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True crime. Casually done.

The Unsolved Mystery of the Black Dahlia Case

Written by Chris Lake



It’s January of 1947 and Phoebe Short is at home in Medford Massachusetts. The phone rings, and because it’s the forties, ignoring it isn’t really an option. The caller is a man called Wain Sutton, who says he’s a reporter for the LA Examiner, one of the two biggest LA newspapers at the time. He’s calling to tell Phoebe that her daughter, Elizabeth, has won a beauty contest in Southern California. He tells her he needs to do background and wants details about Elizabeth for the story. Phoebe swells with pride, gladly enumerating her third daughter’s many accomplishments, details about her school career, her life, her personality. Back in the Examiner offices in LA, Wain Sutton is sitting next to the City Editor, Jimmy Richardson. Also present is sports columnist Jimmy Murray. They’re all listening in on the call as Sutton butters up Mrs Short in order to get more and more personal detail on her daughter. After a long while, Sutton covers the mouthpiece on the phone and asks his editor what to do next. “Tell her,” says Richardson, and Sutton reveals the true purpose of his call. Phoebe’s daughter Elizabeth has been found murdered, and the whole beauty contest thing has been a ploy to get a scoop on the victim. “You son of a bitch,” Sutton said to Richardson, before telling Phoebe the news.

Phoebe was obviously shocked by this sudden turn and initially refused to believe it was true. This might seem a bit strange, but imagine a complete stranger has called you out of the blue and then revealed he’s been lying to you the whole time you’ve been talking, before telling you news you really don’t want to hear. I think a great many people would refuse to believe a word he said. It wasn’t until later, when the official death notification was executed by Medford Police, that Mrs Short accepted that her daughter had been killed. She had to fly out to LA to identify the body – something she refused to do for two days, unwilling to have her last memory of her daughter be of the condition in which her killer had left her. But the only other relative to hand was her eldest daughter Virginia, who lived in Berkely and had come to LA to be with her mother. And Virginia hadn’t seen her sister in years. So eventually, Phoebe relented and, after struggling to recognise Elizabeth through the marks of the beating her killer had doled out, completed the identification.

This little vignette of the appalling mistreatment of Elizabeth Short and her family is emblematic of The Black Dahlia case. The victim, her family, and the murder itself have all been subject to relentless sensationalism and exploitation from the very first moment the body was found. Added to this, the backdrop – Los Angeles in the mid-forties – is one of the most heavily mythologised settings in history. Fact, fantasy, myth, and history have all converged on the brutal slaying of Elizabeth Short, warping and altering every aspect of the case. It’s hard enough investigating an apparently one-off murder committed by a forensically aware perpetrator. It’s even harder when the powerful forces of mnemo-history[1] [nem-mo-history] interlace the facts and events with the broader tapestry of the past, twisting and inflating a personal tragedy into a teleological[2] morality tale burdened with explaining the iniquity of a whole era. Or, to put that in simpler terms, when the killing is warped into a fable used to illustrate LA in the forties as the city of sin, truth and the human victims of the crime go by the wayside.

The Black Dahlia is, of course, one of the most famous and longest enduring cold cases in the LAPD’s history. The nature of the murder, the nickname given to the case, the intersection of some of its aspects with the movie business and organised crime, all in the very dead centre of the noir era, have all contributed to its mythification. I’d originally intended to do the usual thing with unsolved cases, that being a description of the crime and investigation and a summary of the more notable theories, both whacky and plausible, to have emerged over the years. And I will, of course, do this. But during my research, it became apparent that not only was almost every single fact of the case in dispute, but the reasons for this were rooted in a sort of mania to use and abuse the story in pursuit of each narrator’s agenda. And while this is understandable when it comes to high profile or emblematic incidents in history, the net effect of this is to not only dehumanise the victim, but also to tarnish and abuse her memory. So, as well as trying to bring some forensic order to the morass of myth and legend surrounding the case, I’m also determined to do our bit to restore some of the human dignity which has been taken away from the victim, Elizabeth Short, and her mother Phoebe. In pursuit of this, the painstaking and excellent research of journalist Larry Harnisch [HAR-nish], who’s currently working on a book about the Dahlia murder, stands out as unsensational and impressively thorough. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to his theoretical suspect, the fact is that he didn’t start off trying to solve the murder, which gives his research a purity which many of the others lack. I’ll be citing his work quite a lot, so if you’re one of the many Dahlia enthusiasts who prefer the more sensational or conspiratorial researchers and sleuths, I give you fair warning that we’re probably not going to agree on very much.


For Americans, the Second World War was a complex and formative phenomenon. From 1939-42, division was rife, with a great deal of social mobilisation occurring both in favour of direct involvement as well as against. Continual attacks on American merchant shipping and then the attack on Pearl Harbour sealed the deal for the pro-war factions, and the USA embarked on its second full national military mobilisation within the space of a few decades. Just like in WWI, and just like many other countries, they weren’t really ready for it. Significant disruptions were caused by the rapid assumption of a wartime posture, not least of which was a near complete halt in housing development. Over the course of the war, more than 12,000,000 US citizens cycled through the armed forces, 60% of whom were draftees. 73% of military members served overseas for an average of about a year and a half, and only 40% had rear echelon, or non-combat jobs. Given that the population at the time was about 134,000,000 this means that just under 10% of Americans were in uniform and directly participating in the war effort. This might not sound like much, but the fact is that if 10% of a population is doing anything, a vast majority of the entire country is at most only a few degrees of separation away from it. What this amounts to is the fact that almost every American life was touched by the war in some way.

Of course, for many people life carried on as usual, but with the war as a constant background noise, and friends or relatives in uniform either at home or overseas. During the war years, there was a significant dip in reported crime, though whether that’s because of an actual reduction or just a decrease in reporting is still hotly debated today. Conversely, organised crime was rampant. The syndicates which had sprung up to take advantage of prohibition were still going strong, having refocused on narcotics, gambling, prostitution, and war profiteering. The depression in the thirties, and then the mass demobilisation of troops in the mid forties provided fruitful recruiting pools of well trained and often angry and disappointed men able to handle firearms and plan and execute organised violence. This is the period of Murder Inc., The Syndicate, the LAPD Gangster Squad, and other fabled tropes of American noir. It’s no accident that post war Los Angeles was the backdrop for the works of Raymond Chandler, films like LA Confidential, games like LA Noir, and a numberless host of iconic works of classic gangster fiction. Moreover, most US police forces weren’t particularly well set up to deal with organised crime. Some forces, and the LAPD was a notorious example of this, even saw the enablement of organised crime as the lesser of two evils. This was especially true when it came to vice and gambling. So rife was vice, in fact, that one woman publicly offered to put money towards a whipping post to deal with all the degenerate sex criminals of the city. This kind of hysteria and paranoia were par for the course as well. This period also saw the height of the infamous Senator McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee – the famous anti-communist witch hunt which went on until 1975. The role and treatment of women was also prominent in the public consciousness at the time, with women all over the Western world either transitioning from work or uniformed service back into homemaking, or bitterly complaining about the sudden snapping back of their temporarily enhanced role in society. All these factors and more combined to create a fertile environment for the seed of a story which was to echo down the decades, maintaining prominence until the present day.

Of course, this is a very telescoped and selective view of what’s actually a highly complex historical period. But as my favourite history professor always used to say, “history is not the past”. The past is the exact pitch of the whispering leaves around the field of Agincourt as the wind blew through them. It’s every crumb of every meal eaten or missed by myriad people through the ages, most of whom never even made the slightest dint in the historical record. The past is the living mind of Elizabeth Short, from her birth to whatever she was doing in her famous ‘lost week’, right up to the final horrific moments of her death. History, on the other hand, is the stuff we remember, the records we choose or are lucky enough to unearth, and the weave and pattern we make of them to explain the past and the present. The past here is a complex one. The world of mid-forties LA is at the same time familiar and bizarre. I think we all understand being exhausted with war and catastrophe, anxiety about the declining morals of a new generation, or of society in general. We’d all identify, I think, with the simultaneous sense of doom and optimism which characterises the public mood at times of great historical significance, like the one we live in today. But I think we’d struggle to understand a world where journalists could customarily be found hanging around police detective bureaus – so much so that the LAPD had a beer and rations budget for reporters. Where the decidedly narrow band radiotelegraph was the fastest speed at which information could travel, where a ball point pen cost three days’ wages, and newspapers come out multiple times a day and were seen as authoritative arbiters of truth. Some things never change, though. As Lord Harmsworth, first editor of The Daily Mail said, “Sex things, health things, and weather things will always be news.” And in the saddest and most grisly way possible, the murder of Elizabeth Short fell into that first category.


We need to start this section with a content warning. We’re going to be describing, in some detail, the findings of what has generally been accepted as the autopsy report. This isn’t to revel in gore, but rather because the detail of the violence visited upon the body of Betty Short are important both to the subsequent theories of what happened, as well as to the enduring currency of the Black Dahlia case. And while we’re not talking Eight Immortals or Monster of the Andes levels of slaughter and mayhem, the content is still quite disturbing in its own way.

It’s about ten in the morning on the 15th of January 1947. Mrs Betty Bersinger’s on her way to pick up her husband’s shoes from the cobbler’s where they’re being repaired. As she walks down South Norton Avenue, in the Leimert Park area of LA, she’s pushing her three-year-old daughter in a Taylor Tot pram – a prestigious brand which she, to this day, proudly points out to people who want to hear her story. Leimert Park today is still quite a famous area, as its western boundary is Crenshaw, and it’s only a few blocks from the South-Central LA region made famous by the likes of NWA. Back then, however, it was a mostly white middle class neighbourhood full of young families. South Norton Avenue was one of the many pockets of abandoned or empty lots still lying fallow from WWII’s impact on the construction industry, so Mrs Bersinger has to pick her way through the broken glass and rubble on the pavement. At some point she looks over to her right and spots what she at first believes to be a discarded mannequin. It soon becomes apparent, however, that this is a dead body. Mrs Bersinger rushes to a nearby house to use the telephone. Nobody answers at the first house she tries, but the people next door let her in, and she calls the police. The police operator gets the number she’s calling from, but not her name, and then Mrs Bersinger goes to pick up the shoes. This is the story that Betty Bersinger herself told to Larry Harnisch, and one that’s consistent with other accounts she’s given over the years. So, it’s interesting, then, that by far the most popular version of the story comes from ex-LAPD officer Jack Webb’s book, The Badge, where Mrs Bersinger’s daughter disobediently runs off to play in the vacant lots, before stumbling over the body. In Webb’s version, it’s a morality tale within a morality tale, the disobedient little girl’s waywardness leading her to stumble over a murder victim. A sort of pocket analogy for the legend of Elizabeth Short herself, cast as a similarly wayward lost girl whose wanderings through the vicious Hollywood underworld brought her to a grisly end. As Larry Harnisch himself says, “Nobody can tell the story straight. Everyone wants to fuck with it.”

And here we go with the disturbing content. This account of the condition of the body comes from fragments of testimony given at the coroner’s inquest, as well as a published account of the coroner’s report which the author claims was hand copied by an ex-LAPD detective. While these might seem to be tenuous sources, they do match pretty well exactly the photographic evidence which is available, and the LAPD accepts the account to be true. There are aspects which they still won’t comment on as the case is still open and the file has never been released, but it’s generally thought that these accounts can be trusted. Elizabeth Short’s body was found naked, in a supine or face up position on a vacant lot on the west side of South Norton Avenue, halfway between West 39th and Coliseum. Her eyes were open and her arms were posed at right angles, palms facing upward and above her head. The reason Mrs Bersinger thought she’d seen a mannequin was the fact that the body was pure chalk white as it had been exsanguinated, or drained of blood. There was a ligature mark on her neck, but the subsequent examination found no internal trauma indicative of fatal strangulation. Her head was badly beaten, her face puffed and livid. There were small vertical cuts on her upper lip, possibly caused by the beating or deliberately inflicted in some other way, as well as multiple small abrasions around the forehead. Small cuts had also been inflicted near the bridge of her nose. On both sides of her face, a long gash had been cut – slightly differing in length on each side. The surrounding tissue was ecchymotic [EK-ee-MOT-ik], meaning blood from traumatised vessels had risen to the top layer of the skin, discolouring it. Both the asymmetry and the ecchymosis may suggest that these cuts were inflicted while she was alive. The effect of these cuts was to create a hideous grin, one of the grim iconic images of the Dahlia case. Patches of skin had been cut away from her breasts, probably post-mortem. Her teeth were in extremely poor shape, heavily decayed, and some were loose – possibly as a result of being struck. The upper half of the torso was separated from the lower half by a long, neat incision passing through the duodenum and the second and third lumbar vertebrae. Most agree that this incision was made post-mortem. Her lower half was separated about ten inches laterally and five longitudinally from where the upper half lay. It was posed with her legs straight out and spread wide apart. All internal organs were still present, and her intestines had been tucked neatly under her buttocks. There was an old surgical scar on her side, which matched records of a medical procedure she’d had when younger. Her rectum was unusually dilated, and her stomach contained nothing but faeces and pellets of fertiliser. While the LAPD will not confirm or deny this, the copy of the report made by the ex-detective states that a tattoo of a rose which had been on her left thigh had been cut off and inserted in her vagina. No traces of sperm were found anywhere on her body, but it’s clear from the report that the coroner suspected she may have been raped. Cause of death was determined to be haemorrhage from the head trauma as well as blood loss.

Okay, that’s it. I apologise for those who found that a bit rough, and for any psychos out there who found that enjoyable, please don’t thank me. In fact, don’t come anywhere near me or anyone else and get mental help instead. Anyway, the point of all this is to show that Elizabeth Short’s death involved violence and torture, possibly over several days. This isn’t actually that unusual for a sexually motivated murder. What is unusual, however, is the surgical precision with which the body was bisected. One of the original detectives on the case thought that perhaps the killer might be a butcher, especially given there were a bunch of butchers on strike in the city at the time. Later investigators and researchers, however, were more inclined to interpret the treatment of the body as suggestive of medical, rather than game dressing skills, which will be important later. But contradictory evidence is a recurring feature of the Black Dahlia case. The presence of fertiliser and the exsanguination both strongly suggest hunters and farmers. The neatness of the bisection and, more importantly, the method of bisection, strongly suggests medical practice. The posing, cleaning, and bisection of the body all suggest a methodical and careful sex motivated killer, but the choice of location is extremely high risk and suggests some kind of personal connection, either to the victim, or the locale, or both.



Will Fowler, who was working for the LA Examiner at the time, wrote in his memoir, Reporters, that he was the first journalist on the scene and had arrived before the police. He talks about closing Elizabeth Short’s eyes and helping to move the lower half of the body into the transport to be taken away. Retired LAPD Patrol Officer Will Fitzgerald, however, says that he was the first on the scene and that there were no reporters present. These are only two of multiple conflicting accounts. In any event, roughly a dozen police officers and a horde of reporters descended on the scene. There’s lots of photographs from that day, and to a modern, CSI-minded audience, they look truly bizarre. There’s no police tape up anywhere. People are smoking and wandering all over the crime scene, poking around and taking pictures. Some photographers have climbed on top of emergency vehicles in order to get a better shot of the body, and the scene taken as a whole is basically mayhem. This isn’t that unusual for the time, however. As mentioned earlier, the relationship between the LAPD and the press was extremely chummy. Some trusted reporters were even issued with LA County Sherriff Courtesy badges as well as press passes. Photos from the morgue, where the initial examination took place, seem equally chaotic, as the room was thronged with police officers and reporters alike. It was actually routine for journalists to attend high profile autopsies, so journalists from the LA Examiner were present when police were struggling to fingerprint the body. The reason for their difficulties was that the killer had washed the body so thoroughly that the fingertips were wrinkled from moisture, so it took them quite a while to lift viable prints. Once this was done, it was discovered that bad weather was delaying flights from LA, so the cops decided they’d mail the prints to the FBI, who kept the central database. One of the Examiner’s editors, however, suggested they use something called a “Soundphoto” machine. This was a device which enabled the transmission of photographic information via telegraph – a sort of primitive fax machine. The police agreed, and Elizabeth Short was identified from an application to work at Camp Cooke, as well as an arrest for underage drinking in Santa Barbara. And because it was the Examiner’s machine being used, they knew the identity of the body before the police, and used it to call the victim’s mother, Phoebe, in order to dupe her with that story about the beauty contest.

The Examiner didn’t have it all their own way, though. Over at the Herald Express, another Hearst paper, they had to contend with the formidable Aggie Underwood, a pioneer for women in journalism and, by all accounts, an absolute force of nature. Aggie was just as aggressive as Richardson, and the two papers ran neck and neck for some time in terms of information they uncovered and turned over to police in exchange for exclusive scoops. On top of this, the LA Daily News had a mole, a man appropriately named Ringer, who would smuggle copy over to the Daily News to be printed as an exclusive. In short, the press activity was a frenetic, and even with the symbiotic relationship between media and police, to our modern eyes the whole thing looks like utter chaos. When one of the first printed sentences about the case was being written, an editor for the Daily News added the word “beautiful” to it, without ever once having laid eyes on Elizabeth Short. Initially dubbed “The Werewolf Murder” by Aggie Underwood, reporters digging around Elizabeth Short’s life discovered that her nickname at a drug store she frequented was “The Black Dahlia”. This was either because of her black hair and clothing, or a play on the recent film, The Blue Dahlia, or both. Once Underwood published this information, the Black Dahlia moniker stuck, making this one of the few occasions when a high-profile American murder was named for the victim rather than the killer. The sheer aggression and power of the newspapers in this period probably had something to do with the fact that television hadn’t really taken off in the US yet. But it probably had much more to do with the influence of one William Randolph Hearst, member of one of the most unpleasant dynasties in American history, an absolute titan of publishing, and a deeply unscrupulous man. His leadership of the Examiner, one of the papers he founded, left a deep mark on its operations. So much so, that many of the wildest excesses of the tabloids in those days is often referred to as “Hearst reporting”. The more usual name for it is “Yellow Journalism”, a juggernaut of exploitative, unethical, and dishonest practices which makes even today’s most outrageous tabloid screamsheets look staid and dignified by comparison.

One of the more popular points of view is that the media took advantage of an inept police force for their own purposes and fatally torpedoed the investigation in the process. There are many, from both inside and outside the force, however, who disagree. The taskforce assembled to investigate the Black Dahlia case was known as a crack team, with hundreds of investigators from other forces and agencies drafted in to help. And the relentless media attention, while it unearthed an unusually high number of “confessing Sams” – slang for those who falsely confess to crimes – also uncovered a great many of the earliest and most promising leads. It does seem that, while it all might look appallingly messy to modern eyes, in terms of the gold standard of policing at the time, the Black Dahlia investigation was well conducted. The problem really seems to lie in the nature of the crime, the enigmatic life and movements of the victim, and the highly organised and forensically aware conduct of the killer.



Naturally, one of the first things the investigators tried to do was piece together a picture of the victim, her movements, and her personality. They discovered a character beset with contrasts – a contradictory and elusive figure. This wasn’t helped by her own reticence, as she hid the truth about herself from everyone around her, including her own mother, possibly as a form of emotional self-defence. Beth, or Betty, as she preferred to be known at different stages of her life, was a complex and inconsistent person, and it’s a testament to the quality of the police investigation that it uncovered some of this, instead of leaving nothing but the two-dimensional cut-out more usual in this kind of case.

Betty was born July 29, 1924, to Phoebe and Cleo Short. She was the third of five daughters, all of whom were born within eight years. Cleo Short was a builder of mini-golf courses, and it’s interesting how deadpan the contemporary sources are about this. There must have been a lot of mini golf around in those days. The depression seems to have hit this industry hard, because in 1930 Cleo parked his car on a bridge and simply disappeared. As he’d intended, this gave his family and the authorities the impression he’d killed himself. Cleo didn’t re-emerge for years, by which time Phoebe, who’d been raising five girls alone and unsupported, no longer wanted anything to do with him. Betty did, though, and she offered to keep house for him in Vallejo, California, in exchange for a place to live. This was in 1943 and the arrangement only lasted a few weeks. Betty didn’t keep house, according to Cleo, but was out all night and asleep all day. Cleo, however, was an alcoholic who bawled out the police when they came to his door to notify him of his daughter’s murder. “I don’t want anything to do with this,” he’s reported to have said. So perhaps there was more to the story of their failed reconciliation. Betty’s high school friends describe her as beautiful and different. One friend in particular talks about her walk, saying she took tiny steps and held herself unusually straight and upright so that she looked more like she glided than walked. She was thought of as the prettiest of the five Short sisters, and she had a couple of boyfriends in school. Her friends say that one of those boyfriends had never even kissed her, as she wouldn’t let him.

Betty dropped out of high school in her freshman year, taking a job as a waitress and movie usherette to help support her family. She had asthma, so when the war started, she moved to Florida as a common prescription for pulmonary ailments at the time was warm, humid climates. Whilst there she met Major Matt Gordon Jr, a P51 pilot in the 2nd Air Commandos flying missions in the Pacific Theatre. They fell in love and got engaged. Five days before VJ Day, Gordon was killed in a crash. She was back in Massachusetts at the time, working as a waitress. The news appears to have devastated Betty. She’s reported to have spiralled into a deep depression, changing markedly from the bright, playful, and kind person she’s reported to have been before. There’s a story about a pilot in Gordon’s unit called T.J. whose wife wouldn’t write to him while he was away. Knowing how much letters mean to deployed servicemen, Beth, as she called herself at the time, wrote letters to him and sent him a photo which is still on display amongst the memorabilia of the 2nd Air Commandos Club. After Matt’s death, Betty basically became a drifter. During the remaining year and a half of her life she remained unemployed and basically homeless. She would couch-surf from place to place, never staying anywhere for more than a few months, before finally heading out to California to meet Gordon Fickling, another pilot with whom she’d had a budding romance before meeting Matt Gordon. The attempt to rekindle their earlier relationship didn’t pan out, and Betty was left wandering loose in California. During this period, she’d write to her mother once a week, telling her good news stories that weren’t true, clearly trying to spare her from worrying about the reality of her situation. She’d stay a few nights at the homes of acquaintances and cadge meals and money from men she met by telling them she was a war widow with a dead son. At one point, when attempting to sleep in an all-night movie theatre, the cashier, who was sharing an apartment with her mother and brother, invited Beth to move in with them. Beth was staying there for about a month before she met a salesman named Robert “Red” Hanley. They dated a few times and then went to a motel together. It appears that nothing happened there, which might have had something to do with the fact that Red was married. Beth fabricated a story about meeting her sister at the Biltmore Hotel, probably as a way to shake Red off. He took her there, left her at about six thirty p.m., and that’s where sightings of Elizabeth Short dry up. This was January 9, and six days later her mutilated body would be found on Norton Avenue.

So, who was Elizabeth Short? She was a real and complex human being, struggling with grief and youth and a world which hadn’t been particularly kind to her. But many people were kind to her, and she seems to have been kind to many people in her own turn. I guess the main reason I’ve gone into so much detail about her life and character is that so many of the theories, some of which we’re about to get into, hinge on the idea that she was either a hooker or a loose lost girl, an archetypal aspiring actress chewed up and spit out by Hollywood or, most offensively of all, a dark and manipulative femme fatale who got what was coming to her. These are the more common portrayals, and they’re all highly unjust pictures. Betty didn’t drink, she never took a screen test or an acting class or an audition – in fact, the only evidence for her wanting to be an actress is that she stole one of her roommate’s stories about casting calls and Hollywood gossip for light and bright content for her letters home. She clearly wasn’t promiscuous either – even with all the usual caveats around evidence on the subject of sex, the consensus among the more serious investigators is that she was sexually active with only three of the men she dated. And this is a view shared by the LAPD, who started with the theory she was a prostitute, but very soon determined she wasn’t. And far from being a femme fatale, actually reading her letters and the accounts of her actions it’s pretty clear that Jimmy Richardson’s assessment is the best one. “Not good, not bad, just lost and looking for something. In any big city, there’s millions like her.”



The cruel trick played on Phoebe Short mentioned at the beginning of this episode yielded a trail of past addresses to the LA Examiner. City Editor Jimmy Richardson sent reporters out to all the past locations the doting mother had mentioned. One of these was Beth’s last known address, the all-night cinema cashier’s family residence where she’d been staying. The family gave the Examiner’s reporters two extremely hot leads – the fact that Beth Short had had her luggage sent from Chicago to the Railway Express warehouse in LA, and that she’d been last seen with a man in his mid-twenties called “Red” or Bob. Examiner reporters tracked the pair to the Mecca Motel, just a few miles away, and found that Red and Beth had checked in under their real names. Richardson offered the trunk up to Captain Jack Donahoe on the condition it be opened in the Examiner offices. A few days later, when Examiner reporters had tracked down Red Hanley’s whereabouts by flashing one of their courtesy badges at his wife, they were also able to ensure they were present at his arrest.

Robert “Red” Hanley was an early and obvious suspect in the killing. He was married with a newborn, a travelling salesman who sold pipe clamps – back in the days when pipe clamps were a thing a small company made and needed salesmen to sell – and he’d picked Beth up on a street corner for a sexual adventure. Or, if you believe him, which I don’t, he was conducting a test to see how much he loved his wife. The LAPD Gangster Squad grabbed him, guns drawn, with the Examiner reporters lurking in the wings. When they caught up with him, he famously said, “I know why you’re here. I didn’t have anything to do with it.” Red Hanley was initially grilled for hours, and also polygraphed for what that’s worth. A few researchers still believe him guilty to this day, but there simply isn’t enough in the way of means, motive, and opportunity, and he’s also alibied for some of the relevant time. In the meantime, the LAPD had sent their case notes over to the Sex Offenders’ Bureau, a department run by a dubiously qualified man named Dr J Paul De River. De River’s bureau was responsible for assessing and recording anyone who was suspected or convicted of a sexual offence. The Bureau had mountains of files, painstakingly recording sexual behaviours, impulses, physical attributes, behavioural attributes – it was one of the very earliest examples of a sex offenders’ register. De River’s department was a logical and obvious place to go, but efforts were hampered by the morals of the time. The records were glutted with people who’d engaged in consensual acts of oral and anal intercourse, as well as homosexual or bisexual activity, and the search was hopelessly mired by the mile-wide definition of ‘pervert’ which held at the time. De River also wrote the first professional profile of the killer, but I won’t bore you with it as it’s basically a boilerplate which could apply to any sadistic sex killer. Probably the only salient detail is that De River was sure the killer was ‘American’, by which he meant ‘white’ – an assessment all subsequent credible profiles have agreed with. For the whole time this was happening, false confessions were flooding in to an extent which was taxing even for what was the largest investigation of its kind in American history. The police were running out of leads, and the papers were running out of content.

Eight days after the body was found, someone purporting to be the killer called the City Editor of the LA Examiner, Jimmy Richardson. According to Richardson’s account, the call went like this:

CALLER:              Is this the City Editor?


CALLER:              What is your name, please?

RICHARDSON:    Richardson.

CALLER:              Well, Mr Richardson, I must congratulate you on what the Examiner has done in the Black Dahlia case.

RICHARDSON:    Thank you.

CALLER:              You seem to have run out of material.

RICHARDSON:    That’s right.

CALLER:              [laughs softly] Maybe I can be of some assistance.

RICHARDSON:    We need it.

CALLER:              [laughs softly] I’ll tell you what to do. I’ll send you some of the things she had with her when she… shall we say… disappeared.

RICHARDSON:    What kind of things?

[Richardson uses a notepad to instruct staff to trace the call][3]

CALLER:              Oh, say… her birth certificate, her address book, and a few other things she had in her handbag.

[staff indicate to Richardson the call originates from the Northern switchboard]

RICHARDSON:    When will I get them?

CALLER:              Oh, within the next day or so. See how far you can get with them. And now I must say goodbye – you may be trying to trace this call.

RICHARDSON:    Wait a minute—


A few days later, a postal worker saw an envelope addressed to the Examiner and “other newspapers”. The address had been spelt out with letters cut from magazines, then pasted on, like a classic Hollywood movie ransom note. The Post Office intercepted it as a suspicious item, and at half past six on the evening of the 25th of January, reporters and police descended on the Metropolitan Post Office to check its contents. The packet contained a variety of personal items, including Beth’s birth certificate and a ten-year-old address book with the name ‘Mark Hansen’ monographed on the front. The address book provided a list of 77 potential suspects, who the police got to work eliminating. It also led them in the direction of nightclub owner Mark Hansen, who confusingly shared a last name with one of the lead detectives on the case. Beth had stayed at Hansen’s place on various occasions, and he was generally thought to have some shady connections. One researcher still believes Hansen and his circle of friends are the killers, but more on that later. As far as the investigation was concerned, though, Hansen was cleared. The LAPD has repeatedly stated that, “Mark Hansen simply has no case to answer.” So was poor Red Hanley, who underwent multiple grillings in order to clear his name, and who was so hounded by the press and amateur sleuths he ended up in a mental institution. On the same day, January 25th, a member of the public reported seeing a handbag and a pair of high heeled shoes on top of a trash can near Norton Avenue. Thinking this suspicious, he reported it to the police, but the trash collectors beat them to it. After many hours of painstakingly combing through the dump, police located the handbag and a single shoe. Red Hanley was brought in to identify the articles, which he was able to do as he’d paid to have the shoes repaired, and he claimed to smell lingering traces of Beth’s scent on the bag. In the meantime, detectives were going door to door in the neighbourhood where the body was found, asking people if they knew of anybody living in the area with either a mental disturbance or a background in medical studies.

So, what did the cops have? They had a bunch of Beth’s personal belongings, including love letters she never posted, photos of her with servicemen as well as with her fiancé, her personal documentation, dozens of false confessions, including one which very nearly got to the charging stage, dozens of suspects, all of whom had only tenuous connections to her, and no clear idea of where she’d been in the week before her body was found. They also had a series of letters and postcards from someone calling themselves ‘The Black Dahlia Avenger’, some of which seemed authentic, and some more dubious. Some of these communications were printed in ballpoint pen, which was remarkable for the time. Ballpoints were relatively new technology at the time, prohibitively expensive, and suggestive of a military connection as they were most frequently Armed Forces issue. In one of these notes, purportedly from the killer, he promised to give himself up by a certain date but reneged on the deal. Despite this apparent wealth of evidence, with no DNA or CCTV technology, police were pretty much at a dead end. Moreover, the newspapers were all running their own pet theories, one of which linked the killing to the Cleveland Torso Murders – a famous case from several years before – and some of which were just plain ridiculous. Like the theory that Beth Short must have been killed by a lesbian, as she didn’t have any female paraphernalia like hairbrushes and the like with her in the week before she died, so must have been staying with a lesbian who killed her. And so, the investigation gradually petered out. The agents and officers from other forces went back to their original units, a couple of other sex murders distracted the public and the newspapers, and the roaring white-hot flame of public interest died down to a banked fire which has never really gone out since. There are quite a few researchers who are highly critical of the police investigation, but my own research has unearthed a diligent and state of the art effort. Numerous forensic techniques were pioneered during this case, and the hundreds of detectives borrowed from other forces or drawn from elite LAPD units were operating under extreme public scrutiny and followed up every credible lead, sometimes so overzealously they were subject to lawsuits. It seems that the thing which scuppered the police at the time was a forensically aware one-off killer, an organised offender of the kind which is the very hardest to catch, and a victim who seems to have taken great pains to make herself elusive.


Interest in the case has never really flagged, and theories pinpointing one suspect or another come out with surprising frequency. In this way, the case is very similar to that of Jack the Ripper, with genuine researchers and cash-in merchants alike publishing new books on a regular basis. There are too many theories for a comprehensive look, and this has been quite a long script already, but I’d like to end by outlining a representative sample of the highest profile theories and their strengths and weaknesses. I know that some listeners might be upset by having their own pet theories discounted or not mentioned at all – such is the curious endurance of emotional attachment to this case – but there’s only room for the broadest of overviews of the most famous ones, as there’s enough material to run an entire channel on the Black Dahlia alone. So, with that being said, let’s jump into some of the most influential takes on the Dahlia case.


At 10:10 a.m. on Sunday, the 22nd of June 1958, LAPD put out a call saying a dead body had been found at King’s Row and Tyler Avenue, El Monte. The body had been found by some kids playing little league near the Arroyo high school. It was a woman, strangled with a nylon stocking and a cotton cord. She was a divorced 43-year-old nurse whose name was Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, mother of 10-year-old James Ellroy, who’d go on to become one of the USA’s most famous crime writers. As a boy, Ellroy hated his mother, believing his father’s account of her as an alcoholic whore. He talks about having wished her dead just months before her body was found. About a year later, his dad handed him a copy of Jack Webb’s The Badge, which included an account of the Black Dahlia case. From that moment on, Ellroy became obsessed with the Black Dahlia, using it as a sort of totem for his own mother’s murder. The LAPD never found his mother’s killer, and the whole situation understandably had a major impact on Ellroy’s life. He spent his twenties and some of his thirties drunk and hopped up on amphetamines, did a stint in the army, worked odd jobs, and spent some time breaking into houses in order to steal the underwear of schoolgirls he’d become obsessed with. Eventually, he cleaned up his act and began his true life’s work: crime writing. One of the books he wrote was The Black Dahlia, a fictionalised account of the famous case.

While Ellroy never claimed to know the truth of the Black Dahlia murder, by the time he wrote the novel he was already a highly influential figure in the USA, having achieved a smash hit with L.A. Confidential. In The Black Dahlia, Ellroy blends together sexual obsession, the corrosive side of Los Angeles’ relationship with Hollywood, the city’s endemic corruption, and his own obsession with his mother’s murder and the sort of predatory sex criminal who might commit such an act. The book weaves Beth Short and her murder into a mythical LA, distorting her into a femme fatale involved in stag films who crossed the wrong people in high society. It’s important to note, though, that this isn’t by any means Ellroy’s theory of what happened to Beth Short. It’s openly and self-consciously a work of fiction, an exercise in mythmaking and the expiation of personal pain. Ellroy’s an expert on LA crime, has an honorary detective’s badge from the LAPD, and can frequently be found mooning around in their files and archives. But his Black Dahlia scenario isn’t intended as a literal truth – it’s a narrative emblem of the corruption of the times and a mirror held up to the evils of lust, greed, and dehumanisation which still exist today. Ellroy himself entertained, until very recently, theories put out by both George Hodel and Larry Harnisch, though these days he says the two things he refuses to talk about are the Black Dahlia and Donald Trump. His fictionalisation of her story is so convincing, however, that it’s coloured a significant amount of the later research into the case, and for many who have read the book or watched the De Palma film, this version of the Dahlia’s demise is the one that resonates as true.


A surprising number of people seem to be convinced that a relative of theirs murdered Beth Short. And a surprising number of these people are certain that the murderer was their father. This might say extremely interesting things about the American psyche and the adjacency of paternal relationships to fear, sex, and foreboding. Or it might not – not being a psychiatrist, I couldn’t really say. In any case, in 1995, a book called, Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer was published. In it, a woman called Janice Knowlton made the startling claim that she had witnessed her father, George Knowlton, murdering Beth Short in their garage. She said she’d seen him bisect the body in the sink, before being made to assist in the disposal of the corpse. Janice claims she was ten years old at the time. The book, co-authored with well known crime writer Michael Newton, garnered significant attention. Here was firsthand testimony relating to one of the most gruesome and prominent crimes of the post war era. The premise of an innocent child, unaware of the significance of what she was seeing and then putting the pieces together as an adult, was a compelling one for the general public, and there was widespread reporting that the Dahlia case had finally been solved. Except, of course, it hadn’t.

There are one or two problems with Janice Knowlton’s account, first and foremost being that it’s almost entirely based on ‘recovered memories’, a fad in the kookier sections of the psychotherapy community which has since been thoroughly debunked. The idea of recovered memories is simple enough, and superficially sensible enough that the medical profession initially approached it with an open mind. The basic theory is that the brain protects itself from traumatic experiences by suppressing memories, and that various forms of therapy, including drugs and hypnosis, can be used to dredge these very same memories back up. The first part of the theory is certainly true, while the second turned out to be arrant nonsense. It wasn’t long before repressed or recovered memory therapists were unearthing information about their patients’ reign as Amenhotep III in a past life, or forgotten years spent as a dog before a wizard cursed them with human form. In short, the majority of recovered memories were, in fact, false memories. And the less whacky ones including, unfortunately, multiple memories of supposed child sexual abuse, were insidiously believable and led to a great deal of unnecessary pain and harm. In the case of Janice Knowlton, not only did she remember helping dad with the Black Dahlia murder, she also claims to have been sold into a satanic sex cult in Pasadena at the age of nine, and that she was sexually abused by Walt Disney, Gene Autrey, and an improbably long list of Hollywood celebrities. She also claims that Beth Short was impregnated by her father, before suffering a miscarriage, and that this was the reason for the murder. As LAPD Detective John P. St John, who was in charge of the case at the time said, “The things that she is saying are not consistent with the facts of the case.” She also claimed that the LAPD were involved in a high level coverup to mask her father George’s involvement in the murder and also, somewhat paradoxically, claimed George Hodel, an LA doctor and father of her sometime pen pal Tamar Hodel, was a suspect in Beth Short’s killing. Janice Knowlton, who’d been given memory recovery therapy as part of treatment for depression after a hysterectomy, appears to have been a disturbed woman who happened upon two simultaneous phenomena – recovered memory therapies and the satanic abuse panics of the late eighties and early nineties. Janice tragically died of an overdose of prescription drugs in 2004. The Orange County Coroner deemed this a suicide.

The other prominent ‘dad did it’ accuser is a retired LAPD homicide detective called Steve Hodel. Steve’s father, Dr George Hodel Jr was a prominent Hollywood doctor at the time of the murder, a surgeon specialising in sexually transmitted diseases. Shortly after Dr Hodel’s death, Steve Hodel was given his father’s photo albums. Among the many pictures of his father hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities were several photos of unidentified women, two of which Steve Hodel identified as Elizabeth Short. This set Steve off on a wide-ranging investigation, drawing on his twenty-four years of experience in the LAPD. He discovered that his father had been tried for molesting his daughter – Steve’s sister Tamar, and also Janice Knowlton’s pen pal – and that she’d also accused him of murdering Short. On top of this, Dr Hodel had been a suspect in the Black Dahlia investigation in 1950 and had also been suspected of murdering one of his assistants, potentially to cover up the Black Dahlia murder. Steve Hodel not only linked his father George to the Black Dahlia, but also to the subsequent Red Lipstick murder, another sexually motivated killing with unusual features. Steve Hodel released his findings in a book called “Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder: The True Story”, thus demonstrating a genius for subtitles. The book was an immediate commercial success and garnered so much attention that Steve was invited to present his theory to the LAPD Cold Case Unit.

But there’s multiple problems with this theory. Firstly, members of the Short family have dismissed the two photographs which kicked off the investigation, saying that they are certainly not of Beth Short. Numerous LAPD investigators have also declared that the pictures bear no resemblance to her, and even Hodel himself now admits that one of them isn’t of the Black Dahlia. As for the allegations of sexual abuse, Tamar Hodel, who was fourteen at the time, also accused nineteen other people, including her classmates, of molesting her, and her mother testified that a psychiatrist had diagnosed her as a compulsive liar who told “fantastical stories” on a range of subjects. There’s also the fact that nowhere in his investigation is Steve able to place his father together with Elizabeth Short, and that people who knew both Short and Hodel at the time are certain that the two didn’t know each other. And then there’s the fact that the 1950 investigation swept up Dr Hodel only because they were investigating every LA doctor who’d been accused of a sex crime, and that all the evidence unearthed in surveillance and investigation of Dr Hodel “tends to eliminate this suspect”, to quote the file. Reviewers in LA absolutely panned the book, pointing out its many unproved assertions, sweeping conclusions, and general lack of evidence. While one DA, Stephen Kay, professed himself convinced, he’s in a minority of one with regard to the law enforcement community. The Cold Case unit and the rest of the LAPD and DA’s office are flatly unconvinced by what’s been described as “a loose chain of circumstance” at best, and “a wild fabrication of evidence” at worst. Since the publication of Black Dahlia Avenger, Steve Hodel has gone on to credit his father with 25 other homicides in two countries, as well as claiming that his father Dr George Hodel was the Zodiac Killer. While this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the argument for the Black Dahlia theory, it does call into question the competence of its originator and raises the question as to why the Hodel children are so determined to accuse their father of evil deeds. This question, in fact, is one of the reasons that adherents of the theory still cling to it, and it’s an intriguing idea. The facts, however, don’t support it – there are just too many gaps, too many unproven assertions, and too many experts and law enforcement officers who have carefully examined the claims before roundly dismissing them.


Piu Eatwell is an Indian born English true crime writer who studied literature at Oxford and has worked as a lawyer and television producer in the past. Eatwell first made her mark with a book about the pathologically private 5th Duke of Portland. In 2017, she published her treatment of the Black Dahlia case in her book Black Dahlia, Red Rose. In it, she highlights Leslie Dillon, Mark Hansen – whose address book Beth had been using as her own – and Jeff Connors as the prime suspects. As we already know, Mark Hansen was an acquaintance of Beth Short’s, and was a nightclub owner who was accused of having underworld connections. According to several accounts, Hansen was sexually obsessed with Short and had been rebuffed by her on multiple occasions. Leslie Dillon, who was a bellboy at the time of the murder, was an ex-mortician’s assistant and had a self-confessed interest in sexual sadism, on which subject he hoped to write a book. In 1948, Dillon began writing to Dr De River over at the Sex Offender’s Bureau, using the alias Jack Sand. In his communications, Dillon expressed his interest in sadism and also pointed to one Jeff Connors as a likely suspect in the Dahlia killing. De River believed that Connors was a figment of Dillon’s imagination, and that Dillon himself was the killer. He proposed a meeting with Dillon, which he attended with undercover police officers. The meeting took place in Las Vegas, and Dillon and De River travelled together to San Francisco in an unsuccessful attempt to find Connors. During this trip, De River kept Dillon talking and, when he proved to know intimate details of the killing kept from the public, the undercovers from the Gangster Squad took him into custody and drove him back to LA, where he was held for questioning. During this questioning, he proposed that he thought Beth Short had been killed in a motel room. Piu Eatwell points out that one of the Bungalows at the Aster Hotel had been found to be covered in blood and faecal matter on the day Beth Short’s body was found. In the meantime, the cops managed to find Jeff Connors, but inconsistencies between Connors’ and Dillon’s testimony led them to release both suspects. The police file on the Dahlia case hasn’t been released, so we don’t know what those inconsistencies were, but it seems that they hinged on the suspects’ connection to Beth Short and cast into doubt whether they were actually connected at all. Piu Eatwell believes that Hansen, Dillon, and Connors were co-conspirators in the Dahlia murder. Her hypothesis is that Hansen ordered the killing and that the other two carried it out at the Aster Hotel. She points out that Hansen had a great many connections in the police, and speculates that Dillon, who was neck and neck with Hansen as the prime suspect as late as 1951, was only released because Hansen had influence over a corrupt police sergeant involved in the investigation.

This is certainly one of the more compelling theories, especially given that a year after the publication of her book, the son of one of the Gangster Squad members released details of conversations he’d overheard between his father and the other investigators. These amounted to the police firmly believing that Hansen and Dillon were involved in the killing. Their hypothesis was that Hansen, Dillon, and Connors were part of an organised robbery ring where one of the crew would get a job at a hotel for long enough to learn how to access the night safe. They would then quit and rob the safe for jewellery and cash. The working theory of these Gangster Squad members was that Beth Short had somehow got mixed up with this gang and was killed for her silence. This chimes in with the fact that Dillon was wanted for robbery in Santa Cruz at the time and was a known associate of Hansen. There was also the fact that Hansen was linked to three other suspects, all medical doctors, and was, according to one of the detectives, a Swedish man who’d attended a Swedish surgical academy.

Of course, there are issues with this one as well. First and foremost is the manner of Beth’s killing – a classic sexual sadism murder where the body was subsequently put on display. This doesn’t match the MO of a gangland slaying of the time very neatly at all. Of course, Dillon’s interest in sexual sadism and mortician’s assistant background make him a promising suspect, but not only did police believe Hansen and not Dillon to be the killer, there’s also the slight issue with the fact that Dillon was in San Francisco for the ‘missing week’ during which Beth would have been killed. There were also problematic aspects to the LAPD’s questioning of Dillon, and he received a cash settlement from the department as a result of a lawsuit he filed against the department. And as for Hansen and his supposed Swedish connection, he was actually born in Denmark. Hansen had no criminal record and no history of violence, and despite being the prime suspect until 1951, no charges were ever filed against him, with the LAPD definitively saying he had no case to answer. And as for his organised crime connections, no definitive evidence of these has ever been provided – this seems to be an assumption based on his occupation. And again, nothing in the MO of the murder really points in that direction anyway. There’s also the fact that Eatwell’s account relies heavily on the idea of Beth Short as an aspiring actress and hustler, prowling the streets of LA looking for opportunities for fraud and sexual adventure – a picture which just doesn’t fit the real Elizabeth Short. Having said all that, Eatwell’s theory seems to be one of the more plausible ones. On the other hand, multiple researchers have dismissed it both because Dillon was alibied, and for what they describe as cherry-picking of evidence. And finally, Eatwell’s account relies most heavily on the FBI file, which she had unredacted through a FOIA request in 2015. I’ve read this file, and it’s not particularly helpful – the FBI never really had carriage of the case, and it’s mostly a collection of newspaper clippings, terse reports, and the occasional statement delivered at second or third hand.


And now we finally come to Larry Harnisch’s theory. This one’s widely cited as one of the most plausible, and it has a couple of things going for it. Firstly, there’s the fact that Larry was able to combine archival research with in-person interviews with many of the main players while they were still alive. There’s also the compelling factor that Harnisch wasn’t trying to solve the crime, but rather put together an un-sensationalised and accurate history – he stumbled over his suspect rather than exposing himself to confirmation bias by working towards him. And then there’s the framework he used to qualify the suspect once he’d found him – one which ignores the film noir aspects of the case and looks simply for connections, motive, and aspects which match physical evidence.

Harnisch focuses in on a Dr Walter Bayley, a prominent Hollywood surgeon who specialised in hysterectomies and mammectomies, which is noteworthy given the bisection of the body. Bayley was chief of staff at the LA County Hospital and had his private surgery in a complex of medical offices only a few blocks from the Biltmore Hotel, where Beth Short was last seen alive. As if that wasn’t enough, Bayley’s family home was one block or a forty-five second walk away from the site where the body was found. Dr Bayley had three children – two adopted daughters and one son, who was tragically killed by a passing car while trying to move one of his sisters off the road. One of Bayley’s adopted daughters was matron of honour at the wedding of Elizabeth Short’s eldest sister. From these facts, Larry Harnisch proposes that Beth Short might have contacted her eldest sister, who had by now moved interstate, who may have directed her to the Bayley family for help. She could have contacted Dr Walter Bayley, told her sob story about a dead son, and then been found out as a liar. This could have enraged Dr Bayley enough to kill her. Which sounds pretty thin, if not for a few notable facts. First off, Dr Bayley was suffering from a kind of brain lesion at the time which is often associated with what’s called ‘antipodean personalities’. What this means is that his condition, which was terminal and noted in his post-mortem, could have caused a severe personality change and even hypersexuality and homicidal rage. As for evidence of this change, around this time Bayley had left his family in order to shack up with his young assistant, and they would frequently spend their evenings eating takeaway food and watching footage of surgeries while playing classical music. The breakup of Bayley’s family was, according to his daughter, sudden and scandalous – suggestive of the kind of antipodean personality swing which his brain lesion was known to cause in some people. Multiple profiles pointed out that the killer placed Short’s body where he did because he had a personal connection with the neighbourhood and had a reason to be angry with its residents. Well, Dr Bayley lived in the neighbourhood, and when he lost his young son to that passing motorist, he felt resentful towards his neighbours for not helping more.

Quite a few researchers and LAPD detectives like this theory because it matches quite a lot of the evidence. This is generally agreed to be a one-off killing – the killer’s signature is unique and hasn’t been repeated. The location is strange and high risk, but the connection between the Short and Bayley families might explain that. And Larry’s research in and of itself is highly respected and known for its lack of sensationalism and bias. But there are, of course, a few problems. The Bayley daughter who attended Beth Short’s sister’s wedding denies any close connection to the Short family, which weakens one of the central pillars of Harnisch’s theory. Larry interviewed her himself, though, and says that to his mind, the denial was too pat and not very credible. But that’s just Larry’s opinion, and the fact remains that the connection between the families is brought into doubt by her testimony. But probably most problematic of all is the fertiliser and faeces found in Beth Short’s stomach. This points to a third location – a “murder den”, as the Gangster Squad detectives termed it at the time, as the fertiliser was an industrial type and not typically found in homes. Additionally, the condition of the body points to several days of torture, and it seems unlikely that Bayley would have been able to carry this out at any of his regular locations. Interestingly, Larry contends that the faeces found in the stomach was a part of normal digestion, but faeces don’t form or enter the stomach naturally except in the case of serious digestive illness, and there was no evidence of this in the case of Beth Short.

LAPD detective Brian Carr, who oversaw the case when Larry first presented his theory, finds this the most intriguing of the various theories. The previously unnoticed coincidental connections between Bayley and the Short family, as well as the physical locations of both his private surgery and family home, intrigued him. Detective Carr said, “When you run into coincidences in a homicide investigation, you want to go, ‘Wait a minute.’ And that’s what it made me say, ‘Wait a minute.’” Detective Rick Jackson, a veteran of LAPD Robbery Homicide and deputy chief of the cold case unit says that, while Larry Harnisch “doesn’t have the smoking gun, […] his theory definitely has to be included in the most likely theories.” But maybe I’m just biased because Larry’s been the most helpful and most accurate of all the researchers I came across in preparing this piece.



There isn’t really a satisfying conclusion to this one. Not only did the victim never get justice, but appalling injustices were also perpetrated against her memory and her family, as well as against countless others over the course of the very long and very intensive investigation. It’s one of those cases where everyone involved, from the press to the police to the amateur sleuths, charged hard for an outcome and got nowhere, leaving multiple people bruised, battered, and broken along the way. And to this day, people and media companies are still cashing in on the sensationalised and deeply unfair portrait of Beth Short and the story of her murder as a morality tale. Researching this piece has been a bit of a journey for me. I started out ready to sink my teeth into a bit of Hollywood folklore as a form of grim entertainment, as all the cool noir aspects of the case were pretty much all I knew about it – the hats, the dancing girls, the moody, obsessed detectives, and so on. But what I’ve ended up with is a genuine human tragedy – a horrific crime perpetrated against a vulnerable individual, and one where all the king’s horses and all the king’s men simply weren’t able to put the pieces together again.


  1. A massive thank you needs to go out to Larry Harnisch, who kindly gave permission to use and cite his excellent research, and whose dedication to the accuracy and the de-mythification of the Dahlia case basically made writing this script possible in the first place.
  2. The Black Dahlia case is still open with the LAPD, currently assigned to Detective Mitzi Roberts. She has been advised not to conduct interviews any longer, as false confessions and members of the public coming forward with theories take too much time away from her regular duties. She says she averages about one call per week to this day.
  3. One of the less likely suspects mooted for the Black Dahlia murder was actor and filmmaker Orson Welles. This theory was outlined in a book called Childhood Shadows, in which the author, a neighbour of the Shorts in Massachusetts, pointed out that Welles had a volatile temper, had made mannequins supposedly identical to the mutilated body, and had sawn a woman in half in a magic trick when entertaining the troops during WWII. Welles was never considered a suspect in the case, despite having applied for a passport on the 24th of January, the day the package containing Beth’s birth certificate and address book was mailed to the examiner and remaining out of the country for ten months afterwards. Seems unlikely to me, but there it is.
  4. I’ve given very short shrift to the organised crime theories about the Dahlia murder – to the extent of not even really mentioning most of them. This can be explained by what I feel to be their essential implausibility – one such theory is that Beth Short was killed by gangster Jack Dragna to frame rival gangster Mickey Cohen, who was never actually a suspect because none of the evidence pointed to him. Which means that this was either the most inept frame-up ever, or that the whole idea’s just a bit silly.
  5. Quite a few of the researchers and authors I encountered while researching this piece were selling Black Dahlia merchandise – tea towels, coffee mugs, and so on. This led me to the surprising discovery that Black Dahlia merchandise is still a lucrative business to this day, though needless to say none of the Short family benefit from these sales.
  6. Leslie Dillon, Piu Eatwell’s and the LAPD’s prime suspect for the killing, named his daughter Elizabeth. But the one thing that shines through about Dillon was that he was a very strange guy indeed, and potentially this doesn’t mean anything other than that.
  7. Retired Detective Ralph Asdel, who was loaned to the investigation at the time, firmly believes that he’s spoken with the killer. During a house to house, police encountered a neighbour who reported sighting a thin man standing next to a light-coloured car on Norton Avenue, where the body was found. Asdel believes he tracked down this driver, who was working at a nearby restaurant, and when he went to interview him, he noticed his car was freshly painted black. Asdel is still haunted by this interview and has kept his case notes handy for more than fifty years, just in case someone asks him about it.

[1] Probably the simplest way to explain mnemo-history is that it’s the way history is remembered, as distinct from professional historical interpretation.

[2] Sorry Simon, but it’s the best word – it means explaining something ‘after the fact’, so to speak. Explaining a thing as a function of its effect, rather than of its cause.

[3] This didn’t require special equipment in the manual exchange days – you just had to persuade the operator to do so, and for newspapermen at the time this wasn’t an issue.

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