LAPD detectives Harry Hansen and Finis Brown headed the investigation into Elizabeth Short’s murder. The case was a challenge from the moment they arrived on Norton Street. The lack of physical evidence at the body dump site posed a problem.
Police officers knocked on doors and interviewed hundreds of citizens to find the place where Beth was murdered, but they were unsuccessful.
The Herald-Express cruelly tricked Beth’s mother, Phoebe, into believing that her much loved daughter was a beauty contest winner, only to be told minutes later that she was a murder victim.
Murder victims lose their right to privacy; all of their secrets are revealed. To fill column space while reporters tracked multiple leads, the Herald looked to psychiatrists, Beth’s acquaintances, and even mystery writers, to speculate on the case, which they did with creative abandon.
The Herald sought the opinion of LAPD’s shrink. Dr. Paul De River. He wrote a series of articles for the paper in which he attempted to analyze the mind of the killer. De River wrote the killer was a sadist and suggested that: “during the killing episode, he had an opportunity to pump up effect two sources — from his own sense of power and in overcoming the resistance of another. He was the master, and the victim was the slave”.
In a chilling statement, De River hinted at necrophilia—he said: “It must also be remembered that sadists of this type have a super-abundance of curiosity and are liable to spend much time with their victims after the spark of life has flickered and died.”
Reporters interviewed people who had only a fleeting acquaintance with Beth. They weighed in on everything from her hopes and dreams to her love life. Beth was, by turns, described as “a man-crazy delinquent”, and a girl with “childlike charm and beauty”. Many people who claimed to be close to her said that she aspired to Hollywood stardom. The interviews yielded nothing of value in the hunt for the killer.
While the experts opined, Aggie canvassed Southern California for leads. She was twelve years into her career with the Herald-Express when the Black Dahlia case broke wide open. In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, she said that she came across Elizabeth’s nickname when she checked in with Ray Giese, an LAPD homicide detective-lieutenant. According to Aggie, Giese said: “This is something you might like, Agness. I’ve found out they called her the ‘Black Dahlia’ around that drug store where she hung out down in Long Beach.”
Aggie interviews a woman (not Black Dahlia related).
A few days passed and police located the mystery man, Robert M. Manley, known by his nickname, Red. Early on the morning of January 20, 1947, Aggie interviewed the 25-year-old salesman. The first thing she said to him was: “You look as if you’ve been on a drunk.” Manley replied: “This is worse than any I’ve ever been on.”
Aggie told him he was in one hell of a spot and advised him to come clean. Harry S. Fremont, an LAPD homicide detective, looked over at Manley and said: “She’s right, I’ve known this lady for a long time, on lots of big cases, and I can tell you she won’t do you wrong.”
Manley told his story, and Aggie was smart enough not to interrupt him. Red said he picked Beth up on a San Diego street corner early in December. He confessed that the night he spent with Beth in a roadside motel was strictly platonic and concluded with: “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”
The story ran in the Herald with the headline: ‘Red’ Tells Own Story of Romance With ‘Dahlia’, and Aggie got the byline. She was the only Los Angeles reporter to get a byline in the case.
The morning following her interview with Red Manley, Aggie was unceremoniously yanked off of the case. She said: “… the city editor benched me and let me sit in the local room without a blessed thing to do.”
The no-assignment routine resumed the next day. Aggie said that she sat for about three hours, then started on an embroidery project. Every person who came into the city room that day and saw Aggie with her embroidery hoop just roared with laughter. She kept it up until quitting time.
Day three—Aggie prepared for more embroidery when the assistant city editor that told her that because of an overnight decision, she was to go back to LAPD homicide and continue her work.
Aggie barely had time to pull out her notebook before management pulled her off the case again. This time, it was permanent. Aggie’s new assignment—the city desk as editor. Nobody was more shocked than Aggie. She became one of the first women in the United States to hold a city editorship on a major metropolitan daily.
Why was Aggie removed from the Black Dahlia case? There are those who believe there was a cover-up, and Aggie was getting too close to a solution to Beth’s murder, so someone with enough juice had her promoted to keep her out of the way. That makes no sense to me. As city editor, she directed the activities of all the reporters working on the case, and she wasn’t a person who could be bought. The timing of Aggie’s promotion remains an intriguing part of the Black Dahlia case.
NEXT TIME: The Black Dahlia case goes cold — or does it?