The Black Dahlia Murder First Horrified The Public In 1947 — And It’s Haunted Us Ever Since

Main photos: Elizabeth Short [Santa Monica Police Department, 1943/WikiMedia Commons]

At about 10 A.M. on January 15, 1947, Los Angeles resident Betty Bersinger walked with her three-year-old daughter past a vacant lot and saw what she first thought to be two pieces of a discarded department-store mannequin.

What Bersinger actually saw was the bisected and otherwise mangled corpse of Elizabeth Short, 22, the murder and torture victim who would be known forever after by the nickname, the “Black Dahlia.”

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“Los Angeles Examiner” front page dated January 17, 1947

Short’s body had been chopped in half at the waist, with the naked two pieces place about a foot apart. She was specifically posed with her arms bent up behind her head and her legs spread open, displaying a mutilated vulva. Her mouth bore slashing scars that created the effect of a perverse smile. Someone had drained Short’s blood and carefully tucked her intestines up under her buttocks. Other wounds and cuts marked Short’s remains, including a broken nose, gashes on her face and thighs, and the removal of most of one breast.

To date, no one knows who committed this atrocity, and the mystery of the Black Dahlia continues to spook and enthrall humanity.

Elizabeth Short grew up in and around Boston. As a teen, she bounced back and forth between Massachusetts, Miami, and California, where, in 1943, Santa Barbara police picked her up for underage drinking. Come June 1946, Short settled in Los Angeles, hoping to break into the movie business. On January 9, 1947, she went missing.

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A week later, the world came to know Elizabeth Short almost exclusively as the “Black Dahlia,” a nickname most likely arising from Raymond Chandler’s popular film noir, The Blue Dahlia, which was playing in theaters at the time. The moniker also likely tied into Short’s striking pale skin and raven hair, coupled with her proto-goth penchant for black dresses.

"The Blue Dahlia" (1946); poster for the movie that inspired Elizabeth Short's nickname

“The Blue Dahlia” (1946); a poster for the movie that inspired Elizabeth Short’s nickname

Immediately, newspapers ran wild with the story and a horrified public devoured every detail. The media portrayed Short either as a wide-eyed innocent beset by human monsters or a tawdry sex worker who fell prey to one of the perils of her trade. Both approaches kept the story dominating headlines for months.

As a result of the hoopla, the Los Angeles Police Department joined forces with the press, disseminating information that they hoped would lure the killer to justice.

In short order, more than 60 people “confessed” to the crime. Of those, the LAPD seriously investigated about 25. No conviction ever resulted.

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Among the prior crimes looked into as possibly bearing connections to Short’s slaying was the recent spree by Chicago’s Lipstick Killer and previous decade’s Cleveland Torso Murders. No ties could be proven.

The Black Dahlia murder has tormented L.A. cops for decades, with many pursuing leads and configuring clues, even today, in their spare time. The case has also ignited active fascination and even obsession among myriad journalists, crime authors, private investigators, amateur sleuths, and conspiracy buffs.

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The case has similarly inspired a multitude of books, films, documentaries, podcasts, and other multimedia examinations. The most famous examples are the fictionalized 1987 account The Black Dahlia by author James Ellroy and director Brian DePalma’s 2006 movie adaptation of the novel.

Elizabeth Short's gravestone/WikiMedia Commons

Elizabeth Short’s gravestone [WikiMedia Commons]

Countless theories exist regarding who killed the Black Dahlia — some more compelling then others — and no end to such guessing seems to be in sight.

Most recently, in 2013, retired LAPD detective turned crime writer Steve Hodel publicly concluded that his own father, Dr. George Hill Hodel, had perpetrated the crime.

Steve Hodel’s new evidence included his father’s private photographs of Elizabeth Short, soil samples, and the use of a corpse-sniffing dog. Steve Hodel actually believes his father may have killed up to ten women.

Regardless, the Black Dahlia murder remains L.A.’s most notorious cold case and a chilling example of humanity at its most grotesquely inhumane.

Read more:
Time
Biography
The Lineup
The Guardian
L.A. Weekly
NBC News

Main photos: Elizabeth Short [Santa Monica Police Department, 1943/WikiMedia Commons]