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.

Here’s to a Deranged 2016!

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HAPPY NEW YEAR!      [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

  So, what’s in store for Deranged L.A. Crimes in 2016?  I’m glad you asked.

It’s nearly time to wrap up The First with the Latest!: Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City — the photo exhibit I’m curating at Central Library downtown. It opened in August and the official closing date is January 10th (I have been told it may be up until the 17th, but don’t count on it).  If you haven’t visited the History and Genealogy Department where the exhibit is on display I urge you to do so.  If you can’t make it in person you can purchase the companion book (same title as the exhibit) in the Library’s bookstore or via Amazon.

The First with the Latest! Exhibit Screen SaverOf course it pleases me no end that the exhibit received some very good press. It was the subject of an article by Tanja M. Laden for Atlas Obscura, and another by Christina Rice for the Huffington Post. I was interviewed about the exhibit by Steve Chiotakis for Which Way, LA? on KCRW, a local NPR station. It is gratifying for me to play a part in renewing interest in Aggie’s life and introducing her to a new audience. Her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman is in such demand that it is wait-listed at Los Angeles Public Library. Not bad for for a book published over 60 years ago.

There is one accomplishment that has been attributed to Aggie which needs to be addressed; and that is the claim that she was the first woman to become city editor of a major U.S. newspaper.  It simply isn’t true. Journalist and historian Larry Harnisch discovered two women who preceded Aggie and he wrote about them in his Daily Mirror blog. It’s important to note that Aggie never made the claim about herself.  While she didn’t refute it (who would?) she said that she had neither the time nor the inclination to verify it.  I still consider Aggie to be a ground breaking journalist–you don’t have to be the first to be the best.

Det. Sgt. Ned Lovretovich

Detective  Ned Lovretovich, LASD. Here being examined after an attempt was made on his life as he testified in court.

Over the next year I plan to include tales featuring some of the outstanding detectives who have served with the Sheriff’s Department and with the Los Angeles Police Department in the past.  I was inspired to pursue the topic after attending the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau’s holiday party a few weeks ago. Detectives in law enforcement today have one of the most difficult and gut-wrenching jobs on the planet.  I will devote some of this coming year to honoring them by delving into the history of some of their predecessors.

Since the blog debuted on December 17, 2012 I have written over 400 posts, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of historic crime in L.A. One thing is for certain, I’ll never run out of material. In addition to being fascinated with detectives, I’ve run across several defense attorneys who were every bit as colorful as the men and women they represented and I am looking forward to telling some of their stories over the next year too.

A surprising consequence of the blog, surprising to me anyway, has been the correspondence I’ve received from family members of the victims and perpetrators I’ve written about. If there anyone who believes that a murder committed decades ago doesn’t continue to affect family members, even if they were too young to recall the crime, or weren’t born when it was committed, I’ve got news for you–there is no end to the pain. I’ve learned that the best thing I can do is to provide an open ear. The people who contact me just need someone to listen. Some of what they tell me is so difficult to deal with that I have to fight the urge to run away. The reason I don’t run is because I believe that the person who contacted me needed someone with whom to share the burden. It’s a small thing that I can do and it is my hope that each of the people who has reached out to me has found some measure of peace.

My personal plans for 2016 mirror my professional plans. Because I love what I do there’s virtually no separation between work and play for me. I spend a lot of time on this blog, but I also spend time volunteering at the Los Angeles Police Museum in Highland Park. Last year I was involved in creating the Museum’s first book LAPD ’53 by James Ellroy and Glynn Martin. To be a part of the book team (working alongside James Ellroy–are you kidding?!) was an amazing experience and I’m proud that the book spent 4 weeks on the L.A. Times Bestseller list!  I’ve learned a lot working with the museum’s Executive Director, Glynn Martin. He is the ideal steward for the place. I’ve been there for over six years and hope to be there for many more.

In addition to working with the L.A. Police Museum, I volunteer with the Sheriff’s Museum too.  Lately I’ve been shadowing the estimable Mike Fratantoni, learning all I can about the rich history of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Mike is the department’s historian and is a walking encyclopedia of Deranged L.A. Crimes. There are major changes in the works for the Sheriff’s Museum. I’ll keep you posted.

Elizabeth Short

The 69th anniversary of L.A.’s most notorious unsolved murder, the slaying of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, is coming up. As I have for the past few years I’ll begin a series of posts on January 9th–the day she vanished.

I hope you’re looking forward to another year of Deranged L.A. Crimes as much as I am.

Best wishes for the new year.

Joan