Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Black Dahlia

There are certain mysteries that fascinate me, mysteries that, once I start thinking about them, I can't let go. The Kennedy assassination conspiracies (both of them), the Jack the Ripper case, the Lost Dutchman Mine are three. Another is the case of the Black Dahlia.

Elizabeth Short was beautiful, with raven hair that contrasted her alabaster skin and powder blue eyes. She always dressed in black and wore a flower in her hair. To see her, even in a black and white picture, is to become instantly captivated by her. She wanted to be famous, a movie star. She ended up famous, the victim of the most horrid murder in the history of Los Angeles.

Who Was Beth Short?
After her fiance has died at the end of World War II, Beth became something of a vagabond. She traveled from Florida to Chicago and finally arrived in Hollywood in the summer of 1946.

Beth visited the nightclubs where the glitterati would go, hoping to catch the eye of someone who would start her in films. The 22 year-old never worked a day in Hollywood. She lived sometimes in flophouses and other times in fine homes or hotels, depending on how successful she was convincing some man to put her up. She ate, when she ate at all, when men bought her dinner.

While Beth traded on her beauty she never sold her body. There is no evidence she was a prostitute and much evidence she always refused sex with her male companions. It seems she could manipulate men without ever giving up the prize.

The Black Dahlia Murder
I won't go much into detail because the details are repulsive. I won't show her autopsy photos although the pictures are easily found because seeing both the beautiful face above and the Glasgow Smile carved in that face by the murderer is the stuff of nightmares. Believe me. I won't go much into details but some facts are necessary.

Beth Short disappeared five days before her body was found in a vacant lot in January 1947. She had been neatly dissected in half at the waist and the two parts carefully posed. She had been tortured for days prior to her death.

The suspect list was pretty nearly the entire male population of Los Angeles. The murderer had mailed Beth's belongings to the police (via a newspaper). Included was Beth's address book, with a couple of pages torn out. While the police interrogated everyone in that address book it is obvious that the murderer was identified on the missing pages.

The police tried to pin the murder on a traveling salesman, one Robert Manley, who was the last person known to have seen her alive. The police were disappointed their investigation cleared him of the crime. Still the publicity managed to destroy his life, he ended up in a psychiatric hospital. After that the case devolved into the incompetent chaos for which the Los Angeles Police Department is still renown. No one was every arrested.

Who Did It?
Exactly who killed Beth Short is meaningless now as all the possible suspects are now dead. Still, there is quite the cottage industry of people trying to prove this or that person was the killer. I can understand why there is a need for some sort of closure. Some things can be deduced.
  • The murderer knew Beth. There is a reason the address book pages were torn out. He was there, in the book.
  • The murderer was skilled, probably a doctor with surgical training. Even more than the Jack the Ripper case, the Black Dahlia case shows precision with a knife. This was not some crude hacking, not the work of a traveling salesman, but the signature of a professional.
  • The murderer took care to pose the body. He was making a statement.
  • The murderer may have had important connections. The Los Angeles Police file on the Black Dahlia murder disappeared and even to this day some 60 years later, the LA Police Department is extremely defensive about the case. Far beyond being embarrassed by failure, they still seem to be trying to hide something.
NOT Recommended Reading
I do not recommend reading about the Black Dahlia case. It can lead to a very unhealthy obsession. If you are determined to confront these nightmares:
  • Who Killed the Black Dahlia is a good overview of the case devoid of any disturbing photos.
  • The Black Dahlia Solution has a lot of interesting observations if you can get beyond the bizarre symbolism the writer sees. It has the advantage of being really, really detailed. The disadvantage is more close-ups of autopsy photos than any sane person can stomach.
  • TruTV did a good study of the Black Dahlia case but also of the woman Beth Short.
  • Steve Hodel wrote a best selling book accusing his father of the murder. He is a former LA police officer with some serious daddy issues but he makes a strong case. He is critical of police conduct on the case.
  • Heaven Is Here! is LA Times reporter Larry Harnish's study on the case. I like his process but his conclusion is lame. Harnish is too trusting of the LA police.
  • The Black Dahlia Website is another very through study of the crime. Its message boards are for the totally obsessed.
  • Then there is the Biltmore Hotel Ghost Story.
Final Thoughts
I think a major reason I am touched by Beth Short is that I see some of her in many of the women I have loved. When I look at her pictures while alive I can see women in my life and when I seen the crime photos it hits me as if a dear friend has been killed. I can walk away from the Black Dahlia story and I have to. But every so often I bump into the Dahlia and I feel her suffering again.

By the by, stay away from the Black Dahlia movies. They are all trash.

1 comment:

margo said...

I found this to be a touching and sensitive essay on the Black Dahlia and her endless fascination.

You might want to rethink the idea that the killer new Beth Short. If he did know her, why send her address book to the police at all? For all he knew, if Beth was acquainted with him, she could have mentioned the killer's name to anyone listed in the book. This was a canny and careful killer who would not take that risk.

Further, the fact that the body was posed suggest a stranger or near-stranger was the killer. Posing is very impersonal. A boyfriend or acquaintance would probably attempt to hide the body.

I think a practiced, hardened serial killer murdered Beth. One strong suspect, for me, is the Chicago Lipstick Killer. Most of his victims bear a startling resemblance to Beth Short (long wavy black hair, white skin, attractive). Beth was known to have taken an interest in the Chicago murders. And shortly before her death, she was seen with a man claiming to be from Chicago.