Jane Doe #1, was found in a weedy vacant lot in Leimert
Park on the morning of January 15, 1947. The Los Angeles Times, reluctant
to tarnish the city’s image, relegated the shocking sex murder to page two.
Just because they balked at splashing the disgusting
details of the murder across the front page, doesn’t mean that the Times didn’t
indulge in lurid hyperbole worthy of a Hearst newspaper – note the headline
Los Angeles police detectives intended to send the victim’s
fingerprints via airplane to the FBI in Washington, D.C. as they always did,
but a massive storm in the east made it impossible. What could they do?
The Examiner owned a Soundphoto machine, an early
fax, and while it had never been used to transmit fingerprints everyone agreed
it was worth a try. The fingerprints were successfully transmitted and subsequently
identified Jane Doe #1 as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. The Examiner
expected something in return for their largesse. Because of the crucial role
they played in getting the identification, the Examiner leveraged a deal with
the police—their continued cooperation with the police in exchange for exclusives. LAPD Captain Jack Donohoe wasn’t overjoyed. He
didn’t relish the paper’s constant meddling, but he knew reporters would pursue
the case with or without police approval.
The deal was the lesser evil.
During the initial phase of the investigation many of the stories
that Beth told her family and acquaintances surfaced in newspaper articles, and
although much of the information has subsequently been disproved the lies remain.
On January 17, 1947, under the headline: “Mrs. Phoebe Short
Can’t Believe Slain Girl Hers,” the most persistent of Beth’s lies was repeated
by her mother. Phoebe told reporters, “She was working in Hollywood doing bit
parts for the movies until two weeks ago.
She said she left Hollywood (for San Diego) because of the movie strike,
which made it difficult to get work as an extra.”
Beth was pretty enough to work as a film extra, but there
is no credible evidence that she ever did.
In another letter, Beth told Phoebe she was working in an
Army hospital in San Diego, or in some connection with the armed services. It
was a lie.
To learn more about Beth, and maybe uncover a suspect, detectives
questioned dozens of people. No one seemed to know her well.
By January 18, Phoebe Short and her daughters were on their way to Los Angeles from their hometown of Medford, Massachusetts and the police were no closer to a solution to the crime.
I was interviewed recently about the Black Dahlia case by Penny Griffiths-Morgan for her Haunted Histories podcast which originates in the U.K. (I have provided a link to the episode below.) I find it intriguing that a 73-year-old Los Angeles murder mystery has drawn global interest. What is it about the case that resonates with people even today?
It must be
the Hollywood connection.
contemporary article I have read about the case has described Elizabeth Short
as an aspiring actress or starlet, which makes her murder the ultimate
Hollywood heartbreak story with a violent twist.
are two stories here. One is the myth of the Black Dahlia, a fictional
character based on the life of Elizabeth “Beth” Short.
story, and the one I believe to be true, is that of a depressed, confused, and needy
young woman looking for marriage.
The myth has
been repeated so often it is accepted as true, but by mythologizing Beth’s story
we have largely ignored the real person at its heart.
We have lost
sight of the troubled young woman who came to California to find her father—not
to break into the movies.
The tragedy in Beth’s life is not that she didn’t achieve Hollywood stardom, she never sought it. There is no credible evidence that she went out on a cattle call, spoke to an agent, or asked any of her acquaintances, the ones with Hollywood ambitions, to get her an audition.
Beth was looking for what most people her age in the postwar period longed for—marriage and a home. She vigorously pursued the romantic vision of a husband in a uniform with shiny brass buttons and a bungalow with a white picket fence.
Judging by an undated letter she received from Lieutenant Stephen Wolak, she didn’t hesitate to press for marriage. Wolak’s letter reads in part,
“When you mention marriage in your letter, Beth, I get to wondering. Infatuation is sometimes mistaken for true love. I know whereof I speak, because my ardent love soon cools off.”
response to Beth’s letter is a frank assessment of their relationship—which in
his estimation was not serious. You can gauge
her desperation from his response.
How many other
men in uniform with whom Beth corresponded received letters with suggestions of
A depressed and lonely young woman with daddy issues looking for love by sacrificing her pride isn’t the stuff of novels or movies.
Beth’s tragic life saddens us and makes us uncomfortable; but the myth of the Black Dahlia is an epic tale worthy of a Greek tragedy.
I imagine in the years to come we will continue to hold fast to the myth. It is one hell of a story.
Bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held Los Angeles residents in its grip for several days, Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne walked south on the west side of Norton in Leimert Park, a Los Angeles suburb. Midway down the block Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds fifty feet north of a fire hydrant and about a foot in from the sidewalk.
At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a
discarded mannequin, or a live nude woman who had passed out.
It took a moment before Bersinger realized she was in a
waking nightmare. The bright white shape
in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk.
Bersinger later recalled, “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 person who made that claim was Will Fowler.
Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner approached Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an intriguing call on their shortwave radio. It was a police call and Fowler couldn’t believe his ears. A naked woman, possibly drunk, was found in a vacant lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets. Fowler turned to Pagel and said, “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 hopped out of the car and approached the woman
as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk. Fowler called out, “Jesus,
Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”
That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the
decades. He said he closed the dead girl’s eyes. But was his story true?
There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los
Angeles Times was the first on the scene; and in her autobiography, Newspaperwoman,
Aggie Underwood said that she was the first.
After 73-years does it really matter? All those who saw the murdered girl that day
saw the same horrifying sight and it left an indelible impression. Aggie described what she observed:
“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
The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.
Two seasoned 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. He was dropped from the list of hot suspects.
In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the
“Werewolf” slaying because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted
on the unknown woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case until a much
better one was discovered—the Black Dahlia.
NEXT TIME: Jane Doe #1 is identified.
Fowler, Will (1991). “Reporters” Memoirs of a Young
Gilmore, John (2001). Severed: The True Story of the
Black Dahlia Murder.
About 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short and
Robert “Red” Manley left the motel where they had spent the night.
What did Beth and Red talk about during the couple of hours that it took them to drive back to Los Angeles from San Diego? Red noticed some scratches on her arms and asked her about them. She spun a tale of an “intensely jealous” boyfriend – an Italian “with black hair who lived in San Diego”, and claimed that it was he who had scratched her. In truth the scratches were probably made by Beth herself, the result of itchy insect bites. Beth lied to Red a few times more before their day together ended.
Red and his wife Harriet had been having problems. There were so many adjustments to being married with a child, and Red wondered if they were meant to be together.
In the way that only a spouse on the verge of cheating can do, he justified his interest in Beth in his own mind by considering it a “love test”. If he remained faithful to his wife, despite the temptation of being near a beautiful woman, he would conclude that his marriage was meant to be.
Following a platonic night in a motel room, Red’s marriage was certified as made in heaven. But he had a problem; he’d been out of touch for a couple of days. How would he explain his lack of communication? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test could easily come up with an excuse for being incommunicado for a couple of days.
In my mind’s eye I see Beth and Red seated across from each
other on the bench seat in his Studebaker, each lost in thought. Beth may have
been wondering what she’d do once she hit L.A. Maybe she’d
go to friends in Hollywood. If she was lucky someone would have an empty
bed for her. Her immediate difficulty was Red. How would she get away from the
well meaning guy for whom she felt nothing?
Once they arrived in the city, Beth told Red that she needed to check her luggage at the bus depot. He took her there and Beth was ready to wave good-bye to him and be on her way – but he wouldn’t leave. He told her that he couldn’t possibly leave her in that neighborhood on her own. She insisted that she would be fine, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Beth had a few minutes while she checked her bags to conjure up a plan to ditch Red. When they returned to his car she told him that she needed to go to the Biltmore Hotel to wait for her sister, Virginia. It was a lie. Virginia was in Oakland, hundreds of miles to the north.
Red drove her several blocks back to the Biltmore Hotel. The main lobby was on Olive Street, directly opposite Pershing Square. Beth thanked Red. He had been a gentleman. He’d paid to have taps put on the heels and toes of her pumps, and of course he’d paid for meals and the motel room. She thought that he would drive off and leave her, but once again he said that he didn’t feel comfortable just putting her out of the car.
He parked, and the two of them waited in the Biltmore’s lobby for a couple of hours. Finally, Red realized he couldn’t wait any longer. He said he had to go. She told him she would be fine and that she expected her sister to arrive at any moment.
Red left her at approximately 6:30 p.m. Beth watched him go – gave him a few minutes, and then she exited the hotel and turned south down Olive Street.
She may have been headed for the Crown Grill at Eighth and Olive. She’d been there before and perhaps she hoped to bump into someone she knew; after all, she needed a place to stay.
When asked if they’d seen Beth, most of the patrons were reluctant to talk to the police. By day the bar catered to the lunch crowd, lots of men escorting women who were not their wives. By night the clientele was mostly gay men. Because homosexuality was illegal there were only a few places where men could meet.
No one who was will to talk could say for sure that Beth had been in the bar on the 9th — and if she was there, no one saw her leave.
No one would ever see Elizabeth Short alive again.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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].”
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Jane Doe’s body was removed from the vacant lot on Norton and taken to the Coroner’s Office in 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 already 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.
Blizzard of 1947. Associated Press photo via Baruch College, CUNY.
Normally Elizabeth’s prints would have been flown to the FBI but a blizzard had grounded aircraft in the East. If cops had to wait for the weather to clear identification could take as much as a week. Seven days is an eternity in a homicide investigation.
The symbiotic relationship between the police and the press that existed in those days made their next move possible. Without access to planes the LAPD’s investigation was at a standstill. But, luckily, they had William Randolph Hearst’s resources to rely on. The Examiner had recently acquired 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.
Photo courtesy ladailymirror.com
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 was in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara police had arrested the Massachusetts native in 1943 for underage drinking. She had been 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 Phoebe. Sutton was less than thrilled when Richardson instructed him to lie to Phoebe. Richardson wanted Phoebe to believe that her daughter had won a beauty contest. It was only after Sutton had pumped her for information on her daughter that he would be 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 Phoebe the truth. Sutton put his hand over the mouthpiece, looked at Richardson and said: “You lousy son-of-a-bitch.”
Phoebe Short. Photo courtesy LAPL.
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 had recently stayed in San Diego and he was given 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 had been lost in transit from the east. Reporters went to the Greyhound station in downtown Los Angeles. There wasn’t a trunk, but there was a suitcase and some bags.
Robert “Red” Manley. Photo likely taken by Perry Fowler. Courtesy LAPL.
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 had 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 could be a valuable witness. Or he could be a killer.
There were numerous unsolved slayings of women in 1940s Los Angeles, and among the dead were: Ora Murray, Laura Trelstad, Jeanne French, Georgette Bauerdorf, and of course Elizabeth Short. The murders were enough to frighten and enrage the public, who then demanded that local politicians address their concerns. The 1949 L.A. County Grand Jury was tasked with investigating what many perceived to have been a failure on the part of law enforcement to crack the cases. The Grand Jury dropped the ball on investigating the cops handling of the murders to focus instead on corruption in police vice units, but I’m not sure that it matters.
I don’t believe the murder cases went unsolved due to sloppy police work. What I think is that with the flood of transients (i.e. military personnel, war workers, etc.) into the city after the U.S. entered WWII in December 1941, it became increasingly hard for detectives to solve a homicide case. If the victim and killer were strangers to one another, which in the war and post-war environment was likely, it would add another layer of difficulty to solving a murder with few, if any, clues.
By poking around in old newspapers I’ve discovered that there was a large number of dishonorably or medically discharged veterans wandering the streets of L.A. during the 1940s. Some of them had suffered profound trauma during their service, what we’ve come to know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Others of them, like Otto Stephen Wilson, were screwed up for reasons that had nothing to do with a battlefield. Wilson had served in the Navy for eleven years before being discharged in November 1941, one month before the U.S. went to war.
The reason for Wilson’s discharge from the Navy was the he suffered from sexual psychosis. If you’re wondering why it took them over a decade to diagnose him, it wasn’t until his wife complained to San Diego naval authorities about his “unnatural impulses” that the he came to the attention of his superiors and they gave him the boot. We’ll get to his impulses later.
Otto Stephen Wilson
Following his discharge from the Navy, Wilson had been living in and around L.A. working menial jobs as kitchen help in various cafes. He had a police record in the city beginning with his arrest on March 25, 1943 on suspicion of criminal attack when a young woman, Celeste Trueger, told cops he had grabbed her by the throat on a hotel stairway. His guilty plea on a battery charge earned him 90 days in jail, 30 of which were suspended.
On March 14, 1944, he was arrested on suspicion of burglary and handed over to county authorities to begin a nine month sentence. Wilson was released on good behavior about a month before he slaughtered two women in downtown hotels.
NEXT TIME: The story of Otto Stephen Wilson’s murder spree continues.
The biggest manhunt since the murder of Elizabeth Short continued as cops tried to find the killer of hairstylist Louise Springer.
LAPD conjectured that either Louise Springer had been immediately stunned with a blunt instrument as she sat in her car at a Crenshaw Blvd. parking lot, or she had known the person who murdered her. The two possible theories were supported by the fact that Louise had apparently offered no resistance, nor had she cried out — and, tellingly, her brand new manicure was still pristine.
There were bruises on Louise’s right temple and the top of her head which, in the opinion of Dr. Frederick D. Newbarr, the autopsy surgeon, were hard enough to render her unconscious.
Mrs. Jewell Lorange, left, and Miss Germaine Le Gault presented possible clue to slaying of Mrs. Louise Springer in reporting “three men in black car.”
Of the scant leads uncovered by detectives, an interesting piece of information emerged. Miss Germaine Le Gault and Mrs. Jewell Lorange, who lived directly across from where the death car was found, said that they saw three men “in a big, black car” spend two evenings prior to the murder parked less than 50 feet away from where Springer’s strangled body was found. Unfortunately, the lead never panned out.
More than a week had passed when suddenly the Springer case began to heat up with the arrest of two suspects: Leon Russell, car washer at a service station near the parking lot, and Claud Cox, a jobless Navy vet who had been arrested on a morals complaint made by a young Hollywood woman named Marion Brown. Brown, 18, told cops that Claud Cox, whom she said she knew slightly, took her to his room at 1611 N. Orange Drive and tried to molest her. Cox told cops that he got “a little friendly” but he flatly denied trying to harm the girl.
Marion Brown, 18, said Roscoe Cox, released in Springer murder, tried to attack her.
As cops tracked down leads, Louise Springer’s husband and her 21 month old son mourned the wife and mother as she was laid to rest in a San Jose cemetery.
At least the crime lab was finally able to state conclusively that Louise Springer had not been slugged before she was garroted in her husband’s car. What had initially appeared to be bruises on Mrs. Springer’s head were actually post-mortem tissue changes — the result of the dead woman’s body resting face down for three days in the backseat of the car before being discovered. The evidence suggested that Springer had been murdered in the car, at the parking lot, as she listened to the radio.
Another suspect was arrested and cleared by LAPD homicide detectives. The man was thirty-eight year old Guy Smith who was busted by L.A. Sheriff’s department deputies on a tip from a relative. Nobody can do you dirt like family. In any case, Smith had an alibi for the time of Louise’s murder; however, the law was investigating him in connection with other unsolved crimes, notably morals offenses.
As the case grew colder the cops began to cast around for a new motive in Louise’s murder. Maybe kidnapping and sexual assault weren’t the real motives; maybe someone had a grudge against her, or they were jealous of the attractive brunette.
One of the early suspects in Springer’s murder, Claude Cox, was arrested in September 1949, but the arrest had nothing to do with Louise Springer’s death. According to Mrs. Geneva Cowen, 35, she was walking along Hollywood Blvd. when she heard someone come up behind her. She turned and the man, Claude Cox, rushed up and hit her, hard. Cox said: “I’m going to kill you.” Cowen took a chance and started to run. Cox grabbed for her, but only succeeded in pulling her coat off.
Eventually the leads dried up and the Louise Springer murder, aka, the Green Twig Murder case, went cold.
Laurence and Louise Springer had been in L.A. for only six months before she was murdered, so the widower returned to Northern California to try to put some of his pain behind him.
The single major success in the case came when Dr. Mildred Mathias, UCLA botanist, was finally able to identify the twig that had been so cruelly inserted into Louise Springer’s vagina as belonging to a bottle tree. Dr. Mathias said that the twig had apparently been stripped from a larger branch sometime in the year prior to the crime.
June 16, 1949, the decomposing body of thirty-five year old Louise Springer, a beauty shop operator, was found huddled in the rear seat of her husband’s convertible automobile parked at 125 W. 38th Street. Springer had been garroted.
A length of clothesline was knotted around Springer’s neck, with two knots under her
left ear. Her face was swollen and nearly black. Her brown skirt and yellow suede
jacket had been twisted around her body, with her skirt tangled around her hips.
A stick 14 inches in length and 1/2 inch thick had been violently driven into her vagina .
Laurence Springer had reported his wife missing about sixty hours before her body was discovered. Louise, a hairstylist, had been working until shortly before 9:00 p.m. on the night she disappeared. Laurence had arrived to pick her up from work and take her to their beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills.
He’d parked in a lot on Crenshaw across the street from the shopping center in which Louise worked. The couple walked to their 1948 convertible and Louise, who had spent hours on her feet, pulled off her shoes and put on a pair of slippers that she kept in the car. They were just about to head for home when Louise exclaimed: “Oh, I’ve forgotten my glasses.” Laurence told her to relax and listen to her favorite radio show while he went to retrieve her specs.
Laurence got Louise’s glasses, then stopped to buy a magazine and chat with a friend. He wasn’t gone for more than 10 or 15 minutes, but when he returned both Louise and the car were gone.
Laurence knew that something was wrong, she wouldn’t have driven off and left him. He looked around for a few minutes but he couldn’t find his wife. He called the cops at about 10:00 pm and a few moments later a prowl car met him at the parking lot. The officers looked around but they didn’t find anything either. Laurence accompanied the police to the University Division Station where he filed a missing persons report. He then went home to be with his 21 month old son.
The Springer’s housekeeper and nanny, forty-nine year old divorcee Elizabeth Thompson, nearly collapsed when she received the news of her employer’s disappearance. Thompson told police that the Springers were happily married and that as far as she knew they had no enemies. She said that the couple had sold the beauty shops they owned in Northern California, then moved south to L.A. They hadn’t been in town for very long before Louise was slain.
Thompson injected a note of mystery into the investigation when she said that she had received an obscene phone call from an unknown woman about three months prior to Louise’s disappearance. The caller asked several times for Thompson to identify herself, which she refused to do — then the caller made a lewd proposal and Thompson hung up on her. Cops didn’t believe that the phone call had anything to do with Louise’s disappearance, but during the initial stages of the investigation they couldn’t rule anything out.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the case was that the parking lot from which Louise Springer had been abducted was only about a block away from the lot where the body of Elizabeth Short had been discovered in January 1947!
Women were terrified by the thought that the Black Dahlia’s killer was once again hunting the streets of L.A. for victims. An enormous manhunt, the largest since Short’s murder, was soon underway.
Witnesses in the neighborhood where Louise’s body had been found came forward to say that they had seen a man in the murder car and watched him as he seemed to adjust something on the backseat – which is where Louise’s body had been found covered with a tarp. A man was seen exiting the car, and some people thought that he may have been wearing a military uniform.
Police forensics investigators were having a difficult time trying to determine if Louise had been slugged before she was strangled, or if she’d been sexually assaulted. A relatively new test called the acid phosphatase test was used to try to determine if semen was present, but the test was inconclusive due to decomposition.
The main piece of physical evidence, the twig that was violently inserted into Louise’s vagina, was becoming a huge problem for investigators — it couldn’t be identified. Bonnie Templeton, curator of the botany department at the County Museum, had been called in to lend her expetise in identifying the twig. She said that it could have come from “four of five” species of trees or shrub.
It was beginning to look as if the LAPD was going to have another unsolved homicide of a woman on the books.
NEXT TIME: The investigation into the murder of Louis Springer continues.