Tragedy of Elizabeth Short
Death is many things: a great equalizer, a bringer of humility, and the inevitable end for all. In some cases, however, Death may give the deceased fame not achieved in life. Death provided such immortality to a lonely young woman who will long be remembered as “The Black Dahlia”.Credit: LA Examiner, Jan 25, 1947
January 15, 1947, was cold (by Los Angeles’ standards) and overcast.
That morning around 10 AM (PST), housewife Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter strolled down a residential street (in the Leimert Park district) in central Los Angeles. They were en route to a cobbler’s to pick up a pair of shoes.
The toddler spied something in a vacant lot. At her daughter’s direction, Ms. Bersinger spotted what she thought was a broken store mannequin lying just a few inches from the sidewalk. Closer inspection, however, revealed the figure was no mannequin, but the body of a woman, cut in half at the waist and lying face-up in the dirt.
The dead woman's arms, parallel to the ground, were thrown back past her head at 45-degree angles. The lower part of her body, with her legs attached, was placed roughly a foot distant from the upper part at a offset and diagonal to the dead woman’s left. The legs were straight but in a spread-eagled position.
Ms. Bersinger covered her daughter's eyes, ran with her to a nearby residence, and called the police.
These onlookers trampled the scene carelessly. Detectives ordered them away, but unfortunately precious evidence was probably lost in the early mêlée.
The only things of possible merit discovered nearby were a cement sack containing droplets of watery blood and a heel print (on the ground amid tire tracks). Neither artifact led to anything and could have come from anyone.
Dew under the body indicated it had been placed there after 2 AM (when the outside temperature dropped to 38 degrees). There was no blood in the grass or on the body; in fact, the victim had been drained of blood completely. A quick inspection of the area led detectives to conclude this was merely a dump site and not the real murder scene. They believed the two pieces were dragged to this staging scene, one piece at time.
The woman’s face had been bizarrely and horribly mutilated. The killer had sliced a three-inch long gash into each corner of her mouth, tracking upward across each cheek toward her ear. This cutting left her with a macabre “smile” on her face (called the “Glasgow smile”). Rope marks were noted on both her wrists and her ankles. It was clear she had been bound and probably tortured for a period before death.
Her body was clean, however, and appeared to have been thoroughly scrubbed of blood and excess tissue. Her intestines were tucked neatly under the buttocks of the lower section.
Measuring the two parts of the body led to a height for the woman of roughly 5’6” (about 167 cm). The Los Angeles County Coroner retrieved the body; later, at the morgue, her weight was found to be 115 pounds (around 52 kg).
Her fingernails were bitten down (in the way of nail biters). Another odd feature: this woman’s natural hair color was a mousey brown but her hair had been recently hennaed (perhaps near the time of death or just afterward).
Identification was critical and, as in any murder, the more time that elapses between discovery and active investigation the colder a case becomes.
Press and police in those days had a very symbiotic relationship. Police had their favorite scribes; the press members enjoyed a fairly open-door policy with police. The LAPD, technologically limited, gave the Los Angeles Examiner fingerprints lifted from the bisected corpse. The newspaper used its "Soundphoto" machine (the forerunner of the fax machine) and transmitted print enlargements to the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC.
Technicians there made a print comparison against their indices and quickly made a match. The woman had been printed for a mail room job she’d worked at a California army base. She also had an arrest on file for underage drinking in Santa Barbara.
Her name was Elizabeth Short.
Cleo Short, however, had not committed suicide, nor was he dead. He had simply abandoned his family when he realized he’d not be able to care for them properly. He wroteCredit: rare photo, provenance unknown to Phoebe a few years later. He apologized for his ruse, said he was living in California, and claimed he was saving money to move his family from Massachusetts to California. Phoebe, disgusted, wanted nothing to do with him.
Elizabeth, sometimes called “Beth” or “Bette”, spent time as a young teenage girl at the movies, watching the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire fare that was popular at the time. She also saw the première of Gone with the Wind, and it is perhaps her girlish dreaming at the theaters that ultimately led her to pine for Hollywood.
Beth had respiratory problems from birth, developing into asthma and bronchitis as she grew older. When she was 16, her mother started sending her to spend winters with family friends in Miami. She spent the next three years living in Florida during the New England winter months, while living in Medford the rest of the year.
When she was 19 (in 1942), Beth left the East Coast. Her estranged father, Cleo Short, was living in Vallejo (a city near San Francisco), and he worked at nearby Mare Island Naval Station. It was her intent to live with Cleo and then figure out a way to get to Los Angeles to ostensibly get a break into the movie business. In early 1943, Cleo and Beth moved to Los Angeles.
Cleo’s agreeing to keep Beth in California was predicated upon his belief she would be his domestic (cooking, cleaning, etc.). Beth, however, had other ideas; she was a headstrong young woman who did not relish the domestic life her father planned for her. Right from the start the relationship between father and daughter was strained. Because of the long separation (about 12 years) the two lived as strangers in the same household.
Cleo’s and Beth’s arguments eventually led to her leaving his house. She found a job at the Post Exchange at Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base), near Lompoc, California (over two hours north of Los Angeles).
Beth was surrounded by lonely soldiers, all on the edge of being sent off to war. These men vied fiercely for her attention; they voted her “camp cutie” and told her she had a movie star’s charisma and qualities.
Over the next couple of years Beth criss-crossed the country by train, from Medford to Chicago (where she had family friends) to Florida to California and back to Massachusetts again. Waitressing jobs helped pay her way wherever she went. Beth loved night life. She was a regular at nightclubs, dancing late and generally being a “good time girl”.
On the last day of December 1944, back in Florida for the winter, she met a young airman (a major, Matthew Michael Gordon, Jr.). She wrote to Phoebe, her mother:
“I met someone New Year’s Eve, a major, Matt Gordon. I’m so much in love, I’m sure it shows. He is so wonderful, not like other men. And he asked me to marry him.”
When Beth returned to Medford for the summer she wore Maj. Gordon’s pilot’s wings pinned to her blouse. She also started a hope chest anticipating marriage, adding embroidered linens sent to her by Gordon from the Philippines.
Matthew Gordon was a decorated United States Army Air Forces officer. He was assigned to the 2nd Air Commando Group, training for deployment to the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations.
Beth told her friends Gordon had written her from India and had proposed marriage (while he recovered from plane crash injuries). Gordon died, however, in another plane crash on August 10, 1945 (ironically, just four days before the Japanese surrendered, ending World War II).
In late August 1945, Beth received a telegram from Gordon’s mother, reading simply:
“Matt killed in plane crash on way home from India. My sympathy is with you. Pray it isn’t so.”
Beth lapsed into a depressive period, spending the next several days reading and re-reading Gordon’s letters to her. She later exaggerated that she and Gordon were married and had a child who died. [Autopsy results showed Elizabeth Short had never given birth, was not pregnant at the time of her death, nor displayed any signs of ever having been pregnant in her lifetime.] Gordon’s friends in the air commandos confirmed that he and Beth were engaged; his family denied any connection after Beth’s murder, however.
When winter hit in Massachusetts she went back to Miami; she carried a copy of Matthew Gordon’s obituary tucked in her suitcase.
In Miami, Beth worked men for a good time: for drinks, for dancing, for dinners. She knew she was attractive, and she used her femininity to its best advantage. She wore peep-toed heels, held her head high, very aware of her effect on the men on the street. She often accepted dinner invitations. Men paid for her meals, her bar tabs, some of her clothes, and sometimes her rent. Occasionally, she could get cash as gifts. Later, her gold-digging behavior would be conflated in the media into full-on prostitution; there is absolutely no evidence to suggest Elizabeth Short ever worked as a prostitute. [This confusion stems from a known prostitute working in Los Angeles who also happened to be named Elizabeth Short.]
Any money Beth earned waitressing went to improving her wardrobe. Apparently, she felt it was better to go hungry than wear outdated or worn clothing (hence the casual cadging of meals from men). Whenever she went out for the night she always dressed well. She preferred tailored black suits, feminine ruffled blouses, long gloves, and heels. She embodied the cool sophistication of a typical 1940s’ working girl.
Beth went back to Los Angeles in July 1946 to visit Army Air Corps Lieutenant Joseph Gordon Fickling. He was an old beau of hers she’d met during the war two years earlier. He was stationed in Long Beach. For the six months before her murder Beth stayed in Southern California, mostly in the Los Angeles area.
Their relationship was on the stormy side, with Fickling wondering about her fidelity, and Beth not caring that much about what he thought. One of his letters to her (confiscated by police and excerpted in the local papers after her murder) has him impatient with her flirtations with other men.
Fickling, finally frustrated beyond reason with Beth, moved to North Carolina to work as a commercial airline pilot, but the pair stayed in touch. He continued sending her money: a month before her death he wired her $100. [This was not mere pocket change—in today’s money that is a bit over $1000 US.] The last letter Fickling received from her was dated January 8, 1947 (seven days before her body was found), and stated, in part, she was moving to Chicago in hopes of becoming a fashion model.
During the last few months of her life Beth shifted constantly between hotels, apartments, boarding houses, and private homes. She lived in flophouses when money was tight, and she was chronically short of cash. She stayed for free where she could.
From November 13 to December 15, 1946, Beth shared a cramped two-bedroom flat in Hollywood with eight other young women. The roommates were cocktail waitresses, telephone operators, dime dancers, and out-of-towners trying to break into showbiz. They each paid a dollar a day (around $10 US today) for a bunk bed and a share of closet space. Beth couldn’t manage even that small amount always, however; rather than face the landlord, she would sneak out on rent days.
One of her roommates (after Beth’s death) said Beth “went out with a different boyfriend every night”, and that she did not have a job. “She was always going out to prowl [Hollywood] boulevard,” another woman said. Beth did not have close relationships with anyone, male or female; she seems to have preferred the company of strangers and a constant change of admirers.
The last known person to see her alive was a man she’d met recently named Robert Manley. He was a 25-year-old married salesman. According to the press after Beth’s murder Manley picked her up on a street corner in San Diego. He claims he saw her standing alone, thought she was a beautiful woman with no clear destination, and so he drew to the curb and asked if she wanted a ride. He said she played coy, refusing to look at him. But, with cajoling from Manley, she finally accepted a ride home from him.
Beth was staying with a family who had found her at a 24-hour movie theater where she'd gone to spend the night. They took her home out of pity, but they soon tired of her behavior. She slacked around their house during the day and spent her nights out partying. In early January 1947, they asked her to leave. Robert Manley came to pick her up.
The next day, January 9, Manley (according to him) drove her to Los Angeles to the bus station and helped her check her luggage. She allegedly told him she was headed to Berkeley to visit one of her sisters whom she was meeting at the Biltmore hotel downtown. [The things that are wrong with this explanation are myriad not the least of which is, if the sister was indeed in town, why check baggage at a bus station? The baggage and Beth should have all gone to the Biltmore together.] Manley said he walked her into the Biltmore’s lobby.
He claimed he left her there at 6:30 PM to go home to his family in San Diego.
Cleo Short, Beth’s dad, was tracked down. He lived only three miles from the garbage-strewn vacant lot where her body was found. He said he hadn’t talked to, or otherwise heard from, Beth in three years. He childishly carried a grudge against her for not keeping house for him when she came to California, spending her time instead “running around”. He flatly refused the coroner’s request for him to come and positively identify her body.
At autopsy Elizabeth Short was properly measured at 5’5” tall (around 165 cm). She weighed 115 pounds (a bit over 52 kg). Her eyes were light blue and her natural hair color was brown.
Her teeth were described as “badly decayed”. [Probably only her molars were bad; contemporary photos of her show fine frontal dentition for her smile.] Furthermore, some of her teeth were found plugged with wax (in all likelihood a self-dentistry artifice of Beth’s).
The rope burns on her ankles and wrists were consistent with being tied either spread-eagled or hung upside down. She had been forced to eat feces. Although her skull was not fractured, Beth had bruising on the front and right side of her scalp; there was also a small amount of subdural bleeding on the right side of her head. The cause of death was given as blood loss from the lacerations to her face (the “Glasgow smile”), combined with shock from a brain concussion and massive internal hemorrhaging caused by blows to the head. No traces of sperm were found anywhere in or on her body. [This should not be surprising given the washing her body received before being dumped in the vacant lot.]
Additional indignities inflicted upon her were the excision of her right nipple and areola, multiple cuts on both breasts, severe lacerations across her entire face, her pubic area was scored and barbarously shaven (as if with a rusty or very old, dull razor blade), and a four-inch plug of flesh was removed from the top part of her left thigh and stuffed into her vagina (along with some of her pubic hair). Apparently, merely cutting her in half was not enough for the killer; these mutilations were excessive in the extreme.
Police questioned a couple dozen of Beth’s “boyfriends” for naught. Most of these were the “peck-on-the-cheek-at-the-doorstep” type (after a night of dining and dancing that was all her dates got). Authorities did, however, find three men who had engaged her in intercourse in the past.
Once her story hit the papers, more than thirty “confessing Sams” came forward; these ran the gamut from the certifiable to the attention-starved seeking a moment of fame. [This case would go down in California history as the one that generated the most false confessions.] And police wasted precious working hours on these fakes. The lead detective complained in the press about the excess time spent on sorting letters from “pranksters” and “wiseacres” writing from as far away as El Paso, Texas, and the Bronx (one of New York City’s boroughs). This detective came to believe whoever had killed Elizabeth Short wasn’t someone she knew but someone she had “picked up”.
Thousands of people with even the most remote tangential connection or knowledge of Elizabeth Short were interviewed. A local medical school, because of its proximity to the dump site, was persuaded to turn over its enrollment lists for inspection and interviews. None of the medical students there had any connection to her, though.
On January 25, 1947, Beth’s black patent leather purse and one of her black open-toed pumps were dug out of a dumpster a few miles from where her body was found. Robert Manley, being the last person known to have seen her, was brought in to inspect these items. He stated the shoe was hers because he had paid to get the pair it came from re-soled in San Diego. He added that the black handbag smelled of the heavy perfume she used, a scent that suffused his car as they drove from San Diego to Los Angeles.
On January 23, 1947, a person (allegedly the killer) rang the editor of the Los Angeles Examiner. This man claimed concern that news of Beth’s murder was trailing off in the newspapers. He Credit: Bill G. Chambers, 2011offered to mail items of hers to the editor. The following day a packet arrived at the newspaper. It reeked; the sender had used gasoline to erase his or her fingerprints from the envelope.
Inside were a few of her personal effects: some photographs, business cards, names written on pieces of paper, her birth certificate, a social security card, and Matt Gordon’s obituary. There was also an address book with 75 men listed in it; the name “Mark Hansen” was embossed on the cover. [Since her purse, emptied of its contents apparantly, had already been found this material may have been sent by the person who initially picked it up then dropped it in the dumpster where it was discovered after taking what was inside. It does not necessarily follow this person was the killer.]
Hansen, who had boarded Beth for a few months in 1946, was a 55-year old Dane. He managed The Florentine Gardens, a sleazy nightclub featuring burlesque acts. Many of the women working at the club lived at his home (located behind the club building). He had tried unsuccessfully to “put the make on” Beth.
Police tracked down the other men in the book quickly. All told the investigators a similar story: they'd met Beth either on the street or in a club, bought her a few drinks or a dinner, but then elected never to see her again once she made it abundantly clear she wasn’t interested in sex with them.
The Black Dahlia Murder investigation was a disaster. A Los Angeles Daily News reporter later stated, “If the murder was never solved it was because of the reporters. They were all over, trampling evidence, withholding information.”
[And Elizabeth Short’s nickname—“Black Dahlia”—was made up by a newspaper reporter after her death. No one in her living years had ever heard of her being referred to by that nickname. Nor had she gotten the moniker from her alleged penchant for wearing a monochromatic black wardrobe while alive (a popular theory, even today)—contemporary photos show her in a variety of very colorful outfits. The creator of the infamous nickname was a reporter named Bevo Means, and its origins were confirmed by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office as part of its investigation.]
Police did not gain full control over information flow or evidence and the actual dump site for several days; reporters roamed freely through the police department's offices, sat at investigators’ desks, and even answered their phones! Many times, tips from the public did not make it to police officers; reporters who received them straight from the officers’ desks rushed out to get “scoops”.
Hearst’s papers, the Herald-Express and the Examiner, sensationalized the case all out of proportion to the real Elizabeth Short. For example, the Hearst papers described the black tailored suit she actually was last seen wearing as “a tight skirt and a sheer blouse”. She became the “Black Dahlia”, an “adventuress” who “prowled Hollywood Boulevard”. As time passed, the media coverage became more outrageous; claims were made that her lifestyle “made her ‘victim’ material”. Those who knew her well, however, reported Beth did not smoke, only drank moderately, and did not swear (not that any of that minutiae matters much).
Elizabeth Short was buried at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. After her other sisters had grown up and married, her mother, Phoebe, moved to Oakland to be close to Beth’s grave. Phoebe Short went back to the East Coast in the 1970s and lived into her 90s.
A few things can be reasonably surmised, however, from a simple profiling perspective.
The killing of Beth Short could not be the first time this killer had murdered. One doesn’t come by such an advanced level of mutilation and creativity in staging of the body (meant to be found and posed for maximum shock value) from an amateur murdering for the first time.
Chances are the Dahlia’s killer left other bodies in the area (perhaps spread out over time and geography, with lesser disfigurements and enough variation in disposal and death methods) that the police did not connect them to each other or to the Dahlia murder.
Instead, it seems clear The Black Dahlia was this killer’s (or killers’) masterpiece; the murderer escalated to this orgiastic level of brutality in the same way that Jack the Ripper’s murders each outdid the one before it, climaxing in the blood bath that was the prostitute Mary Kelley’s murder (where her body was butchered beyond recognition in her little doss room).
The killer of Beth Short, as the lead detective then related, probably was a stranger to her. She obviously had no problems accepting rides or other attentions from strange men (Robert Manley’s picking her up is a perfect example of her naiveté). Once the killer had abducted her he had her totally in his possession (it is not known if she was chloroformed or otherwise drugged, bludgeoned, or merely threatened or enticed to get her to the kill house). She was his plaything to do with as he pleased.
Her body’s condition suggests the last week of her life was lived in a terror one can only imagine. And the act of displaying her mutilated corpse near the sidewalk where she was found, placed just so, her Glasgow smile on her face—this killer was sending a message. But to whom, and what that message might’ve been, no one will ever know. [The Dahlia’s killer needed her to be found quickly and publicly. In contrast, Jack the Ripper’s kills were discovered quickly but he did not go out of his way to drag them literally into the light of day.]
Armchair analysts pontificate about The Black Dahlia even today. She is a popular subject, with many books, articles, essays, and—most recently—a big budget film made about her.
There have been two fantastical “my-daddy-killed-the-Dahlia” books written. [One was by a woman who was mentally disturbed and committed suicide in 2004; the other was from a former police investigator whose book, while making for a good yarn, really gives no proof positive his father killed Beth Short.]Credit: Bill G. Chambers, 2011
The Black Dahlia, and the mystique that goes along with the moniker, will likely live on forever. The name was a media invention, adding a lurid coloration to headlines (like “Jack the Ripper”, “The Hillside Stranglers”, et al). It is as much a press construct as is the mythical image of Beth as a vamp, or a prostitute, or some other form of “loose” woman.
She was none of these.
Elizabeth Short was a relatively pretty girl with a very good body who wanted to be either a model or an actress. She enjoyed a good time and the attentions lavished upon her by men. She was looking for love; at the youthful age of 22 this is what young women on the cusp of entering life’s responsibilities do. While she was no angel she certainly was no demon either. She definitely did not deserve what happened to her.
The mythos of The Black Dahlia overshadows anything Elizabeth Short did in life. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”
For Elizabeth Short her glory has been more than fleeting, it is eternal—she will always be The Black Dahlia.
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