Black Dahlia: The Investigation Begins

Local housewife, Betty Bersinger, found the body of Jane Doe #1, 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 below.

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 Blizzard of 1947

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. They successfully transmitted the fingerprints 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 balked. 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. On January 17, 1947, under the headline: “Mrs. Phoebe Short Can’t Believe Slain Girl Hers,” her mother repeated the most persistent of Beth’s lies. 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 was 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.

NEXT TIME: The search for a killer continues

Black Dahlia, January 15, 1947: Aggie & the Werewolf

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 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.

Harry Hansen & Finis Brown

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.

The Black Dahlia: January 15, 1947

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. 

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Betty Bersinger recreates her phone call to police.

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!”

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Will Fowler crouches down near Jane Doe’s body.

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.

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Aggie Underwood on Norton Avenue, January 15, 1947

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.”

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Air brushed newspaper photo of Jane Doe

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.

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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.

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Ray Pinker

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.