the crime or actually committed the ghastly, unspeakable, outrage, need not be a woman of great strength. Extreme emotion or high mental tension in men and women give great, superhuman strength.”
If you compare Alice La Vere’s profile of the possible killer to a profile created by John E. Douglas, who is retired from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU)– La Vere’s seventy+ year old profile holds up well.
What I find interesting about La Vere’s profile of a female perpetrator, is she said that the woman would be older than Short. In recent years an older woman became an integral part of a theory about the crime.
It is a theory put forward by writer and researcher, Larry Harnisch. Larry wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times on the fiftieth anniversary of Short’s death. Subsequently, he has done more digging into the case and unearthed an important connection between the body dump site near 39th and Norton, and two medical doctors. One of the doctors, Walter Alonzo Bayley, had lived in a house just one block south of the place where Elizabeth Short’s body had been discovered. At the time of the murder he was estranged from his wife who still occupied the home. Bayley left his wife for his mistress, Alexandra Partyka, also a medical doctor. Partyka emigrated to the U.S. and wasn’t licensed to practice medicine, but she did assist Bayley in his practice.
Following Bayley’s death in January 1948, Partyka and Dr. Bayley’s wife, Ruth, fought over control of his estate. Mrs. Bayley claimed that Partyka was blackmailing the late doctor with secrets about his medical practice that could have ruined him.
There is also a link between Bayley’s family and Short’s. In 1945 one of Dr. Bayley’s adopted daughters, Barbara Lindgren, was a witness to the marriage of Beth’s sister, Virginia Short, to Adrian West at a church in Inglewood, California, near Los Angeles.
Larry discussed Dr. Bayley in James Ellroy’s 2001 “Feast of Death”. [Note: Be forewarned that there are photos of Elizabeth Short in the morgue.]
It is clear that a woman could have murdered Elizabeth Short; but could the woman have been Dr. Bayley’s mistress, Alexandra Partyka? The chances are that we’ll never know–or at least not until Larry Harnisch finishes his book on the case.
NEXT TIME: Another confession, and another murder.
Prior to being benched by her city editor, Aggie had made headway in her coverage of Elizabeth Short’s murder. She interviewed Robert “Red” Manley, the first suspect in the case, and concluded he was innocent. Her interview earned her a by-line. As far as I know she was the only Los Angeles reporter to get a by-line in the case.
Several people have taken credit for uncovering the Black Dahlia moniker; Aggie among them. In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie said that she came across Elizabeth’s nickname when she was checking in with Ray Giese, a 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.”
Like it? Aggie loved it. Los Angeles, in particular the Hearst newspapers, seemed to have a penchant for naming homicide cases after flowers. Over the years orchids, roses, and gardenias would feature in many grim headlines.
Aggie longed to be back in the field chasing leads and sniffing out suspects, but she was officially off the case for the second time. About her newsroom embroidery project Aggie said: “Although I got damn tired of it, I kept my needle going until the quitting hour. Early the next morning the assistant city editor announced that the city editor had made an overnight assignment for me to go back to homicide and continue on the ‘Black Dahlia’ case.”
Once again Aggie was pulled off the case, but this time she learned that her new assignment was the city desk. She said she was: “Completely unwarned. I was the most surprised person in Los Angeles.” She had just become one of the first women in the United States to hold a city editorship on a major metropolitan daily!
Why had Aggie been removed from the Black Dahlia case in the first place? People are drawn to conspiracies, no matter how unlikely, and there are those who believe there was a cover-up and Aggie was getting too close to a solution to Short’s murder. Theorists have suggested someone with enough juice got Aggie promoted to keep her out of the way. That doesn’t make sense to me, as city editor she directed the activities of all the reporters working the case, and she wasn’t the sort of person who would take a pay-off. Nevertheless, the timing of Aggie’s promotion remains an intriguing part Dahlia lore.
With Aggie back in the thick of things, the Herald continued to follow every lead. Sadly, the victim of a homicide is often re-victimized by the press and the public. Murder victims lose their right to privacy; all of their secrets are revealed, and in an effort to fill column space while multiple leads were being tracked, the Herald looked to psychiatrists, Elizabeth’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 very own 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 (who frequently called herself Betty, Bette or Beth) were interviewed by reporters 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”. The interviews yielded nothing of value in the hunt for Beth’s killer.
The cops weren’t having any better luck.
NEXT TIME: The Black Dahlia case goes cold.
In his 1991 autobiography, “Reporters”: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman, Will Fowler recalled one of his colleagues, Baker Conrad, noticed a telegram among Elizabeth Short’s effects. The Examiner’s editor, Jim Richardson, dispatched Fowler to the address on the telegram, 8010 Mountain View Avenue in South Gate.
When Fowler arrived at the bungalow court he was greeted by, “A strikingly beautiful red-haired young woman.” Fowler did not claim to be a cop, but he let the woman, Harriet Manley, believe he was law enforcement.
During her conversation with Fowler, Harriet said Red phoned her from San Francisco after seeing his name in the newspapers in connection with Elizabeth Short’s murder. Red tried to reassure Harriet that he’d had nothing to do with the slaying and told her that he “loved her more than any man ever loved his wife.”
January 19th, 10:00 p.m.–LAPD sergeants, J.W. Wass and Sam Flowers, staked out the home of Red’s employer in Eagle Rock where the wanted man was expected to arrive. When Red pulled up in his sedan the officers approached him with their guns drawn. An Examiner photographer was there to capture the arrest. Red looks like a deer in the headlights as Sgt. Flowers handcuffs him.
Aggie Underwood interviewed Red early in the morning of January 20th at LAPD’s Hollenbeck station. She recalled the interview in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman:
“You look as if you’ve been on a drunk,” I said in sizing up the suspect. I was ready to talk sympathetically about hangovers. That approach won’t work always, but Red looked like a guy reporters might meet at a bar and find a congenial drinking companion, possible criminal or not.
“This is worse than any I’ve ever been on,” he replied. Perry Fowler, the photographer assigned to the case with me, caught the cue we had used repeatedly in softening subjects and stepped forward with a cigarette, which Manley took gratefully.
“Look, fella,” I continued as he inhaled. “You’re in one hell of a spot. You’re in a jam and it’s no secret. If you’re as innocent as you say you are, tell the whole story; and if you haven’t anything to hide, people can’t help knowing you’re telling the truth. That way, you’ll get it over with all at once and it won’t be kicking around to cause you more trouble.”
Red didn’t need any further encouragement to unburden himself to Aggie. He told her how he’d initially picked Elizabeth up on a San Diego street corner. How they had spent an “erotically uneventful” night in a motel and how he had eventually dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel on January 9th.
Red finished his tale with: “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”
Aggie believed Red was innocent, and shared her gut feelings with the police. Red was forthcoming in his interview and Aggie knew right away he wasn’t a killer. Red was just a frightened man with goofy ideas about love tests.
If there was one thing Aggie detested, it was a sob sister. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a sob sister is a female journalist who writes overly sentimental copy. That sort of journalism was never Aggie’s thing. She said: “A sob sister could have wept with and over Manley, interpolating, editorial gushes to prove what a big bleeding heart beat in her breast. To hell with that. I’d rather have a fistful—an armload—of good solid facts.”
It was the armload of facts that made Aggie’s interview with Red Manley so compelling. In fact her city editor, who normally cautioned her to keep her copy short, let the entire interview run without a ton of photos.
Why, then, in the midst of covering of the murder was Aggie unceremoniously yanked off the story? Without any warning or explanation Aggie found herself benched. The city editor pulled her off the story and let her cool her heels in the newsroom without a thing to do.
Aggie spent a couple of miserable days at her desk bored out of her mind. Then she got pissed-off enough to fight back. She didn’t get huffy or raise her voice. She brought in an embroidery project. Other newsroom denizens snickered. Another newswomen, Caroline Walker, said: “What do you think of that? Here’s the best reporter on the Herald, on the biggest day of one of the best stories in years—sitting in the office doing fancy work!”
The next day Aggie was reassigned to the story—only to be pulled off a second time. What the hell was going on?
NEXT TIME: Does Aggie get off the bench?
Jane Doe’s body was removed from the vacant lot on Norton and taken to the Hall of Justice where she was fingerprinted and autopsied. Artist Howard Burke sketched an idealized version of the young woman—the reality of her condition was too awful for them to print in the Examiner; although they did print a photo of her body in situ. The only way they could print a picture of the crime scene was by manipulating the photo to remove the mutilations to her face and adding a blanket to cover her.
Captain Jack Donohoe, head of LAPD’s homicide department, was understandably in a rush to identify the woman. Her killer had the advantage of several hours, but to give him, or her, more time to escape could be disastrous. It should have been a simple thing to get Jane Doe’s prints to the FBI in D.C., but the weather back east was conspiring against the detectives.
Normally fingerprints prints were flown to the FBI but a blizzard grounded aircraft in the East. If cops waited for the weather to clear, identification could take as much as a week. Seven days is an eternity in a homicide investigation.
In the 1940s the press and police had a symbiotic relationship which served them both well. Without access to planes the LAPD’s investigation was at a standstill. But, luckily, they could rely on William Randolph Hearst’s resources. The Examiner had a Soundphoto machine which could be the solution to the conundrum. It might be possible to transmit the fingerprints to the FBI via the precursor to the facsimile machine. Of course the newspaper expected a quid pro quo—an exclusive. With the clock ticking, Capt. Donohoe reluctantly agreed.
Sending fingerprints over the Soundphoto machine had never been tried before, but it was worth the effort. To everyone’s amazement and relief the prints, after a couple of minor glitches, were successfully transmitted to the FBI. It didn’t take the bureau long to identify the dead woman as Elizabeth Short. The last address the agency had for her in California was in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara police arrested the Massachusetts native in 1943 for underage drinking. She was sent home to her mother Phoebe.
Now that the dead girl had a name the Examiner’s city editor, Jim Richardson, assigned re-write man Wayne Sutton to break the news to her mother Phoebe. Sutton was not thrilled when Richardson instructed him to lie to Phoebe. Richardson wanted her to believe that her daughter won a beauty contest. It was only after Sutton had pumped her for information on her daughter that he was allowed to deliver the news of her tragic death.
After a few minutes of chatting with Phoebe, who was proud and happy to discuss her beautiful daughter with the newspaperman from Los Angeles, Richardson gave Sutton the high sign. It was time to tell her the truth. Sutton put his hand over the mouthpiece, looked at Richardson and said: “You lousy son-of-a-bitch.”
It may have been shock that kept Phoebe on the line after hearing the worst news of her life. Sutton learned from Phoebe that Elizabeth recently stayed in San Diego and she gave him the address. Sutton told Phoebe that the Examiner would pay her fare to Los Angeles. The paper needed to keep Phoebe close so they could explore leads and milk her for further information on her murdered child.
Examiner reporters were dispatched up and down the coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego to glean whatever they could from interviews with police and anyone else who may have come into contact with Elizabeth.
While reporters were out searching for information, the Examiner received an anonymous tip that Elizabeth had kept memory books filled with photos and letters. The books were allegedly in a trunk that was lost in transit from the east. Reporters from the Examiner went to the Greyhound station in downtown Los Angeles. There wasn’t a trunk, but there was a suitcase and some bags.
A small suitcase turned out to be a treasure trove of photos and letters which offered some insight into Elizabeth’s life. There were letters from soldiers, and letters that Elizabeth had written and never sent. There were photos of her on a beach, and with various men in uniform. Might one of them be her killer?
Examiner reporters in the field received copies of some of the photos which they then showed to clerks at hotels and motels in the hope of finding anywhere the dead woman had been, and with whom.
The reporters discovered that the last man to have been seen with Elizabeth was married salesman, Robert “Red” Manley. Red and Elizabeth stayed the night in a motel on their way from San Diego to Los Angeles. Red’s name was printed in the Examiner as a person of interest in the slaying.
Red may be a valuable witness–or he may be a killer.
NEXT TIME: A suspect is arrested.
It was after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947 — Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three year old daughter Anne were bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held L.A. residents in its grip for several days. Mother and daughter were headed south on the west side of Norton when Mrs. Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds about a foot in from the sidewalk.
At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or drunk woman, passed out near the sidewalk. Had she been thrown out of a car by a boyfriend? That particular area was known as a lover’s lane. Once Betty got a closer look, she realized she was in a waking nightmare. The bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk. Bersinger said “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 reportera claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One them was reporter Will Fowler. Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner were near Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an announcement on the shortwave radio: “A 390 W, 415 down in an empty lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets…Please investigate…Code Two … (Code Two meant “Drunk Woman,” and a 415 designated “Indecent exposure.”) Fowler couldn’t believe his ears: “…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 got out of the car and walked up to the body as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk of the car. Fowler called out: “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”
That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. But was it true?
There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first. In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first reporter on the scene. After all these years does it really matter who was first
Aggie at the Dahlia body dump site. January 15, 1947.
All those who saw the murdered girl that day were shocked and horrified. Aggie described what she observed in her 1949 autobiography.
“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.”
The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.
Two 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.
In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying due to the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case for a few more days until a much better one was discovered–the Black Dahlia.
NEXT TIME: The bisected body of the young woman found in Leimert Park is identified.
Fowler, Will (1991). “Reporters” Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman.
Gilmore, John (2001). Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.
Harnisch, Larry. “A Slaying Cloaked in Mystery and Myths“. Los Angeles Times. January 6, 1997.
Underwood, Agness (1949). Newspaperwoman.
Wagner, Rob Leicester (2000). The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers 1920-1962.