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.
At 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short and Robert “Red” Manley left the motel where they 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 Beth’s 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 scratched her. Beth herself probably made the scratches because of itchy insect bites. Beth lied to Red a few times more before their day together ended.
Red and his wife were having problems, so, in the way that only a spouse on the verge of cheating can do, he sold himself on the notion that if he and Harriette were destined to be together, then nothing would happen with Beth.
Following their platonic night in a motel room, Red’s marriage was certified as made in heaven—the fates clearly decreed it. But he had a problem; he’d been out of touch with Harriette for a couple of days. How would he explain his lack of communication to her? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test could surely 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 little or 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 goodbye to him and be on her way—but he wouldn’t leave. He told her he couldn’t possibly leave her in that neighborhood on her own. She insisted she would be fine, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Beth had a few minutes while she checked her bags to come up with a plan. When they returned to his car, she told him she needed to go to the Biltmore Hotel to wait for her sister. It was another lie. Virginia, the sister she referred to, 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 was 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 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 exquisite lobby for quite a while. Beth out waited Red. 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 in the Biltmore at approximately 6:30 p.m. Beth watched him go. She gave him a few minutes, and then she exited the hotel and turned right down Olive Street.
Beth 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. Some patrons of the bar later told cops she’d been there that night, although it could not be verified, and no one saw her leave.
Seventy-five years ago, on January 8, 1947, Robert ‘Red’ Manley drove to the home of Elvera and Dorothy French in Pacific Beach, in the San Diego area, to pick up a young woman he’d met a month earlier. Her name was Elizabeth Short.
Red was a twenty-five-year-old salesman and occasional saxophone player, with a wife, Harriette, and 4-month-old baby daughter at home. The couple married on November 28, 1945. They lived in a bungalow court in one of L.A.’s many suburbs.
Red enlisted in the Army on June 24, 1942. He was 20 years-old. In January 1945, He entered a hospital for treatment of a non-traumatic injury, and the Army discharged him in April of the same year for “medical reasons—but not for any residual condition.”
Maybe his injury was part of what made it difficult for him to adjust to marriage and parenthood. He said that he and Harriette had “some misunderstandings.” Restless and feeling unsure about his decision to marry, Red decided to “make a little test to see if I were still in love with my wife.” The woman Red used to test his love was twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short.
Red traveled for his job and it was on a trip to San Diego that he met Elizabeth Short. She was standing on a street corner and appeared to need a ride. At first, she seemed reluctant to get into his car. But in an instant, she changed her mind and got in. She introduced herself as Beth Short and they struck up a conversation. When Red returned to Los Angeles, the two corresponded.
Dorothy French met Beth on the night of December 9, 1946 at the all-night movie theater, the Aztec, on Fifth Avenue. Dorothy worked as a cashier at the ticket window and she noticed Beth seemed at loose ends. When her shift ended at 3 a.m., Dorothy offered to take Beth back to the Bayview Terrace Navy housing unit she shared with her mother and a younger brother. Beth was glad to abandon the theater seat for a more comfortable sofa.
If the French family thought that Beth would stay a night or two and then move on, they were mistaken. She stayed for a month.
Elvera and Dorothy grew tired of Beth’s couch surfing and contributing nothing to the household. She did not even pay for groceries. She received a money order for $100 from a former boyfriend, Gordon Fickling, yet she spent much of her time compulsively writing letters, many of which she never sent.
One of the unsent letters was to Gordon. In the letter dated December 13, 1946, Beth wrote:
“I do hope you ﬁnd a nice girl to kiss at midnight on new years eve. It would have been wonderful if we belonged to each other now. I’ll never regret coming West to see you. You didn’t take me in your arms and keep me there. However, it was nice as long as it lasted.”
The French family had another complaint about their house guest—despite her claims, there was no evidence that Beth ever looked for work. Beth wrote to her mother, Phoebe, that she was working for the Red Cross, or in a VA Hospital, but it was just one of her many lies. Her letters home never revealed her transient lifestyle—nothing about couch surfing, borrowing money to eat, or accepting rides from strange men.
Beth could have found a job if she wanted one. She worked in a delicatessen in as a teenager and at the post exchange (PX) at Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base). Red arranged with a friend of his to get her a job interview—but she didn’t follow-up.
When Red heard from his friend that Beth was a no-show for the job interview, he wrote to her to find out if she was okay. She said she was fine but didn’t like San Diego; she preferred Los Angeles and wanted to return there. Red said he’d help her out.
The drive from San Diego to Los Angeles was Red’s love test. If nothing happened with Beth, then he would know that he Harriette were destined to stay together. But if he and Beth clicked, he’d have a tough decision to make.
Beth and Red weren’t on the road for long before they stopped at a roadside motel for the night. They went out for dinner and drinks before returning to their room to go to bed. Did Red have butterflies in his stomach? How did he want the love test to turn out?
Red must have realized the decision was Beth’s. They never shared more than a kiss. She spent the night in a chair and he took the bed.
The pair left the motel at about 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, for Los Angeles.
On December 26, 1930, readers of the Los Angeles Times awoke to the dismaying headline: “Holiday Brings Orgy of Crime”. Apparently, not all Angelenos with goodwill toward their fellow man or woman. The article was a litany of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day misdeeds that began with the shooting of a police officer.
Allen G. Adcock of the Hollenbeck Heights division during the early morning hours of Christmas Day. Officer Adcock had been directing traffic during a fire at Macy and Gelardo streets when a car containing two men ignored his command to halt and blew through the intersection at a high rate of speed. Apparently, Adcock “badged” a civilian, Earl H. Pfeifer, and commandeered the man’s auto to pursue the suspects. With Pfeifer at the wheel, Adcock stood on the running board of the car and held on for dear life. One of the fleeing men leveled his weapon at Adcock, who then whipped out his own pistol. The two men fired simultaneously and a bullet from the suspect’s gun struck a glancing blow on Adcock’s head, which knocked the cop off of Pfiefer’s running board.
Pfiefer stopped to render aid to the fallen policeman, and the suspects escaped. A subsequent investigation showed that the two suspects were bandits who had held up Irwin Welborn of West Twenty-ninth Street. They drove him out to Long Beach and then robbed him of $2 and his car.
At Pacific and O’Farrell Streets in San Pedro, someone slugged Zack Zuanich, a local poultryman, on the head with a wooden club. They took Zuanich to the San Pedro General Hospital in serious condition. The attacked appeared random.
Los Feliz Bridge (aka Shakespeare Bridge) [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
Two cowardly bandits, turned rapists, dragged Maxine Ungeheur (20) and her younger sister Thelma (19) out of a car under the Los Feliz Bridge (aka Shakespeare Bridge) and savagely attacked them. The sisters were being driven home by Roland Oakley, a Griffith Park employee, following a Christmas Eve soiree. Oakley slowed his auto near the bridge, and the bandits stepped out from a clump of trees and threatened the girls and Oakley with guns. Oakley, under threat of death, stood helplessly by as the bandits ravaged the girls. The cops located clues at the scene, in particular a leather glove believed to have been worn by one attacker. Detective Lieutenants Hoy and Kriewald of the Lincoln Heights Division hoped that the clue would lead to the arrests of the men involved in the assaults.
Besides all the other mayhem occurring in and around the city, there was a spate of holiday burglaries for cops to contend with. Two men were discovered plundering a store on Huntington Drive by Officers Cooke and Carter, and a citizen, A. Burke. Upon being found out, the two crooks attempted to high-tail it to freedom. Officer Cooke fired at the fleeing suspects and the citizen, A. Burke, unloaded a charge of birdshot from his shotgun. Both suspects dropped to the ground, but one of them scrambled to his feet and made good his escape. Officers captured the other crook and he gave his name as Bernave Palacios. They held him on suspicion of burglary.
Two bandits held up Benjamin Caldron in his South Western Avenue flower shop on Christmas morning robbed him of $110.
The Ungeheur sisters were not the only women who were victims of rape, or attempted rape, over the Christmas holiday. Mrs. Dorothy Loustanau was walking near the corner of Ninetieth Street and Avalon Boulevard when a man drove an automobile up to the curb and leaped out. Snarling that he would beat her to death if she resisted, he clapped his hand over her mouth and pinioned her arms while he attempted to force her into his car. Dorothy struggled desperately and stayed out of the car. Her attacker, enraged at his victim for putting up a fight, tried to drag her into a vacant lot, but Dorothy broke free and screamed for help. Her assailant fled the scene.
Lillian Rosine, of 1322 Cherokee Avenue in Hollywood, was driving down Las Palmas Avenue with a friend, Earl Marshall, when a bandit leaped onto the running board of her car. The bandit produced an automatic weapon and commanded Lillian and Earl to stick up their hands. Lillian became furious with the brazen bandit and instead of complying with his order, she leaned in front of Earl and shoved the bandit in the face!
Thrown off balance, the crook fired, and the round grazed Earl’s head, inflicting a four-inch wound in his scalp. Lillian screamed and stomped down hard on the gas. The bandit tumbled off of the running board, stood up, and then walked nonchalantly up Selma Avenue. Lillian dashed to the Hollywood Receiving Hospital a few blocks away, where doctors treated and dressed Earl’s wound. The bandit remained at large.
Hollywood Receiving Hospital c. 1936 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
I’ll wrap up the orgy of crime with the murder of Jose Lopez (45). Lopez died in Georgia Street Receiving Hospital from wounds received in an attempted hold-up and fight. Lopez’s friend, Jose Ayala, told the cops that two men accosted him and Jose early Christmas morning and beaten with clubs. Ayala did his best to describe the killers, but a blow to the mouth knocked him unconscious early in the struggle.
I hope that your holiday is going better than the unfortunates in the above post. Be well, happy, and stay safe. — Joan
Too often we recall the names of killers, but not their victims. Today, on what should be her 83rd birthday, I am highlighting Judy Dull.
Judith Ann “Judy” Van Horn Dull turned nineteen on June 23, 1957. She had a 14-month-old daughter, Susan, and a soon-to-be ex-husband, Robert, who intended to keep custody of their little girl. A decent lawyer costs money, and Judy needed as much cash as she could scrape together for the coming battle.
Judy lived at the El Mirador apartments at the corner of North Sweetzer and Fountain Avenues in West Hollywood.
Most of the young women who inhabited the El Mirador during the summer of 1957 were still in diapers when the building’s most famous resident, actress Jean Harlow, died at age 26 in June 1937.
At least the building had a Hollywood provenance, which may have given the new crop of wannabes hope for the future.
Judy’s need for a quick buck prevented the usual Hollywood rounds to agents or cattle calls to appear as an extra in the latest western. The best and quickest way for an attractive blonde like Judy to make money was as a model. Modeling gigs ran the gamut from legitimate work for catalogs and harmless cheesecake photos to pornography.
Judy’s roommates, eighteen-year-old Betty Ruth Carver and twenty-two-year-old Lynn Lykels, were models, too. All three were in demand and they looked out for each other, trading gigs to keep the money flowing.
On August 1, 1957, Judy took a job that Lynn had to pass on. At 2 pm, when the photographer, a guy named Johnny Glenn, a geeky-looking guy with bat ears and horn-rimmed glasses, showed up to collect Judy for the job, she was reluctant to go with him. He overcame her reluctance by offering her $20/hour for a two-hour shoot. How could she say no?
At Judy’s request, Johnny left his telephone number with one of her roommates.
Johnny and Judy walked out of the El Mirador.
It was the last time anybody saw her alive.
NOTE: Harvey Glatman murdered Judy and two other women, Ruth Mercado and Shirley Bridgeford. There was not enough evidence to try him for Judy’s murder, but he was found guilty of murdering Mercado and Bridgeford. Glatman died in the gas chamber at San Quentin on September 18, 1959.
I am fortunate to be affiliated with the DEADLY WOMEN television series. I love working with them and I have appeared in every season for over a decade.
I received an email from them the other day letting me know that my first episode of the current series (Episode 7, Flash Point) is going to premiere on the Discovery Plus streaming service Thursday, June 24.
It will also air on Investigation Discovery the following week on Thursday, July 1 at 9/8/C.
I cover a 1940 case from the U.K. Here is a photo of the deadly woman. You will learn all about her crime soon.
I will keep you posted on the other episodes for this series.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget, is cited as the first murder mystery based on details of an actual crime. I am skeptical of firsts, but if Poe’s story is not the first, it is an early entry. It appeared in Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion in three installments, November and December 1842 and February 1843.
Behind Poe’s tale of Marie Roget is the murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers.
Rogers, a tobacco shop employee, became known as the Beautiful Cigar Girl. She disappears on October 4, 1848, and local papers report her elopement with a naval officer. She returns later, sans husband.
She disappears again on July 25, 1841. Friends see her at the corner of Theatre Alley, where she meets a man. They walk off together toward Barclay Street, ostensibly for an excursion to Hoboken.
Three days later, H.G. Luther and two other men in a sailboat pass by Sybil’s Cave near Castle Point, Hoboken. Floating in the water they see the body of a young woman. They drag it to shore and contact police.
According to the New York Tribune, Rogers is “horribly outraged and murdered”. Questions regarding Rogers’ death remain. It is alleged she ended up in the river following a failed abortion. The scenario is credible, in part, because her boyfriend committed suicide and left a note suggesting his involvement in her death.
I love it when a novel is based on a true crime. One of my favorites is An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser draws inspiration from a murder in the Adirondacks.
In 1905, Chester Gillette takes a job as a manager in an uncle’s skirt factory in Cortland, New York. It is there he meets factory worker, Grace Brown. They begin an affair and she becomes pregnant.
Chester is neither interested in being a husband, nor in being a father. He takes Grace on a trip to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Using the alias, Carl Graham, Chester rents a hotel room, and a rowboat.
Grace believes the hotel is where they will spend their honeymoon following a visit to the local justice of the peace. In anticipation of her new life with Chester, Grace packs all of her belongings in a single suitcase.
Chester’s suitcase is small. He is not beginning a life with Grace.
On July 11, the couple takes a rowboat out into the middle of Big Moose Lake. There is no marriage proposal. No wedding ring. He beats her over the head with his tennis racquet and pushes her overboard to drown.
On July 13, 1906, The Sun reports the tragic drowning of a couple in Big Moose Lake. Grace’s body floats to the surface the next day. The body of her companion, Carl Graham, is missing.
Fearing he is dead, police search for Carl. They soon learn the true identity of Grace’s companion. He is alive, well, and his name is not Carl. Police arrest Chester. He denies responsibility for Grace’s death. He insists she committed suicide. The bad news for Chester is none of the physical evidence supports his version of events.
The jury shows no mercy—they find him guilty and sentence him to death.
On March 30, 1908, they execute Chester in the electric chair at Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York.
March 4, 1932.
Soaked to the skin, bleeding from the head, and covered in bruises, seventeen-year-old Lois Wade stumbles into the road near Mountain Meadows Country Club in Pomona. A Good Samaritan takes her to Pomona Valley Hospital.
The hospital calls the Sheriff’s department, and deputies arrive to take Lois’ statement. She tells them a terrifying story.
She is is walking from downtown Pomona to her parent’s home at 349 East Pasadena Avenue, when a stranger pulls up alongside her and offers her a ride. She accepts, but rather than taking her home, the man stops his car on Walnut Avenue near an abandoned well and beats her.
Lois’ attacker forces her into the well and shoves her down witht a pole when she attempts to climb out. When Lois vanishes from his view, the man gets in his car and drives away.
The motiveless attack makes little sense, and deputies question Lois’ account. The next day, she revises her story.
Her attacker is not a stranger as she originally claims; he is her nineteen-year-old married lover, Frank Newland.
Deputies Killion and Lynch arrest Frank at his home at 918 South San Antonio Street, Pomona. They book him on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder. Frank denies the attack.
As Lois lay in serious condition in the hospital, the D.A. revises charges against him to include statutory rape. Because of the severity of Lois’ wounds and her inability to appear in court, Judge White resumes Frank’s hearing at Lois’ hospital bedside.
Within a month of the attempt on Lois’ life, Frank goes to trial. Local newspapers pick up on the similarities between Frank and Lois and the characters in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.
Future Los Angeles mayor, Fletcher Bowron, sits on the bench. Public interest in the trial is high and draws an enormous crowd—the largest since the 1929 rape trial of theater mogul Alexander Pantages.
The trial begins on April 28; Lois takes the stand, and the courtroom hangs on her every word.
Lois is low-key and demure as she testifies to her ordeal.
“By prearrangement we met on a corner in Pomona. We went in his roadster to the Mountain Meadows Country Club, where he drove off the road and stopped the car. We sat in the car for a half-hour; yes, we kissed and loved. He then suggested that we walk over to an old windmill and abandoned well nearby.”
“We looked in the well and then suddenly he turned around and struck me over the head with a club. I fell to the ground. He struck me eight or ten times more and kicked me several times.”
Frank grabs Lois by the feet and drags her, struggling and screaming ten feet to the well. No match for Frank, he overpowers her and throws her in the well.
Lois lands in twenty-five-feet of water. She bobs to the top, and fights for her life. Frank uses a railroad tie to shove Lois under water. A photo of Deputy W.L. Killon, puts the size of the weapon into perspective.
Convinced Lois is dead, Frank gets into his car and drives away.
Lois claws herself up the wall of the well. She crawls over the edge, tumbles onto the ground, then rises and lurches into the street to summon help. A man stops his car to render aid. Amazingly, Lois’ Good Samaritan is a doctor.
Dr. Roy E. St. Clair testifies to finding Lois in the road.
“I was driving to Pomona on the Mountain Meadows Road about 8:30 p.m. last March 4 when I heard a cry and the lights on my car picked up the figure of Miss Wade standing with her right arm out-stretched. I backed up my machine, and she came to the door and said ‘Take me to a doctor.’”
Due to an audio glitch on February 9th, this webinar has been rescheduled to February 16, 2021 at 7 pm.
Please join me for one of the wackiest, and most deranged, love stories in L.A.’s history.
There is always some madness in love. — Friedrich Nietzsche
On the evening of August 22, 1922, at about 10:30 pm, Fred Oesterreich and his wife Walburga, nicknamed Dolly, returned to their home at 858 North La Fayette Place after visiting friends in the Wilshire district.
The couple engaged in a bitter argument as they crossed the threshold of their home; however, it was not unusual for the heavy-drinking apron manufacturer and his wife to shout at each other. After over 25 years of marriage each was armed with a vast stockpile of grievances to hurl with deadly accuracy at the other.
Their evenings customarily ended when the combatants retired to their separate quarters to lick their wounds; but this night ended like no other before it. Moments after arriving home, Dolly found herself locked in her upstairs bedroom closet screaming for help. Fred lay dead in a pool of his own blood on the floor downstairs near the front door.
Publicly, the police attributed Fred’s murder to burglars. Privately, they were skeptical of Dolly’s account. With detectives unable to substantiate their suspicions with hard evidence—Fred’s case went cold.
In 1930, Fred’s killer came forward and revealed a bizarre tale of sex, murder, and attics.
Join me on Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 7 p.m. Pacific time for a webinar about the strangest love affair in L.A.’s history.
If you can’t watch the live presentation, it will be recorded and available on demand via BigMarker.
Bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held Los Angeles residents in its grip for several days, Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne walked south on the west side of Norton in Leimert Park, a Los Angeles suburb. Midway down the block Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds fifty feet north of a fire hydrant and about a foot in from the sidewalk.
At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or a live nude woman who had passed out.
It took a moment before Bersinger realized she was in a waking nightmare. The bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk.
Bersinger later recalled, “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 person who made that claim was Will Fowler.
Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner approached Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an intriguing call on their shortwave radio. It was a police call and Fowler couldn’t believe his ears. A naked woman, possibly drunk, was found in a vacant lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets. Fowler turned to Pagel and said, “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 hopped out of the car and approached the woman as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk. Fowler called out, “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”
That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. He said he closed the dead girl’s eyes. But was his story true?
There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first on the scene; and in her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first.
After 74-years does it really matter? All those who saw the murdered girl that day saw the same horrifying sight and it left an indelible impression. Aggie described what she observed:
“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, took charge of 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. He was busted 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. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car. He was dropped from the list of hot suspects.
In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case until a much better one was discovered—the Black Dahlia.