Please join me at Mitzi Szereto’s Facebook page on Saturday, February 12 at 2pm Pacific, 5pm Eastern, 10pm UK, 11pm CEST, and Sunday 9am AEDT, for a special livestream event for “The Best New True Crime Stories: Partners in Crime.” I’ll be chatting with editor Mitzi Szereto about my story, THE WAGES OF SIN: THE BALLAD OF MARGIE AND DALE.
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 PRIVATE DETECTIVE 62, starring William Powell and Margaret Lindsay.
In France, United States State Department employee Donald Free is caught trying to steal French state papers and is deported. Because of the publicity, Donald is released from his government job and has a hard time finding another because jobs are scarce during the Depression. One day, he walks into the Peerless Detective Agency, run by the incompetent and crooked Dan Hogan. Hogan does not have customers and Donald does not have a license, so Donald proposes a partnership.
U.S. Army Corporal Joseph Dumais [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
On February 8, 1947, the Herald announced “Corporal Dumais Is Black Dahlia Killer.” Could the women of Los Angeles stop holding their collective breath?
The Herald story began:
“Army Corporal Joseph Dumais, 29, of Fort Dix, N.J., is definitely the murderer of ‘The Black Dahlia,’ army authorities at Fort Dix announced today.”
Dumais, a combat veteran, returned from leave wearing blood-stained trousers with his pockets crammed full of clippings about Short’s murder. Dumais made a 50-page confession. He claimed he dated Elizabeth Short five days before the discovery of her body—then he suffered a mental blackout.
The good-looking corporal seemed like the real deal. He told the cops, “When I get drunk, I get pretty rough with women.” Unfortunately, when police checked his story against known facts, the confession didn’t hold up. They sent Dumais to a psychiatrist.
Two days after Dumais’s false confession, the Herald put out an Extra with the headline: “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body”.
Jeanne Thomas French’s life was as fascinating as a Hollywood screenplay. She was an aviatrix, a pioneer airline hostess, a movie bit player and an Army Nurse. And at one time she was the wife of a Texas oilman. The way she died was monstrous.
A construction worker H.C. Shelby was walking to work around 8 o’clock that morning along Grand View Blvd. when he saw a small pile of woman’s clothing in weeds a few feet from the sidewalk. Curious, Shelby walked over and lifted a fur-trimmed coat and discovered French’s nude body.
French was savagely beaten, her body covered with bruises. She suffered blows to her head, probably administered by a metal blunt instrument—maybe a socket wrench. As bad as they were, the blows to her head were not fatal. Jeanne died from hemorrhage and shock due to fractured ribs and multiple injuries caused by stomping—there were heel prints on her chest. It took a long time for French to die. The coroner said that she slowly bled to death.
Mercifully, Jeanne was unconscious after the first blows to her head so she never saw her killer take the deep red lipstick from her purse, and she didn’t feel the pressure of his improvised pen as he wrote on her torso: “Fuck You, B.D.” (later thought to be “P.D.”) and “Tex”.
French was last seen seated at the first stool nearest the entrance in the Pan American Bar at 11155 West Washington Place. The bartender later told cops that a smallish man with a dark complexion was seated next to her. The bartender assumed they were a couple because he saw them leave together at closing time.
Police book Jeanne’s estranged husband, Frank, on suspicion of murder. The night before she died, Jeanne visited Frank at his apartment and they’d quarreled. Frank said Jeanne had started the fight, then hit him with her purse and left. He said that was the last time he saw her. He told the cops she’d been drinking.
David Wrather, Jeanne’s twenty-five-year-old son from a previous marriage, came in for questioning. As he was leaving the police station, he saw his step-father for the first time since he’d learned of his mother’s death. David confronted Frank and said: “Well, I’ve told them the truth. If you’re guilty, there’s a God in heaven who will take care of you.” Frank didn’t hesitate, he looked at David and said: “I swear to God I didn’t kill her.”
Frank was cleared when his landlady testified, he was in his apartment at the time of the murder, and when his shoe prints didn’t match those found at the scene of the crime.
Cops followed the few leads they had. French’s cut-down 1929 Ford roadster was found in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant, The Piccadilly at Washington Pl. and Sepulveda Blvd. Witnesses said that the car had been there since 3:15 the morning of the murder, and a night watchman said it was left there by a man. The police could never find out where Jeanne was between 3:15 a.m. and the time of her death, which was estimated at 6 a.m.
Scores of sex degenerates were rousted, but each was eliminated as a suspect. Officers also checked out local Chinese restaurants after the autopsy revealed that French had eaten Chinese food shortly before her death.
French’s slaying, known as the “Red Lipstick Murder” case, went cold.
Three years later, following a Grand Jury investigation into the many unsolved murders of women in L.A., investigators from the D.A.’s office were assigned to look into the case.
Frank Jemison and Walter Morgan worked the French case for almost eight months, but they could never close it. They came up with one hot suspect, a painter who worked for the French’s four months prior to the murder. He admitted to dating Jeanne several times. The cops discovered the painter burned several pairs of his shoes—he wore the same size as the ones that left marks on Jeanne’s body. Police cleared him despite his odd behavior.
There were so many unsolved murders of women in the 1940s that in 1949, a Grand Jury investigation was launched into the failure of the police to solve the cases.
There have been no leads in Jeanne French’s case in decades; however, there is always a detective assigned to Elizabeth Short’s murder case. A couple of years ago, it was a female detective, and she received several calls a month. To this day, there are people who want to confess.
The detective eliminates the potential suspects with a simple question: “What year were you born?
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 BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN, starring Mark Stevens, Edmond O’Brian and Gale Storm.
Rocky Barnes and Daniel Purvis, two policemen working the night shift, have been partners since they served in the war together. Although Rocky believes that even criminals have some good inside, Daniel is more cynical. Daniel is particularly anxious to capture petty criminal Ritchie Garris, but is hampered by the fact that the victims of Garris’ strong-arm tactics refuse to testify against him. Rocky is more interested in the face that belongs to the sultry voice of the night dispatcher than he is in Garris and soon discovers that the attractive voice is that of Katherine Mallory, a policeman’s daughter and the captain’s secretary.
Elizabeth Short’s murder dominated the front pages of the Evening Herald & Express for days following the discovery of her body.
Even in a murder case as well-publicized as the Black Dahlia, the more time that elapses following the crime, the fewer clues there are on which to report. That the case was going cold didn’t dampen the Herald’s enthusiastic coverage. The paper sought psychiatrists, psychologists, and mystery writers who would attempt, each in his/her own way, to analyze the case and fill column space in the paper as they, and the cops, waited for a break. Decades before the founding of FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), shrinks and writers whose work appeared in the Herald engaged in speculative profiles of both the victim and her killer.
The Herald tapped Beverly Hills psychologist, Alice La Vere, to contribute her analysis of the victim and slayer. The paper introduced La Vere as “…one of the nation’s most noted consulting psychologists”. La Vere regularly spoke to various organizations about the problems of returning veterans. According to the newspaper, Miss La Vere would give readers: “an analysis of the motives which led to the torture murder of beautiful 22-year-old Elizabeth Short”. La Vere’s analysis seems very contemporary.
Here is an excerpt from her profile of Short’s personality:
“Some gnawing feeling of inadequacy was eating at the mind of this girl. She needed constant proof to herself that she was important to someone and demonstrates this need by the number of suitors and admirers with which she surrounded herself.”
La Vere described the killer.
“It is very likely that this is the first time this boy has committed any crime. It is also likely that he may be a maladjusted veteran. The lack of social responsibility experienced by soldiers, their conversational obsession with sex, their nerves keyed to battle pitch — these factors are crime-breeding.” She further stated: “Repression of the sex impulse accompanied by environmental maladjustment is the slayer’s probable background.”
How does La Vere’s profile of Elizabeth Short and her killer compare with the analysis of retired FBI profiler John Douglas? Douglas suggests Beth was “needy” and that her killer would have “spotted her a mile away”. He said that the killer “would have been a lust killer and loved hurting people.”
On the salient points, I’d say that La Vere and Douglas were of like minds regarding Elizabeth Short and her killer.
At the time of Elizabeth Short’s murder, mystery writer Craig Rice (pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Walker Craig) was one of the most popular crime writers in the country. In its January 28, 1946 issue, TIME magazine selected Rice for a cover feature on the mystery genre. Sadly, Rice has been largely forgotten by all except the most avid mystery geeks (like me).
In late January 1947, the Herald invited Craig Rice to give her take on the Black Dahlia case. She summed it up this way:
“A black dahlia is what expert gardeners call ‘an impossibility’ of nature. Perhaps that is why lovely, tragic Elizabeth Short was tortured, murdered and mutilated because such a crime could happen only in the half-world in which she lived. A world of—shadows.”
The police couldn’t catch a break. Not only were they stumped in the Dahlia case, someone viciously murdered another woman on February 11th. The victim was not cut in half, but evidence at the scene suggested a connection.
LAPD detectives Harry Hansen and Finis Brown headed the investigation into Elizabeth Short’s murder. The case was a challenge from the moment they arrived on Norton Street. The lack of physical evidence at the body dump site posed a problem.
Police officers knocked on doors and interviewed hundreds of citizens to find the place where Beth was murdered, but they were unsuccessful.
The Herald-Express cruelly tricked Beth’s mother, Phoebe, into believing that her much loved daughter was a beauty contest winner, only to be told minutes later that she was a murder victim.
Murder victims lose their right to privacy; all of their secrets are revealed. To fill column space while reporters tracked multiple leads, the Herald looked to psychiatrists, Beth’s acquaintances, and even mystery writers, to speculate on the case, which they did with creative abandon.
The Herald sought the opinion of LAPD’s shrink. Dr. Paul De River. He wrote a series of articles for the paper in which he attempted to analyze the mind of the killer. De River wrote the killer was a sadist and suggested that: “during the killing episode, he had an opportunity to pump up effect two sources — from his own sense of power and in overcoming the resistance of another. He was the master, and the victim was the slave”.
In a chilling statement, De River hinted at necrophilia—he said: “It must also be remembered that sadists of this type have a super-abundance of curiosity and are liable to spend much time with their victims after the spark of life has flickered and died.”
Reporters interviewed people who had only a fleeting acquaintance with Beth. They weighed in on everything from her hopes and dreams to her love life. Beth was, by turns, described as “a man-crazy delinquent”, and a girl with “childlike charm and beauty”. Many people who claimed to be close to her said that she aspired to Hollywood stardom. The interviews yielded nothing of value in the hunt for the killer.
While the experts opined, Aggie canvassed Southern California for leads. She was twelve years into her career with the Herald-Express when the Black Dahlia case broke wide open. In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, she said that she came across Elizabeth’s nickname when she checked in with Ray Giese, an LAPD homicide detective-lieutenant. According to Aggie, Giese 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.”
Aggie interviews a woman (not Black Dahlia related).
A few days passed and police located the mystery man, Robert M. Manley, known by his nickname, Red. Early on the morning of January 20, 1947, Aggie interviewed the 25-year-old salesman. The first thing she said to him was: “You look as if you’ve been on a drunk.” Manley replied: “This is worse than any I’ve ever been on.”
Aggie told him he was in one hell of a spot and advised him to come clean. Harry S. Fremont, an LAPD homicide detective, looked over at Manley and said: “She’s right, I’ve known this lady for a long time, on lots of big cases, and I can tell you she won’t do you wrong.”
Manley told his story, and Aggie was smart enough not to interrupt him. Red said he picked Beth up on a San Diego street corner early in December. He confessed that the night he spent with Beth in a roadside motel was strictly platonic and concluded with: “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”
The story ran in the Herald with the headline: ‘Red’ Tells Own Story of Romance With ‘Dahlia’, and Aggie got the byline. She was the only Los Angeles reporter to get a byline in the case.
The morning following her interview with Red Manley, Aggie was unceremoniously yanked off of the case. She said: “… the city editor benched me and let me sit in the local room without a blessed thing to do.”
The no-assignment routine resumed the next day. Aggie said that she sat for about three hours, then started on an embroidery project. Every person who came into the city room that day and saw Aggie with her embroidery hoop just roared with laughter. She kept it up until quitting time.
Day three—Aggie prepared for more embroidery when the assistant city editor that told her that because of an overnight decision, she was to go back to LAPD homicide and continue her work.
Aggie barely had time to pull out her notebook before management pulled her off the case again. This time, it was permanent. Aggie’s new assignment—the city desk as editor. Nobody was more shocked than Aggie. She became one of the first women in the United States to hold a city editorship on a major metropolitan daily.
Why was Aggie removed from the Black Dahlia case? There are those who believe there was a cover-up, and Aggie was getting too close to a solution to Beth’s murder, so someone with enough juice had her promoted to keep her out of the way. That makes no sense to me. As city editor, she directed the activities of all the reporters working on the case, and she wasn’t a person who could be bought. The timing of Aggie’s promotion remains an intriguing part of the Black Dahlia case.
NEXT TIME: The Black Dahlia case goes cold — or does it?
Local housewife, Betty Bersinger, found the body of Jane Doe #1, 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 below.
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. They successfully transmitted the fingerprints 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 balked. 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. On January 17, 1947, under the headline: “Mrs. Phoebe Short Can’t Believe Slain Girl Hers,” her mother repeated the most persistent of Beth’s lies. 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 was 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 find it intriguing that a 75-year-old Los Angeles murder mystery continues to draw interest. What is it about the case that resonates with people today?
It must be the Hollywood connection.
Contemporary articles about the case describe Elizabeth Short as an aspiring actress or starlet. Her murder is the ultimate Hollywood heartbreak story with a violent twist.
But there are two stories here. One is the myth of the Black Dahlia, a fictional character based on the life of Elizabeth “Beth” Short.
The second story, and the one I believe to be true, is that of a depressed, confused, and needy young woman looking for love and marriage.
The myth is repeated so often it is accepted as true, but by mythologizing Beth’s story, we ignore the 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 cattle calls, 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.”
Wolak’s 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 marriage?
A depressed and lonely young woman with daddy issues looking for love by sacrificing her pride 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.
It was after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947. Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne, bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held L.A. residents in its grip for several days, walked south on the west side of Norton in the Los Angeles suburb of Leimert Park.
Weedy patches and vacant lots made up most of their view. Construction of new homes ceased during the war and had not yet resumed. As she and Anne passed by one lot, Betty noticed something pale in the weeds about a foot in from the sidewalk.
At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or maybe a live nude woman who had been drinking and had passed out; the lot was a known lover’s lane. It quickly dawned on her she was in a waking nightmare and 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.”
In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood, said she was the first reporter to arrive at the scene. Decades later, it is difficult to sort out exactly who arrived first. Many people have made the claim, but there is sufficient evidence to conclude it was a reporter from the Herald-Express, Aggie’s paper.
It doesn’t matter whether a person was the first to arrive, or the last, because everyone at the vacant lot on Norton that day saw the same ghastly sight.
Aggie described the scene:
“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.
Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, headed 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. Police busted him 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. Was a body concealed 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.
The initial Herald-Express coverage referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the victim. Aggie’s werewolf tag identified the case for a few more days until a much better one was discovered, Black Dahlia.
NEXT TIME: With help from the Feds, and a gadget at the Herald, L.A. police identify the victim.