Black Dahlia: The Investigation Continues


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.

A skillfully retouched photo of Elizabeth Short at the body dump site.

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.

Phoebe Short at Beth’s inquest.

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”.

Dr. J. Paul De River

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.

Beth at Camp Cooke (now Vandenburg AFB)

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 related to Dahlia case)

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.

Robert Red Manley

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?

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. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 00010445_bersinger.jpg
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!”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 00081698_will-fowler.jpg
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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is AGGIE_DAHLIA-SCENE_1_15_1947_frat_resize.jpg
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.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 00010486_dahlia-body.jpg
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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is finis-brown_harry-hansen_dahlia.jpg

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 00050723ray_pinker.jpg
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.

Dead Woman Walking: Louise Peete, Finale

louise_testifying

Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA.

Louise Peete’s trial began on April 23, 1945.

Louise had never denied burying Mrs. Margaret Logan’s body in a shallow grave at the deceased woman’s Pacific Palisades home, but she told several colorful stories about how Logan ended up dead in the first place.

As in her first murder trial for the slaying of Jacob Denton over twenty years earlier, Peete claimed to be broke and was assigned a public defender, Ellery Cuff. Cuff had an uphill battle, the evidence against Peete was compelling.admits burial

For the most part Louise sat quietly as the prosecution drew deadly parallels between the 1920 murder of Jacob Denton and the 1944 murder of Margaret Logan; however, she disrupted the trial during testimony by police chemist Ray Pinker. From the witness stand Pinker testified to a conversation between Louise and LAPD homicide captain Thad Brown. (In 1947 Thad Brown’s brother, Finis, would be one of the lead detectives in the Black Dahlia case.)

peete halts testimonyPinker said that prior to the discovery of Mrs. Logan’s body in a shallow grave in the backyard of her home, Brown had faced Peete and said: “Louise, have you blow your top again and done what you did before?” To which she replied: “Well, my friends told me that I would blow my top again. I want to talk to Gene Biscailuz (L.A. County Sheriff).” Louise spun around in her chair at the defense table and shouted “That is not all of the conversation.” Her attorney quieted her.

Pinker testified to how he had found the mound covering Mrs. Logan’s body. He said that he had observed a slight rise in the ground which was framed by flower pots. The cops didn’t have to dig very deep before uncovering Margaret Logan’s remains. When Louise was asked to face the grave she turned away and hid her face with her handbag.camera shy peete

All of Pinker’s testimony was extremely damaging to Peete’s case. In particular he said he tested a gun found Mrs. Peete’s berdroom, and when he tested the bullets they were consistent with the .32 caliber round found lodged beneath the plaster in the living room of the Logan home.

The prosecution’s case was going to be difficult to refute. It must have been a tough call for the defense when they decided to allow Louise to take the stand. Louise could be volatile and unpredictable.

Louise testified that Mrs. Logan had phoned her to ask if she’d keep house for her while she was working at Douglas Aircraft Company. Louise went on to say that when she arrived at the Logan home she found Margaret badly bruised, allegedly the result of Mr. Logan kicking her in the face.

pinker bulletMr. Logan would be unable to refute any of Louise’s allegations because he had died, just days before, in the psychiatric hospital where he was undergoing treatment. Logan had been committed to the hospital by Louise, masquerading as his sister!

Logan’s death was a boon for Louise and she took full advantage of it by blaming him for his wife’s death. Louise was asked to recreate her story which had Arthur Logan shooting and battering his wife, but she appeared to be squeamish. When she was shown the murder gun and asked by the judge to pick it up to demonstrate how Arthur Logan had used it to kill his wife, Louise said: “I will not take that gun up in my hand.”

Louise’s attorney tried valiantly to contradict the evidence against his client. Would the jury believe him and acquit her?

In his summation District Attorney Fred N. Howser addressed the jury:

“Mrs. Peete has violated the laws of man and the laws of God. She killed a woman because she coveted her property. Any verdict short of first degree murder would be an affront to the Legislature. If this crime doesn’t justify the death penalty, then acquit her.”

The jury of 11 women and 1 man found Louise Peete guilty of the first degree murder of Margaret Logan. With that verdict came a death sentence.peete guilty

Judge Harold B. Landreth pronounced the sentence:

“It is the judgement and sentence of this court for the crime of murder in the first degree of which you, the said Louise Peete, have been convicted by the verdict of the jury, carrying with it the extreme penalty of the law, that you, the said Louise Peete, be delivered by the Sheriff to the superintendent of the California Instution for Women at Tehachapi. There you will be held pending the decision of this case on appeal, whereupon said Louise Peete be delivered to the warden of the State Prison at San Quentin to be by him executed and put to death by the administration of lethal gas in the manner provided by the laws of the State of California.”

peete guilty picIt was reported that Louise took her sentence “like a trouper”.

On June 7, 1945, Louise Peete began her journey from the L.A. County Jail to the women’s prison at Tehachapi to wait out the appeals process.

Louise lost the appeals which may have commuted her death penalty sentence to life in prison. On April 9, 1947 an eleventh hour bid to save her life was made to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court denied the appeal.

Louise would die.

A crush of reporters spent time with Louise on her last night; among them was, of course, Aggie Underwood.

Aggie had interviewed Louise numerous times over the years, and she managed to get at least two exclusives. In her autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, Aggie devoted a few pages to her interactions with Louise, which I’ll share:

“With other L.A. reporters, I interviewed her there for the last time before she was taken to San Quentin to be executed April 11, 1947.”

“Like other reporters, I suppose I was striving for the one-in-a-million chance: that she would slip, or confess either or both murders, Denton’s in 1920 and Mrs. Logan’s on or about May 29, 1944.’

Louise would not slip; but Aggie gave it her best try. Interestingly,  Aggie said that she never addressed Louise as anything but Mrs. Peete.  Why? Here is her reasoning:

“I called her Mrs. Peete. A direct attack would not have worked with her; it would have been stupid to try it.  She knew the homicide mill and its cogs.  She had bucked the best reporters, detectives, and prosecutors as far back as 1920, when, as a comely matron believed to be in her thirties, she had been tagged the ‘enigma woman’ by the Herald.”

“So I observed what she regarded as her dignity. Though I was poised always for an opening, I didn’t swing the conversations to anything so nasty as homicide.”

And in a move that would have occurred only to a woman, Aggie spent one of her days off finding a special eyebrow pencil for Louise:

“…with which she browned her hair, strand by strand.  I didn’t go back to jail and hand it to her in person.  Discreetly I sent it by messenger, avoiding the inelegance of participating in a utilitarian device to thwart nature which had done her a dirty trick in graying her.  Royalty doesn’t carry money in its pockets.”

About Louise, Aggie said:  “She wasn’t an artless little gun moll.”  No, she wasn’t.

Lofie Louise Preslar Peete was executed in the gas chamber on April 11, 1947– it took about 10 minutes for her to die. She was the second woman to die in California’s gas chamber; two others would follow her.

she buried them all

Peete is interred in the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.

NOTE: On March 9, 1950 the DRAGNET radio program aired an episode called THE BIG THANK YOU which was based on Louise Peete’s cases. Enjoy!

http://youtu.be/5ddEOaa4w50

NEXT TIME: Dead Woman Walking continues with the story of the third woman to perish in California’s lethal gas chamber, Barbara Graham.