What is it about Los Angeles that brings out the evil in a woman? Crime writer Raymond Chandler speculated that a local weather phenomenon could cause a woman to contemplate murder:
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
Join me on Tuesday, November 24, 2020 at 7pm PST for a webinar that will introduce you to some of the baddest dames in L.A. history.
“There is no killer type. Slayers range all ages, all sexes. . . Homicide is expected from the hoodlum, the gun moll, the gulled lover. It isn’t from the teenager, the . . . sweet old lady, the fragile housewife, the respectable gent who is the proverbial pillar of society.“
“They kill with pistol, rifle, or shotgun; with the blade . . . with poison; with ax, hatchet or hammer; with cord or necktie; with fake accidents; with blunt instruments or with phony drownings.“
“Killers do not run true to form. What they have in common is killing.”
The quote is from my favorite Los Angeles crime reporter Aggie Underwood, from her 1949 autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, and she knew what she was talking about.
During her career as a reporter, Aggie covered nearly every major crime story in the city. Law enforcement respected her and occasionally sought her opinion regarding a suspect. They even credited her with solving a few crimes.
Cops and journalists have a lot in common. Both professions rely on intuition guided by experience and intelligence. They see the worst that humanity has to offer, but no matter what they witness, they strive to maintain their objectivity.
Inspired by Aggie, I began this blog in 2012 and wrote her Wikipedia page. In 2016, I curated an exhibit at the Central Library on Aggie’s career and wrote the companion book.
Join me on November 17, 2020 at 7pm PST for the webinar and you will meet one of the most fascinating women in Los Angeles’ history.
In her effort to prove that Clark Gable fathered her daughter, Gwendolyn, Violet mounted a vigorous media campaign. If you believed her story, he was the man who seduced and abandoned her 14 years earlier in a sleepy English village.
There was limited support for Violet’s fantastical tale. In fact, other than her immediate family (and even they weren’t enthusiastic), Violet’s only supporter was H. Newton, a Birmingham, England factory inspector.
In an interview with the London Daily Express, Newton confirmed that a man calling himself Frank Billings, who bore a striking resemblance to Gable, ran a poultry farm at Billericay “around 1918-1919”. The dates supplied by Newton were a few years earlier than Violet’s alleged affair.
Newton studied a photo of Gable and said,
“That either is Frank Billings or his double, even to the trick of folding one hand over the other. Yes, he has the same brow, nose, temples and twisted, cynical half-smile.”
Adding another layer of absurdity to the unfolding story was a penny postcard mailed from Tacoma, Washington. It read,
“Dear Sir—The lady is right—Frank Billings is the father of her child, but I am the man. Also am a perfect double for C.G.”
The perfect double from Tacoma did not come forward.
Several of Gable’s friends, acquaintances, and a former wife received subpoenas to appear in court. Among those supoenaed was Jimmy Fidler, a radio personality and journalist. Violet wrote to Fidler offering to sell him “for a price” the story of her affair with Clark Gable, the man she knew as Frank Billings.
Violet shared with Fidler her version of how Gable got his screen name. She wrote:
“In Billericay, Essex, England where I was wooed and won by a man known as Frank Billings, but who I now believe to be Clark Gable, this man told me of his love. I later learned, through pictures and a story in a film fan magazine, that he had changed his name to Clark Gable. It is my belief that he got his name in this way—our grocer, in Billericay was named Clark and he owned an estate he called The Gables. Hence Clark Gables.”
Yes, Violet frequently referred to the actor as Gables and was apparently unaware of his birthname, William Clark Gable.
The letters to Fidler weren’t the only ones Violet wrote. She attempted to correspond with Mae West, but West’s publicist, Terrell De Lapp, intercepted the missive during a routine vetting of Miss West’s incoming mail.
The letter received at Paramount Studio in January 1936 read:
“Dear Mae West—How would you like to be fairy godmother to Clark Gable’s child. Nothing could be more lovely than for you, Miss West, to be fairy godmother to my Gwendolyn, and put Clark Gable to shame.”
Despite Violet’s attempts to garner support from Fidler and West, and who knows how many others, Gable had no difficulty refuting her claims. He produced witnesses from the Pacific Northwest to prove that during the time he was allegedly impregnating his accuser, he was selling neckties and working as a lumberjack in Oregon.
Gable’s first wife, Josephine Dillon, was steadfast in her defense of her former spouse.
“Clark and I were married in December 1924. But I knew him the year before in Portland, Oregon when he attended my dramatic classes. To my knowledge, he has never been in England. It is sure he was not there in 1923 or 1924 when we were married, and, therefore, could not be the father of a 13-year-old girl born there at that time.”
Violet’s accusation was ludicrous, but on the plus side the trial afforded hundreds of women an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the man who would become The King of Hollywood. Secretaries and stenographers in the Federal Building held an impromptu reception for him. He autographed mementoes and chatted with them. They were in heaven.
In the hallway prior to testifying, Gable chain smoked and appeared a little nervous. He told reporters:
“It’s my first court appearance. I don’t know what to expect.”
In court, Gable testified that he did not recognize the woman in court.
For her part, Violet remarked sotto voce to her attorney:
“That’s him. I’d know him anywhere.”
Courtroom spectators, keen to see Gable face his alleged progeny, were disappointed when he wasn’t required to appear during her testimony.
Judge Cosgrave wasn’t well-pleased that Gwendolyn was subpoenaed to appear.
“I regret that this witness has to be called at all, and I insist that her examination be limited only to extremely necessary points bearing on the charges in the indictment.”
Gwendolyn had nothing substantive to a add to her mother’s scheme—the girl was Violet’s pawn.
The jury began deliberations at 3:40 pm on April 23, 1937 and returned with their verdict at 5:20 pm. They found Violet guilty of fraudulent usage of the mails.
As Gwendolyn attempted to console her distraught mother, reporters reached Gable by telephone. He said:
“Of necessity, the woman’s charges were false, in view of the fact that I have never been in England and had never seen her until the trial began. It is unfortunate, of course, the she must come to grief in this manner, particularly because of her children.”
U.S. Attorney Powell, who prosecuted Violet, was not as understanding as Gable.
“This woman should be made an example, that men of Clark Gable’s type cannot be crucified in such a manner.”
Powell went on to describe Clark’s ascent to stardom:
“Clark Gable has pulled himself up by the bootstraps, out of an obscure background. He worked as a lumberjack, longshoreman, struggling actor, to achieve the ambition which drove him on to a $250,000-a-year salary.”
Attorney Morris Lavine, who would handle Violet’s appeals, defended her.
“She was simply calling to her sweetheart. She was sincere,” he said.
It is doubtful that Morris Lavine believed a word Violet said, but he was an attorney known to go the extra mile for a client. Violet was lucky to have him as her appeals attorney. (Lavine’s life and career in Los Angeles is a topic I’ll cover in future posts. He was a fascinating man and the self-described “defender of the damned.”)
The appeal Lavine filed on Violet’s behalf was nothing short of brilliant. He contended that her letter did not fall within the statute concerning mail fraud.
The court agreed with Lavine and ruled in Violet’s favor in October 1937. They characterized Violet’s plan as “a scheme to coerce or extort and is a species of blackmail.”
If local authorities had filed on Violet for blackmail or extortion she would have done more time.
In February 1938, following the success of her appeal, Violet faced deportation. An action was filed on the grounds that she had overstayed her visa and that she committed a crime involving moral turpitude. Lavine told reporters that Violet would stay with a sister in Vancouver.
Gwendolyn did not accompany her mother to Canada. She was placed in a private school by a local religious organization and was required to remain there until June.
Was Violet a greedy blackmailer or a delusional dreamer? We’ll never know for sure.
Clark Gable received thousands of fan letters over the course of his decades long career. Violet’s letter was an unwelcome anomaly. The adoring letter written to him by Judy Garland in the movie Broadway Melody of 1938 was probably a more accurate depiction of the kinds of letters he received.
As Judy writes she sings, ‘You Made Me Love You.” She performed the song earlier, in 1936, at Gable’s birthday party. It is one reason she got the part in the film which helped launch her career.
From 1931 to 1932, Clark Gable went from relatively unknown to a superstar. Bags crammed full of fan letters from adoring women, and the occasional man, arrived at MGM. One male fan described Gable in a letter to Picture Play magazine:
Tall, dark, and steely eyed, he walks among men, yet strangely apart from his fellows. One minute a nobody, and then–a giant of the screen! Just one more actor looking for his coffee and cake and then–a star of stars!
Seeing him in films like “Dance, Fools, Dance,” “The Finger Points,” and “A Free Soul,” women compared Gable to earlier heart-throb, Rudolph Valentino.
Movies provided a welcome escape for Depression-weary audiences. Among the throngs of movie-goers was Violet Wells Norton. She sat in a darkened theater in Canada, her eyes glued to the screen. Everyone else in the audience saw Clark Gable. Violet didn’t see Gable, she saw Frank Billings, the father of her daughter Gwendolyn.
Violet met Frank Billings in 1923 in Billericay, Essex, England. Billings was her neighbor and one night he overheard Violet and the man she called her husband arguing. Offering a shoulder to cry on, and a warm bed to lie in, Frank Billings fathered a daughter Violet named Gwendolyn.
Frank had no interest in fatherhood, and even less in a woman he considered damaged goods. He abandoned her and left for his home in the U.S. Violet did not see Frank again until years later when he appeared before her on a movie screen.
In 1925 Violet married Herbert James Norton and moved with him to Winnipeg, Canada. They separated on November 23, 1934.
For two years Violet wrote to Gable. She never received a reply. Gable was aware of the letters and ignored them as the ravings of a crank.
Violet traveled to Hollywood in October 1936 to confront Gable with his teenaged daughter Gwendolyn and convince him to set up a trust fund for her education. Or, failing that, purchase one or all of the four scripts she penned: Gipsy Nell’s Revenge, Love in a Cottage, Love at First Sight and The Spirit Mother.
Gable turned Violet’s letters over to police. He said he was never in England, never met Violet, and was not a papa.
Federal authorities indicted Violet for mail fraud. The letter on which the Feds based the mail fraud charge came from 451 Cumberland Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, mailed on March 9, 1936, addressed to Clark Gable, MGM, Beverly Hills, and signed Violet N.
Following her indictment, Violet addressed the press.
“Don’t misconstruct (sic) me!” she said.
She explained that she merely asked “Gables”, as she called him, to support her daughter or buy her scripts. Violet asserted her requests were reasonable. From her jail cell, she said, “He looks like the Frank Billings I knew in 1923. I’d like to see him in person.”
Gable dismissed Violet’s accusations as “silly and fantastic.”
Ten days ago I narrated the first part of the Dear Hattie post. Your feedback was encouraging, and I took your constructive comments to heart. I will get better as I go along. I truly believe that an audio version of Deranged posts is an idea whose time has come.
I have other ideas for content, too. In my research I often find newspaper and magazine stories that run the gamut — some are heartwarming, others sleazy or just flat-out horrifying, but I don’t feel they are enough to support a full written post. These gems are perfect to share via audio.
I’ll begin digging through my files to see what I can unearth.
I was interviewed by Grant Nebel and John Anderson for Ellroycast, their podcast which examines all things James Ellroy.
Grant and John are big fans of Ellroy’s work. His novels, screenplays, articles and LAPD ’53, the photo essay book I was fortunate to work on with James and his co-author Glynn Martin.
Grant, John, and I talked about Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia, vis a vis the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. There is an astonishing number of misconceptions about Beth Short. Over the decades the myth has not just obscured reality, it has devoured it.
As a historian, I have an obligation to uncover and tell the truth. It isn’t easy with a case as infamous as the Black Dahlia.
Each time I read an article that begins with Beth arriving in Hollywood to pursue dreams of stardom I want to hurl the offending document across the room, or set fire to it.
Did Beth write to her mother and tell her she was seeking an acting career? Sure. Was it the truth? Emphatically no! There is no evidence that she went on a single cattle call, appeared as an extra, or did anything other than have the occasional Hollywood address.
Why, then, do the myths persist? Maybe because to some people they seem sexier than the truth. As far as I’m concerned Beth’s real life is more fascinating than the myth.
Her death reveals the dark side of the Greatest Generation. Beth’s story is not the trope for a wanna be Hollywood glamour girl. If you’re seeking a Hollywood tragedy metaphor, then read about Peg Entwistle who jumped 50 feet to her death from the “H” in the Hollywood sign on September 16, 1932.
Beth, and many other young, single women, coped with the chaos of Post-War Los Angeles by drifting from man-to-man, room-to-room and bar-to-bar. Los Angeles was a place where a fixed address was a luxury few could afford (even if they could locate a vacant apartment), and violent crimes committed by troubled vets frequently made headlines.
I’m glad that Ellroycast is visiting his world. His novels capture the zeitgeist of Post-War Los Angeles: the darkness and danger, the violence and the victims.
“I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them” ― James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia
Thanks again to Grant and John for inviting me to Ellroycast.
U.S. Army Corporal Joseph Dumais [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
On February 8, 1947 the Herald announced that the Black Dahlia case was solved. They had found the killer!
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. According to the Herald, Dumais made a 50 page confession in which he claimed to have had a mental blackout after dating Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles five days before her body was found.
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 solider’s confession didn’t hold up. Dumais was sent to a psychiatrist.
Two days after Dumais’ false confession the Herald put out an Extra with the headline: “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body”.
Cops at the scene of Jeanne French’s murder. [Photo courtesy LAPL]
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 up 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 be “P.D.”) and “Tex”.
French was last seen in the Pan American Bar at 11155 West Washington Place. She was seated at the first stool nearest the entrance and 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.
Jeanne’s estranged husband, Frank, was booked 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 was also brought 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 were never able to find out where Jeanne had been 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 numerous 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 were never able to 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. Despite his odd behavior, the painter was cleared.
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 haven’t been any 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, surprisingly, she received several calls a month. To this day there are people who want to confess to Elizabeth Short’s murder. The detective was able to eliminate each one of the possible suspects with a simple question: “What year were you born?
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. The fact that the case was going cold didn’t dampen the Herald’s enthusiastic coverage. The paper sought out 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 FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) was founded the shrinks and writers whose work appeared in the Herald were engaging in speculative profiles of both the victim and her killer.
One of the psychologists tapped by the Herald to contribute her analysis of the victim and slayer was Alice La Vere. La Vere was introduced as “…one of the nation’s most noted consulting psychologists”. According to the newspaper, Miss La Vere would give to readers: “an analysis of the motives which led to the torture murder of beautiful 22-year-old Elizabeth Short”. La Vere’s analysis is surprisingly 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 went on to describe 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 by retired FBI profiler John Douglas? Douglas suggests that 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, Craig Rice was invited by the Herald 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, another woman was viciously murdered on February 11th. The victim was not cut in half, but evidence at the scene suggested a possible 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.
Beth’s mother, Phoebe, was cruelly tricked by the Herald-Express 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 multiple leads were being tracked, the Herald looked to psychiatrists, Beth’s acquaintances, and even mystery writers, to speculate on the case, which they did with creative abandon.
The psychiatrist whose expert opinion was sought by the
Herald was Dr. Paul De River, LAPD’s shrink. He wrote a series of articles for
the paper in which he attempted to analyze the mind of the killer. De River
wrote that the killer was a sadist and suggested that: “during the killing
episode, he had an opportunity to pump up affect from 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 one of his most chilling statements, 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”.
People who had only a fleeting acquaintance with Elizabeth Short were interviewed and 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 Beth’s killer.
While the experts opined, Aggie was busy canvassing
Southern California for leads. Underwood had been with the Herald-Express for
twelve years when the Black Dahlia case broke wide open. In her 1949
autobiography, Newspaperwoman, she said that she came across Elizabeth’s
nickname when she was checking 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.”
A few days passed and the mystery man known only as Red, was located. He was Robert M. “Red” Manley, a twenty-five-year-old married salesman. Early on the morning of January 20, 1947, Aggie interviewed Manley. 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 that 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. He told of having picked Beth up on a street corner in San Diego
early in December. And he also revealed that the night he’d spent with Beth in
a roadside motel had been strictly platonic. He 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! Anyone who came into the city room that day and saw Aggie with her
embroidery hoop just roared with laughter. She kept at it until quitting time.
Day three — Aggie prepared to do more embroidery when she
was told by the assistant city editor 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 she was pulled off the case again! This time it was for good. An announcement was made that Aggie’s new assignment would be the city desk. She was flabbergasted. She had just become 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 that there was a cover-up and that Aggie was getting too
close to a solution to Short’s murder, so someone with enough juice had her
promoted to keep her out of the way. That makes little sense to me, as city
editor she’d have been directing the activities of all the reporters working
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?
Jane Doe #1, was found 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
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. The fingerprints were successfully transmitted 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 wasn’t overjoyed. 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, and
although much of the information has subsequently been disproved the lies remain.
On January 17, 1947, under the headline: “Mrs. Phoebe Short
Can’t Believe Slain Girl Hers,” the most persistent of Beth’s lies was repeated
by her mother. 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
is 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.