The Black Dahlia: Could A Woman Be The Killer?

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Sketch of Jane Doe #1 prior to her ID as Elizabeth Short.

Max Handler with Det. Ed Barrett (in hat and glasses). [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Max Handler with Det. Ed Barrett (in hat and glasses). [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Dozens of men had been interviewed as possible suspects in the murder of Elizabeth Short. None of the interviews had 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 he admitted that his confession was false and that he wanted 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.

Daniel S. Voorhies, a 33 year old army vet, also confessed to killing Short. He said that he’d 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 that he 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.

False confessor, Minnie Sepulveda. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

False confessor, Minnie Sepulveda. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

A gal named Minnie Sepulveda stepped up and said that she had killed the Black Dahlia. She hadn’t.

Mrs. Marie Grieme said that she had heard a Chicago woman confess to the Black Dahlia murder. Her story didn’t lead anywhere.

Even though none of the women who had confessed had been guilty, the cops were beginning to think that it wasn’t out of the question that Short’s slayer had been a woman. 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 had been 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’d been 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.

dahlia_herald_16_women_killersWinnie 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 began to get a little ripe and leak bodily fluids in the baggage claim section of a local train station.

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Winnie Ruth Judd’s trunks. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

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 gras, she rolled a 50 lb. boulder on top of the corpse.

Body of Alberta Meadows -- victim of Clara Phillips' wrath. [Photo courtesy of UCLA]

Body of Alberta Meadows — victim of Clara Phillips’ wrath. [Photo courtesy of UCLA]

So, the notion that a woman could be Short’s killer wasn’t far-fetched at all. The Herald-Express had featured a series of columns written by psychologist Alice La Vere. La Vere had 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 had 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-one year old profile holds up rather well.

What I find interesting about La Vere’s profile of a female perpetrator is that she said that the woman would be older than Short. In recent years an older woman did become an integral part of a theory about the crime.

It is a theory put forward by researcher, Larry Harnisch. Larry wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times on the fiftieth anniversary of Short’s death. Subsequently, he has done a lot more digging into the case and has 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 had left his wife for his mistress, Alexandra Partyka, also a medical doctor. Partyka had emigrated to the U.S. and wasn’t licensed to practice medicine, but she did assist Bayley in his practice.

bayley_partyka2Following Bayley’s death in January 1948, Partyka and Dr. Bayley’s wife, Ruth, fought over control of his estate. Mrs. Bayley claimed that Partyka had been 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.

The Wilshire Prowler, Conclusion

bashor-doomed_picDonald Bashor, 27, confessed to dozens of local burglaries and to the bludgeon slayings of Karil Graham and Laura Lindsay. Under intense police questioning Donald didn’t admit to any further offenses, and as far as investigators could tell he’d revealed the extent of his crimes.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Finnerty issued a subpoena for Officer Donald C. Wesley, who had shot and wounded Bashor during his attempt to evade capture. Among the others called to appear before the grand jury were Detective Lieutenant Jack McCreadie, and autopsy surgeons Dr. Frederick Newbarr and Dr. Gerald K. Ridge.

Bashor was indicted on two counts of murder and two counts of burglary. The burglary charges stemmed from the looting of the apartment at 215 South Carondelet Street shared by Dorothy Cowan, Marcella Drews and Eunis Wingel. Lester E. Olson of 325 South Occidental Boulevard, was also burglarized by Bashor. Both crimes were committed about thirty minutes prior to the murder of Karil Graham.

The twenty-seven year-old killer pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and his trial was set for August 14, 1956 in Judge Allen T. Lynch’s court. Because of the insanity plea Bashor would undergo examination by alienists for the State and the defense before the trial.

There are often delays in murder trials and Bashor’s was no exception, it didn’t get underway until October 4, 1956.  The four alienists who examined Bashor deterined that he was sane when he committed the murders.

With the ultimate penalty on the table it was going to be a tough trial. But before the jury could be sworn in the defendant interrupted the proceedings to enter a guilty plea. Terrence Cooney, Bashor’s attorney, was as dumbfounded by his client’s move as was everyone else in the courtroom. Cooney didn’t want any part of placing a banana peel between his client and the gas chamber so he refused to go forward. Bashor fired him.

With Cooney still standing next to Bashor, Superior Judge Allen T. Lynch explained to the defendant that the law prohibits acceptance of a guilty plea in a capital case without benefit of counsel. Cooney must have decided to bend to his client’s will because Judge Lynch accepted the guilty plea. Along with the plea, Judge Lynch also accepted responsibility for determining Bashor’s sentence.

On October 16, 1956, Judge Lynch was ready to pronounce sentence. The courtroom was quiet as the judge began to speak. “This is the most difficult duty I have ever had to perform. For the last four days I have been able to think of nothing else. These were cruel, brutal killings. I find no mitigating circumstances.”

According to newspaper reports Judge Lynch appeared to have difficulty speaking. He paused for several long beats and then continued. “On counts one and three (the two murders) the court sentences you to suffer the death penalty. May God have mercy on your soul!”bashor-doomed

It took about a year for the California State Supreme Court to review the automatic appeal and affirm the death sentence in Bashor’s case.

On October 10, 1957, the night before his scheduled execution, Donald Bashor refused a last meal and then he slept from 1:05 a.m. to 7:05 a.m. When he awoke he had toast and coffee. He read a handful of letters he had recently received and then turned to the Bible.

Photograph by Edward Gamer / Los Angeles Times Senior Deputy George Coenen, left, and Sgt. Howard Earle, right, escort convicted killer Donald Keith Bashor on his trip to San Quentin, Oct. 25, 1956. Bashor's story was the basis of a "Playhouse 90" episode by Jules Maitland. Bashor's slaying of Graham also plays a prominent role in Jack Webb's "The Badge," a not terribly accurate book reissued in 2005.

Photograph by Edward Gamer / Los Angeles Times Senior Deputy George Coenen, left, and Sgt. Howard Earle, right, escort convicted killer Donald Keith Bashor on his trip to San Quentin, Oct. 25, 1956. Bashor’s story was the basis of a “Playhouse 90” episode by Jules Maitland. Bashor’s slaying of Graham also plays a prominent role in Jack Webb’s “The Badge,” a not terribly accurate book reissued in 2005.

Unlike many killers, Donald Bashor seemed genuinely remorseful for the murders. His last words were: “I’m glad my crimes are coming to an end. I am sorry I cannot undo the horrible things I did.”

Gas began to fill San Quentin’s death chamber at 10:03 a.m. and at 10:12 a.m. Donald Keith Bashor was pronounced dead.

EPILOGUE

There was something about Donald Keith Bashor that set him apart from many other killers. It may have been his movie star good looks, or it may have been the fact that he  sought atonement for his crimes in the gas chamber. Whatever it was, Bashor’s story became an episode of the prime time TV series PLAYHOUSE 90 in 1958.  Bashor was portrayed by Tab Hunter and the episode was narrated by former Los Angeles Mirror columnist Paul Coates. The highly rated episode was directed by Arthur Penn who would later direct such great films as The Miracle Worker and Bonnie & Clyde.

The episode was not without behind-the-scenes drama. One of the sponsors for the  episode, entitled “Portrait Of A Murderer”, was the Southern California Gas Company. They wanted to eliminate Bashor’s trip to the gas chamber from the script. Producer Martin Manulis flatly refused and the episode aired as written.

Donald Bashor’s story also claimed the attention of ten-year-old James Ellroy.  In 1958, his father gave him a copy of THE BADGE written by TV cop Jack Webb who portrayed Sgt. Joe Friday on DRAGNET. Bashor’s case is the first one covered in the book. In large part it was THE BADGE that inspired Ellroy to become a novelist. It definitely sparked his interest in Los Angeles crime.  Now it’s time for a shameless plug — I was fortunate to work with James Ellroy, Glynn Martin, Megan Martin, Nathan Marsak, and Mike Fratatoni on the book LAPD ’53. The book project was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

EXTRA CREDIT

First, let me direct you to a clip from James Ellroy’s CITY OF DEMONS (2011) in which he glibly recounts the Bashor case.

Next, a far more serious scene from the PLAYHOUSE 90 production of PORTRAIT OF A MURDERER

Film Noir Friday: Bringing Darkness to Light [2006]

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Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is BRINGING DARKNESS TO LIGHT–a documentary on film noir. James Ellroy, Eddie Muller, and other noir aficionados are interviewed–and there are some fantastic film clips.  Enjoy the film!

IMDB film summary:

Film Noir burrows into the mind; it’s disorienting, intriguing and enthralling. Noir brings us into a gritty underworld of lush morbidity, providing intimate peeks at its tough, scheming dames, mischievous misfits and flawed men – all caught in the wicked web of a twisted fate.

Film Noir Friday on Saturday: Dragnet [1966]

Harry-Morgan-jack-webbWelcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is DRAGNET 1966, starring Jack Webb and Harry Morgan.

I’ve show this feature before but I thought that since I’m attending the JACK WEBB AWARDS event tonight it would be appropriate to show it again. I’m looking forward to the evening. It will, once again, be hosted by James Ellroy.

Dragnet 1966 is a made-for-TV movie that initiated the return of the Dragnet series to television. It was intended to be the TV pilot of Dragnet 1967 but was not aired as originally planned. It was eventually broadcast in 1969.

The Internet Movie Database says:

Sgt. Joe Friday is called back from vacation to work with his partner, Off. Bill Gannon, on a missing persons case. Two amateur female models and a young war widow have vanished, having been last seen with one J. Johnson. In the course of tracking down Johnson and the young ladies, the detectives wind up with two different descriptions of the suspect, one of which closely resembles a dead body found in a vacant lot. But the dead man, later identified as Charles LeBorg of France, proves not to be J. Johnson, when a third young model disappears.

The story is based on the Harvey Glatman case which I covered in a series of posts.

Mob Era L.A.

I’m fortunate to be affiliated with the L.A. Police Museum. I’ve been there for three years as an archivist and have been involved in all sort of great projects. In addition to my archiving duties I helped to curate the limited run Black Dahlia exhibit that was open earlier this year.

Because I know that you are all fans of true crime, and of fact-based fiction, I want to tell you about a terrific event that the LAPM has planned for January 9, 2013 — an evening with James Ellroy [L.A. Confidential, et al.], and Paul Lieberman [Gangster Squad]! Space is limited so if you’re interested act soon to avoid disappointment. You will not want to miss this!  I’m going to be there — I hope that you will join me.

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