Did A Woman Kill The Black Dahlia?

Sketch of Jane Doe #1

 

Police interviewed dozens of men in the murder of Elizabeth Short. None of the suspects panned out. A seemingly endless stream of false confessors appeared at police stations around town; guys like Max Handler, a film bit player, who was the 25th man to claim he had murdered the Black Dahlia. During a lie detector test, he admitted that his confession was false and that he “wanted to get away from a gang of men [400 men with tiny violins] who have been following me constantly”. In the photo, he looks to have been on a lobotomizing bender.

Max Handler with Det. Ed Barrett (in hat and glasses). [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Daniel S. Voorhies, a 33-year-old army vet, confessed to killing Short. He said he’d had an affair with her in L.A. — the problem with his story was during time he claimed he and Short were having a torrid affair, Beth was a teenager living on the east coast.

Every sad drunk and deranged publicity seeker falsely confessed to the murder. Most of the confessors were men; but not all.

False confessor, Minnie Sepulveda. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

A gal named Minnie Sepulveda stepped up and said that she killed the Black Dahlia. She lied.

Mrs. Marie Grieme said she had heard a Chicago woman confess to the Black Dahlia’s murder. It was another dead end.

Even though none of the women who confessed were guilty, the cops would not i possibility that Short’s slayer was a woman. After all, L.A. had had its share of female killers.

The Herald ran side-by-side photos of three infamous female murderers busted in L.A. Louise Peete (one of only four women executed by the State of California) was a serial killer. Busted in the 1920s, she served eighteen years in prison. Following her release, she committed yet another murder for which she paid with her life.

Winnie Ruth Judd committed two murders in Arizona. Police arrested her in L.A. when a trunk containing the dismembered remains of Hedvig Samuelson and Anne Le Roi leaked bodily fluids in the baggage claim section of a local train station.

Winnie Ruth Judd’s trunks. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

In 1922, Clara Phillips (aka “Tiger Girl”) murdered Alberta Meadows, the woman she suspected was a rival for her husband’s affections. She struck Meadows repeatedly with a hammer until the handle broke and, possibly to keep Alberta from rising from the dead like Lazarus, she rolled a 50 lb. boulder onto her victim’s chest.

Body of Alberta Meadows — victim of Clara Phillips’ wrath. [Photo courtesy of UCLA]

The notion that a woman could be Short’s killer is not far-fetched. The Herald featured a series of columns written by psychologist Alice La Vere. La Vere previously profiled Short’s killer as a young man without a criminal record, but she was open to the possibility of a female killer. She abruptly shifted gears from identifying a young man as the slayer to “…a sinister Lucrezia Borgia — a butcher woman whose crime dwarfs any in the modern crime annals — are shadowed over the mutilated body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short.”

Obviously, La Vere was an expert for hire, and if the Herald editors had asked her to write a convincing profile identifying the killer as a mutant alien from Mars, she may have done it. She told the Herald:

“Murders leave behind them a trail of fingerprints, bits of skin and hair. The slayer of the Black Dahlia,” left the most telltale clue of all—the murder pattern of a degenerate, vicious feminine mind.”

Even more interesting is La Vere’s exhortation to the cops to look for an older woman. She said:

“Police investigators should look for a woman older than ‘The Black Dahlia’. This woman who either inspired the crime or actually committed the ghastly, unspeakable outrage need not be a woman of great strength. Extreme emotion or high mental tension in men and women give great, superhuman strength.”

If you compare Alice La Vere’s profile of the potential killer to a profile created by John E. Douglas, retired from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) — La Vere’s seventy-five-year-old profile holds up well.

What I find interesting about La Vere’s profile is her contention that the woman would be older than Short. In recent years, an older woman became an integral part of a theory about the crime.

Retired Los Angeles Times copy editor, Larry Harnisch, wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times for the fiftieth anniversary of Short’s death. During his research, he unearthed an important connection between the body dump site near 39th and Norton, and two medical doctors, Dr. Walter Alonzo Bayley and Dr. Alexandra Partyka.

Dr. Bayley owned a house about a block south of the place where Elizabeth Short’s body was dumped. Bayley did not live there at the time of the murder. He separated from his wife in October 1946 and filed for divorce in Nevada.

Dr. Partyka arrived in Seattle, Washington on August 22, 1940 and ended up in Los Angeles in 1943. In that year, she appears in the California, U.S. Occupational License Directory as a physician or nurse. On July 22, 1943, the Board of Medical Examiners Record of Applications lists her as a medical examiner.

How Partyka and Bayley met is not clear, but by Short’s 1947 murder, the couple lived and worked together in Bayley’s downtown office.

Following Bayley’s death in January 1948, Partyka and Dr. Bayley’s wife, Ruth, fought over control of his estate. Mrs. Bayley claimed Partyka was blackmailing the late doctor with secrets about his medical practice that could ruin him.

There is also a link between Bayley’s family and Short’s. In 1945, Dr. Bayley’s adopted daughters, Barbara Lindgren, was a witness to the marriage of Beth’s sister, Virginia Short, to Adrian West at a church in Inglewood, California, near Los Angeles.

Larry discussed Dr. Bayley in James Ellroy’s 2001 “Feast of Death”. [Note: Be forewarned that there are photos of Elizabeth Short in the morgue.]

A woman could have murdered Elizabeth Short. Was it Alexandra Partyka?

Felonious Flappers: Bad Girls of the 1920s & 1930s

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.

Aggie and the City of Forgotten Women: Part 1

Women in Tehachapi [Photo: UCLA Digital Archives]

Women in Tehachapi [Photo: UCLA Digital Archives]

In the spring of 1935, Aggie Underwood wrote a three part series of articles for the Herald-Express on the women incarcerated in Tehacahpi.  People have always been fascinated by the exploits of bad girls.

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There’s been a rise in the number of women committing violent felonies in recent years, but for many decades women committing such crimes were an anomaly. Alienists (psychiatrists) and penologists offered various theories to explain why a woman might be driven to commit a violent crime.

In 1924, Sigmund Freud suggested that menstruation reminded women of their inferiority and inflamed them toward revenge.

His theory is absurd and offensive, but variations of it are still accepted today.  An ambitious woman may be characterized as unfeminine or vicious. A man exhibiting identical traits may be praised for his business acumen and strength. Make no mistake, even in the 21st Century women are still competing on an uneven playing field.

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Whether a woman killed because she was in a homicidal PMS rage or not, there was an ongoing debate on the punishment of women. It is true that historically women have gotten away with murder. It is also true that society is relcutant to apply the death penalty to women.

In his 1931 criminology course, Dr. Paul E. Bowers seemed saddened by the fact that so few deserving women were executed. He said:

“We hate to send a woman to the penitentiary; we hate to electrocute or hang women.  We think its the wrong thing to do.  We have to admire Al Smith, when Ruth Snyder was convicted of killing the husband of this other woman. Al Smith didn’t given her a reprieve and allowed her to go to her electrocution, as she should have gone. Many women have been convicted of murder, but it is only very rarely that women are hung or electrocuted for committing murder.”

Dr. Bowers confused the facts of the case. Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, were convicted and executed for the murder of her husband; but Bowers was not at all confused about his opinion regarding female murderers. He declared that they should be executed.

Aggie was intrigued by the stories of female convicts. Perhaps because her own upbringing was a tough as many of the women behind bars. She didn’t romantize their plights, nor did she condone their actions, but she empathized. 

Below is the first part of Aggie Underwood’s series on the lives of the forgotten women of Tehachapi just as it appeared in newspapers in 1935.

double indemnity_Snyder_chair

Ruth Snyder in the chair. A Chicago reporter snuck a camera into the death chamber strapped to his ankle and got the incredible photo.  As an aside, the Ruth Snyder/Judd Gray case inspired James M. Cain to write his powerful noir novel, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, which became the 1944 film.

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Tehachapi, Cal., Apr. 30 —

Nestled in a range of snow covered mountains, eight and one-half miles from the nearest town, is California’s home for forgotten women.

Here are Clara Phillips, the celebrated “Hammer Murderer”; Louise Peete, Nellie Madison, Josephine Valenti, Anna De Ritas, Burmah White and 140 others who ignored man-made laws and are spending long, long years in a miniature city of their own.

Ruler of this city surrounded by a high wire fence is Miss Josephine Jackson, deputy warden, who works directly under orders from the head of the state prison at San Quentin, Warden James B. Holohan.

For 18 years she has been employed in California prisons, and for 18 years she has been caring for women whom the state has tagged “bad” and sent away to do penance behind prison walls.

Louise Peete, murderess. [Photo: UCLA Digital Archive.]

Louise Peete, murderess. [Photo: UCLA Digital Archive.]

Miss Jackson moved the first group of girls from San Quentin into Tehachapi in August, 1933, and by November of the same year all of the inmates of the state prison had been transferred.

Life runs smoothly, and quietly, as the days go by with the only break in a monotonous existence being an occasional visit by some unexpected outsider.

The buildings which comprise the prison group, are in an administration building, detention building and two cottages.

All work in the prison is volunteer–none compulsory, and each inmate is given an opportunity to do the work she likes best.

Many of them prefer garden work, many laundry, many cooking and table serving, many secretarial and some even beauty work.

There is no official chief at the state institution and the inmates have proven themselves splendid cooks even to the extent of making all of the bread that is used by the inmates.”

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Six a.m. is regulation “get-up” time; 9 p.m. lights out.

Work on the various necessary duties is started immediately after breakfast and groups may be seen leaving the various buildings in which they are house for the rabbitry, the chicken yard, the barn yard where there are several cow to be milked.

And, as groups gather around electric washing machines, or in the yard planting trees, or in the chicken yard tending the fowls, loud shouts of laughter may be heard ringing through the echoing mountainous section.

No supervisor stands over these 145 women to drive them to their tasks. No one waits around to scold or correct them. They are on an honor system to do their best work in their best manner, and according to Miss Jackson this system succeeds remarkably.

Each building has a nicely furnished recreation room where the girls gather when their daily tasks are completed to play cards, checkers, sew or play the piano. But, because the architects failed to provide for an auditorium, there are no picture shows because there is no room large enough to seat all the inmates.

Just as Sing Sing, and Eastern prison, has an outstanding men’s football team, so does Tehachapi have its baseball team.

In fact, two teams have been organized. Joephine Valenti, who gained prominence in Los Angeles when she was convicted of burning her small baby to death, is captain of one team and Pauline Walker, a colored girl, is captain of the second team.

They play every Sunday with all of the inmates gathering on the sidelines to do the rooting.

At present the field isn’t much good, but the girls are gradually doing their own work and making a real diamond.

They have made their own uniforms–white bloues and black bloomers with red stripes down the sides, and, according to Miss Jackson, they welcome the opportunity to don these costumes and break the monotony of every day life.

Each goes on in the same fashion, light tasks, few laughs–a drab life, for the 145 women who must pay for their transgressions of the law. yet Tehachapi represents notable changes in the American penal system and is being studied as a model.”

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NEXT TIME: Agness Underwood’s series on the “city of forgotten women” continues.