The Black Dahlia: Jane Doe Identified

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.

00010486_dahlia bodyCaptain 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.

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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

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.

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 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.

Robert "Red" Manley. Photo likely taken by Perry Fowler. Courtesy LAPL.

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.

NEXT TIME:   A suspect is arrested.

 

 

 

 

 

The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City

The First with the Latest! Exhibit Screen Saver“The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City,” explores some of the most deranged L.A. stories that were covered by Agness “Aggie” Underwood, a local reporter who rose through the ranks to become the first woman city editor for a major metropolitan newspaper. Curated by yours truly, Joan Renner (Author/Editrix/Publisher of the Deranged L.A. Crimes website, Board Member of Photo Friends), and featuring photos from the Los Angeles Public Library’s Herald Examiner collection.

Join us for light refreshments and brief remarks as we celebrate the reporter who helped the Los Angeles Herald be “The First with the Latest.” An exhibit catalog featuring many never-before-published images from the Herald’s files will be available for purchase.

The reception is on Thursday, August 13, 2015, 6pm-8pm at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. Christina Rice,Senior Librarian, Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; Stephanie Bluestein, Assistant Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge, and I  will be making remarks at about 7pm.

I hope to see you there!

Buy the companion book from my Recommendations in the sidebar. 

Aggie Underwood: In Memoriam

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Portrait of Aggie Underwood taken by Perry Fowler. Courtesy of Scott Martinez.

Agness “Aggie” Underwood passed away 29 years ago today. We never met but she has had a profound influence on my life, particularly during the last several years.

I’ve been obsessed with crime novels and true crime since I was a kid, and my compulsion to read it has never diminished. Writing about true crime is a relatively new endeavor for me and I attribute that, in large part, to Aggie’s influence. She is the inspiration for this blog and for the Deranged L.A. Crimes Facebook page, and I am proud to have authored her Wikipedia page — she was long over due for recognition.

As I’ve dug deeper into the crimes that have shocked and, in some ways, defined Los Angeles, I’ve felt Aggie’s presence.  Aggie worked in Los Angeles from the late 1920s through the late 1960s — and for nearly two decades she was a reporter. My interest in history and crime set me on the path to write about it, but it’s been my admiration for Aggie that has made me want to tackle many of the same cases that she wrote about.

I gave a lecture at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles on June 29th entitled SLEEPING BEAUTIES: DERANGED L.A. CRIMES FROM THE NOTEBOOK OF AGGIE UNDERWOOD — here is an excerpt from my presentation. I hope you enjoy it.

Thanks for everything, Aggie.

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In 1926 as a young wife and mother Aggie had no interest in working outside the home, but she wanted a pair of silk stockings in the worst way. When her husband, Harry, told her that there wasn’t enough money in the budget for her to buy them, Aggie said she’d get a job and earn the money.

Aggie & Harry [Photo courtesy CSUN Special Collections]

Aggie & Harry [Photo courtesy CSUN Special Collections]

Aggie quickly realized that she may have put her foot in her mouth rather than into a new pair of silk stockings; she didn’t have a clue about where to find work. Fate intervened when a friend of hers, who worked at the THE RECORD, phoned and told her that the newspaper needed someone to temporarily operate the switchboard.  Aggie took the job and it would turn out to be one of the most important decisions of her life.

Aggie came to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the newsroom and she loved being in the midst of a breaking story.  In December 1927, the city was horrified when William Edward Hickman, who called himself “The Fox” murdered and then butchered twelve year old school girl, Marian Parker. Hickman fled after the murder and the resulting manhunt was one of the biggest in the West.

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Marian Parker [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

In her autobiography Aggie recalled how she felt when they got the word that Hickman had been captured in Oregon:

“As the bulletins pumped in and the city-side worked furiously at localizing, I couldn’t keep myself in my niche.  I committed the unpardonable sin of looking over shoulders of reporters as they wrote.  I got under foot.  In what I thought was exasperation, Rod Brink, the city editor, said:

‘All right, if you’re so interested, take this dictation.’ 

I typed the dictation—part of the main running story.  I was sunk.  I wanted to be a reporter.”

She eventually got her wish and began reporting on stories for THE RECORD. Smart and hardworking, she made a name for herself locally and was courted by William Randolph Hearst for his publishing empire.

She resisted his overtures (and even his offers of more money) because she was happy at THE RECORD. The smaller paper gave her the opportunity to learn all aspects of the business – she thought working for Hearst might pigeon-hole her.

It wasn’t until THE RECORD folded in 1935 that Aggie agreed to become a reporter for THE HERALD.  She said that she had heard the term “working for Hearst” uttered contemptuously; but she had been too busy learning her craft to pay much attention to the gibes.

Aggie interviewing a mourner at Angelus Temple.

Aggie interviewing a mourner at Angelus Temple.

She said:

“…I did not feel I stigmatized myself when I accepted the HERALD-EXPRESS offer.  The invitation was a life line, and one did not need to be bereft of ideals to tie onto it.”

In her 1949 autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, Aggie described what it was like to be a reporter on the Herald:

“The Herald-Express is too fast for the sort of reporter who flounders when he is required to produce a new lead on a running story for each upcoming edition “

Aggie never floundered. She had reported from the scenes of disasters like the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, and she’d also covered some of the most heinous crimes committed in the city.

1933 Long Beach earthquake [Photo courtesy LAPL]

1933 Long Beach earthquake [Photo courtesy LAPL]

During the 1930s there were several daily papers in Los Angeles and Aggie had to be a fierce competitor.  In her autobiography Aggie wrote about the time she beat another reporter to some photos:

“Once, on a rather cheap murder and suicide, Casey Shawhan, then an Examiner reporter, and I were rifling a bureau drawer for pictures—no we weren’t housebreaking—when we grasped a pile of photographs simultaneously.  The tug of war was unequal, for Casey had played football at U.S.C.  So I kicked him in the shin.  He let go of the pictures and, clasping his bruise, danced on his other leg, howling, ‘O-o-h, gahdammit.  I’ll get even with you, Underwood.  You wait and see.’”  I didn’t wait.  I was scurrying off to the office with the pictures.”

Aggie thought of herself as a general assignment reporter; however, she gained a reputation as a crime reporter.  Good detectives are observers and so are good reporters, which may explain why stories circulated that Aggie had solved crimes.

aggie_harry raymond_Page_29

Aggie interviewing an unknown bad dame at Lincoln Heights Jail. [Photo courtesy of CSUN Special Collections]

In late 1939, Aggie went out on a story that appeared to be a tragic accident – a family of five had been killed when their car had tumbled hundreds of feet down a mountainside near the Mt. Wilson Observatory.  There was one survivor, the husband and father of the victims, Laurel Crawford.

laurel_crawfordAggie wasn’t allowed to interview him because cops felt he’d been through enough; however, Aggie made a deal with one of the deputies who allowed her to listen in while Crawford was being questioned.  Aggie observed the man, and she had a hunch.  One of the Sheriff’s department homicide investigators asked Aggie:

“What do you think of it, Aggie?”

She didn’t hesitate, and replied:

“I think it smells.  He’s guilty as hell.”

Aggie had observed not only Crawford’s demeanor, which led her to believe his display of grief was disingenuous, but she had also noticed that his shoes weren’t scuffed, and his clothing wasn’t dirty, torn or wrinkled, which made his story of climbing down the mountain to the wreckage of the family sedan pretty tough to believe. Additionally, Crawford had stated that he had picked up the body of one of his daughters and held her, but there was no evidence of blood on his clothing.  Aggie’s Spidey-Sense was engaged.freespidey2sense2

A thorough investigation of the case proved that Crawford had taken out insurance policies on each of the victims, worth a total of $30,500 (that’s over half a million in today’s money!)  Laurel Crawford was sentenced to four consecutive life terms with a recommendation that he never be paroled.

For years Aggie covered everything from celebrity trials to gruesome murders. In January 1947 arguably the most infamous murder case in L.A.’s history broke; the mutilation slaying of twenty-two year old Elizabeth Short.

Elizabeth Short aka The Black Dahlia [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Elizabeth Short aka The Black Dahlia [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Underwood was assigned to the story. There have been several people over the years who have claimed credit for naming the victim The Black Dahlia; and Aggie was one of them.  Aggie said that the Black Dahlia tag was dug out on a day when everyone was combing blind alleys. She decided to check in with Ray Giese, a Det. Lt. in LAPD homicide, to see if any stray fact may have been overlooked.

According to Aggie, he 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?  She LOVED it!

Aggie interviewed Robert “Red” Manley, the first serious suspect in the Black Dahlia case, and she was prepared to follow the story to its conclusion when without warning, she was benched.

Robert "Red" Manley [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Robert “Red” Manley [Photo courtesy LAPL]

After a couple of days of cooling her heels in the newsroom she decided to bring in her embroidery hoop.  Pretty soon she heard snickers.  Aggie said that one of her colleagues laughed out loud and 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!”

Aggie was quickly reassigned to the Dahlia case, and just as quickly yanked off of it. It was then that she was given the news that she was being promoted to city editor!  Aggie said she never understood the timing of her promotion – she would have preferred to follow the Dahlia story until it went cold.  But it was an important moment in her career and for women in journalism – Aggie was the first woman in the U.S. to become the City Editor of a major metropolitan newspaper!

*********************************************************************

P.S. I’m currently researching the Laurel Crawford case  — it’s diabolical.

Aggie and the Herald-Express

LAPL Photo

Photo of Hearst radio car is courtesy of LAPL.

Smart and hardworking, Aggie began to earn a reputation as one of the best reporters in town and she was eventually courted by William Randolph Hearst for his publishing empire. She resisted his overtures (and even his offers of more money) because she was happy at the Los Angeles Record. Aggie said in her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, that she had heard the term “working for Hearst” uttered contemptuously; but she was too busy learning her craft to pay much attention to the gibes.

Photo is courtesy of LAPL.

Exterior view of the Herald-Express Building, that was formerly known as the Evening Herald. It was designed by architect Julia Morgan and built in 1925; it is a California Mediterranean style with Churrigueresque detailing. The Herald-Express Building is located on Georgia Street, between 12th and Pico streets. Photo date: November 8, 1937.
Photo and description are courtesy of LAPL.

It wasn’t until the Record was sold to Illustrated Daily News in January 1935 that Aggie agreed to become a reporter for the Herald-Express. Even though she’d been assured of a raise, and told that her place at the Record was secure, Aggie decided to accept a position at the Herald.  About working for William Randolph Hearst, Aggie said: “…I did not feel I stigmatized myself when I accepted the Herald-Express offer.  The invitation was a life line, and one did not need to be bereft of ideals to tie onto it.”

underwood_3down

Now all she needed was a story.