I was interviewed recently about the Black Dahlia case by Penny Griffiths-Morgan for her Haunted Histories podcast which originates in the U.K. (I have provided a link to the episode below.) I find it intriguing that a 73-year-old Los Angeles murder mystery has drawn global interest. What is it about the case that resonates with people even today?
It must be
the Hollywood connection.
contemporary article I have read about the case has described Elizabeth Short
as an aspiring actress or starlet, which makes her murder the ultimate
Hollywood heartbreak story with a violent twist.
are two stories here. One is the myth of the Black Dahlia, a fictional
character based on the life of Elizabeth “Beth” Short.
story, and the one I believe to be true, is that of a depressed, confused, and needy
young woman looking for marriage.
The myth has
been repeated so often it is accepted as true, but by mythologizing Beth’s story
we have largely ignored the real 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 a cattle call, 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.”
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
A depressed and lonely young woman with daddy issues looking for love by sacrificing her pride isn’t the stuff of novels or movies.
Beth’s tragic life 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.
About 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short and
Robert “Red” Manley left the motel where they had spent the night.
What did Beth and Red talk about during the couple of hours that it took them to drive back to Los Angeles from San Diego? Red noticed some scratches on her arms and asked her about them. She spun a tale of an “intensely jealous” boyfriend – an Italian “with black hair who lived in San Diego”, and claimed that it was he who had scratched her. In truth the scratches were probably made by Beth herself, the result of itchy insect bites. Beth lied to Red a few times more before their day together ended.
Red and his wife Harriet had been having problems. There were so many adjustments to being married with a child, and Red wondered if they were meant to be together.
In the way that only a spouse on the verge of cheating can do, he justified his interest in Beth in his own mind by considering it a “love test”. If he remained faithful to his wife, despite the temptation of being near a beautiful woman, he would conclude that his marriage was meant to be.
Following a platonic night in a motel room, Red’s marriage was certified as made in heaven. But he had a problem; he’d been out of touch for a couple of days. How would he explain his lack of communication? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test could easily come up with an excuse for being incommunicado for a couple of days.
In my mind’s eye I see Beth and Red seated across from each
other on the bench seat in his Studebaker, each lost in thought. Beth may have
been wondering what she’d do once she hit L.A. Maybe she’d
go to friends in Hollywood. If she was lucky someone would have an empty
bed for her. Her immediate difficulty was Red. How would she get away from the
well meaning guy for whom she felt nothing?
Once they arrived in the city, Beth told Red that she needed to check her luggage at the bus depot. He took her there and Beth was ready to wave good-bye to him and be on her way – but he wouldn’t leave. He told her that he couldn’t possibly leave her in that neighborhood on her own. She insisted that she would be fine, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Beth had a few minutes while she checked her bags to conjure up a plan to ditch Red. When they returned to his car she told him that she needed to go to the Biltmore Hotel to wait for her sister, Virginia. It was a lie. Virginia was in Oakland, hundreds of miles to the north.
Red drove her several blocks back to the Biltmore Hotel. The main lobby was on Olive Street, directly opposite Pershing Square. Beth thanked Red. He had been a gentleman. He’d paid to have taps put on the heels and toes of her pumps, and of course he’d paid for meals and the motel room. She thought that he would drive off and leave her, but once again he said that he didn’t feel comfortable just putting her out of the car.
He parked, and the two of them waited in the Biltmore’s lobby for a couple of hours. Finally, Red realized he couldn’t wait any longer. He said he had to go. She told him she would be fine and that she expected her sister to arrive at any moment.
Red left her at approximately 6:30 p.m. Beth watched him go – gave him a few minutes, and then she exited the hotel and turned south down Olive Street.
She may have been headed for the Crown Grill at Eighth and Olive. She’d been there before and perhaps she hoped to bump into someone she knew; after all, she needed a place to stay.
When asked if they’d seen Beth, most of the patrons were reluctant to talk to the police. By day the bar catered to the lunch crowd, lots of men escorting women who were not their wives. By night the clientele was mostly gay men. Because homosexuality was illegal there were only a few places where men could meet.
No one who was will to talk could say for sure that Beth had been in the bar on the 9th — and if she was there, no one saw her leave.
No one would ever see Elizabeth Short alive again.
On October 13, a paragraph in the Los Angeles Times’
Southland section covered a raid on a “Hippie Commune” in Death Valley National
Park twenty-one miles west of Badwater, CA. The raid, conducted by sheriff’s
deputies, national park service rangers and the CHP, turned up several
sawed-off shotguns, handguns, rifles, and ammunition. The raid went off without a hitch which, given
the number of weapons found, is a small miracle.
Fifteen people were arrested. A scruffy little man named
Charles Manson was among those taken into custody. A Sheriff’s deputy dragged
him out of the 12×16-inch cupboard in which he was hiding.
The raid had nothing to do with the August murder spree
which took the lives of seven adults and Sharon Tate’s unborn son. Manson
wasn’t yet a suspect. The raid was all about the auto theft ring operated by the
While Manson sat in jail on the auto theft charges, did some
free members commit murder on his behalf?
Manson’s paranoia about squealers had already resulted in Donald
“Shorty” Shea’s murder on August 26.
The following five cases have connections to the Manson
Family. Some of the connections are
compelling, others are peripheral.
On November 5, John “Zero” Haught was found in his Venice
Beach home with a single gunshot wound to his head after losing a game of
Russian Roulette. At least that is the story told by witnesses Catherine Gillies,
Bruce Davis, Sue Bartell, and Madaline Joan Cottage “Little Patty” – all of
them Manson family members.
Each witness was interviewed separately and recounted Zero’s
death. Investigators thought the accounts sounded rehearsed. They were
suspicious, but couldn’t prove a thing.
When Leslie Van Houten learned of Zero’s death, she made it
clear she didn’t buy the Russian Roulette story. She was incredulous that he was playing the
deadly game by himself as the witnesses stated. An anonymous man told a newspaper
reporter he was there when the shooting occurred, and that one girl had pulled
the trigger. The man was never
identified and the death is officially a suicide.
On November 7, an early morning walker discovered the
mutilated bodies of teenagers Doreen Gaul and James Sharp. The victims were
stabbed so many times that police thought they were shot gunned to death. The overkill
was like the Tate/La Bianca murders and there is a Manson/Scientology/The
Process (a cult) connection. But without proof the murders remain unsolved.
Reet Jurvetson, known for over 40 years as Jane Doe 59, was
another victim of random violence in 1969. Years after her death Manson was
asked about Reet. He said he didn’t know
her and knew nothing about her murder. Was he telling the truth?
December 1, 1969, Joel Pugh, estranged husband of Sandra
Good, was found dead in a London hotel room.
His wrists and throat were cut. No suicide note was found. Was it a
coincidence that Bruce Davis was in the UK at the time of Pugh’s death?
In recent years, the LAPD has said that as many as a dozen
murders may be linked to Manson and the family. While decades of dust gather on
the open case files, at least the Tate/La Bianca murders are solved.
We can thank now-deceased Susan Atkins for busting the case
wide open. The hippie girl who looked like a babysitter to her Sybil Brand
Institute cellmates told them some horrific stories that they, at first,
figured were bullshit. But after Susan described in gruesome detail Sharon
Tate’s last moments, without showing remorse, the inmates went to the jail
authorities to turn her in.
If not for Susan, the perpetrators of the August murders may
not have been identified for many more months.
On December 1, 1969, LAPD’s Chief Edward Davis held a press
Standing behind 15 microphones, Chief Davis announced the
official end of the case.
“I am Edward Davis, chief of police of the City of Los
Angeles. Today warrants have been issued for the arrest of three individuals in
connection with the murders of Sharon Tate Polanski, Abigail Anne Folger, Voytek
Frykowski, Steven Earl Parent and Thomas John Sebring.”
He explained that the same people were also involved in the
murders of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca.
“The development of information from the two separate
investigations, the Tate and La Bianca cases, led detectives to the conclusion
that the crimes in both cases were committed by the same group of people. At one time two lieutenants and 17 men were
working on only the Tate case. The Tate
investigators interviewed 625 people, some four and five times each.”
Chief Davis referred to a break in the case that occurred
two weeks prior to the warrants. He didn’t mention her by name, but he meant
Also not mentioned by name was the first victim of the
summer murder spree, Gary Hinman. Chief Davis referred only to the “Topanga
Canyon murder case.”
Chief Davis wrapped up the press conference as a late arrival,
Mayor Sam Yorty, took the stage.
“Sorry, I got here so late,” said the mayor. “The city
government and the Police Department are very grateful to the news media for
the cooperation we have had . . . many people could have damaged our case if
they hadn’t been so cooperative . . .”
The round-up of the Family members implicated in the
murders was underway. The case against them was solid enough to bring to the
December 5, 1969, Susan Atkins testified before the Los
Angeles grand jury. Prosecutors got first degree murder indictments against
Manson, Watson, Krenwinkel, Van Houten and Kasabian.
December 21, 1969, Leslie Van Houten talked to cops about
her possible cooperation. One week later she recorded a confession with attorneys,
but decided against cooperating with prosecutors.
By Christmas 1969, Manson and his co-defendants, Tex
Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten were in jail
facing capital murder charges.
With Manson and his band of murderous nomads behind bars,
Angelenos breathed a sigh of relief. The ‘60s ended on a miserable note. They thought
the ‘70s would be better. They were wrong.
During the 1970s the risk of homicide increased six-fold
from the 1950s, and by the early 1980s the term serial killer began to turn up
in mainstream media reports.
There’s a great double feature on Movies! tonight, THE STREET WITH NO NAME and WHITE HEAT. Two of my favorite films noir. If you don’t have the channel (it is 13.3 in my L.A. neck of the woods) here, for your viewing pleasure, is The Street With No Name starring Richard Widmark, Mark Stevens, Lloyd Nolan and Barbara Lawrence.
Ignore or read the subtitles — in any case, enjoy the movie!
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 SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT  starring John Hodiak, Richard Conte, Nancy Guild and Lloyd Nolan.
After a World War II injury, George Taylor’s (John Hodiak) memory of his life is fuzzy, to say the least. In an effort to reverse his amnesia, he tracks down alleged murderer and thief Larry Garter, from whom he received a letter. Along the way, he meets lounge singer Christy Smith (Nancy Guild) and police inspector Donald Kendall (Lloyd Nolan). They aid him in the search for Garter and his stolen loot, but all find themselves mired in a much bigger mystery than they anticipated.
Aggie hoists a brew c. 1920s. [Photo courtesy LAPL]
Aggie Underwood was born on December 17, 1902 and Deranged L.A. Crimes was born on December 17, 2012, so there’s a lot to celebrate today. We have so many candles on our birthday cake it will take a gale force wind to blow them all out.
It was Aggie’s career as a Los Angeles journalist that inspired me to begin this blog; and my admiration for Aggie and her accomplishments has grown in the years since I first became aware of her.
Aggie at a crime scene in 1946.
Aggie’s newspaper career began on a whim. In late 1926, she was tired of wearing her sister’s hand-me-down silk stockings and desperately want a pair of her own. When she asked her husband Harry for the money, he demurred. He said he was sorry, they simply couldn’t afford them. Aggie got huffy and said she’d buy them herself. It was an empty threat–until a close friend called out of the blue the day following the argument and asked Aggie if she would be interested in a temporary job at the Daily Record. Aggie never intended to work outside her home, but this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie described her first impression of the Record’s newsroom as a “weird wonderland”. She was initially intimidated by the men in shirtsleeves shouting, cursing and banging away on typewriters, but it didn’t take long before intimidation became admiration. She fell in love with the newspaper business. At the end of her first year at her “temporary” job she realized that she wanted to be a reporter. From that moment on Aggie pursued her goal with passion and commitment.
Aggie at her desk after becoming City Editor at the Evening Herald & Express. Note the baseball bat — she used it to shoo away pesky Hollywood press agents. [Photo courtesy LAPL]
During a time when most female journalists were assigned to report on women’s club activities and fashion trends, Aggie covered the most important crime stories of the day. She attended actress Thelma Todd’s autopsy in December 1935 and was the only Los Angeles reporter to score a byline in the Black Dahlia case in January 1947. Aggie’s career may have started on a whim, but it lasted over 40 years.
Look closely and you can see Aggie’s byline under “Night In a Motel”. [Photo courtesy LAPL]
Over the past six years I’ve corresponded with many of you and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of you in person. Your support and encouragement mean a lot to me, and whether you are new to the blog or have been following Deranged L.A. Crimes from the beginning I want to thank you sincerely for your readership.
There will be many more stories in 2019, and a few appearances too. Look for me in shows on the Investigation Discovery Network (I’ve been interviewed for Deadly Women, Deadly Affairs, Evil Twins, Evil Kin and several others.) I recently filmed an episode of Ice Cold Blood for the Oxygen Network, and I did a short sport for the podcast Hollywood & Crime, which will air in January. I may have a couple of local lectures scheduled too. You can also find me several times a year on Esotouric’s Bus Adventures crime bus. I’ll be co-hosting the Black Dahlia tour on January 5, 2019 and other tours throughout the year.
For several months I have been working on a book of true crime tales titled, Ways to Be Wicked, Volume 1, Los Angeles Crimes 1919-1949. I’ll keep you posted on the publishing date (best guess now is late January 2019).
Whether it is on television, in the blog or some other medium I’m looking forward to telling more crime tales in 2019.
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 WICKED AS THEY COMEstarring Arlene Dahl, Herbert Marshall and Phil Carey.
Enjoy the movie!
Katherine Allenborg, a working girl from the slums, sees the Stylewear Beauty Contest as a ticket to a new life. Although Kathy feels a repugnance toward all men, she decides to use her feminine allure to get what she wants. Upon learning that Sam Lewis, the elderly head of Stylewear magazine, will determine the contest winner, Kathy turns her charms on him. After Sam fixes the contest so that Kathy wins first prize, a trip to Europe, Kathy abruptly dismisses the hapless Sam. On the flight to London, Kathy meets Tim O’Bannion, a struggling television producer employed by the European-based Dowling’s advertising firm. Although Tim is attracted to the comely Kathy, she is on the prowl for wealthy suitors and hence shows no interest in the lowly Tim. At the Mayfair Hotel, Kathy, who has changed her name to Kathy Allen, finds a more suitable prospect in her neighbor, successful photographer Larry Buckham.
Isabel Betts was awakened at about 11:30 p.m. on a chilly February night in 1923 by the barking of her Llewellyn setter, Rex. Isabel pulled on her dressing gown, gathered it around her and walked slowly and quietly to the closed porch in the front of her house where Rex slept. Rex was so agitated that he pushed open a door to the yard ran off in pursuit of something or someone. Had Rex caught the scent of a nocturnal animal visitor or, worse, a human intruder? She immediately dismissed the idea that Rex was barking at her next-door neighbor, Earle Remington. Rex was familiar with Earle and never paid the neighbor’s late-night comings and goings any mind. Cautiously, Isabel searched the perimeter of her home and found nothing. Relieved, Isabel started back for the house. Suddenly she heard a loud sound. She froze for a moment, but then thought she recognized it as the backfire of a passing car and took a breath. Isabel called for Rex and went back inside.
At 6 a.m., February 17, 1923, Isabel Betts was again awakened by Rex, but this time she knew the cause. Charity Dawson, the Remington’s maid, was standing in the driveway of 1409 South St. Andrews Place screaming and sobbing. Prone on the driveway was the body of aviation pioneer and electrical engineer, Earle Remington
Charity’s screams had awakened Virginia “Peggy” L. Miller Stone Remington. She rushed outside to determine the cause of the shrieks and saw Earle’s body on the driveway. Someone called the police.
When LAPD detectives arrived they immediately recognized the name of the victim. Earle was well known in Los Angeles for his involvement in aviation and for his work as an engineer; Earle designed security systems for banks. What wasn’t common knowledge was Earle’s other job, the purchase and distribution of bootleg booze.
When the police arrived at the scene began to construct a plausible scenario for the crime. According to them the murder went down like this: Earle pulled his small couple into the driveway of his home and exited on the passenger side, then he walked around the back of the vehicle. One, possibly two, killers materialized from behind a hedge. Did Earle recognize them? Did they speak to one another? Nobody heard anything except for the sound that several near neighbors described as a car backfiring. The sound wasn’t made by a car, it was made instead by a double-barreled, sixteen gauge shotgun. Earle must have watched his assailant raise the weapon to fire because he reflexively clutched his large briefcase to his chest. The briefcase proved to be worthless as armor. One shot penetrated Earle’s chest just above his heart. The blood trail showed that the wounded man staggered toward the house. He didn’t make it. He was likely dead before he hit the ground.
It wasn’t until the autopsy that the coroner determined that Earle had not only been shot, he has been stabbed with a bayonet.
No doubt about it, someone wanted Earle dead.
Detectives immediately turned their attention to Earle’s wife of six years.
Peggy had recently consulted with attorney Jerry Geisler about representing her in a divorce. A private investigator had confirmed Peggy’s suspicions that Earle was having an affair and she wanted out of the marriage. Peggy knew about the affair with a married woman, but did she know that Earle was juggling several extra-marital relationships at the same time? Was Peggy angry, or broken-hearted enough, to kill? What about the other women in his life? Earle had promised one of them that he would divorce Peggy and then marry her. The woman believed him, until she found out that Earle was cheating on her too.
The angry husband or boyfriend of one of Earle’s dalliances may have decided to remove his rival forever.
The suspect pool expanded when investigators took a hard look at Earle’s finances and found that his partners in the Day and Night Electric Protection Company and Night Safe Deposit Company, fellow aviators Frank Champion and Earl Daugherty, may have been in financial difficulty and blamed Earle. An employee, Harry Miller, thought that Champion and Daugherty were responsible for the crime, but refused to provide details.
Finally, there were Earle’s bootlegger acquaintances. Earle didn’t deal in small quantities of booze, in fact he had recently bought 100 cases of the stuff. In the illegal liquor trade Earle would rub elbows with career criminals and others who wouldn’t hesitate to end a dispute with a bullet. Had Earle double-crossed one of his sources? And what about Earle’s double barrel shotgun? It had been stolen from his office a few weeks prior to the murder. Could it be the murder weapon?
There were far more questions than answers. Detectives had their work cut out for them.
NEXT TIME: The investigation into Earle Remington’s murder continues.