Black Dahlia–January 15, 1947

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.

Betty Bersinger

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 Underwood, with her recognizable halo of hair, talks with police and takes notes.

Aggie Underwood at the body dump site.

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.

3 thoughts on “Black Dahlia–January 15, 1947

  1. Hi Ms. Renner: thank you so much for co-leading Esotouric’s “Human Sacrifice” yesterday! I wanted to follow up with you: what were the aspects of the “Dr. Hodel as suspect” story that made it unlikely, and “red herring” as you described it? Thank you!

    • Hi Jim,

      George Hodel was a legit suspect at the time of the Dahlia investigation. LAPD bugged his house, and he knew about it. He made snide comments to let them know he was aware they were listening. LAPD cleared him as a suspect. He never knew Elizabeth Short. Frankly, they didn’t move in the same circles. Steve Hodel based his first book on a flawed thesis. He found a photo in his father’s belongings and was sure it was Short. It was not. In fact, the woman in the photo eventually came forward—still very much alive. He backtracked after that and said that the photo was just the universe setting him on the path to uncovering his father’s crimes. That is nonsense. There are so many ways in which to refute the Hodel theory it is exhausting. For an in-depth dissection of the impossibility of George Hodel as Short’s killer, look into anything Larry Harnisch has written. He is retired from the L.A. Times and he is the one of the most meticulous researchers I’ve ever met.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the tour. I love working with Kim and Richard, and it looks like we’ll be doing at least 4 or 5 tours together this year.

      If you have any other questions, please feel free to ask.

  2. Will Fowler, a cub reporter at the time, actually was the first reporter on the scene, along with his photographer. They worked for Underwood. They were coming back from another story when they picked up the report of a body on the police radio. When they got to the scene, the photog immediately began taking pictures. Will showed me the gruesome photos, unretouched, and they were brutal. Police chased the two off and when Will got back to the paper they started running an extra edition. Then his editor sent the pair back and by the time they got there everyone in town was on the scene and some of the reporters teased Will, saying he missed a big story. They didn\’t realize he had scooped them all.

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