- This article focuses on the mystery of murder victim Elizabeth Short. For other uses of the term, see The Black Dahlia.
Elizabeth Ann Short (July 29, 1924 – ca. January 15, 1947) was an American woman who was the victim of a gruesome and much-publicized murder. Nicknamed the Black Dahlia, Short was found severely mutilated, with her body severed, on January 15, 1947 in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, California. The murder, which remains unsolved, has been the source of widespread speculation as well as several books and film adaptations.
Elizabeth Ann Short was the third of five girls. She was born in Hyde Park, Massachusetts
and her father built miniature golf
courses until the 1929 stock market crash
. In 1930, he parked his car on a bridge and vanished.
Elizabeth Short was raised in Medford
, by her mother, Phoebe Mae, who moved the family to a small apartment and found work as a bookkeeper.
Troubled by asthma
, Elizabeth was sent to Florida
at 16 for the winter, and spent the next three years living there during the cold months and in Medford the rest of the year, while working as a waitress. She was 5'5" and 115 pounds, with bad teeth, light blue eyes and brown hair. At the age of 19, she went to Vallejo, California
, to live with her father, who was working at Mare Island Naval Shipyard
. The two moved to Los Angeles
in early 1943, but after an argument, she left and got a job at one of the post exchanges at Camp Cooke
(now Vandenberg Air Force Base
), near Lompoc
. She then moved to Santa Barbara
, where she was arrested on September 23 1943
for underage drinking
and was sent back to Medford by juvenile authorities. In the few years that followed, she lived in Florida, with occasional trips back to Massachusetts, earning money mostly as a waitress.
In Florida, Elizabeth met Major Matthew M. Gordon Jr., who was part of the 2nd Air Commandos and training for deployment in the China Burma India theater of operations. Short told friends that Gordon wrote a letter from India proposing marriage while recovering from an airplane crash he suffered while trying to rescue a downed flier. (He was, according to his obituary in the Pueblo, Colorado newspaper, awarded a Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, the Air Medal with 15 oak leaf clusters, and Purple Heart). She accepted his proposal, but he died in a crash on August 10 1945, before he could return to the U.S. She later embellished this story, saying that they were married and had a child who died. Although Gordon's friends in the air commandos confirm that Gordon and Short were engaged, his family subsequently denied any connection after Short's murder.
Elizabeth Short returned to Southern California in July 1946 to see an old boyfriend she met in Florida during the war, Lt. Gordon Fickling, who was stationed in Long Beach. For the six months prior to her death, she remained in Southern California, mainly in the Los Angeles area. During this time, she lived in several hotels, apartment buildings, rooming houses, and private homes, never staying anywhere for more than a few weeks.
The body of Elizabeth Short was found on January 15, 1947, in a vacant lot in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, severely mutilated, cut in half, and drained of blood. Her face was slashed from the corners of her mouth toward her ears
, and she was posed with her hands over her head and her elbows bent at right angles.
Because she loved California, she was buried at the Mountain View Cemetery
After Elizabeth Short's other sisters had grown and married, her mother moved to Oakland to be near her daughter's grave. Her mother finally returned back East in the 1970s, and lived into her 90s.
Rumors and popular misconceptions
According to newspaper reports shortly after the murder, Elizabeth Short received the nickname "Black Dahlia" at a Long Beach drugstore in the summer of 1946, as a play on the then-current movie The Blue Dahlia.
However, Los Angeles County
district attorney investigators' reports state the nickname was invented by newspaper reporters covering the murder. In either case, Short was not generally known as the "Black Dahlia" during her lifetime.
A number of people, none of whom knew Short in life, contacted police and the newspapers, claiming to have seen her during her so-called "missing week" between the time of her disappearance January 9 and the time her body was found on January 15. Police and district attorney investigators ruled out each of these alleged sightings, sometimes identifying other women that witnesses had mistaken for Short.
Many "true crime" books claim that Short lived in or visited Los Angeles at various times in the mid-1940s; these claims have never been substantiated, and are refuted by the findings of law enforcement officers who investigated the case. A document in the Los Angeles County district attorney's files titled "Movements of Elizabeth Short Prior to June 1 1946" states that Short was in Florida and Massachusetts from September 1943 through the early months of 1946, and gives a detailed account of her living and working arrangements during this period.
Although popular belief as well as many "true" crime books portrayed Short as a call girl, a report by the district attorney's grand jury states that she was not a prostitute.
Another widely circulated rumor holds that Short was unable to have sexual intercourse because of some genetic defect that left her with "infantile genitalia." Los Angeles County district attorney's files state the investigators had questioned three men with whom Short had sex, including a Chicago police officer who was a suspect in the case. The FBI files on the case also contain a statement from one of Short's alleged lovers. According to the Los Angeles Police Department's summary of the case, in the district attorney's files, the autopsy describes Short's reproductive organs as anatomically normal. The autopsy also states that Short was not and had never been pregnant, contrary to what is sometimes claimed.
The D.A.'s files contain the following:—
Doctor Schwartz last stated that he studied surgery and that victim was on the make for him but that she was the patient of Doctor Arthur McGinnis Faught who was treating victim for trouble with her bartholin gland and that he wanted nothing to do with her. He stated that the bartholin gland was the lubricating gland in the vagina and that Doctor Faught had lanced it on several occasions and it could account for the fact that she had not been having intercourse with men.
The Black Dahlia murder investigation by the LAPD was the largest since the murder of Marion Parker
in 1927, and involved hundreds of officers borrowed from other law enforcement agencies
. Because of the complexity of the case, the original investigators treated every person who knew Short as a suspect who had to be eliminated. Hundreds of people were considered suspects and thousands were interviewed by police. Sensational and sometimes inaccurate press coverage, as well as the nature of the crime, focused intense public attention on the case. About 60 people confessed to the murder, mostly men, as well as a few women. As the case continues to command public attention, many more people have been proposed as Short's killer.
No theory is universally accepted, and none have been proven.
Possible related murders
Some crime authors have speculated on a link between the Short murder and the Cleveland Torso Murders
, also known as the Kingsbury Run Murders, which took place in Cleveland
between 1934 and 1938. The original LAPD investigators examined this case in 1947 and discounted any relationship between the two, as they did with a large number of killings that occurred before and afterward, well into the 1950s.
Other crime authors (blackdahliasolution.org and Steve Hodel) have suggested a link between the Short murder and the 1945 murder and dismemberment of six-year-old Suzanne Degnan in Chicago. These authors cite the fact that Elizabeth Short's body was found on Norton Avenue, three blocks west of Degnan Boulevard, the last name of the girl from Chicago.
The man who is serving time for the murder of Suzanne Degnan is William Heirens. He was 17 when police arrested him for breaking into a residence close to that of Suzanne Degnan. However, he claims he was tortured by police, forced to confess, and has been merely blamed for the murder of Suzanne Degnan.
Steve Hodel, who joined the LAPD in 1963, claims his father, George Hodel, committed the Black Dahlia murder. Shortly after his father's death in 1991, Steve Hodel found two pictures in his father's belongings that he said were Elizabeth Short. Subsequent investigation showed that one of them was Marya Marco, a character actress of the 1940s.
Books, films, and other media
- A 1975 TV movie about the case, Who Is the Black Dahlia by Robert Lenski and starring Lucie Arnaz, is a highly fictionalized version of the murder. Many details were changed because several people, including Short's mother and Red Manley, who brought Short from San Diego to Los Angeles, refused to sign releases for the studio.
- Neo-noir author James Ellroy based his 1987 book, The Black Dahlia on the crime.
- Take 2 Interactive published the computer game, Black Dahlia, in 1998. The puzzle-based adventure game tied Elizabeth Short's murder to Nazis and occult rituals which the player had to investigate. The game features Dennis Hopper, whose son-in-law was one of the company's owners, and Teri Garr. It also ties the murder to the infamous Cleveland Torso Murderer, though the torso murders' case was altered to fit into the storyline.
- A film by Brian De Palma, The Black Dahlia, based on the Ellroy novel, stars Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, and Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short, and was released in September 2006.
Selected references in other media
- The Joyce Carol Oates novel Blonde, a fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe, has a recurring character named Elizabeth Short. In the book it is implied that a studio mogul raped Short, and later there is a small reference to Short being killed.
- John Gregory Dunne used the murder as a point of departure in his 1977 novel True Confessions, which was made into the 1981 film of the same name starring Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro with a screenplay by Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion.
- Max Allan Collins combined the Black Dahlia and Cleveland Torso Murder in his Shamus Award-winning 2002 novel, Angel in Black, featuring his character, private investigator Nathan Heller.
- William Randolph Fowler, a reporter at the scene of the crime, included the Black Dahlia case in his 1991 autobiography, Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman.
- The book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism And The Black Dahlia Murder compares the Black Dahlia murder to surrealist art.
- Lynda La Plante's novel The Red Dahlia details a fictional story about a modern-day killer who is copying the Black Dahlia case.
Television and film
- Daniel, Jacque (2004). The Curse of the Black Dahlia. Los Angeles: Digital Data Werks.
- Fowler, Will (1991). Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman. Minneapolis: Roundtable Publishing.
- Gilmore, John (2006). Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia. Los Angeles: Amok Books.
- Hodel, Steve (2003). Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder. New York: Arcade Publishing.
- Knowlton, Janice; Newton, Michael (1995). Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer: The Identity of America's Most Notorious Serial Murderer – Revealed at Last. New York: Pocket Books.
- Nelson, Mark; Sarah Hudson Bayliss (2006). Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder. New York: Bulfinch Press.
- Pacios, Mary (1999). Childhood Shadows: The Hidden Story of the Black Dahlia Murder. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse.
- Rasmussen, William T. (2005). Corroborating Evidence: The Black Dahlia Murder. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press.
- Richardson, James (1954). For the Life of Me: Memoirs of a City Editor. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. (ISBN unavailable).
- Smith, Jack (1981). Jack Smith's L.A. New York: Pinnacle Books.
- Underwood, Agness (1949). Newspaperwoman. New York: Harper and Brothers. (ISBN unavailable).
- Webb, Jack (1958). The Badge: The Inside Story of One of America's Great Police Departments. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Wolfe, Donald H. (2005). The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul, and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles. New York: ReganBooks.
Note that the FBI file incorrectly lists her as Elizabeth Ann Short. In reality, she had no middle name.