The Black Dahlia: Robert “Red” Manley

In his 1991 autobiography, “Reporters”: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman, Will Fowler recalled that one of his colleagues, Baker Conrad, had noticed a telegram among Elizabeth Short’s effects.  The Examiner’s editor, Jim Richardson, dispatched Fowler to the address on the telegram, 8010 Mountain View Avenue in South Gate.

When Fowler arrived at the bungalow court he was greeted by “A strikingly beautiful red-haired young woman.”  Fowler may not have actually said he was a cop, but he let the woman, Harriet Manley, believe he was law enforcement.

Robert "Red" Manley with his wife Harriette. [LAPL Photo]

Robert “Red” Manley with his wife Harriette. [LAPL Photo]

During her conversation with Fowler, Harriet said that Red had phoned her from San Francisco after seeing his name in the newspapers in connection with Elizabeth Short’s murder.  Red tried to reassure Harriet that he’d had nothing to do with the slaying and told her that he “loved her more than any man ever loved his wife.”

At about 10:00 pm on January 19th a couple of LAPD sergeants, J.W. Wass and Sam Flowers, were staking out the home of Red’s employer in Eagle Rock where the wanted man was expected to arrive shortly.  When Red pulled up in his sedan the officers approached him with their guns drawn. An Examiner photographer was there to capture the arrest.  Red looks like a deer in the headlights as Sgt. Flowers handcuffs him.

Robert "Red" Manley busted in Eagle Rock. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Robert “Red” Manley busted in Eagle Rock. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Aggie Underwood interviewed Red early in the morning of January 20th at LAPD’s Hollenbeck station. She recalled the interview in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman:

“You look as if you’ve been on a drunk,” I said in sizing up the suspect. I was ready to talk sympathetically about hangovers.  That approach won’t work always, but Red looked like a guy reporters might meet at a bar and find a congenial drinking companion, possible criminal or not.

“This is worse than any I’ve ever been on,” he replied.  Perry Fowler, the photographer assigned to the case with me, caught the cue we had used repeatedly in softening subjects and stepped forward with a cigarette, which Manley took gratefully.

“Look, fella,” I continued as he inhaled.  “You’re in one hell of a spot.  You’re in a jam and it’s no secret.  If you’re as innocent as you say you are, tell the whole storey; and if you haven’t anything to hide, people can’t help knowing you’re telling the truth.  That way, you’ll get it over with all at once and it won’t be kicking around to cause you more trouble.”

Red didn’t need any further encouragement to unburden himself to Aggie. He told her how he’d initially picked Elizabeth up on a San Diego street corner. How they had spent an “erotically uneventful” night in a motel and how he had eventually dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel on January 9th.

Red finished his tale with: “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”

Robert Manley in high school c. 1940.  Photo from Ancestry.

Robert Manley in high school c. 1940. Photo from Ancestry.

Aggie believed Red was innocent, and shared her gut feelings with the police. Red had been forthcoming in his interview and Aggie knew right away that he wasn’t a killer. Red was just a frightened man with goofy ideas about love tests.

If there was one thing that Aggie detested it was a sob sister.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a sob sister is a female journalist who writes overly sentimental copy. That sort of journalism was never Aggie’s thing. She said: “A sob sister could have wept with and over Manley, interpolating, editorial gushes to prove what a big bleeding heart beat in her breast.  To hell with that.  I’d rather have a fistful—an armload—of good solid facts.”

Aggie at her desk c. 1949.  Photo courtesy LAPL. [Yes, that it a baseball bat on her desk. Aggie had a way of dealing with overzealous Hollywood agents.

Aggie at her desk c. 1949. Photo courtesy LAPL. [Yes, that’s a baseball bat on her desk. Aggie had a way of dealing with over zealous Hollywood press agents.]

It was the armload of facts that made Aggie’s interview with Red Manley so compelling. In fact her city editor, who normally cautioned her to keep her copy short, let the entire interview run without a ton of photos. He knew a good interview when he read one.

Why, then, in the midst of covering of the murder was Aggie unceremoniously yanked off the story?  Without any warning or explanation Aggie suddenly found herself benched.  The city editor had pulled her off the story and let her cool her heels in the newsroom without a thing to do.

Aggie spent a couple of miserable days at her desk bored out of her mind. Then she got pissed-off enough to fight back. She didn’t get huffy or raise her voice. She brought in an embroidery project.  Shortly the other newsroom denizens were snickering. One of the other newswomen, Caroline Walker, said: “What do you think of that?  Here’s the best reporter on the Herald, on the biggest day of one of the best stories in years—sitting in the office doing fancy work!”

The next day Aggie was reassigned to the story—only to be pulled off a second time.  What the hell was going on?

NEXT TIME: Aggie gets a big surprise as the investigation into Elizabeth Short’s murder continues.

The Black Dahlia: January 15, 1947, A Werewolf on the Loose

dahlia_herald_1_doyouknow

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.

Betty Bersinger

Betty Bersinger

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or maybe even a live nude woman who had been drinking and had passed out; that particular area was known as a lover’s lane. But it quickly dawned on her that she was in a waking nightmare and that 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 reporters have claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One of the people who made that claim was reporter Will Fowler. Fowler said that he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner were approaching Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard a voice on their 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?

In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first reporter on the scene. There is some information to suggest that  actually a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first. After all these years it is impossible to state with certainty who turned up first–and does it really matter?

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Aggie at the Dahlia body dump site. January 15, 1947.

Here is Aggie’s description of what she saw that day on South Norton.

“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.

Detectives Harry Hansen [L} and Finis Brown [R] examine Black Dahlia crime scene.

Detectives Harry Hansen [L} and Finis Brown [R] examine Black Dahlia crime scene.

Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, were in charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.

dahlia_herald_1_werewolfThe most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three year old transient, Cecil French. He’d been busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.

Cops were further alarmed when they discovered that French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, determined that the floor mats of French’s car were free of blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder.

In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying due to the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown young 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.

REFERENCES: 

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.