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 Butcher, Conclusion

lillian johnsonThe murdered and badly mutilated bodies of two women were found at separate downtown Los Angeles hotels on November 15, 1944.

The first victim to be found was twenty-five year old Mrs. Virgie Lee Griffin of 1934 W. 70th Street. Virgie’s body had been stuffed in a clothes closet in the Barclay Hotel at 103 W. Fourth Street. Near her remains lay a large butcher knife and a razor. A preliminary examination suggested that Mrs. Griffin had been murdered about 8 a.m. The detectives who caught the case were Det. Lts. Harry Hansen (in 1947 he would be one of the lead detectives on the Black Dahlia case), R.F. McGarry, and Stewart Jones. Some of the cops had to be re-deployed when another woman was found dead and mutilated at a hotel just blocks away.

The second victim, thirty-eight year old Mrs. Lillian Johnson of 114 W. 14th Place was discovered just after 3:30 p.m.

Even seasoned veterans of L.A.P.D’s homicide division were sickened by the condition of the bodies. Both women had been hacked to pieces — Lillian’s breasts and vagina had been dissected.

While detectives were reviewing evidence and interviewing hotel employees, an APB went out with a description of the suspect. Patrolman H.E. Donlan had been handed a police bulletin containing information about the wanted man and he recalled seeing a guy who fit the description while he was walking his beat at Third and Hill Streets. He decided to check out the bars.

Patrolman Donlan walked over to a bar at 326 S. Hill Street, just a few doors from where Lillian Johnson’s body lay. He noticed that one of the patrons, who fit the suspect’s description, was sitting with a glass of wine and he was chatting up a woman — maybe his next victim. In the man’s hand was a book of matches from the Barclay Hotel. That was enough for Donlan, he walked over to the man who looked up at him and said: “What do you want?” The patrolman replied: “This.” and snapped a pair of handcuffs on the man’s wrists. His name was Otto Stephen Wilson.

patrolmandonlan

As a city employee Patrolman Harry Donlan wasn’t eligible for a reward for the capture of Otto Stephen Wilson, but Police Commissioner Al Cohn wrote him a check for a $100 War Savings Bond saying:

“I’ll give you another $100 bond if you repeat the job when the next murder comes along.”

It had been a successful day for the cops. The first murder had been discovered at 2 p.m., the second at 3:30 pm. The suspect was in custody by 5:30 p.m., and by 7:30 p.m. he had confessed!

wilson_testifies

At homicide headquarters detectives said that when he was arrested Wilson’s hands were found to be stained with blood and he had a razor in his pocket.

Once they had him in custody detectives began to interview Wilson. He told them he had been born in Shelbyville, Indiana and graduated from high school in 1930. Immediately following high school Wilson had joined the Navy, serving until 1941 when he was given a medical discharge for sexual psychosis.

Otto Stephen Wilson

Otto Stephen Wilson

According to Wilson’s statement his wife had gone to naval authorities and told them about a few of the homosexual encounters she knew he’d had. She also told them how her husband had once waited for her to get out of the shower, sliced her buttocks with a razor and then began to lick at the drops of blood. These are the “unnatural impulses” to which I referred yesterday.

The U.S. Navy agreed with Mrs. Wilson, Otto’s impulses were definitely unnatural and they discharged him as quickly as they could.

Since his discharge Wilson had been working menial kitchen jobs in and around Los Angles all the while, according to him, trying to suppress his urge to kill or destroy women. Because he had syphilis the cops at first thought his urge to kill was revenge on all women for his having contracted VD, but he said that he knew that he’d caught the disease three years earlier, after his impulse to kill had started to invade his thoughts.

Finally Wilson began to tell cops the details about his day of slaughter.

He said that he met Mrs. Griffin in a Main Street bar and took her to the Barclay Hotel where they registered as Mr. and Mrs. O.S. Wilson — not a very clever alias. Once in their room the pair continued to drink. Later Wilson would claim that he became enraged when Virgie asked for $20, but the truth was that he’d brought the butcher knife and razor with him to the room, he had intended to commit murder.

He started by choking her, then he stabbed her several times. For over an hour he sat naked on the bed with Virgie’s body and attempted to remove her arms and legs with a razor. When he found it too difficult to carry out his planned dissections he left the room and went to a movie.

What film do you see after committing murder? Wilson walked over to the Million Dollar Theater at Broadway and Third where he saw The Walking Dead; also on the bill was Return of the Ape Man, but he couldn’t stay for a double feature, he had another urge to kill.

Poster - Walking Dead, The_04

Wilson’s second and final victim was Mrs. Lillian Johnson. Johnson was choked and stabbed just as Griffin had been, but this time Wilson bit off the dead woman’s nipple. He couldn’t recall if he swallowed it. Wilson’s reason for murdering Lillian was simple, he said he did it for “pure cussedness”.

Dr. J. Paul De River, Criminal Psychiatrist for L.A.P.D, interviewed Wilson right after the detectives had finished with him. In his book “The Sexual Criminal – A Psychoanalytical Study”, De River includes Wilson’s interview and a review of his case in the chapter on “Sadistic Homicide-Lust Murder” identifying Wilson as Case Study 116, K.

De River described Wilson in his report to the police:

“He was a necrophiliac and cannibalistic, all of which when summed up are the manifestations of the sado-masochistic complex.”

Before you rush out to buy a copy of of De River’s book be forewarned, the book was universally denounced, investigated by the Police Department, and I believe it was illegal to send it through the mail at one point.

Cops investigated Wilson for other unsolved homicides of women in L.A., one of which was the murder of Georgette Bauerdorf, and they would have loved to pin more killings on him but it wasn’t to be. He couldn’t be connected to any murders other than the two he committed on November 15, 1944.

Otto Stephen Wilson was found guilty of both slayings and sentenced to death. On September 20, 1946 he was executed in California’s gas chamber.