The Black Dahlia Lives On…
Although Elizabeth Short was found dead on July 15, 1947, severed in half, drained of blood, with a Glasgow Smile carved into her once-beautiful face, today there is still no lack of interest in this woman and her tragic story. It has been 65 years since Short dominated headlines in Los Angeles and across the U.S. when her nude, severed and spread-eagled body was found on Norton Avenue, a vacant lot at the time. One of the many ironies in the case was that the lot had a number of signs posted around it stating “No Dumping.” Apparently our killer had a sick sense of humour, along with his sick sadistic sexual fetishes.
Short grew up in Medford Massachusetts, one daughter of four born to Phoebe (nee Sawyer) and Cleo Short. When Elizabeth (known as Bette) was about 8 years old Cleo up and abandoned his family, making his escape appear to be a suicide. It’s doubtful that Phoebe was fooled. Cleo left his wife with bankruptcy, debt and credit collectors to contend with on her own. She had to move her family of girls three times over the following two years in order to afford a house where they could live. The family depended on welfare for food, shoes and nightgowns. Elizabeth’s bedroom in their last home was on a sun porch.
Elizabeth learned her father was alive when she was about 18. At the age of 19 she joined him in Vallejo, California but after only a month, the relationship soured and Elizabeth moved out. At this point, Short became somewhat of a drifter around the states. She found work at a naval base called Camp Cooke and was voted Camp Cutie. She began dyeing her mousy hair pitch black, wearing it high on her forehead and fastening a white dahlia in her hair. Although she often wore black she also wore pastels and favoured pink and light blue. Her notorious name, Black Dahlia, was not contrived from her appearance in life. It was created by the press after her murder. When the media discovered Short used to wear a dahlia in her black hair, they dubbed her the Black Dahlia as a reference to the movie The Blue Dahlia, that had been released in Hollywood the year before. In the film the Dahlia was a nightclub, not a woman.
Around this time Short met an army pilot named Matthew Michael Gordon Jr. They fell in love and for several weeks were inseparable until Gordon was sent overseas to India to test airplanes. They wrote back and forth to one another but on the night before Gordon was due to return to America, he was killed in a plane crash while testing it for the aviator unit. Short was devastated. Once more she began traveling.
Short travelled around to other cities until she finally reached Los Angeles, Hollywood, California. For about 2 years she enjoyed the night life and slept all day. She seldom held down a job and hence could barely afford to pay for a room with her roommates. Linda Rohr, a 22-year-old roommate who worked for Max Factor, remarked, “the kid was hungry and broke.” In order to provide herself with a meal a day, Short went out on dinner dates with men. However, unlike the press’ claims, Short wasn’t promiscuous and she wasn’t a prostitute. The press and some members of the LAPD smeared Short’s reputation in the mud for reasons known only to themselves. Even the detective in charge of the case, Detective Harold Hansen, falsely stated years later that “she was a hooker, you know…”
Short was known to frequent celebrity-filled clubs such as The Florentine Gardens, owned by a successful businessman named Mark Hansen (no relation to the detective). Short also liked the Crown Grill, and Tom Brenamen’s. It was common for movie stars, Mafia men and servicemen to frequent these bars. Since Short had a preference for men in uniform this appealed to her, however she also dated two Mafia men who were kingpin Mickey Cohen’s henchmen. Clearly Short was a naive girl who had no real knowledge about her friends and boyfriends. It was this character trait that would prove to be her downfall.
On July 15, 1947, a nude corpse of a young woman was found that was so brutalized as to be unrecognizable. The Glasgow Smile carved into it’s face went from the corners of the mouth to the ears. It would seem to me Short didn’t have much to smile about. The smile originated in Glasgow Scotland and was used by street gangs. Eventually it became more popular in England and also became known as the Chelsea Grin. Short’s body was completely drained of blood. Police surmised her lower half must have been hung upside down in order for the killer to accomplish this gruesome task. Her intestines were tucked beneath her buttocks. Most of her internal organs remained in her upper torso. Her right breast was almost completely severed. She had been burned with cigarettes and bludgeoned about the head. Experts surmised that it was exsanguination from the wounds to her head and face that caused her death.
The bisection began after Short was either in a coma, unconscious, or dead. It is theorized that her wrists were tied to a faucet in a bathtub and her feet were tied together. Although photographs show Short displayed spread-eagled with her upper torso beside the lower, it was suggested by the son of a detective who helped to work the case, that originally Short was found in a more obscene pose, as if she was performing oral sex on herself. The police supposedly re-positioned the body before the press could take pictures. A few days after the corpse’s discovery the killer mailed some belongings of Short’s including her purse, to the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper. A note was enclosed stating there would be more information to follow but that was not to be the case. LAPD knocked on 10,000 doors and followed up on approximately 5,000 leads to find Short’s killer, but to no avail. Detective Hansen claimed he was “sure we didn’t encounter the killer during our investigations. He didn’t slip by us…”
50 people falsely confessed to the savage murder, including a woman. None of the stories were true as they didn’t match facts that only the killer could know. Several suspects were interviewed and placed on a polygraph. One suspect in particular, Red Manley, had been seen dropping off Short at the Biltmore Hotel on the night of her disappearance. He was given a polygraph test twice and both times he passed. Police compared Short’s murder to that of the Cleveland Torso murders to search for clues of a possible serial killer, but no connection was made. They studied other murders in the Los Angeles area but met a dead (pun) end. For Elizabeth Short, life was long over. For the press, the public, authors, and musicians, the story was just beginning.
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