Film Noir Friday: Johnny Stool Pigeon [1949]

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 JOHNNY STOOL PIGEON (194) and stars Howard Duff, Shelley Winters, and Dan Duryea. Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

While following a trail of narcotics, San Francisco-based Treasury agents George Morton and Sam Harrison interrupt an illicit exchange between sailor John Whalen and drug dealer Pete Carter. In the ensuing confusion, Carter shoots and kills Whalen, then escapes. Later, Morton and Harrison locate Carter, but arrive at his hideout seconds after hired killer Joey Hyatt, a mute, murders him. From Carter’s address book, the agents deduce that he was working with the Arctic World Trading Company of Vancouver, Canada. After Morton offers to go undercover to expose the drug ring, he contacts convict Johnny Evans, a former childhood friend, and asks for his help in catching the dealers. 

Film Noir Friday: Sleep, My Love [1948]

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 SLEEP, MY LOVE (1948), and stars Claudette Colbert, Robert Cummings, and Don Ameche. Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Alison Courtland, who is from a wealthy family and married to architect Richard Courtland, wakes up hysterical on board a train from New York to Boston with no idea of how she got there. At the airport on her way back to New York, she meets an old friend, Barby, there to see off explorer Bruce Elcott, who joins Alison’s flight. Richard, meanwhile, has informed police sergeant Strake about Alison’s unexplained absence and because she has disappeared before, he is arranging for her to see an eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Rhinehart.

The Red Lipstick Murder

Born in a small New Mexico town in 1902, Jeanne Axford came of age during the Roaring ‘20s. Perfect timing for the free-spirited girl. At 17 she married David Wrather, and they had a son, David, Jr.

Jeanne Axford (L) with her cousin Clara. Photo from Ancestry

JEANNE’S EARLY YEARS

In 1922, after training in New Mexico, Jeanne worked as a nurse in Amarillo, Texas. According to Jeanne, David abused her. She and David divorced in 1924; she won custody of their son.

In 1925, Jeanne married again. That marriage, too, failed. Rumors have circulated that Jeanne appeared in a film, yet she remains absent from the Internet Movie Database, even under an alias. She may have appeared in uncredited roles. Whether she appeared in movies, Jeanne had an interesting Hollywood connection. She worked as a private nurse for Marion Wilson, Rudolph Valentino’s last date, maybe his last love. Known as the “Woman in Black” for many years, Marion put flowers on Valentino’s grave each year on the anniversary of his death.

Marion Benda Wilson aka The Woman in Black

Sometime between 1925 and 1931, Jeanne learned to fly and earned the moniker, “Flying Nurse.” She worked for a large oil company in South America, flying from one oil field to another, caring for workers. She became a member of the Women’s Air Reserve, and the 99 Club, an organization of women aviators.

Either an optimist, or a glutton for punishment, Jeanne married for a third time in Dallas, Texas on October 8, 1931, two days after her 29th birthday, to Curtis Bower. It took the couple five weeks to realize their mistake. The dissolution of her marriage earned Jeanne another nickname, “air-mail divorcee.” The divorce papers, prepared by her attorney, Allan Lund, went via air to Juarez, Mexico for filing. A new law in Mexico provided for a final decree by proxy. Neither Jeanne nor Curtis needed to appear in court.

WHERE IS JEANNE?

On July 5, 1932, Jeanne’s mother, Oma Randolph, went to police to file a missing person report. Jeanne left home the morning of June 27 to drive to the Mexican border, where she planned to board a private plane for Mexico City.

The week following the missing person report, Jeanne cabled her mother from Mexico City. “I can’t understand the worry I have caused in the United States by flying to Mexico. I am flying back for the Olympics. I assure everyone that I am okeh.”

By the mid-1940s, Jeanne had unspecified medical issues, possibly a hysterectomy. In pain, she turned to alchohol and drugs.

Jeanne kept a low profile for the next several years. She married in 1944 for the fourth and final time to a former Marine, Frank French.                   

ANOTHER LOS ANGELES WOMAN IS MURDERED

On February 10, 1947, less than a month after housewife Betty Bersinger found Elizabeth Short’s bisected body in a Leimert Park vacant lot, Hugh C. Shelby, a bulldozer operator, found the battered, nude body of a woman in a field near the Santa Monica Airport. The Herald put out an extra edition with the headline, “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body.”

Within hours, police identified the victim as forty-five-year-old Jeanne French of 3535 Military Avenue. Near her body they found a black plastic purse, like the one Elizabeth Short carried. Inside was a lone penny, some hairpins, and handwritten notes.

The area where they discovered her was a type of Lover’s Lane, situated seven miles from the location on Norton Street where they found Elizabeth Short.

Police speculated her attacker stripped Jeanne naked in a parked car and then beat her. He struck her multiple times after she staggered from the vehicle. Then he dragged her body into the field, some feet from the highway, where he then wrote his obscene message on her torso. Afterwards, he stomped on her chest so hard he left a clear shoe print behind.

He threw her clothing on top of her. A powder blue coat trimmed with fox fur and a burgundy dress. Except for her bra, they did not find any underwear. She wore no stockings.

Her slayer arranged her shoes, one on either side of her head, about 10 feet from her body.

Detectives gather at the scene of Jeanne’s murder

Someone savagely beat Jeanne. She suffered blows to her head administered by a metal blunt instrument—a socket wrench or tire iron. 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 her killer stomping on her. Heel prints marked her chest. One of her ribs pierced a lung. It took a long time for Jeanne to die. The coroner said she gradually bled to death.

Jeanne was probably unconscious after the first blows to her head, so she may not have witnessed her killer take the deep red lipstick from her purse, or feel the pressure of his improvised pen as he wrote on her torso, “Fuck You, B.D.” and “Tex.” Police looked for a connection between Jeanne’s murder and Elizabeth Short’s death; but they found nothing.

On the night before she died, Jeanne visited Frank at his apartment and they’d quarreled. She and Frank recently separated. Frank said they planned a 6-month trial separation to see if they could work out their problems. Jeanne arrived drunk at Frank’s apartment and he said she started the fight, then hit him with her purse and left.

Jeanne’s twenty-five-year-old son, David Wrather, came in for questioning. As he left 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.”

Both Frank and David had a history of abusing Jeanne. Neighbors heard violent arguments between Jeanne and David, as well as with Frank. Neither of them treated her with kindness or respect.

Jeanne’s neighbors knew her as a hard partying, mouthy drunk. The local bars she frequented confirmed Jeanne’s belligerence. Loud, profane, and promiscuous, Jeanne hung out with a rough crowd. The men she knew took advantage of her. She courted danger, and according to Frank, she feared nothing and no one. Her alcoholism and drug use suggest she was committing suicide, one drink and one needle at a time.

Despite his declaration of innocence, police booked Frank for murder. Then, as now, a woman is most likely to be killed by her husband or a lover. The forty-seven-year-old former Marine gunnery sergeant was arrested days earlier for viciously beating Jeanne, resulting in blackened eyes and a broken arm. Police cleared him when his landlady confirmed he was in his apartment at the time of the murder; and his shoe prints failed to match those found on Jeanne’s chest.

Police traced Jeanne’s whereabouts for part of the night. Ray Fecher, the operator of a drive-in café at 11925 Santa Monica Blvd., told detectives Jeanne came in between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m. Sunday. She drank coffee and chatted with Fecher. “She said her husband was sadistic. She said he liked ‘dark things,’ and had beaten her several times. Then she raised a pair of dark glasses she was wearing to show me a couple of black eyes she said he had given her.”

After she left the drive-in, Jeanne entered a bar at 10421 Venice Blvd. According to Earl Holmes, the bartender, in a loud voice, she announced her plan to commit Frank to the neuropsychiatric ward at the Sawtelle Veterans Hospital the next day. She had threatened Frank with hospitalization before, and he beat her. As abusive as their relationship was, Frank was not her killer.

Jeanne was last seen seated at the first stool nearest the entrance of the Pan American Bar on West Washington Place. The bartender told police Jeanne took a stool next to a smallish man with a dark complexion. The bartender assumed they were a couple because he saw them leave together at closing time.

Fuck You. B.D.

Jeanne did not drive herself to the place of her death; someone took her there. Police found her cut-down 1929 Ford roadster in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant, the Piccadilly at Washington Place and Sepulveda Blvd. Witnesses said the car was there at 3:15 on the morning of the murder, and a night watchman saw a man leave it there. The police never accounted for Jeanne’s whereabouts between 3:15 a.m. and the time of her death.

Even though Jeanne was not sexually assaulted, police rousted scores of sex degenerates. The brutality of the crime and the fact that she was found naked led the police to infer a sexual motive. None of the men rose to the level of a serious suspect. Officers also checked out local Chinese restaurants after the autopsy revealed that Jeanne ate a Chinese meal before her death.

THE RED LIPSTICK MURDER GOES COLD

Jeanne’s slaying became known as the “Red Lipstick Murder” case. Like the Black Dahlia case, it went cold.

Three years later, following a Grand Jury investigation into the many unsolved murders of women in L.A., the District Attorney assigned investigators from his office to re-investigate the case.

Frank Jemison and Walter Morgan worked on Jeanne’s murder for eight months, but they never closed it. They found a few suspects. One of the most promising suspects was a man who was seen with Jeanne on the night of her death. The man submitted to a lie detector test, but the examiner told detectives the subject was one of a small percentage of people who could beat the test. They never cleared the man, but neither did they arrest him.

Like the murder of Elizabeth Short, there have been no leads in Jeanne French’s case in decades. Their killers took their bloody secrets to their graves.

Black Dahlia: Another Confession and Another Murder

The investigation into Beth Short’s murder grew colder every day. Police investigated all the crackpots who claimed responsibility for the heinous crime. They went through stacks of letters and postcards that named potential suspects and offered various theories about the culprit. They rousted local sex offenders and searched in vain for the crime scene. If only the killer would confess.

On February 8, 1947, Joseph Dumais, an Army Corporal, came forward and admitted he dated Beth Short. Not only had they dated, he was sure he had killed her. The Herald announced “Corporal Dumais Is Black Dahlia Killer.” The 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 returned to Fort Dix wearing blood-stained trousers with his pockets crammed full of clippings about the murder. In a hand-written 50-page confession, he claimed he dated Beth five days before the discovery of her body—then he suffered a mental blackout.

Joseph Dumais

The good-looking corporal seemed like the real deal. Army Capt. William R. Florence, head of the Fort Dix Criminal Investigation Department, said, “I am definitely convinced that this man is the murderer.” In his zeal to be the one to solve the gruesome murder, Capt. Florence overlooked the superficial nature of Dumais’ answers to his questions. Dumais had only to read the news coverage of the case, and then unleash his imagination to be credible in the short run. When Florence asked, “Does it seem to you at this time that you committed this crime? Dumais answered yes. But as Dumais stated earlier, he blacked out and recalled nothing until he arrived at Penn Station.

Getting to the nitty-gritty details, the Capt. asked, “Do you know how her body was mutilated?” Dumais said he did, but did not wish to describe the injuries. Again, Capt. Florence asked Dumais if he could have committed the murder. Dumais replied, “Yes, it is possible because of my actions in the past.”

In his confession, Dumais told Army authorities he stabbed Beth in the back and around the mouth, then severed her body with a meat cleaver. He washed the body of blood and dumped it in a vacant lot in Leimert Park.

Dumais’s story was riddled with holes. He said he had a date with Beth in San Francisco on January 9 or 10, but could not explain how he got to Los Angeles and then back to Fort Dix. Further questions revealed Dumais to be a blackout drunk. He said he was “rough on the girls” when he had been drinking. Dumais’s credibility eroded with each new statement.

On February 10th, as Dumais’s story unraveled, Los Angeles awakened to the news of another brutal murder of a woman. The Herald put out an extra edition with the headline, “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body”.

The victim of the “Werewolf Killer” was forty-five-year-old Jeanne French. Her nude body was discovered at 8 a.m. on February 10, 1947, near Grand View Avenue and Indianapolis Street in West L.A. Police were frustrated and overworked. The women of Los Angeles were terrified. What the hell was going on?

Detectives at the scene of Jeanne French’s murder.

NEXT TIME: The Lipstick Murder

Film Noir Friday on Saturday Night: Cry of the City [1948]

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 CRY OF THE CITY [1948], and stars Victor Mature, Richard Conte, and Shelley Winters. Enjoy the movie!

 TCM Says:

Hoodlum Martin Rome, who has killed a policeman during a robbery, is in a hospital prison ward about to be operated on, and is being prayed over by his parents, brothers and sisters and a priest. New York City police lieutenants Vittorio Candella, who grew up in the same Italian neighborhood as Rome, and Jim Collins wait outside to question him. Niles, a lawyer, also wants to see Rome to ask him to confess to his involvement in the killing of a Mrs. de Grazia and thereby save an innocent man who has been arrested for the crime. Rome refuses to cooperate.

Black Dahlia: January 26, 1947 to February 15, 1947

Beth Short’s family buried her at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. The cemetery is located 375 miles north of the vacant lot in Leimert Park, where Betty Bersinger found her, and 3,000 miles away from Medford, Massachusetts, where her journey began.

Law enforcement worked around the clock to find the killer. On January 25th, as Beth’s family laid her to rest, a police search of a trash dump at 1819 East 25th Street in Vernon turned up one of her shoes and her handbag. Police carefully handled the items to preserve possible fingerprints. Because he saw her last, detectives called on Red Manley to identify the items.

Robert Manley identifies Beth’s purse and shoe

Without hesitation, Red told them the handbag smelled of the perfume Beth wore when he drove her from San Diego to the Biltmore on January 9th. He recognized the shoe from a pile of shoes presented to him by police. Feeling the heel of each shoe, Red stopped at a black right pump. He held it up and said, “This is it! I’m sure of it.” The shoe was the only one with double taps—heel and toe. Red paid to have an additional pair of new taps put on the heels of Beth’s shoes when they left San Diego. Beth loved hearing the tap, tap, of her toe and heel hitting the pavement as she walked.

Detectives thought the shoe and purse might be the same as those reported by Robert Hyman. He said he saw them in a trash can in front of his café at 1136 Crenshaw Blvd, about two miles from 39th and Norton. Trash collectors took the can before police arrived; but they traced the load to the Vernon dump. Hyman could not identify the bag and shoe.

Meanwhile, LAPD Capt. Jack Donahoe ordered extra officers to sift through the contents of a cryptic envelope mailed to the Examiner. On January 22, James Richardson, the paper’s editor, received an anonymous call. The man told Richardson he had items belonging to Beth. He thought they would “spice up” the case. Two days later, the Examiner received a call from the post office regarding a peculiar package. Someone, likely the killer, soaked the package in gasoline and addressed it “To The Los Angeles Examiner and other newspapers.” The package contained personal documents, pictures, Beth’s birth certificate, and a 75-page address book in brown leather.

Publicity-seekers, and sad mental cases, contacted police. Police received many communications through the mail. The first, the gasoline-soaked package, was almost certainly authentic. The others included a letter intercepted in Pasadena. Enclosed in the improvised envelope, a note cut and pasted from newspaper headlines, read, “Dahlia killer cracking. Wants terms.” Another letter, not considered authentic, read, “We’re going to Mexico City—catch us if you can.”

One note had a message scrawled in ink. In bold, capital letters, it read, “Here it is. Turning in Wednesday, Jan. 29, 10 a.m. Had my fun at police.” The note was signed “Black Dahlia Avenger.” The Avenger was a no-show. He sent a follow-up note to the Los Angeles Times. The note read, “Have changed my mind. You would not give me a square deal. Dahlia killing was justified.”

Daniel Vorhees, a transient in his thirties, surrendered to the police at Fourth and Hill Streets. He said he “couldn’t stand it anymore.” Detective Charles King and Dr. Paul De River, a police psychiatrist, agreed to wait until Voorhees recovered from his “bewildered and befuddled state” before giving him a lie detector test. Police cleared Voorhees.

By February 1st, police said they were giving up trying to contact Beth’s killer through letters and appeals. Sick pranksters sent anonymous notes, some from as far away as the Bronx, and signed them “Black Dahlia Avenger.” 

A local newspaper received half a dozen Black Dahlia messages in one mail delivery—one with postage due. An exhausting number of fortune tellers, spiritualists, mediums, and even clergymen wrote to police with their own solutions of the crime.

In the two weeks since the murder, hundreds of police door-knocked thousands of doors in a futile search for the crime scene. Several false confessors were detained and released.

The women of Los Angeles lived in fear.

NEXT TIME: A suspect and another murder.

Black Dahlia Investigation: January 17–January 25, 1947

On January 17, 1947, newspapers stopped using the werewolf murder headlines and started calling Elizabeth Short the Black Dahlia. Aggie Underwood chased down leads until, out-of-the-blue, her editor benched her. Sitting on the sidelines while the biggest murder case in decades unfolded drove Aggie crazy. She needed to be in the field, not sitting in the newsroom working on an embroidery project.

Then, without warning, Aggie was once back on the case. They gave her no explanation, but she didn’t care. She had just a minute to get back up to speed when they called her into the manager’s office. They benched her again, but this time, they gave her a reason. They promoted her to city editor of the Evening Herald and Express.

Aggie Underwood–City Editor

Some people believe Aggie’s promotion was a conspiracy to remove her from the case. Why? Because she knew too much. That is nonsense. Whatever she knew, she reported; and while she was no longer in the field, she oversaw the city room and all its reporters.

Police interviewed anyone acquainted with Beth. Harold Frank Costa 31, Donald Leyes 22, Marvin Margolis 27, and William Robinson, 25, admitted to knowing her in Hollywood–living, but they had nothing of substance to offer, and none of them was a suspect.

On January 18, Edward Glen Thorpe became a suspect when George Bennett claimed to have overheard him say, “I forgot to cut the scar off her leg,” while they traveled on a northbound bus in Merced. Police cleared Thorpe.

Also on the 18th, Beth’s mother, Phoebe Short, and her daughters, Eleanore, Dorthea, and Muriel, arrived in Los Angeles. They stayed for a few days, then took a United Air Lines flight to Berkeley to join Virginia West; the sister Beth told Red Manley she was going to meet at the Biltmore. She had not seen Virginia in several years.  

Reporters and police interviewed the Frenches in San Diego, where Beth spent the last month of her life. According to them, Beth spent most of her time writing letters. She claimed to look for work, but there is no evidence she did.

When detectives searched Beth’s suitcases, they found a telegram from Mrs. Matt Gordon, Sr. of Pueblo, Colorado. Dated August 22, 1945, it read, “Just received word from War Department that Matt killed in crash. Our deepest sympathy is with you.”

Matt, a major, served with the 1st Fighter Squadron 2nd Air Command. During his time in the service, Matt received the Silver Star Medal, Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Bronze Star. He died a few weeks before the official end of WWII.

Beth told many lies, but her feelings about Matt were real. He clearly felt something for her, too, or his mother would never have sent her such a personal telegram. Unfortunately, Beth wore out her welcome with Matt’s family by asking for money.

Major Matt Gordon

Police identified a photo of Joseph Gordon Fickling they found in Beth’s belongings. They located him in Charlotte, NC. In a phone call, Fickling told investigators an airline employed him since Nov 9, 1946 and knew nothing about Beth during her last few weeks. Like several other people in her life, Fickling sought to distance himself from the high-profile murder.

When police called on Beth’s father, Cleo Short, he said he hadn’t seen her in four years. “I want nothing to do with this. I broke off with the mother and the family several years ago. My wife wanted it that way. I provided a trust fund for their support when I left. Five years ago, Elizabeth wrote to me. I sent her some money, and she came out here. We set up housekeeping in Vallejo. But she wouldn’t stay home. In 1943, I told her to go her way, I’d go mine.” Cleo never provided for his family. He fled when his miniature golf business went belly-up, and he never looked back. He was a miserable man, bitter and uncaring. His family deserved better.

Heartbroken and exhausted, Phoebe appeared fragile as she testified at the inquest. When asked when she was first notified that her daughter died, Phoebe blurted, “She was murdered.”

On January 25, the Los Angeles Times reported on Beth’s funeral in Oakland, CA. “Fog swirled about her hillside grave as Elizabeth Short was buried today with only her relatives to mourn the 22-year-old victim of a mutiliation slaying.”

On the day of the funeral, a local newspaper summed up the status of the investigation. “Nine days of intensive investigation still left police detectives today without any tangible clues in the mutilation killing of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short.”

NEXT TIME: Beth’s purse is found, and the Black Dahlia Avenger sends a postcard.

Film Noir Friday: Fear in the Night [1947]

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 Fear In The Night and stars Paul Kelly, DeForest Kelley, Ann Dorn, and Kay Scott. The movie is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich (under the pseudonym of William Irish). Cornell Woolrich’s stories and novels have made terrific films: Rear Window,The Bride Wore Black, and Phantom Lady. Fear In The Night was directed by Maxwell Shane.

 TCM Says:

Bank teller Vince Grayson wakes from a nightmare in which he and an unknown woman murdered a man in a strange, mirrored room. Only a dream…but Vince finds that he has physical objects and bruises from his “dream.” His cop brother-in-law dismisses his story…until the family, on a picnic, takes shelter from a thunderstorm in a deserted mansion containing that mirrored room. Is doom closing in on Vince?

Red Manley and the Black Dahlia

In his 1991 autobiography, Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman, Will Fowler recalled one of his colleagues, Baker Conrad, had noticed a telegram among Elizabeth Short’s belongings. The Examiner’s editor, Jim Richardson, dispatched Fowler to the address on the telegram, 8010 Mountain View Avenue in South Gate.

When Fowler arrived at the bungalow court, a strikingly beautiful young woman greeted him. Her name was Harriette Manley. Fowler let her believe he was a cop.

During their conversation, Harriette said her husband phoned her from San Francisco after he saw his name in the newspapers in connection with Elizabeth Short’s murder. Red reassured Harriette that he’d had nothing to do with the slaying. He said he “loved her more than any man ever loved his wife.” 

At 10:00 pm on January 19th, two LAPD sergeants, J.W. Wass and Sam Flowers, staked out the home of Red’s employer in Eagle Rock. When the suspect’s sedan pulled up, the officers approached him with their guns drawn. An Examiner photographer was there to capture the arrest.

Robert ‘Red’ Manley

The next day, Aggie Underwood interviewed him. Red needed no encouragement to unburden himself. He told her how he’d picked Beth Short up on a San Diego street corner. How they had spent an “erotically uneventful” night in a motel and how he eventually dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel on January 9th.

Red finished his tale with a heartfelt statement. “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”

Aggie believed Red and shared her gut feelings with the police. Red was forthcoming in his interview. Aggie knew he wasn’t a killer. Red was a frightened man with goofy ideas about love, marriage, and fidelity.

“I was only trying to test my love for my wife,” he said as he sought to explain his brief escapade with Beth Short.

Red said he first saw Beth standing on a street corner in San Diego while on a business trip ten days before Christmas. “She looked cute, so I thought, well, I’ll make a little test and see if I’m still in love with my wife, or whether I could ever fall for anyone else.”

According to Red, he and Harriette, married for just 14 months, were going through a “readjustment period.” He said they had a “few misunderstandings, but nothing important.”

He swore up and down that Beth was the only woman he picked up since his marriage. When he approached her that day, Beth was coy. “She turned to me and said, ‘Don’t you think it’s wrong to approach a girl this way?’” Wrong or not, she got into his car within a minute or two. Before he dropped her off in Pacific Beach, where she was couch-surfing at the home of Elvera and Dorothy French. they sat in his car and talked. He asked her if she would go out to dinner with him. “That would be nice,” she said.

Red drove back up the highway and rented a motel room. He picked Beth up that evening and they went to a nightclub and danced until midnight. Afterwards, they stopped at a drive-in for a snack. He said they talked for a few minutes in front of the French home. Red kissed her goodnight, but said she was a little cold.

He didn’t see her again until January 7, on his next trip to San Diego. He wired ahead to let her know he would be in town. They went nightclubbing again. Then they stayed together in a motel on their way back to Los Angeles.

Red’s story, and his demeanor, convinced Aggie he was not a killer, but that didn’t mean she let him off easy.

If there was one thing that Aggie detested, it was a sob sister. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a sob sister is a female journalist who writes overly sentimental copy. That sort of journalism was never Aggie’s thing. She said, “A sob sister could have wept with and over Manley, interpolating, editorial gushes to prove what a big bleeding-heart beat in her breast. To hell with that. I’d rather have a fistful—an armload—of good solid facts.”

Her armload of facts made Aggie’s interview with Red Manley riveting. In fact, her city editor, who normally cautioned her to keep her copy short, let the entire interview run without a ton of photos. He knew a great interview when he read one. Aggie was the only Los Angeles reporter to get a by-line in the Dahlia case.

Why, then, amid the covering of the murder, was Aggie yanked off the story? With no warning or explanation, Aggie found herself benched. The city editor let her cool her heels in the newsroom without a thing to do. 

Aggie spent a couple of miserable days at her desk, bored out of her mind. Then she got pissed-off enough to fight back. She didn’t get huffy or raise her voice. She brought in an embroidery project. In no time, the other newsroom denizens were snickering. One newswoman, Caroline Walker, said, “What do you think of that? Here’s the best reporter on the Herald, on the biggest day of one of the best stories in years—sitting in the office doing fancy work!” 

The next day, they reassigned Aggie to the story—only to pull her off a second time. What the hell was going on?

NEXT TIME: The Black Dahlia case continues.

Aggie and the Black Dahlia

Elizabeth Short left the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel on January 9, 1947, and vanished. Where did she go? Is it possible she stopped at the Crown Grill at 8th and Olive seeking a familiar face and a free ride to Hollywood? When questioned by LAPD detectives, none of the employees or patrons recalled seeing her that night.

Biltmore Hotel

People often wonder where Beth was during her “lost week.” I believe she left the Biltmore to go to Hollywood. She knew people there, and might find a place to stay, even if just for a couple of nights. Despite reports, there is no credible evidence that anyone ever saw Beth after she left the Biltmore.

After leaving the Biltmore, it seems likely that Beth accepted a ride from her killer. Did she know him, or was he a stranger, an average-looking Joe in a suit or military uniform? Beth accepted rides from strangers before. Her youthful hubris may have led her to believe she would know a bad guy if she met one. Like most young women, Beth had likely talked her way out of an unwanted pass before. As women, we learn early how to navigate the occasionally treacherous world of men. The encounter with her killer would be unlike anything in her previous experience. By the time his mask slipped to reveal the evil beneath, Beth did not stand a chance.

On the morning of January 15, 1947, Leimert Park housewife, Betty Bersinger and her little daughter Anne, walked along Norton on the way to run errands. The sidewalks were in, but the houses had yet to be built on that block. The war halted building projects. All materials went to the defense industry.

About fifty feet north of a fire hydrant, Betty noticed something white about a foot from the edge of the sidewalk in the weeds of a large vacant lot. As they drew closer, the thing took shape. It looked like a discarded store mannequin. Then, to her horror, Betty realized what she saw was a nude woman, cut in half and posed with her arms above her head and her legs spread wide apart.

Terrified, Betty grabbed Anne and ran to the nearest house to telephone the police. In her excitement, she failed to identify herself.

LAPD officers arrived, and so did the press. The Herald sent Aggie Underwood. Aggie had been with the paper for twelve years and covered many crime scenes. But this one was different. The level of brutality defied comprehension. The killer posed his victim in a way meant to degrade her. With none of her belongings at the scene to identify her, the authorities labeled the victim as the city’s first Jane Doe of 1947.

Aggie described the scene in her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman.

“In a vacant lot amid sparse weeds a couple of feet from the sidewalk lay the body. It 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 above 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.”

Aggie at the body dump, January 15, 1947.

Aggie studied the body and disagreed with some of the police who argued the deceased was a woman in her mid-thirties. Aggie said the condition of the woman’s skin suggested someone much younger.

A couple of days later, when they identified Jane Doe as Elizabeth Short, Aggie’s contention proved true. Short was only 22-years-old.

The Herald originally tagged the slaying the “Werewolf Murder.” They soon dropped in favor of a much catchier moniker.

Several people took credit for giving the case the name that would stick ‘Black Dahlia.’ Aggie was one of them. While chasing dead-end leads, Aggie said she received a call from a friend, Ray Giese, who was an LAPD homicide detective lieutenant. He said, “This is something you might like, Agness. I’ve found out they called her the ‘Black Dahlia’ around that drug store where she hung out down in Long Beach.”

Short got her nickname after she and some friends saw the film, “The Blue Dahlia,” starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and William Bendix during the summer of 1946. They said because she wore black clothes and frequently tucked a flower behind one ear, she was the “Black Dahlia.”

Once they identified Short, they found the last man seen with her, Robert ‘Red’ Manley. The twenty-five-year-old salesman drove Short up from San Diego and left her at the Biltmore Hotel on January 9th. He became suspect #1.

Robert “Red” Manley arrested in Eagle Rock. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Early in the morning of January 20th, Aggie got permission to interview Manley at the Hollenbeck police station on the east side of the city. She sized him up as a guy reporters might meet at a bar and “find a congenial drinking companion, possible criminal or not.”

Aggie said, “You look like you’ve been on a drunk.” Manley replied, “This is worse than any I’ve ever been on.” Perry offered Manley a cigarette, which he accepted with gratitude. Aggie continued. “Look, fella, you’re in one hell of a spot. You’re in a jam and it’s no secret. If you’re innocent, as you say you are, tell the whole story; and if you haven’t anything to hide, people can’t help knowing you’re telling the truth. That way, you’ll get it over with all at once and it won’t be kicking around to cause you more trouble.”

Would Manley open up to Aggie?

NEXT TIME: Red Manley tells his story, and the investigation continues.