The murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, captured the publics attention back in 1947 almost instantaneously, and it continues to grip the public’s attention more than 60 years later.  But why?

Elizabeth Short was an aspiring actress, actual waitress, that left a hotel one night and was never seen alive again.  She was found in an empty lot just outside Hollywood, CA, beaten and cut-in-half at her torso.  Who did it?  Nobody (expect two people, whom I will address later) has a clue.  Not the LAPD, not her family, and not her friends; although, more than fifty people confessed to killing her.  The media covered the story in extreme detail, and they continue, to this day, to release stories about it once a year or so.[896]

Unsolved Murders In General

With so many unsolved murders each year, why is it that a small number of those murders grasp the American public like no others?

Unfortunately, murders happen every day.  According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, a murder is committed every 35.6 minutes in the United States.[897]

Many of those  go unsolved, and the rate of unsolved murder cases per year is increasing (6,000 murderers aren’t caught each year).[898]

Four factors combine to make certain murder cases ripe for public interest.  The four factors are:  

  1. the victim (lifestyle, looks, background); 
  2. how the murder was committed;
  3. the media portrayal; and
  4. lack of evidence.

The lack of evidence in particular, while not glamorous, leaves room for embellishment, speculation, and mystery.

The Victim, Elizabeth Short: The Black Dahlia

Elizabeth Short was born on July 29, 1924 in Hyde Park, MA to Cleo and Phoebe Short.  Not long after Elizabeth was born the family moved to Medford, MA.  Six years later, 1929, Elizabeth’s father, Cleo, disappeared.  His car was found abandoned near a bridge; he was thought to have committed suicide.  But, later Phoebe received a letter from Cleo, who was very much alive.  In the letter, he apologized to his wife for leaving, but she refused to let him return home. [896] 

As a child, Elizabeth enjoyed going to the movies with her mother, and later, dreamt of being an actress.  

At the age of 19, Elizabeth moved to Vallejo, CA (just northeast of San Francisco, CA) to live with her father and move closer to pursing her acting career.  But he kicked her out, not long after she moved in with him, because she was lazy and stayed out late.  So, she drifted to Santa Barbara, CA (northwest of Los Angeles, CA).[896] 

Vallejo, CA(68626)Credit:,Vallejo,+CA&gl=us&ei=glCoTqmlFcrh0QG26ozwAw&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=image&resnum=1&ved=0CDAQ8gEwAASanta Barbara, CACredit:,Vallejo,+CA&gl=us&ei=glCoTqmlFcrh0QG26ozwAw&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=image&resnum=1&ved=0CDAQ8gEwAA








Not long after arriving in Santa Barbara, Elizabeth was arrested for underage drinking.  The arresting officer advised her to move back home to Massachusetts. While she did return for a visit, she did not stay in Massachusetts.  She returned to Hollywood to pursue her acting career.[896]  While pursuing her acting career, Elizabeth worked as a waitress, and by all accounts, enjoyed the night life, particularly military men and even the occasional woman.  One rumor claims she and Marilyn Monroe were acquaintances, another claims the two had a sexual relationship.[896] 

Then, one night in mid-January 1947, Elizabeth, 22 years-old, was hanging out at the Biltmore Hotel supposedly waiting for a man, which given her social history doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.  But, she left alone.  It was the last time she was seen alive.[896]  

Elizabeth Short, The Black DahliaCredit:

The Murder; The Unsolved Mystery

Sometime between when she left the Biltmore Hotel and when her body was found on January 15, 1947 someone or some persons, beat Elizabeth, tied and held or just held her arms and legs and cut her in half (across her torso) using a butcher knife, saw, or medical equipment.  Elizabeth was alive, though unconscious, while the murderer(s) cut her in half.  Then, her murderer(s) drained the blood from her body and dumped her in a vacant lot, blocks from the Biltmore Hotel.

The Black Dahlia, at the crime scene GRAPHICCredit:

A passer-by found her body.  Upon investigation of her remains, it appears she was sodomized after death, and her murderer(s) stuffed grass in her private areas.  Further, it is rumored that she had henna in her hair and “BD” carved into her body.[896]  

The Confessions

After news of the murder broke, over 50 men and women came forth, claiming to be the murderer.  But none of their stories checked out.  Many couldn’t even identify her in a picture line-up, others didn’t know any of the facts, and some were just nut cases, but all were looking for attention.[896]

One website, claims that the LAPD knew who the killer was, had him in custody, but let him go.  The website is basically a book (broken up into chapters) that claims to reveal the name of the killer.  The name, the site claims, was part of a cryptic message sent to the LA Examiner (newspaper) and the LAPD (they allegedly decoded the message).[899] 

Janice Knowlton also claimed to know the real killer of Elizabeth - her father, George Knowlton.  She wrote a book titled Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer.  She was convinced that her father was having an affair with Elizabeth.  She further claimed Elizabeth was living in her family’s garage; she, Janice, saw her father beat Elizabeth to death with a hammer; and she accompanied her father, at 10 years old, when he disposed of the body.[900]

The Media

The nickname, the Black Dahlia, came from Elizabeth’s black hair and style of dress. But many speculate whether the nickname attached before or after her death.  [896]

If the nickname originated after her death, it would most likely have been created by the newspapers to sensationalize the story.  During the 1940s many newspapers competed for the same local market; therefore, to attract readers, newspapers went to great lengths, especially in a murder case such as this, to out do their competitors in terms of gruesome photographs, graphic depictions, and even blatant embellishment or outright lying.  Thus, it is easy to see why, at least initially, Elizabeth’s murder captivated the Los Angeles public and eventually the public at large.  The newspapers had plenty  of gruesome imagery to publish, and they did.  They did not spare the weak stomachs.  Further, the LAPD’s lack of evidence, and the constant rush of new confessors provided the newspapers with room for embellishment, speculation, and a new angle.  Further, you have a beautiful northeastern girl running to Hollywood to be an actress, gets caught up in the Hollywood nightlife, and ends up in an abandoned lot, cut-in-half at the age of 22.  

Elizabeth Short Case Slayer Baffles PoliceCredit:

Today, new stories are still published in the papers at least once a year.  The stories are about the latest clues and theories, or just about Elizabeth’s life in general.  No new evidence has surfaced; the murder remains a mystery.[896] 


So, why do some unsolved murders - mysteries - capture the American public's attention?  Who the victim is or what she represents, how the victim was murdered, how the media portray the event, and the amount of real evidence available all contribute to making an unsolved murder a lasting American mystery.