Elizabeth Short was in Los Angeles on December 5, 1946. She left for San Diego on December 8. She had fewer than 6 weeks to live.
On Saturday, November 22, 1969, a man living in the Pico Union district found the mutilated bodies of Doreen Gaul, 19, and James Sharp, 15 in an alley between Arapahoe Street and Magnolia Avenue, south of 11th Street.
Doreen was naked except for a string of multicolored beads—hippie beads—de rigueur for teenage girls in 1969. James wore a corduroy jacket, striped T-shirt and black Levis—the uniform of teenage boys.
Someone stabbed Doreen and James between 50 and 60 times each. Seventeen of the stab wounds inflicted on Doreen were near her heart. She was raped. Their right eyes were cut out. The overkill recalled the brutality in the Tate/La Bianca murders in August, but police uncovered no link between Doreen and James and the other victims.
Following the autopsy, the coroner concluded that Doreen was a recent arrival in Los Angeles because her lungs were smog free. The coroner was right, Doreen came to Los Angeles from Albany, New York a few months earlier to study Scientology. James was also a recent arrival to Los Angeles. He traveled west from Crestview, a St. Louis, Missouri suburb. He came to study Scientology, too. In fact, their study of Scientology was the only thing linking them.
Scientology, founded in 1950 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, was attractive to Baby Boomers, teenagers in the 1960s, who sought spiritual guidance in non-traditional religions, communes, and radical political ideologies.
In Los Angeles Scientology provided communal living arrangements in a few of the old mansions in Pico Union and near MacArthur Park. Doreen lived at 1032 S. Bonnie Brae Street and James lived less than a quarter of a mile away at 921 S. Bonnie Brae Street. On the evening of the murders Doreen left “Thetan Manor” to meet with James who was going to “audit” her.
For those of you unfamiliar with the basic tenets of Scientology, Thetan is “an immortal spiritual being; the human soul.” An audit is conducted by a Scientology minister or minister-in training using an electropsychometer (E-Meter) to locate and confront areas of spiritual upset. For Scientologists the E-Meter is a religious artifact used as a spiritual guide.
E-Meters are more sophisticated today than they were in 1969 when they were nothing more than a galvanometer with two tin cans attached—not unlike many quack devices marketed before and since to the gullible.
The Federal Drug Administration stepped in when L. Ron Hubbard made unsubstantiated claims about the E-Meter’s medical capabilities.
In a Court of Appeals decision, still in effect today, every E-meter must bear a warning that states, “The E-Meter is not medically or scientifically useful for the diagnosis, treatment or prevention of any disease. It is not medically or scientifically capable of improving the health or bodily functions of anyone.”
The mainstream press characterized Scientology as a “cult” and a “mystical, quasi-scientific organization.” The organization cooperated with the Los Angeles Police Department at first, but dragged their feet when asked to provide a comprehensive membership list. LAPD Det. Lt. Earl A. Deemer wanted to explore any possible connection between the murders of Doreen and James and a Jane Doe slaying from several months before. The marked similarities in the three murders struck Deemer as more than a coincidence. He described the crimes to reporters: “All three victims were stabbed, and their wounds appeared to be the work of a ‘fanatic’. None of the three was slain where the bodies were found. The Jane Doe of the previous killing wore hippie-like attire which resembled that in which Miss Gaul had been seen and which is favored by many young females in the organization [Scientology].”
Deemer wanted to talk to Hubbard personally about the membership list, but the Scientology leader was adrift at sea, literally. He was on his private yacht to avoid a hefty tax bill that awaited him on land.
On behalf of Scientology Rev. Natalie Fisher, resident agent of the organization quartered at 2773 W. Temple Street stated, “This organization has no facts or information regarding the circumstances of the crime, but we are doing everything in our power to assist law enforcement agencies to see that justice is done.”
The families of the young victims were devastated by their loss. James’ father was a prosperous salesman and he permitted James to leave high school to study Scientology in Los Angeles.
Doreen’s friends said that following her graduation from a parochial high school in the spring of 1968, she became a devotee of Scientology. Her switch from Roman Catholicism surprised her friends, but not her father. He described Doreen as a “. . . good kid, but an emotional kid. She was always looking for green grass and rainbows.”
The investigation into the random slayings continued but police never located the place where Doreen and James were murdered. Solving a crime without locating the place where it happened is challenging. Police never solved the infamous Black Dahlia case in 1947 either. The victim in that case, 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, was murdered in a place they never found and her dismembered body was dumped in a weedy vacant lot in Leimert Park.
Police stated that there was no clear connection between the slayings of Doreen and James and 11 unsolved murders (including the five Tate murders) committed in the county since January 1969.
The two teenagers traveled to Los Angeles seeking spiritual enlightenment, why did they end up brutalized and discarded in an alley? Were Doreen and James the victims of a serial killer? Did a member or members of the Manson family kill them as some suspect? Fifty years later we have no answers, and we may never get them, the case remains unsolved.
Two years passed with police no closer to a solution for the murder of Elizabeth Short. The 1949 Los Angeles Grand Jury intended to hold LAPD’s feet to the fire for failing to solve the Dahlia case and several other unsolved homicides and disappearances of women throughout the 1940s.
On September 6, 1949 the jury’s foreman, Harry Lawson, told reporters that a meeting of the jury’s administrative committee was scheduled for September 8. First on the committee’s agenda were the unsolved homicides. Lawson said:
“There is every possibility that we will summon before the jury officers involved in the investigation of these murders. We find it odd that there are on the books of the Los Angeles Police Deportment many unsolved crimes of this type.”
The Grand Jury further concluded:
“Because of the nature of these murder and sex crimes women and children are constantly placed in jeopardy and are not safe from attack.”
The jury criticized law enforcement:
“Something is radically wrong with the present system for apprehending the guilty, the alarming increase in the number of unsolved murders and other major crimes reflects ineffectiveness in law enforcement agencies and the courts and that should not be tolerated.”
I would argue that the jury and law enforcement had not yet adapted to changes in the post-war world. Cops were unaccustomed to stranger murders; and I believe several of the women whose cases they were investigating were killed or taken by either a complete stranger or a recent acquaintance.
Then, as now, when a woman is killed, the person responsible is usually her husband, boyfriend or another man in her life.
It is my contention that it wasn’t corruption within law enforcement agencies that prevented them from solving the crimes. The police were doing solid detective work, but their investigative methods hadn’t caught up with the times. There were men walking the streets of Los Angeles who were severely damaged by their war experiences–how many of them were capable of murder?
LAPD detectives were diligent in their investigation into Short’s slaying. They took over 2700 reports. There were over 300 named suspects. Fifty were arrested and subsequently released. There were nineteen confessions–none of which panned out.
In 1949 the DA’s office issued a report on the investigation into Short’s murder. In part the report stated:
“[she] knew at least fifty men at the time of her death and at least 25 men had been seen with her within the 60 day period preceding her death. She was not a prostitute. She has been confused with a Los Angeles prostitute by the same name…She was known as a teaser of men. She would ride with them, chisel a place to sleep, clothes or money, but she would then refuse to have sexual intercourse by telling them that she was a virgin or that she was engaged or married. There were three known men who did have sexual intercourse with her and according to them she got no pleasure out of this act. According to the autopsy surgeon her sex organs indicated female trouble. She was known to have disliked queer women very much as well as prostitutes. She was never known to be a narcotic addict.”
Their good intentions didn’t get the grand jury any concrete answers to the unsolved homicides or mysterious disappearances.
The jury was sidetracked by the continuing saga of local gangster Mickey Cohen and other issues which demanded their attention. In the end they passed the baton to the 1950 grand jury–which also found itself sidetracked by other issues.
Despite the efforts of the grand jury, and law enforcement, the homicides or disappearances of the following women remain unsolved to this day: Elizabeth Short, Jeanne French, Rosenda Mondragon, Laura Trelstad, Gladys Kern, Louise Springer, Mimi Boomhower, and Jean Spangler–and this is not a complete list.
What happened to the women who disappeared? It is unlikely that we will ever know. It is also unlikely that the identify of the killer(s) will ever be discovered. People will always speculate about the cases, and every few years a book about the Black Dahlia slaying will emerge claiming to have solved the decades long cold case. None of the books I’ve read so far has seemed entirely credible to me.
I find it impossible to accept theories that rely on elaborate conspiracies perpetrated by everyone from a newspaper mogul to a local gangster, to an allegedly evil genius doctor. A primary reason for my disbelief is simply that most people are incapable of keeping a secret. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Three (people) can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Eventually, someone talks.
I have my own theory about the Black Dahlia and the other unsolved homicides of women that horrified Angelenos during the 1940s, and I offered my opinion during an episode of the Hollywood & Crime podcast. Their first season dealt extensively with the Black Dahlia case and several of the other unsolved homicides. In the episode entitled Cold Cases, Jim Clemente, former FBI profiler and producer of the TV show Criminal Minds, and I discussed the murders, and we came to very different conclusions. You can find the series on iTunes, Stitcher, etc.
NOTE: This concludes my series of Black Dahlia posts for now. I invite you to stay with me as I unearth more of L.A.’s most deranged crimes.
A couple of weeks following the one year anniversary of the slaying of Elizabeth Short, LAPD detectives thought they’d finally caught a break in the case when twenty-three-year-old Charles E. Lynch telephoned the homicide squad and asked to be arrested for the murder.
Lynch was arrested and brought to the Central Jail for interrogation. The young transient was questioned at length by Detective Lieutenants Harry Hansen and Finis A. Brown who had been assigned to the case since the beginning. Dr. J. Paul DeRiver, police psychiatrist, accompanied Hansen and Brown to Lynch’s interview.
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.
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.
On February 8, 1947 the Herald announced that the Black Dahlia case was solved. They had found the killer!
“Army Corporal Joseph Dumais, 29, of Fort Dix, N.J., is definitely the murderer of “The Black Dahlia”, army authorities at Fort Dix announced today.’
Dumais, a combat veteran, returned from leave wearing blood stained trousers with his pockets crammed full of clippings about Short’s murder. According to the Herald, Dumais made a 50 page confession in which he claimed to have had a mental blackout after dating Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles five days before her body was found.
The good looking corporal seemed like the real deal. He told the cops, “When I get drunk I get pretty rough with women.” Unfortunately, when police checked his story against known facts the solider’s confession didn’t hold up. Dumais was sent to a psychiatrist.
Two days after Dumais’ false confession the Herald put out an Extra with the headline: “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body”.
The victim of the “Werewolf Killer” was forty-five year old Jeanne French. Her nude body was discovered at 8 a.m. on February 10, 1947 near Grand View Avenue and Indianapolis Street in West L.A.
Jeanne Thomas French’s life was as fascinating as a Hollywood screenplay. She was an aviatrix, a pioneer airline hostess, a movie bit player and an Army Nurse. And at one time she was the wife of a Texas oilman. The way she died was monstrous.
A construction worker H.C. Shelby was walking to work around 8 o’clock that morning along Grand View Blvd. when he saw a small pile of woman’s clothing in weeds a few feet from the sidewalk. Curious, Shelby walked over and lifted up a fur trimmed coat and discovered French’s nude body.
French was savagely beaten–her body covered with bruises. She suffered blows to her head, probably administered by a metal blunt instrument–maybe a socket wrench. As bad as they were, the blows to her head were not fatal. Jeanne died from hemorrhage and shock due to fractured ribs and multiple injuries caused by stomping–there were heel prints on her chest. It took a long time for French to die. The coroner said that she slowly bled to death.
Mercifully, Jeanne was unconscious after the first blows to her head so she never saw her killer take the deep red lipstick from her purse, and she didn’t feel the pressure of his improvised pen as he wrote on her torso: “Fuck You, B.D.” (later thought to be be “P.D.”) and “Tex”.
French was last seen in the Pan American Bar at 11155 West Washington Place. She was seated at the first stool nearest the entrance and the bartender later told cops that a smallish man with a dark complexion was seated next to her. The bartender assumed they were a couple because he saw them leave together at closing time.
Jeanne’s estranged husband, Frank, was booked on suspicion of murder. The night before she died Jeanne visited Frank at his apartment and they’d quarreled. Frank said Jeanne had started the fight, then hit him with her purse and left. He said that was the last time he saw her. He told the cops she’d been drinking.
David Wrather, Jeanne’s twenty-five year old son from a previous marriage was also brought in for questioning. As he was leaving the police station he saw his step-father for the first time since he’d learned of his mother’s death. David confronted Frank and said: “Well, I’ve told them the truth. If you’re guilty, there’s a God in heaven who will take care of you.” Frank didn’t hesitate, he looked at David and said: “I swear to God I didn’t kill her.”Frank was cleared when his landlady testified he was in his apartment at the time of the murder, and when his shoe prints didn’t match those found at the scene of the crime.
Cops followed the few leads they had. French’s cut-down 1929 Ford roadster was found in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant, The Piccadilly at Washington Pl. and Sepulveda Blvd. Witnesses said that the car had been there since 3:15 the morning of the murder, and a night watchman said it was left there by a man. The police were never able to find out where Jeanne had been between 3:15 a.m. and the time of her death which was estimated at 6 a.m.
Scores of sex degenerates were rousted, but each was eliminated as a suspect. Officers also checked out local Chinese restaurants after the autopsy revealed that French had eaten Chinese food shortly before her death.
French’s slaying, known as the “Red Lipstick Murder” case, went cold.
Three years later, following a Grand Jury investigation into the numerous unsolved murders of women in L.A., investigators from the D.A.’s office were assigned to look into the case.
Frank Jemison and Walter Morgan worked the French case for almost eight months, but they were never able to close it. They came up with one hot suspect, a painter who worked for the French’s four months prior to the murder. He admitted to dating Jeanne several times. The cops discovered the painter burned several pairs of his shoes–he wore the same size as the ones that left marks on Jeanne’s body. Despite his odd behavior, the painter was cleared.
There were so many unsolved murders of women in the 1940s that in 1949 a Grand Jury investigation was launched into the failure of the police to solve the cases.
There haven’t been any leads in Jeanne French’s case in decades; however, there is always a detective assigned to Elizabeth Short’s murder case. A couple of years ago it was a female detective and, surprisingly, she received several calls a month. To this day there are people who want to confess to Elizabeth Short’s murder. The detective was able to eliminate each one of the possible suspects with a simple question: “What year were you born?
Dozens of men were interviewed as possible suspects in the murder of Elizabeth Short. None of the interviews 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 Handler admitted his confession was false. Why would an innocent man confess? In Handler’s case it was 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. He subsequently cleaned up, changed his name to Mack Chandler and appeared as a detective in the 1953 noir film, Crime Wave.
Daniel S. Voorhies, a 33 year old army vet, also confessed to killing Short. He said he 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 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.
A gal named Minnie Sepulveda stepped up and said that she killed the Black Dahlia. She lied.
Mrs. Marie Grieme said she had heard a Chicago woman confess to the Black Dahlia murder. Her story was a dead end.
Even though none of the women who confessed were guilty, the cops began to think it wasn’t out of the question that Short’s slayer was female. 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 were 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 was 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.
Winnie 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 got ripe and leaked bodily fluids in the baggage claim section of a local train station.
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 grâce, she rolled a 50 lb. boulder on top of the corpse.
So, the notion that a woman could be Short’s killer wasn’t far-fetched at all. The Herald-Express featured a series of columns written by psychologist Alice La Vere. La Vere 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 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+ year old profile holds up well.
What I find interesting about La Vere’s profile of a female perpetrator, is she said that the woman would be older than Short. In recent years an older woman became an integral part of a theory about the crime.
It is a theory put forward by writer and researcher, Larry Harnisch. Larry wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times on the fiftieth anniversary of Short’s death. Subsequently, he has done more digging into the case and 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 left his wife for his mistress, Alexandra Partyka, also a medical doctor. Partyka emigrated to the U.S. and wasn’t licensed to practice medicine, but she did assist Bayley in his practice.
Following Bayley’s death in January 1948, Partyka and Dr. Bayley’s wife, Ruth, fought over control of his estate. Mrs. Bayley claimed that Partyka was 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.
Elizabeth Short’s murder dominated the front pages of the Evening Herald & Express for days following the discovery of her body.
Even in a murder case as well-publicized 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. 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?
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?
Prior to being benched by her city editor, Aggie had made headway in her coverage of Elizabeth Short’s murder. She interviewed Robert “Red” Manley, the first suspect in the case, and concluded he was innocent. Her interview 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.
Several people have taken credit for uncovering the Black Dahlia moniker; Aggie among them. In 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. About her newsroom embroidery project Aggie said: “Although I got damn tired of it, I kept my needle going until the quitting hour. Early the next morning the assistant city editor announced that the city editor had made an overnight assignment for me to go back to homicide and continue on the ‘Black Dahlia’ case.”
Once again Aggie was pulled off the case, but this time she learned that her new assignment was the city desk. She said she was: “Completely unwarned. I was the most surprised person in Los Angeles.” She had just become one of the first women in the United States to hold a city editorship on a major metropolitan daily!
Why had Aggie been removed from the Black Dahlia case in the first place? People are drawn to conspiracies, no matter how unlikely, and there are those who believe there was a cover-up and Aggie was getting too close to a solution to Short’s murder. Theorists have suggested someone with enough juice got Aggie 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 would take a pay-off. 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 and the public. 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”.
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, Bette 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.
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.
Captain Jack Donohoe, head of LAPD’s homicide department, was understandably in a rush to identify the woman. Her killer 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.
Normally fingerprints prints were flown to the FBI but a blizzard grounded aircraft in the East. If cops waited for the weather to clear, identification could take as much as a week. Seven days is an eternity in a homicide investigation.
In the 1940s the press and police had a symbiotic relationship which served them both well. Without access to planes the LAPD’s investigation was at a standstill. But, luckily, they could rely on William Randolph Hearst’s resources. The Examiner had 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.
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 in California was in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara police arrested the Massachusetts native in 1943 for underage drinking. She was 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 her mother Phoebe. Sutton was not thrilled when Richardson instructed him to lie to Phoebe. Richardson wanted her to believe that her daughter won a beauty contest. It was only after Sutton had pumped her for information on her daughter that he was 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 her the truth. Sutton put his hand over the mouthpiece, looked at Richardson and said: “You lousy son-of-a-bitch.”
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 recently stayed in San Diego and she gave him 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 was 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.
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 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 may be a valuable witness–or he may be a killer.
NEXT TIME: A suspect is arrested.
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.
At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or drunk woman, passed out near the sidewalk. Had she been thrown out of a car by a boyfriend? That particular area was known as a lover’s lane. Once Betty got a closer look, she realized she was in a waking nightmare. 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 reportera claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One them was reporter Will Fowler. Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner were near Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an announcement on the 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?
There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first. In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first reporter on the scene. After all these years does it really matter who was first
Aggie at the Dahlia body dump site. January 15, 1947.
All those who saw the murdered girl that day were shocked and horrified. Aggie described what she observed in her 1949 autobiography.
“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.
Two LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, took charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.
The most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three year old transient, Cecil French. He was busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.
Cops were further alarmed when they discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car.
In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying due to the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown 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.