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

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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?

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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 .25 Caliber Taxi-Dancer

BROWNHANSENFNL_RESIZEOn January 15, 1947 the body of twenty-two year old Elizabeth Short was discovered in a Leimert Park vacant lot.  There were scant clues in the case and LAPD homicide detectives Finis Brown and Harry Hansen were hoping for a break.

Ten days later some of Short’s belongings were found in a trash dump at 1819 E. 25th Street. Among the items found were a black patent leather purse, one black shoe, and a brown leather address book which contained more than 75 names. The “little brown book” book had the name Mark M. Hansen (no relation to Harry) stamped on the cover.

Hansen, an attorney and night club owner, was a self-made man. He was a Danish immigrant, who had arrived in the U.S. in 1910 and who, by the 1930 census, was a theater proprietor. By the late 1940s he was part-owner of the Florentine Gardens, a popular Hollywood night spot, and had business interests in several movie theaters.  Detectives grilled Hansen about his relationship with Beth Short, particularly how she came to have the leather address book. Hansen’s explanation was that Beth Short must have taken it from his desk sometime during November 1946. Beth had access to his desk because she was one of several young women who had rented rooms in Hansen’s home at 6024 Carlos Avenue (located behind the Florentine Gardens).

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Photo courtesy of LAPL

Among the women who had lived at the Carlos Avenue address was Ann Toth, a bit player in the movies. Toth was an acquaintance of Short’s and like everyone else who had known the dead girl she had been questioned by the police. There wasn’t much Toth could tell investigators about Beth who, like so many other young women in post-war L.A., had no fixed address.

Anna Toth

Photo of Ann Toth from http://www.theblackdahliainhollywood.com/

Detectives dug deep into Hansen’s story and determined that he was telling the truth about the last time he’s seen Beth. No one, particularly a successful businessman, was looking for the kind of publicity that attends a horrific murder like Beth’s. Hansen must have breathed a sigh of relief when he was cleared of any involvement in the crime.

For the next couple of years the club owner, described by the L.A. Times as a “man-about-town”, continued to run the Florentine Gardens and bed chorus girls. He was a married man but he and his wife, Ida, had been estranged for about two decades.

For most of 1948 and into 1949, Hansen had been routinely pestered for a job by a blonde dime-a-dance cutie from Oakland, Lola Titus. Lola’s real name was Beverly Alice Bennett, and she had been working as a stripper and taxi dancer in Oakland when she got the notion to hop on a bus for L.A. to hook-up with Mark Hansen. Lola’s sudden decision to leave Northern California was precipitated by an argument she’d had with her mother. Her mom strenuously objected to her daughter’s lifestyle. Lola would later tell investigators: “I made up my mind that he (Hansen) was either going to love me, marry me or take care of me or I was going to kill him.”

Lola had another reason for traveling to L.A.–she believed that Hansen was behind rumors that she had killed the Black Dahlia. The rumors were all in Lola’s head because her name had never been mentioned in connection with the case.

Lola boarded a bus from San Francisco to Hollywood on Thursday, July 14, 1949. She’d packed the essentials: nude photos of herself and the .25 automatic she’d purchased several months before in an Oakland pawnshop. On Friday morning she turned up on Hansen’s doorstep with the gun in her pocket and her nude photos tucked under her arm. She knocked on the door of the bungalow and while she waited she debated whether to shoot him as soon as he opened the door or to wait until she got inside. She opted to wait.

Once Hansen had invited her in,  Lola showed him the nude photos of herself. Hansen decided to compare the photos to the real girl, and he “auditioned” the blonde dancer in the back bedroom.  Following the audition Hansen went into the bathroom and began to shave with his electric razor. Lola figured it was as good a time as any to shoot him. She went into the front room where she’d left her coat, pulled the gun out of the pocket and went to the bathroom where she shot him once. The wound was a through and through. The bullet missed Hansen’s heart by 7/10 of an inch and lodged in the bathroom wall. Lola then pulled on her clothes and left.LOLA HEADLINE

Although he was severely wounded Hansen managed to get to the telephone. He phoned a business associate who called for a doctor. As he was being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance Hansen said that before Lola pulled the trigger she had called him a “goddam cop lover”.

NEXT TIME: Lola calls the cops.