The Black Dahlia: The Case Goes Cold — Or Does It?

beth_flowerElizabeth Short’s murder dominated the front pages of the Evening Herald & Express for days following the discovery of her body in Leimert Park on January 15, 1947..

But even in a murder case as sensational as that of the Black Dahlia the more time that elapses following the crime the fewer clues there are on which to report. The fact that the case was going cold didn’t dampen the Herald’s enthusiastic coverage one little bit. The paper sought out psychiatrists psychologists, and mystery writers who would attempt, each in his/her own way, to analyze the case and fill column space in the paper as they, and the cops, waited for a break. Decades before the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) was founded the shrinks and writers whose work appeared in the Herald were engaging in speculative profiles of both the victim and her killer.

One of the psychologists tapped by the Herald to contribute her analysis of the victim and slayer was Alice La Vere.  La Vere was introduced as “…one of the nation’s most noted consulting psychologists”. According to the newspaper, Miss La Vere would give to readers: “an analysis of the motives which led to the torture murder of beautiful 22-year-old Elizabeth Short”. La Vere’s analysis seems surprisingly contemporary.

Here is an excerpt from her profile of Short’s personality:

“Some gnawing feeling of inadequacy was eating at the mind of this girl. She needed constant proof to herself that she was important to someone and demonstrates this need by the number of suitors and admirers with which she surrounded herself.”

La Vere went on to describe the killer:

“It is very likely that this is the first time this boy has committed any crime. It is also likely that he may be a maladjusted veteran. The lack of social responsibility experienced by soldiers, their conversational obsession with sex, their nerves keyed to battle pitch — these factors are crime-breeding.” She further stated: “Repression of the sex impulse accompanied by environmental maladjustment is the slayer’s probable background.”

How does La Vere’s profile of Elizabeth Short and her killer compare the analysis by retired FBI profiler John Douglas? Douglas suggested that Beth was “needy” and that her killer would have “spotted her a mile away”. He said that the killer “would have been a lust killer and loved hurting people.”

On the salient points, I’d say that La Vere and Douglas were of like minds regarding Elizabeth Short and her killer — wouldn’t you?craig_rice_Time

At the time of Elizabeth Short’s murder, mystery writer Craig Rice (pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Walker Craig) was one of the most popular crime writers in the country. In its January 28, 1946 issue,TIME magazine selected Rice for a cover feature on the mystery genre. Sadly, Rice has been largely forgotten by all except the most avid mystery geeks (like me).

Craig Rice was invited by the Herald to give her take on the Black Dahlia case in late January 1947. Rice described Elizabeth Short in this way:

“A black dahlia is what expert gardeners call ‘an impossibility’ of nature. Perhaps that is why lovely, tragic Elizabeth Short was tortured, murdered and mutilated Because such a crime could happen only in the half-world in which she lived. A world of–shadows.”

NEXT TIME: Did a woman kill the Black Dahlia?

 

The Black Dahlia: Aggie Gets Off the Bench

Prior to being benched by her city editor, Aggie had made some headway in her coverage of Elizabeth Short’s murder. She had interviewed Robert “Red” Manley, the first suspect in the case, and had concluded that he was innocent. Her interview had 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.

dahlia_herald_14_aggie_bylineIn 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. After a few days of sitting at her desk working on an embroidery project, to the amusement of her co-workers and the dismay of her supervisors, 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!

Aggie at a crime scene (not the Dahlia) c. 1940s.

Aggie at a crime scene (not the Dahlia) c. 1940s.

Why had Aggie been removed from the Black Dahlia case in the first place? 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 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 could have been bought. 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. 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”.

Dr. De River

Dr. De River

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 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. Or does it?

The Black Dahlia: Robert “Red” Manley

In his 1991 autobiography, “Reporters”: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman, Will Fowler recalled that one of his colleagues, Baker Conrad, had 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 may not have actually said he was a cop, but he let the woman, Harriet Manley, believe he was law enforcement.

Robert "Red" Manley with his wife Harriette. [LAPL Photo]

Robert “Red” Manley with his wife Harriette. [LAPL Photo]

During her conversation with Fowler, Harriet said that Red had 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.”

At about 10:00 pm on January 19th a couple of LAPD sergeants, J.W. Wass and Sam Flowers, were staking out the home of Red’s employer in Eagle Rock where the wanted man was expected to arrive shortly.  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.

Robert "Red" Manley busted in Eagle Rock. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Robert “Red” Manley busted in Eagle Rock. Photo courtesy LAPL.

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 storey; 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.”

Robert Manley in high school c. 1940.  Photo from Ancestry.

Robert Manley in high school c. 1940. Photo from Ancestry.

Aggie believed Red was innocent, and shared her gut feelings with the police. Red had been forthcoming in his interview and Aggie knew right away that he wasn’t a killer. Red was just a frightened man with goofy ideas about love tests.

If there was one thing that 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.”

Aggie at her desk c. 1949.  Photo courtesy LAPL. [Yes, that it a baseball bat on her desk. Aggie had a way of dealing with overzealous Hollywood agents.

Aggie at her desk c. 1949. Photo courtesy LAPL. [Yes, that’s a baseball bat on her desk. Aggie had a way of dealing with over zealous Hollywood press agents.]

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. He knew a good interview when he read one.

Why, then, in the midst of covering of the murder was Aggie unceremoniously yanked off the story?  Without any warning or explanation Aggie suddenly found herself benched.  The city editor had 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.  Shortly the other newsroom denizens were snickering. One of the other 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: Aggie gets a big surprise as the investigation into Elizabeth Short’s murder continues.

The Black Dahlia: Jane Doe Identified

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.

00010486_dahlia bodyCaptain Jack Donohoe, head of LAPD’s homicide department, was understandably in a rush to identify the woman. Her killer already 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.

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Blizzard of 1947. Associated Press photo via Baruch College, CUNY.

Normally Elizabeth’s prints would have been flown to the FBI but a blizzard had grounded aircraft in the East.  If cops had to wait for the weather to clear identification could take as much as a week.  Seven days is an eternity in a homicide investigation.

The symbiotic relationship between the police and the press that existed in those days made their next move possible. Without access to planes the LAPD’s investigation was at a standstill.  But, luckily, they had William Randolph Hearst’s resources to rely on. The Examiner had recently acquired 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.

Photo courtesy ladailymirror.com

Photo courtesy ladailymirror.com

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 was in Santa Barbara.  Santa Barbara police had arrested the Massachusetts native in 1943 for underage drinking. She had been 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 Phoebe.  Sutton was less than thrilled when Richardson instructed him to lie to Phoebe. Richardson wanted Phoebe to believe that her daughter had won a beauty contest. It was only after Sutton had pumped her for information on her daughter that he would be 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 Phoebe the truth. Sutton put his hand over the mouthpiece, looked at Richardson and said: “You lousy son-of-a-bitch.”

Phoebe Short.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Phoebe Short. Photo courtesy LAPL.

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 had recently stayed in San Diego and he was given 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 had been 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.

Robert "Red" Manley. Photo likely taken by Perry Fowler. Courtesy LAPL.

Robert “Red” Manley. Photo likely taken by Perry Fowler. Courtesy LAPL.

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 had 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 could be a valuable witness. Or he could be a killer.

NEXT TIME:   A suspect is arrested.

 

 

 

 

 

The Black Dahlia: January 15, 1947, A Werewolf on the Loose

dahlia_herald_1_doyouknow

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.

Betty Bersinger

Betty Bersinger

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or maybe even a live nude woman who had been drinking and had passed out; that particular area was known as a lover’s lane. But it quickly dawned on her that she was in a waking nightmare and that 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 reporters have claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One of the people who made that claim was reporter Will Fowler. Fowler said that he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner were approaching Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard a voice on their 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?

In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first reporter on the scene. There is some information to suggest that  actually a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first. After all these years it is impossible to state with certainty who turned up first–and does it really matter?

AGGIE_DAHLIA SCENE_1_15_1947_frat_resize

Aggie at the Dahlia body dump site. January 15, 1947.

Here is Aggie’s description of what she saw that day on South Norton.

“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.

Detectives Harry Hansen [L} and Finis Brown [R] examine Black Dahlia crime scene.

Detectives Harry Hansen [L} and Finis Brown [R] examine Black Dahlia crime scene.

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

dahlia_herald_1_werewolfThe most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three year old transient, Cecil French. He’d been busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.

Cops were further alarmed when they discovered that French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, determined that the floor mats of French’s car were free of blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder.

In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying due to the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown young 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.

REFERENCES: 

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.

 

The Black Dahlia: Last Seen January 9, 1947

About 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short and Robert “Red” Manley left the motel where they had spent the night.

00010474_manley_noir

Robert ‘Red’ Manley. Photo courtesy LAPL.

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 had noticed some scratches on Beth’s 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.

Because Red and his wife had been having some problems, he had wondered if they were meant to be together. In the way that only a spouse on the verge of cheating can do, he had justified his relationship with Beth in his own mind by considering it a “love test”. If he remained faithful to his wife, despite the temptation of being near Beth, 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 after all. But he had a problem; he’d been out of touch with his wife for a couple of days. How would he explain his lack of communication to his wife? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test like Red had done could easily come up with an excuse for being incommunicado for a couple of days.

studebaker

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.

00007538_biltmore_pershing_1950

Biltmore Hotel and part of Pershing Square. [LAPL Photo]

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. It was another lie. The sister she referred to 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.

crown_grill_1

Matchbook cover — Crown Grill

He parked, and the two of them waited in the Biltmore’s exquisite lobby for quite a while. Finally, Beth managed to out wait Red. 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 in the Biltmore at approximately 6:30 p.m. Beth watched him go – gave him a few minutes, and then she exited the Biltmore and turned right down Olive Street.

Beth 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. Some patrons of the bar later told cops that she’d been there that night, but no one had seen her leave.

No one who knew her would ever see Elizabeth Short alive again.

NOTE:  For a glimpse into Los Angeles as Beth Short would have seen it, here is some amazing B-roll from 1946 shot for a Rita Hayworth film, Down to Earth, via the Internet Archive.

And here’s a screen grab of the Crown Grill [thanks to Richard Schave of Esotouric Bus Adventures].

crown-grill-screen-grab_richard

The Black Dahlia: San Diego

beth-short-headshot-in-colorSeventy years ago today, on January 8, 1947, Robert “Red” Manley drove to the home of Elvera and Dorothy French in Pacific Beach, in the San Diego area, to pick up a young woman he’d met about a month earlier. Her name was Elizabeth Short.

Red was a twenty-five year old salesman with a wife and baby at home. The Manley’s had been married for fifteen months and lived in a bungalow court in one of L.A.’s many suburbs. Red and his wife had had “some misunderstandings” as they adjusted to marriage and parenthood. Perhaps restless and feeling unsure about his decision to marry, Red decided to “make a little test to see if I were still in love with my wife.”  The woman Red used to test his love for his wife was twenty-two year old Elizabeth Short.

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Robert “Red” Manley [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Elizabeth (who called herself Betty or Beth) had worn out her welcome in the French home. Elvera and Dorothy were tired of Beth couch surfing and contributing nothing to the household. Beth spent much of her time compulsively writing letters, many of which she never sent; and never looked for work, even though Red had arranged with a friend of his to get her a job interview.

When Red heard that Beth hadn’t made it to the job interview, he became worried and wrote to her to find out if she was okay. She said she was fine but didn’t like San Diego, she wanted a ride back to Los Angeles.  She asked Red if he’d help her out, and he agreed. It was the worst mistake of his life.

The drive from San Diego to Los Angeles was going to be Red’s love test. If nothing happened with Beth then he would know that he and his wife were meant to be together. But if he and Beth clicked, he’d have a tough decision to make.

Beth and Red weren’t on the road for too long before they stopped at a roadside motel for the night. They went out for dinner and drinks before returning to their room to go to bed. Red’s night with Beth was strictly platonic. He took the bed and she slept in a chair. He had passed his self-imposed love test.

The pair left the motel at about 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947 for Los Angeles.

Beth had about one week to live.

Next time: The Black Dahlia: Part 2 — Last Seen

The Death of Love, Conclusion

Helen -- out like a light. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Helen — out like a light. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Within hours of her conviction Helen had willed herself into a coma, just like she said she could do. Inmates in the jail who passed by Helen made cracks, to which she was oblivious, about the “sleeping beauty”. Maybe they were jealous, because if Helen regained consciousness she’d be svelte.  The first 5 days of her coma she lost 10 lbs! Nothing gets results like a diet of despair and guilt.

The jail physician, Dr. Benjamin Blank, examined Helen and declared that:

“She is suffering from a catatonic condition, a form of stupor brought on by extreme mental strain.”

Helen in a wheel chair. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen in a wheel chair. Photo courtesy LAPL.

He further stated:

“It is possible that the condition was brought on by fear during her trial that she might be hanged if convicted, or fear of serving the second-degree murder sentence fixed by the jury.”

A TIME Magazine article described Helen’s condition as:

“a fit of sulks so profound that half a dozen solemn psychiatrists could not even agree on a name for it, variously calling it ‘hysterical fugue,’ ‘split personality,’ ‘dementia praecox,’ ‘triumph of the subconscious,’ ‘self-imposed hypnosis,’ ‘voluntary stupor.'”

Legally, Helen could not be sentenced for her crime while in an insensible state. Her condition put justice for Harry on hold indefinitely.

Judge Smith was skeptical about Helen’s coma, and he wasn’t the only one.  Matron Vada Sullivan, who had seen many female prisoners during her tenure at the jail said:

“Mrs. Love is faking.  She has been causing us considerable trouble since the jury returned the verdict that found her guilty of second degree murder.  She has been stubborn and despondent.”

After several continuances of sentence, Judge Smith ordered court to be held in the hospital so that Helen’s reactions could be observed. There wasn’t much to see. Doctors stuck her with pins and otherwise abused the unconscious woman but she responded only when Dr. Samuel M. Marcus, the fifth psychiatrist to examine her, massaged her head and mentioned Harry’s name.  Helen muttered: “Please don’t go away, Harry!”

officials-study-helenHelen became known as “the husk woman”, and she remained unconscious for 158 hours.

After slapping and shaking her, which one can only hope weren’t the usual psychiatric treatments for a comatose patient, Dr. Marcus was finally successful in awakening Helen by whispering in her ear:

“Here I come—that Dr. Marcus again—I’m knocking, knocking at that door—let me in now, Helen! Let me in, I say! I am going to get through that door so open it! Wake up!”

Helen did awake, while film crews recorded everything and her attorney stood by. It took 58 seconds for her to rise, and when she did she was terrified and begged for water. When Dr. Marcus asked if she was happy to be back in the land of the living she sobbed, ‘No, Oh, I haven’t done anything wrong! Let me go back!”

Helen, passed out in her mother's arms.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen, passed out in her mother’s arms. Photo courtesy LAPL.

She felt much better the next day. She said to the assembled newspapermen: “Don’t I look beautiful this morning?”

Helen was ravenously hungry. She’d been fed intravenously while she was out, but once she was upright she was treated to chicken broth with rice, buttered toast and two glasses of milk.

When asked about rumors that she was going to lapse into another neurotic coma, Helen smiled. She did her nails, wrote letters, read her fan mail, and expressed her disappointment at not being able to play golf with Jailer Clem Peoples.

She was sure she could beat him because she had once driven a golf ball 240 yards. She said, “Can you imagine that? And me a girl?”

When all was said and done, Helen was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to serve from seven years to life in prison. Helen left HOJJ (Hall of Justice Jail,) for Tehachapi dressed as though off to a fashionable tea. She was wearing a black crepe dress embroidered with silver flowers and a black cloth coat.  Around her shoulders was a silver fox fur. She wore a black straw hat which, she said, she had bought in Paris. Black shoes, gloves, and purse completed her off-to-prison ensemble. Women dressed up for everything in those days, and a trip to prison was no exception. It paid to look your best.

Helen heads off to Tehachapi.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen heads off to Tehachapi. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen did well at Tehachapi, she even won first place in a baking contest for her coconut cake.

While Helen was baking awarding winning cakes in prison, her mother-in-law, Cora, was embarking on a scorched earth policy where her former daughter-in-law was concerned.

Tehachapi bake-off. And the winner is...  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Tehachapi bake-off. And the winner is… Photo courtesy LAPL.

Cora went to court to prove that there was no evidence of a marriage between Harry and Helen.  She got an injunction barring Helen from representing herself as Harry’s widow or using the name Love.

In an unrivaled act of optimism, Helen applied for parole in November 1938 under her maiden name, but was told she would have to wait two years before applying again. Not unreasonable given that she had shot a man to death a year earlier.

In 1940 the litigious Cora sued Rio Grande Oil Co., Richfield Oil Co., KNX and CBS for $1M in a libel suit.

Cora Love (right) and a friend in the courtroom during Helen's trial. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Cora Love (right) and a friend in the courtroom during Helen’s trial. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Cora claimed her character had been defamed in a broadcast of the radio program “Calling All Cars” (an episode entitled The Silver Cord which aired on January 13, 1939.) I haven’t found any record of her suit, so I don’t know if she won.  But I doubt it. Listen to the episode and decide for yourself if she had a legitimate complaint. Actually, everyone should have complained. The heavily hyperbolic episode didn’t flatter any of the characters.

If Helen was paroled in 1940 it didn’t make news; however, she was eventually released. It is difficult to trace women, especially in years past when they routinely took their husband’s surnames. That said, I think I’ve been able to ferret out a few bits of information on Helen.  As far as I can tell she was married a total of four times (three if you agree with Cora Love who adamantly denied Helen was ever legally married to Harry). As far as I know, Helen managed not to kill any of her other husbands or lapse into any more self-induced comas.

Helen Wills passed away in San Francisco, California on November 1, 2000 at the ripe old age of 95.

As for Cora Love, she passed away in Riverside, California on 17 Nov 1950 ten days following her 85th birthday.

The Death of Love, Part 3

Helen with her hands on her head. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Helen with her hands on her head. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Helen was arrested at the Del Mar Club for Harry’s murder. She was overheard saying, “His mother is to blame for all this.” Cora may well have been a mean spirited, selfish, bitch and Harry may have been a weak, wuss of a man, but nowhere in the California State Penal Code does it mandate a death sentence for wussiness. And if it did, it wouldn’t have been up to Helen to mete out justice.

Helen was booked at the Santa Monica Jail and then transferred to the County Jail where she was held without bail. She was so distraught that she attempted to hang herself in her cell with a polka dot scarf she’d been wearing. Fortunately for her a sharp-eyed matron saw what was happening and intervened.

Helen being booked. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Helen being booked. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Following her failed attempt at self-destruction, Helen spent the next few days wailing to anyone who would listen that she wanted to see Harry one more time. Because it was 1937 and not 2017, Helen was unbelievably granted permission to view Harry’s body at the funeral home. A request made by a killer her view her victim’s remains would never fly today.

When Helen arrived at the funeral home her first question for the undertaker was whether or not Cora Love had been by to view Harry. According the undertaker, Cora had come in earlier and and she was in deep shock.  Helen stiffened for a moment and then she nearly shouted, “Harry knows whose fault it was.  He knows and I know…” Helen walked over to Harry’s coffin and lifted the drape that covered it. She kissed him and said, “Darling, you are happier than me. You don’t blame me, do you , darling? I love you my dear, I love you. Your hands don’t feel cold to me. You won’t be lonely darling. My heart will always be with you.” Helen turned to the undertaker and made him promise to bury a tiny heart-shaped wreath of roses of Harry, “Do this for me. Please say you’ll do this for me,” she pleaded. Harry was buried at the Hollywood Cemetery (now called Hollywood Forever Cemetery).

mrs-love-tells-shotHelen’s one way chat with Harry was creepy, but things were about to get stranger.

At the inquest Howard H. Spencer, brother-in-law of Mrs. Love, testified that Harry Love was a single man. Helen whispered, “He lies.” Among the other witness who appeared were Neil Johnson and L.B. Nelson, employees at the Del mar club; Max Daniels, in whose taxicab Helen rode to the scene of the shooting; George Hahn, wine steward at the club, who testified that the distraught woman asked to be allowed to touch her husband while he way dying in the clubhouse; Chester L. Dewey, who witnessed the shooting from a parking lot across the street; Capt. Elmer Lingo of the Santa Monica Police Department, and Officers Thomas Garrett and Charles Horn, who arrested Helen.

While the Coroner’s jury was deliberating, Helen sobbed out the story of her brief marriage to one reporter in particular, Aggie Underwood. “We were beautiful in love. But Harry was so afraid of his mother. His affection for his mother and hers for him were strange and frightening. Ten months ago Harry and I drove down into Mexico and at a little town below Ensenada we were married. It was a mysterious trip because harry wouldn’t tell me where we were going and when we started I didn’t know he planned to be married.”killer-kisses-mate

Because of Cora, Harry refused to announce the marriage, and that stung. “It was agonizing to be so in love with a man and not have him with me,” Helen said. “Three months after our wedding, I told Harry I was going to show his mother our marriage certificate. He took it from me and said he had placed it in a safety deposit box and that I would never see it again until we had a home of own.”

Helen pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Her defense was that she’d brought the gun to the club fearing that Harry would threaten her. What? She wasn’t invited to the Del Mar Club and it was her idea to take Harry’s pistol, get into a cab, and go to Santa Monica. At any point along the way she could have changed her mind and returned home. The fact that she didn’t speaks to her state of mind and her intention. Helen insisted that the pistol fired accidentally when she tried to pull it out of her pocket.

Cora Love testifies. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Cora Love testifies. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

If you’ve ever handled a weapon you know that it takes about five to eight pounds of pressure to pull the trigger of the average hand gun. Then there was the fact that Helen shot multiple times. Even if one was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt on the alleged accidental discharge, it wouldn’t explain the multiple shots she fired at Harry while chasing him out of the club and down the street. Helen’s account was also at odds with eye witness testimony and her original statement to the cops in which she confessed to the crime.

While she awaited trial, Helen sat in her County Jail cell and wrote poetry to her dead husband.

“Strange sea, strange air,
Ah, but let us not forget
All our happy days together.

Then let them sound one high call,
For I shall be waiting
On some plain
In gold field or satin rain.

Waiting for all that our love could ever bring,
Deathless in our remembering.”

Helen was no Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but her effort was heart felt.

The trial lasted several days, and finally the jury of seven women and five men were instructed by Judge Frank M. Smith:

“You may find this defendant guilty of murder in the first degree and fix the penalty at death.  You may return a first degree murder verdict, but set life imprisonment as the penalty.  You may return a second degree murder verdict, or a manslaughter verdict, or you may, after a careful study of the evidence before you determine that the defendant is not guilty.”

During deliberations one of the jurors, Mary Plettner, a 45 year old house wife, was found in contempt of court after the jury foreman, Harry Joannes, reported her for being drunk. Evidently Mary had hidden a bottle of booze in the women’s bathroom.  Joannes said that Plettner was in no fit condition to continue. Despite the problem with Mrs. Plettner, Judge Smith expressed his faith in the American jury system; however, he said he believed a juror in a case involving a homicide should remain sane and normal during deliberations.

Mary Plettner, drunk juror; jail matron; Helen Love.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Mary Plettner, drunk juror; jail matron; Helen Love. Photo courtesy LAPL.

An alternate took Plettner’s place, and one hour later, Helen was found guilty of second degree murder. Helen stunned the courtroom by asking to waive her not guilty by reason of insanity plea. She said she wasn’t crazy when she shot Harry.

Due to her request, her sentencing was delayed.

Back in county lock-up Helen told fellow inmates “I can make myself die whenever I want to” and she told a jail matron “I can sit in this chair, or lie down on this bed and kill myself by strength of will power”.

Three days later, Helen lapsed in to a coma that appeared to have been self-induced.

NEXT TIME:  Is Helen faking a coma? What do the doctors think? Will she live to face sentencing for Harry’s murder?

The Death of Love, Part 2

Helen and Harry Love eloped to Mexico and married on May 3, 1936. Harry, at 46, was a “retired capitalist” and during the midst of the Great Depression that was quite an accomplishment. He gave Helen everything she could have wanted except his time–which is what she desired most. Harry was a mama’s boy and had, in is nearly five decades on the planet, not managed to clip the umbilical cord that continued to tether him to his meddlesome mother, Cora.

merry-xmas-sweetheartNot only had Harry refused to acknowledge Helen as his wife, he never even claimed her as his girlfriend. On the few occasions that Helen and Cora met, Cora was condescending and competitive to an uncomfortable degree. On Christmas Eve, Helen showed Cora the card Harry had given her which bore the salutation “Sweetheart”. Cora was offended by the card and immediately sneered at Helen, telling her that the card SHE had received from Harry was much prettier.

Many parents are reluctant to accept their child’s choice of a partner, but Cora seemed determined to keep Harry to herself. Had Cora always been so demanding of Harry’s time and attention? Perhaps Cora felt lost after her husband Charles passed away in 1923. She may have transferred her attention to her son. We can only speculate. We do know that Harry and Cora had taken a couple of cruises and frequently went out together for drives. Harry often stayed the night at Cora’s home rather than go to Helen and the apartment he maintained, allegedly for the two of them.

During the months that they had been married, Harry had pressured Helen into terminating a pregnancy and, following the “illegal operation”, Harry had sent Helen to New York to recover from the procedure that had nearly cost her her life.

The fabulous Norconian c, 1920s/1930s.

The fabulous Norconian c, 1920s/1930s.

The final straw for Helen came on New Year’s Eve. Harry had promised to take her out to the Norconian Supreme Resort in Riverside for what would certainly have been a night to remember. Helen had bought a gown, which she foolishly showed to Cora. Had Helen baited Cora with the gown?

Typical women's evening wear 1936.

Typical women’s evening wear c. 1936.

If Helen was playing a game of one upsmanship, she lost big time. Had Cora then applied pressure to Harry, or had he reneged on his promise to Helen of his own accord? It didn’t matter. Either way Helen was to facing a miserable New Year’s Eve, dressed to the nines with nowhere to go. Cora and Harry were going to dinner in Santa Monica at the Del Mar Hotel. Helen wasn’t even invited to tag along as a third wheel.

After spending hours brooding over the indignity of being kept away from a celebration that she felt should have included her, Helen snapped. She took the pistol that Harry kept in the glove compartment of his car and put it in her handbag. Then, after ruminating for a while longer, she called a taxi and went out to confront Cora and Harry at the Del Mar.

1930s dame with gun.

1930s dame with gun.

Hurt, angry, and fed up with being Harry’s secret bride, Helen walked into the lobby of the Del Mar. When she asked the clerk if the Love party had arrived, she was told they had not. She said she would wait. A short time later Harry came from the dining room. He must have been there all along. Had he instructed the clerk to try to turn Helen away if she turned up, and then been thwarted when she declared her intention to stay?

Harry walked over to Helen and she said “Hello, darling.” Harry asked Helen what she was doing there; she said had planned to spend New Year’s Eve with him and she had meant it. They quarreled and Helen turned on her heel and strode into the dining room where she walked up to Cora who was seated at a table for two. Cora turned white and snapped at Helen, “This is no place for you. You are not invited! See me tomorrow.” Helen said, “Tomorrow will be too late.” Helen headed for the exit of the hotel with Harry next to her. “Have you a gun?” he asked. Helen replied, “You’re a big man. Why should you be afraid of a gun?” But he was afraid. So much so that he started to scream and run. He only managed to reach the steps of the club before Helen drew the pistol and fired.

Typical men's evening wear in 1936.

Delineator Magazine’s men’s guide to correct formal evening wear, January 1936.

Harry fell on the steps, but he got back up and ran down the sidewalk still screaming for help. Helen ran after him firing until she was out of bullets. Later Helen claimed she had no recollection of where Harry fell. Harry was carried back into the Del Mar and placed on a couch. Helen sat next to him and watched him die. “I couldn’t believe it was true. It seemed like something you see on the screen. I kept thinking of it as a motion picture death.” Helen later said.

But Harry’s death wasn’t a movie–it was real enough to get Helen arrested for murder.

NEXT TIME: Helen goes on trial as The Death of Love continues.