The Black Dahlia: Could A Woman Be The Killer?


Sketch of Jane Doe #1 prior to her ID as Elizabeth Short.

Max Handler with Det. Ed Barrett (in hat and glasses). [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Max Handler with Det. Ed Barrett (in hat and glasses). [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Dozens of men had been interviewed as possible suspects in the murder of Elizabeth Short. None of the interviews had 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 he admitted that his confession was false and that he wanted 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.

Daniel S. Voorhies, a 33 year old army vet, also confessed to killing Short. He said that he’d 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 that he 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.

False confessor, Minnie Sepulveda. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

False confessor, Minnie Sepulveda. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

A gal named Minnie Sepulveda stepped up and said that she had killed the Black Dahlia. She hadn’t.

Mrs. Marie Grieme said that she had heard a Chicago woman confess to the Black Dahlia murder. Her story didn’t lead anywhere.

Even though none of the women who had confessed had been guilty, the cops were beginning to think that it wasn’t out of the question that Short’s slayer had been a woman. 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 had been 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’d been 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.

dahlia_herald_16_women_killersWinnie 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 began to get a little ripe and leak bodily fluids in the baggage claim section of a local train station.


Winnie Ruth Judd’s trunks. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

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 gras, she rolled a 50 lb. boulder on top of the corpse.

Body of Alberta Meadows -- victim of Clara Phillips' wrath. [Photo courtesy of UCLA]

Body of Alberta Meadows — victim of Clara Phillips’ wrath. [Photo courtesy of UCLA]

So, the notion that a woman could be Short’s killer wasn’t far-fetched at all. The Herald-Express had featured a series of columns written by psychologist Alice La Vere. La Vere had 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 had 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-one year old profile holds up rather well.

What I find interesting about La Vere’s profile of a female perpetrator is that she said that the woman would be older than Short. In recent years an older woman did become an integral part of a theory about the crime.

It is a theory put forward by researcher, Larry Harnisch. Larry wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times on the fiftieth anniversary of Short’s death. Subsequently, he has done a lot more digging into the case and has 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 had left his wife for his mistress, Alexandra Partyka, also a medical doctor. Partyka had emigrated to the U.S. and wasn’t licensed to practice medicine, but she did assist Bayley in his practice.

bayley_partyka2Following Bayley’s death in January 1948, Partyka and Dr. Bayley’s wife, Ruth, fought over control of his estate. Mrs. Bayley claimed that Partyka had been 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.

If I Had a Hammer

willys tiger2 Early in the morning of December 9, 1935,  38 year-old Mabel Willys ran from her home at 2737 Clearwater Street and accosted milkman Earl Hopper as he was making his deliveries.  “I’ve just killed my old man.” she said.  Indeed she had.  And he’d been dead for about 12 hours.

Mabel had delivered multiple hammer blows to the head and body of Dr. Walter Hammond, her 61 year-old common-law husband, thus ending his 10 day drinking spree and 8 years of abuse at his hands.

Mabel and Walter’s relationship had never been a happy one. Walter had a drinking problem of gargantuan proportions and would often go on binges that lasted for days. He wasn’t a maudlin, teary-eyed drunk, nor was he a lovable one. When Walter had consumed too much booze he became violent, and the object of his rage was Mabel.

Everyone has a limit, and 8 years of continuous abuse was it for Mabel.

willys inquestWhen Detective D.R. Patton arrived at the scene he found Hammond dead on the floor with the hammer still embedded in his head.  Mabel immediately admitted the slaying. She said that “…he had it coming.” She went on to tell detectives: “Sure I did it, he beat me and I decided a long time ago to kill him.”  Apparently she had taken her inspiration from the 1922 Clara Phillips case. Clara had taken a hammer to Alberta Meadows, the woman she thought was stealing her husband. The attack was so vicious that Phillips was dubbed “Tiger Girl”.

Mabel grinned at the detectives and announced: “I’m Tiger Woman No. 2.”

She went on to say that she wasn’t sorry for what she had done: “He has never treated any woman right–he never treated me right.  He treated me awful.  I took it as long as I could.”  In a matter-of-fact tone she told Detective Lieutenants Patton and Hurst that she was neither intoxicated nor insane at the time of the murder. She told them that Hammond had accused her of having hidden $5,000 in the back yard. When she denied it, Hammond began to beat her.  Mabel said:  “…I’m black and blue all over.  He has hit me a lot lately–we’ve been drinking steadily since Thanksgiving.  You saw those empty bottles at the house.”

willys candidCalmly Mabel described the murder in detail:  “After I hit him the first time with the hammer and knocked him down he began to howl.  I went over and put the window down so nobody would see it.”

“He crawled back and forth in the hall–I don’t know how many times I hit him then, four or five.  He is the hardiest person.  It did not seem he’d have that much energy. He crawled to the end of the hall and then back by the bed.”

willys booze“He was talking all of the time until the last time.  When he got back by the bed he died. Just before he died, he said ‘What is the matter, have you gone nuts?’ and I told him I couldn’t live with him and I couldn’t live without him.”

Mabel continued her recounting of the killing:

“When I first struck him he fell on the bed and then he came back at me. He was a big powerful man.  He took the hammer away from me and began kicking me and we fought back and forth. He was up and down several times, then he began crawling on his hands and knees and I kept hitting him.”

Detectives asked Mabel why she’d continued to hammer Walter when he was on the floor, and she replied:  “Because he was so hard to knock out.”

Given everything that had transpired during their relationship it should come as no shock that Walter and Mabel had met in 1927 at the Jack Dempsey vs. Gene Tunney boxing match. Walter had recently separated from his wife and according to Mabel: “…he fell for me and I fell for him.”  They had separated once about six years before the murder, but got together again. She had begun as his housekeeper, but fairly quickly they began living as man and wife.

After Mabel  ambushed Earl Hopper, the milkman, she asked him to walk her to the house. Along the way she told him that she had pulled a “..second Clara Phillips hammer murder.” Once they’d arrived at the house Mabel asked Hopper to phone the police, which he did from a cafe at Fletcher and Riverside Drives. Mabel had stayed in the house with Walter’s corpse for about twelve hours before she had stopped Hopper’s milk wagon. Why had she waited so long? “I wanted to get the house cleaned up before anybody came,” she said. She told detectives that after Walter died she had collapsed in a faint over his body. When she came to and realized what she’d done she decided to clean the house, take a bath, and change her clothes.

Radio officers responded to Hopper’s call and arrived at the house. When Mabel opened the door they were surprised to see that she appeared to be freshly bathed.  She explained her tidy appearance to them by saying: “Yes, I knew you would be coming and I wanted to look nice.”

On December 12, 1934 Mabel was formally charged with Walter’s murder.  The Coroner’s jury found that Walter’s death was the result of a compound skull fracture caused by hammer blows, and  brought in a verdict recommending that Mabel be held for trial.

Despite her confession, Mabel entered a plea of not guilty. At her trial several witnesses came forward to corroborate her assertions that Walter had frequently beaten her and threatened her life. Strange that at least 4 witnesses testified to having been present when Mabel was given a thrashing, yet none of them intervened to stop the violence.

The jury was given a lot to ponder. They weren’t quick to arrive at a verdict and spent one night sequestered before returning to Judge Fox’s courtroom on March 12, 1936. They had found Mabel guilty of manslaughter.

willys verdictMabel was all smiles as the foreman read the verdict and she later said: “Of course I knew all the time they’d never hang me.  My conscience is clear.  I didn’t murder that man.  I merely retaliated against him.”

For beating Walter to death Mabel believed she ought to be given probation, but instead she received a sentence of from 1 to 10 years in the women’s prison at Tehachapi.


Photo of Willys from San Quentin mug book found on and courtesy of the California State Archives.

Mabel didn’t seem to mind, she smiled again at the camera when she was led away to begin her term. Maybe she thought prison life couldn’t be worse than living with Walter had been.

I haven’t been able to confirm Mabel’s release date from Tehachapi, but my best guess is that, provided she behaved herself, she was out in 5 or fewer years.

Aggie and the City of Forgotten Women: Part 1

Women in Tehachapi [Photo: UCLA Digital Archives]

Women in Tehachapi [Photo: UCLA Digital Archives]

In the spring of 1935, Aggie Underwood wrote a three part series of articles for the Herald-Express on the women incarcerated in Tehacahpi.  People have always been fascinated by the exploits of bad girls.


There’s been a rise in the number of women committing violent felonies in recent years, but for many decades women behaving that badly were an anomaly. Alienists (psychiatrists) and penologists had various theories on the reasons why a woman might commit a crime as heinous as murder.

In 1924, Sigmund Freud suggested that menstruation reminded women of their inferiority and inflamed them toward revenge!

Frankly, Freud’s comment inflames me and if he wasn’t already long dead…


Whether a woman killed because she was in a homicidal PMS rage or not, there was an ongoing debate on the punishment of women. Historically women have, quite literally, gotten away with murder.

In his 1931 criminology course, Dr. Paul E. Bowers seemed saddened by the fact that so few deserving women were executed. He said:

“We hate to send a woman to the penitentiary; we hate to electrocute or hang women.  We think its the wrong thing to do.  We have to admire Al Smith, when Ruth Snyder was convicted of killing the husband of this other woman. Al Smith didn’t given her a reprieve and allowed her to go to her electrocution, as she should have gone. Many women have been convicted of murder, but it is only very rarely that women are hung or electrocuted for committing murder.”

Dr. Bowers was a little confused about the facts of the case. Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, were convicted and executed for the murder of her husband; but Bowers was not at all confused about his opinion regarding female murderers — execute them!

double indemnity_Snyder_chair

Ruth Snyder in the chair. As an aside, the Ruth Snyder/Judd Gray case inspired James M. Cain to write his powerful noir novel, DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

Below is the first part of Aggie Underwood’s series on the lives of the forgotten women of Tehachapi just as it appeared in newspapers in 1935.



Tehachapi, Cal., Apr. 30 —

Nestled in a range of snow covered mountains, eight and one-half miles from the nearest town, is California’s home for forgotten women.

Here are Clara Phillips, the celebrated “Hammer Murderer”; Louie Peete, Nellie Madison, Josephine Valenti, Anna De Ritas, Burmah White and 140 others who ignored man-made laws and are spending long, long years in a miniature city of their own.

Ruller of this city surrounded by a high wire fence, is Miss Josephine Jackson, deputy warden, who works directly under orders from the head of the state prison at San Quentin, Warden James B. Holohan.

For 18 years she has been employed in California prisons, and for 18 years she has been caring for women whom the state has tagged “bad” and sent away to do penance behind prison walls.

Louise Peete, murderess. [Photo: UCLA Digital Archive.]

Louise Peete, murderess. [Photo: UCLA Digital Archive.]


Miss Jackson moved the first group of girls from San Quentin into Tehachapi in August, 1933, and by November of the same year all of the inmates of the state prison had been transferred.

Life runs smoothly, and quietly, as the days go by with the only break in a monotonous existence being an occasional visit by some unexpected outsider.

The buildings which comprise the prison group, are in an administration building, detention building and two cottages.

All work in the prison is volunteer–none compulsory and each inmate is given an opportunity to do the work she likes best.

Many of them prefer garden work, many laundry, many cooking and table serving, man secretarial and ome even beauty work.

There is no official chef at the state institution and the inmates have proven themselves splendid cooks even to the extent of making all of the bread that is used by the inmates


Six a.m. is regulation “get-up” time; 9 p.m. lights out.

Work on the various necessary duties is started immediately after breakfast and groups may be een leaving the various buildings in which they are house for the rabbitry, the chicken yard, the barn yard where there are several cow to be milked.

And, as groups gather around electric washing machines, or in the yard planting trees, or in the chicken yard, tending the fowls, loud shouts of laughter may be heard ringing through the echoing mountainous section.

No supervisor stands over these 145 women to drive them to their tasks. No one waits around to scold or correct them. They are on an honor system to do their best, work in their best manner, and according to Miss Jackson, this system succeeds remarkably.

Each building has a nicely furnished recreation room where the girls gather when their daily tasks are completed, to play cards, checkers, sew or play the piano. But, because the architects failed to provide for an auditorium, there are no picture shows because there is no room large enough to seat all the inmates.

Just as Sing Sing, the famous eastern prison for men has its outstanding football team, so does Tehachapi have its baseball team.

In fact, two teams have been organized, Joephine Valenti, who gains prominence in Los Angeles when she was convicted of burning her small baby to death, is captain of one team and Pauline Walker, a colored girl, is captain of the second team.

The play every Sunday, with all of the inmate gathering on the sidelines to do the rooting.

At preent the field isn’t much good, but the girls are gradually doing their own work and making a real diamond.

They have made their own uniforms–white bloues and black bloomers with red stripes down the sides, and, according to Miss Jackson, they welcome the opportunity to don these costumes and break the monotony of every day life.

Each goes on in the same fashion, light tasks, few laughs–a drab life, for the 145 women who must pay for their trangresoins of the law. yet Tehachapi represents notable changes in the American penal system and is being studied as a model.


NEXT TIME: Agness Underwood’s series on the “city of forgotten women” continues.