The Black Dahlia: Confessions of a Benzedrine Eater

charles_lynchA couple of weeks following the one year anniversary of the slaying of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, LAPD detectives were still attempting to solve the case that was on its way to becoming L.A.’s most infamous unsolved homicide.

Cops thought maybe they’d finally caught a break in the case when twenty-three year old Charles E. Lynch telephoned the homicide squad asking that they come and arrest him for Short’s slaying.

Lynch was arrested and brought to the Central Jail to be interrogated.  The young transient was questioned at length by Det. Lts. Harry Hansen and Finis A. Brown, the two detectives who had been assigned to the case since the beginning.  Dr. J. Paul DeRiver, police psychiatrist, accompanied Hansen and Brown to the questioning of their new suspect.

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.benz_headline

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.

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


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.


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, Conclusion

Finding Lola was easy, two hours after the shooting she telephoned LAPD’s Hollywood Station from a drugstore at Sunset and Laurel Canyon and asked cops to come and get her. They obliged. Lola was booked at Hollywood Jail on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder.

00030174_lola mugWith Lola safely ensconced in the slammer, investigators poked around into her  background. They found out that her recent trip to Hollywood hadn’t been her first. She had lived briefly at 1259 Gower Avenue about 18 months prior to shooting Hansen. There was a photo of Lola, then a brunette, in the police files–she’d submitted the picture to obtain a taxi dancer’s license.

Lola had lucked out, Hansen survived the surgery that closed a gaping hole in his chest and appeared to be on the mend, but she was still going to be held to answer.

On July 18, 1949, the morning of her arraignment for attempted murder, Lola was being held in the woman’s seventh floor detention center in the Hall of Justice.  When Detective Sergeant C.C. Forbes unlocked the detention room to inform Miss Titus that her arraignment was imminent he found her completely naked, stretched out on her coat on the floor. Forbes took one look, beat feet, and shouted through the closed door for Lola to get dressed.

Seeking evidence in Mark Hansen's bathroom. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Seeking evidence in Mark Hansen’s bathroom. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Moments later Lola emerged from the room fully clothed in a pale blue satin dress–she posed for news photographers and was returned to the detention room until it was time for her arraignment. Detective Sergeant Forbes once again opened the door to find Lola nude. When asked why she had disrobed Lola said: “it’s hot in there.”

In a photo that was undoubtedly staged by the newspapers, Lola, in her blue satin dress, was snapped standing at the hospital bedside of her victim. You don’t see photos like that anymore!LOLA HANSEN HOSPITAL

In a move that surprised no one, Lola was ordered to stand trial in Superior Court for the shooting of Mark Hansen. Hansen, described as a 45-year-old night club and theater owner was actually at least a decade older. But hey, it’s Hollywood.

LAPD’s Chief of Detectives Thad Brown, brother of Finis Brown one of the principal investigators in the Black Dahlia case, questioned Lola about her reasons for going to Hansen’s bungalow. She said she had gone there to “have it out with him.”  As far as the cops were concerned, Lola was a disgruntled Hollywood hopeful who had failed to get a job as a strip-tease dancer. Hansen told the police that he had never discussed the Black Dahlia murder case with Lola and had told her only that “he couldn’t use her act in his night club.”LOLA IN CUSTODY

A jury of nine women and three men was chosen to determine Lola’s fate in Superior Judge William Byrne’s courtroom.  The first witness was a friend of Hansen’s, Dr. Louis Benson, who testified that he’d had to break into the house to render first aid.

Hansen’s testimony was oddly vague–he claimed that even though Lola was the only other person in the bungalow with him he hadn’t seen who shot him. He also testified that his acquaintance with Lola was entirely professional. When it was her turn Lola would tell a different story.

LAPD officer inspects gun used in shooting of Mark Hansen. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

LAPD officer inspects gun used in shooting of Mark Hansen. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The Deputy District Attorney, John Hopkins, had hoped to use a wire recording of the dancer’s purported confession, but Judge Byrne ruled that because some of the jurors couldn’t hear it easily it couldn’t be used to present the State’s case. In lieu of the recording Detective C.C. Forbes, who had taken Lola’s statement, testified to what she had told him.

The taxi-dancer/stripper had spent a year, off and on, “knocking around Hollywood” trying to get a break. she’d met Mark Hansen during Thanksgiving in 1948 and, according to her, had moved into his home for about a week. Hansen’s testimony had implied that they were merely business acquaintances, but Lola told the judge that they had been intimate on numerous occasions: “I could recall every one of them if you had the time.”  At that point Judge Byrne’s gavel came down and he ordered the jury out of the courtroom so he could admonish Lola to answer only the questions that were asked.

On September 22nd the jury found Lola guilty of assault with a deadly weapon, not assault with intent to commit murder. Even with the lesser charge Lola could face one to fourteen years behind bars.

To say that Lola took the news of her conviction badly would be an understatement—she went completely bat shit crazy. She launched herself at Mrs. Dorothy Ellis, a female probation officer. Lola wasn’t pleased that Ellis had requested a court ordered psychiatric examination. Deputy Sheriff Josephine Uttke attempted to intercede, but she took a couple of nasty blows to her face before she was joined by two male deputies–the three of them were able to subdue the kicking and screaming dancer.

lola screamNever a dull moment on Planet Lola. It appeared that she had calmed down, so she was returned to her cell at the Hall of Justice to await sentencing. She called out to Deputy Sheriff Margaret Decker and demanded to be given a pencil and paper because she was going to write her will. “I’m going to commit suicide”, Lola told the deputy. Decker invested some time in trying to talk Lola out of her plan. Once again Lola seemed to be calm so Deputy Decker resumed her rounds. On her next  trip  past Lola’s 13th floor cell, Decker looked in on her charge. She saw Lola sagging from a noose she’d fashioned out of a cotton stocking and tied to a ventilator. Decker called for assistance and several male deputies from the 10th floor arrived to help cut Lola free. She was taken to a padded cell.

Rather than sentence her to one to fourteen years in prison, Judge Byrne committed Lola to the State Hospital at Patton after the court ordered shrinks pronounced her legally insane. Lola didn’t take the news of her commitment to a mental hospital any better than she’d taken her guilty sentence. She immediately began screaming expletives at Judge Byrne and her attorney, Mark Rothman. Sheriff’s deputies R.N. Anderson and Gladys Culler dragged Lola from the courtroom.

On November 30, 1949, Beverly Alice Bennett, aka Lola Titus, was escorted by Sheriff’s Deputies Ann Anderman, E.H. Keegan, and M.J. Leggee to begin her indefinite stay at Patton. If Lola ever became sane enough to win her release from Patton it didn’t make the news.  Like so many other Hollywood hopefuls before her, Lola  vanished into obscurity.

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).

00007090_florentine gardens exterior

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

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.