The Murder of The Black Dahlia
3825 S Norton Ave | January 19th 1947
Welcome to the two-part season finale event of “Hollywoodland: Unsolved.”
Please note that this case is one of the more graphic cases discussed on this show yet and may be frightening to listeners under the age of 13 - so listener digression is advised.
On a brisk Wednesday morning in January of 1947, an attractive house wife, named Betty Bersinger, was taking a walk with her 3-year-old daughter to a shoe repaired shop a few blocks away when she noticed what looked like a mannequin lying in the field ahead of her.
According to reports, she thought it had fallen off of a truck and didn’t suspect anything other than the uncomfortable feeling she had. She crossed the street and continued to make her way to the shoe shop.
It wasn’t until she got closer that she saw that the mannequin was in fact the naked body of a young women and rushed to a nearby residence to notify the police.
The body was severed at the waste and appeared to be laid out carefully as though she was basking in the southern California sun. There were also three inch gashes cut into her face – causing her to have a permanent smile. The the dark hair of the women was framing her delicate features and her body was stoic and complete white, perfectly drained of blood. Her breasts had been slashed and an alleged “BD” had been carved into her left thigh.
This cold case has stumped the LAPD for 70 years.
The body belonged to an aspiring actress with raven black hair and a reputation in the Los Angeles party scene – her name was Elizabeth Short.
I’m your host, Ansley, and welcome to Hollywoodland: Unsolved and the investigation into the Murder of the Black Dahlia.
A gorgeous young 20’s wannabe from Medford, Massachusetts, Short made her way to the dazzling lights of Hollywood in July of 1946 in pursuit of fame and fortune. She would only live in the City of Angels for 6 months before her gruesome murder.
Short grew up in a broken home – her father, Cleo Short, made a living building mini gold courses until the market crashed and through the 1920s the family lost most their assets. By 1930, Cleo parked his car on a bridged and vanished – leaving the family to believe he had committed suicide.
Short was the middle of 5 girls and after her father’s apparent suicide, her mother did the best she could to give her 5 daughters a good life. Yet living on a single mother’s paycheck in a large family proved to be too much and Short’s mother quickly asked for help.
According to reports, Short at a young age became fascinated with movies and by her early teen’s she set her sights on becoming an actress.
Years later, Short learned that her father was alive and well and living in California and when she was 19 – she made her way out west to live with him.
So let’s pause for a second, according to documents – Short’s father faked his death to get out of taking care of his family, but later took in Short in California? No wonder Short proved later to have unstable relationships with men- having a father straight up abandon her, her sisters and her mother only to have him later treat Short to a glamorous stint in Santa Barbara. Having a father like that did her no favors.
Her time in California with her father didn’t last long though.
Short was never been one to follow the rules or blend into the crowd – shortly after moving in with her father in California, she arrested at a Santa Barbra saloon at the age of 19 for underage drinking and sent back to Massachusetts to live with her mother and 4 sisters where she split the time between Florida and Massachusetts.
While living in Florida, Short met Major Matthew Michael Gordon, Jr., an alleged decorated United States Army Air Force officer, who would later propose to her through a letter he wrote while deployed in India. The proposal never came to fruition because Major Gordon, Jr. died in an airplane crash before he could make it back to the United States. This story is fishy because there are not documents that prove the Major Gordon Jr. ever actually proposed to Short but there is a photo of the two together proving that they did at least go on a date.
Short met another military man in California in 1944, Army Air Force Lieutenant Joseph Gordon Fickling – who would later be stationed out in Long Beach, CA. and in the summer of 1946, Short made her way out there to visit him and made southern California her home. Fickling was one of the last people to receive communication from Short. Allegedly he received a letter dated January 8th 1947 stating that she no longer wanted communication with him and that she was moving from San Diego to Chicago.
With her big dreams of being a star, Short spent much of her time in Los Angeles and with a reputation for dazzling the men and sometimes teasing them a bit too much. She has been described by peers and former classmates as being a little on the easy side… and loved being the life of the party. From when she made the leap to Los Angeles until her death, Short made sure to make herself know with the Hollywood bar scene.
Short’s body was found completely drained of blood and her stone cold torso was cut in half. According to reports – “Shorts body had been quote expertly bisected” end quote. For the police – this was their first lead. It gave them the idea that the killer had to be someone with medical knowledge because Short’s body was cut with such precision and knowledge and wiped clean.
QUOTE "It was pretty gruesome," Brian Carr, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department who has long worked on the Dahlia case, later said. "I just can't imagine someone doing that to another human being." END QUOTE
There is speculation as to why she was given the name “the Black Dalilah” after her death. One theory was she often wore a large Dalilah in her hair and there had been an old Noir film called the “Black Dahlia” and a reporter, having found out that Short often wore Dahlia’s in her hair, dubbed her with that nickname.
The police interviewed literally thousands of people – everyone who had known Short was a suspect and on January 24th – 5 days after her body was found was found a chilling message arrived at the Los Angeles police department - hodgepodged together with letters cut out from magazines and newspapers that read “here is dahlia’s belongings – letter to follow”
Some of Short’s personal belongings were sent with the note including her birth certificate and personal papers – and included in those items was an address book that allegedly belonged to Mark Hansen. Hansen was the owner of a popular Hollywood nightclub called Florentine Gardens where Short was known to frequent. Hansen also let Short stay at his house a number of times where she shared a bedroom with Hansen’s girlfriend, Ann Toth according to reports. On January 8th – the day before she went missing – Short called Hansen in Los Angeles from San Diego where she was staying with an alleged lover Red Manley.
When asked about why his address book was sent with Short’s belongings, one report states QUOTE “Hansen told the LAPD that the address book had belonged to him, yet he had never used it. He said that he had given the address book to Elizabeth as a gift for her to use as her own.” (http://unc.live/2rl6JqA) QUOTE
Hansen gave conflicting reports over the years but no criminal charges were ever brought upon him. He was the lead suspect in the case in 1949 but was never convicted. Personally, I don’t think he did it. So let’s look at some other suspects….
The first was Robert Red Manley – Red for short.
Red Manley was a salesman who claimed to have spent the night in a Santa Barbra motel with Short before her death and claims to have driven her from Santa Barbra back to Los Angeles where he dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel. According to reports, he stayed with Short for a while at the hotel, hanging out in the lounger and bar areas – Short says that she doesn’t want to leave because she is waiting for a call – but she refuses to say from who.
Manley – being a married man – needed to get back home to his wife before the though anything suspicious was going on. So Manley left Short at the Biltmore Hotel on the night of January 9th.
According to reports – one of the bell captains, late in the evening, recall seeing Short leave the hotel and walk out onto Olive street in downtown Los Angeles.
That is the last time anyone saw Elizabeth Short alive.
There were 6 nights in between her leaving the hotel and her body being found – January 9th – January 15th
According to biographer John Gilmore, the first person to notice Shorts body was a boy who was on his paper route. He saw a car (presumable a dark sedan) heading down the street with its headlights off. The boy claimed that he say the person remove something from the automobile and get back in the car, hesitate, and then leave. That is where the attractive housewife comes in – she was walking down that same street later that morning, saw the body and notified the police.
In the mid to late 40’s TV wasn’t widespread yet, but there were 5 major newspapers in the Los Angeles area. Two reporters for the LA Examiner, heard about the body in the park through the police radio and made their way to the scene of the crime. These reporters did everything from take pictures of the body to later breaking into the morgue and fingerprinting Short with soot from a match. For the duration of the case, the reporters seemed to stay ahead of the police.
Red Manley was the original suspect: his name, along with Shorts name, were listed on a Los Angeles motel guest book – when this information got back to the police, Manley was taken into custody.
He was later released due to lack of evidence and Manley’s wife backing up his alibi.
Something seems weird here, right? Why was Manley’s name listed on the address book that short kept – with a total of 75 men who met her on the streets of Hollywood and in clubs and bars.
According to reports – Manley being questioned for Short’s murder haunted him for the rest of his life. Is that because he was guilty?
Moving on to the next suspect
Residing at 5121 Franklin Ave – just a few blocks from Hollywood in Los Feliz stands a massive Mayan temple replica covered by lush greenery – lived George Hodel. This home is known as “the franklin house” and is believed by many to be where Short was murdered and rained of blood. The home is vast and features a courtyard swimming pool and secret room hidden by sliding bookshelves. Steve Hodel – George’s son who grew up in the house stated that the room was off limits to the children when he was growing up in the house. He believes that this is where Short’s body was mutilated and wiped clean.
It is interesting to note, that this location is about 8 miles away from George Hodel’s home at 5121 Franklin Ave. In Los Angeles – eight miles is a long way to go (I just mapped it, and at around 7:30 on a Sunday evening, it would take over 35 mins to get from Hodel’s home to where the body was found). Granted there is more traffic now, but his home on Franklin Ave is in a bustling area in the heart of the city. Not an ideal area to transport a body to a car and drive it across town. (Also – did anyone ever look into the vehicles of the suspects? I know DNA testing was still at thing of the future but maybe investigating and searching their vehicles would have proved to be fruitful?
Steve Hodel – convinced of his father’s guilt – has spent his life dedicated to proving his father’s guilt and served a number of years in the LAPD as well becoming a licensed California Private Investigator. Hodel with uses software to compare facial features of the autopsy photos to ones found in his father’s secret photo album – according to his discoveries, George Hodel had secret images of Elizabeth Short – linking him to Short and proving that they had some sort of relationship. But I let you hear that for yourself next episode……
According to Hodel – his father’s placement of the body and meticulous care he took to drain and clean the body was an attempt at surrealist art – sounds like a pretty sick guy if you ask me.
There is a whole section on Steve Hodel’s website where he explains his father’s relationship to surrealist artist Man Ray. Hodel thinks that his father was trying to copy an image that Ray had made, but one up him by doing it in person…. Hodel’s report on this theory is lengthy so I’ll attach the link at the top of the show notes and on the website because this is an incredibly interesting theory.
The way George Hodel was linked to the Black Dahlia was through another run-in with the law – George was on trial for incest with his daughter. He won the incest case, but while he was being questioned about the Black Dahlia, the DA took the opportunity to bug his house and for 40 days the DA spied on George Hodel. That was the only time George Hodel was ever questioned.
To me this is a missed opportunity. I’m sure by this point, you think that George Hodel is the killer…
In the transcripts of the recordings taken by the DA something stands out – quote by George Hodel stating quote “supposin’ I did kill the black Dalilah, they couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead.” End quote. Whoa. Hold on a second – first off: he sort of admitted to doing it, right? and Second: did he kill his secretary too to keep her quiet?
I actually found Steve Hodel’s personal Facebook page when I started researching for the show last year and reached out to him. But more on that later….
Now let’s talk about the location where the body was found – the intersection of 39th and Norton (please refer to the map in the show notes for the exact location). At the time, that area was at the end of the subdivision and was where trash was sometimes dumped. Why would Hodel pick that vacant lot on the other side of town from where he killed short and drained her of blood? Does he have a connection to this area?
The lot one south block from where The Black Dahlia was found belonged to Ruth Bailey – the wife of a doctor. But not just any doctor – a surgeon. Coincidence? I’m not sure, but the police stated from the beginning of the investigation that the killer had to be someone with expert knowledge of the body dude to the precise way that Elizabeth Short’s body was severed and how meticulously it was expertly drained of blood.
So this adds another suspect to the case …. Dr. Walter Bayley.
Dr. Walter Bayley – former chief of staff at LA County Hospital, fit the profile of who the police were looking for. Upon his death, his wife and girlfriend ended up in a legal battle over his belongings with his girlfriend claiming she knew a secret that would ruin him personally and professionally. Was this secret a murder? We will never know, Dr. Bayley, his girlfriend and Mrs. Bayley have all long since passed away.
There is factual evidence linking Walter Bailey to Elizabeth Short – but there isn’t even record that they knew each other… so that makes since as to why the police might have missed him as a suspect.
However looking into it deeper now – there is evidence that the Short family did have ties to the neighborhood where her body was found and the lot owned by Dr. Walter Bayley. As it turns out, Bayley’s daughter - Barbara Lindgren was a friend of Elizabeth Short’s sister, Virginia and her husband. To make that even weirder? Virginia was the Matron of Honor at Barbara Lindgren’s wedding. So the two families had a stronger connection than the police ever looked into.
While researching this case I came across a site dedicated to research on the Black Dahlia from UNC and found this account interesting. The site says QUOTE “The LAPD never considered Bayley a suspect in the Black Dahlia case. However, many theorists believed he could be linked to Elizabeth Short’s murder due to the man’s medical expertise. Detective Harry Hansen told the 1949 Grand Jury that the killer had to be a “top medical man” and “a fine surgeon.” Bayley was sixty-seven years old at the time of Elizabeth Short’s death and had no known history of violence or criminal activity. He likely had not even known or met Elizabeth Short even though his daughter was a friend to Virginia Short.
Larry Harnisch, a copy editor and writer for The Los Angeles Times, started studying the Black Dahlia case in 1996. He eventually concluded that Bayley could have been Elizabeth Short’s killer. While some critics of this theory say that Bayley would have been too old and weak for the crime, the original investigators believed the body could have been cut in half for easier transport. Harnisch believed this would have made it possible for Bayley to transport and dispose of Elizabeth Short’s body. Harnisch also believed that Bayley’s neurological deterioration could have contributed to his violent ways against Elizabeth. He claimed the neurological condition was known to illicit violent behavior in otherwise calm individuals” END QUOTE (http://unc.live/2s5EM9j).
This theory is interesting to me because of the placement of the body and the idea that it was cut in half to make it easier to carry. What I also think is interesting is whoever had Short’s body had to keep if for about 5 days. Who would have the amount of time it took to sever a human spine with exact precision and drain all of the blood with such medical expertise? A retired surgeon sounds like a killer option to me. (Pun anyone?)
While looked into Dr. Bayley deeper, I learned that not only did he have this degenerative brain condition but he was also alleged to be a part of an under the table abortion ring.
So why hasn’t DNA testing been used? With technology now we should easily be able to lift DNA off of the letter sent to the LAPD 10 days after the Dahlia murder – that all sounds great…. Except the little problem that all of the evidence is gone.
Detective Brian Carr of the Los Angeles Police Department said in an interview when asked about the evidence and the letters sent from the alleged killer quote “I don’t know where it’s at… I haven’t been able to locate them.” End quote. What?! He goes on to say “Those envelopes – that we earlier mentioned – they are not to be found.”
Hold on – you’re telling me, Detective Carr that all of the physical evidence from Hollywood’s most notorious unsolved murder is… gone?!
Everyone of notability one the case all state that it is all gone. Hodel has been quoted as saying “everything is gone, everything has disappeared. And their position is ‘they don’t know it’s just gone.”
When asked about his take on the missing evidence, Hodle thinks that this is no accident. “The real telling thing about this is the fact that everything connected to George Hodel – all of the transcripts, all of the tape recordings, all of the witness interviews – everything had disappeared.”
Ray Pinker who was a detective on the case for years allegedly kept filing cabinets worth of documents on the Black Dahlia case. When his widow was asked why in a 2003 LA Times Interviews she stated QUOTE "She was a professional sponger, not an out-and-out prostitute," Ruby Pinker said. "She didn't like to work and wanted to play, which she did, and paid for it in the end. Ray pitied her because she was a beautiful girl with such terrible teeth," plugged with wax, "a sign that nobody cared about her." END QUOTE.
His files proved to be nothing more than trails of dead ends when investigators looked at the cold case years later.
So… how will a case with all of the original evidence ever get solved? It’s terrible, but it probably won’t. But why not try….
Redd Manley. George Hodel. William Bayley. Those are the top 3 suspects I have found while researching the case. But upon further review – I stumbled upon a website that looks at the idea what a woman may have killed Elizabeth Short. I don’t know why this idea never occurred to me – maybe it is because the cops interviewed dozens of men in the murder case but hardly looked at the potential of a woman being the killer. Stay with me. We will dive into that in Part 2 of the season finale.
An amazing map for the Black Dahlia case is up on HollywoodlandPod.com (man Brian Balzerini is talented!) as well as all of the addresses and references to my research for this case.
All elements of Hollywoodland Unsolved are produced by me, with graphics and maps by Brian Balzerini and music by my amazing father.
Make sure to tune in for Part 2 of the Season Finale of Hollywoodland: Unsolved. Who killed the Black Dahlia?
We will look deeper into the suspects discussed this episode, the potential of a woman killer, what Short did for those 5 days? Was she dead the whole time? And…. I have a little surprise for you. You won’t want to miss it.
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