The woman that we now know as Black Dahlia was known while alive as Elizabeth Short. She is the victim in one of the most infamous unsolved murder cases of all time, made all the more exciting by the glamour of Hollywood and her budding film career. The 22-year-old would-be star was found dead on January 15, 1947. The condition in which her body was found, as well as the fact that she was right next to the sidewalk in broad daylight, instantly created a media frenzy.
The FBI got involved with the case immediately and an extensive manhunt was put into action. The investigators looked at all angles of the case to try and solve it, but even today, we know very little indeed about what actually happened to the Black Dahlia. We certainly don’t know who killed her, although several possibilities have been put forward over time. By now, whoever was involved in the killing is almost certainly dead or getting there – it was 70 years ago this year, and considering that the person responsible had to have been a fully-trained adult, they would be at least in their mid-to-late nineties by now. It seems more likely that they would be even older.
Many of the trails in this case have gone cold forever, and it’s unlikely that we will ever know the answers to what happened to her. Still, this is a fascinating case, with a lot of shocking facts that you may not be aware of. Let’s dive in to this infamous murder.
15. She Was Identified Fast
Even though this was 1947, without any of the modern technologies we have at our disposal now, Elizabeth Short was identified very quickly. It took just 56 minutes from the first police officers arriving on the scene and grabbing her fingerprints, which they then sent on to the FBI. They used a primitive fax machine which was developed at the time, called Soundphoto. Using this system they were able to send a blurred image of the fingerprints, and the FBI then checked their database to find that they actually had two matches. The first was from a job application she had made to a military base, and the second was because she was arrested in 1943 for underage drinking. They even had a mugshot of her from that time, which is one of the most famous images surviving today. This was what they provided to the press for help with the investigation.
14. There Was No Blood
One of the reasons that she probably didn’t think it was a real body at first was the fact that there was no blood around the scene. In fact, there was no blood left in the body at all. This chilling fact means that somewhere, Elizabeth Short was killed and drained of her blood completely. Every last drop was removed from her body. Then she was cleaned and even bleached by the person who committed the murder. Finally, they took her and placed her very deliberately in this LA neighbourhood, choosing her position carefully. The location where she was murdered has never been found. They were never able to trace a single drop of her blood, despite such a huge amount being spilled. This has lent weight to the theory that the perpetrator had something to do with the medical profession. It would give them the perfect facility to dispose of the blood without arousing suspicion.
13. Her Nickname Is A Mystery
Why is she called Black Dahlia? Well, a number of theories persist. Some think that it was because of a film released in 1946, written by Raymond Chandler. Some think that she was known to wear jet-black flowers in her hair, which she also dyed black instead of its natural brunette. One version of the story is that customers at a Long Beach drugstore gave her the nickname because she was always coming in wearing black, sheer or lacy clothing. It may actually be that the press made up the nickname because of her appearance and involvement in Hollywood. Before she was ever called Black Dahlia in a report, one paper actually described her as the victim of the Werewolf Murder. Unsurprisingly, Black Dahlia caught on and stuck fast. We don’t know whether she ever would have heard that nickname when she was alive, or recognized it as being attributed to herself.
12. The Murderer Knew How To Dissect
One of the difficulties with solving this murder is that not just anyone could have carried it out. The police at the time insisted that it had to have been someone with medical knowledge and a good understanding of anatomy. There were a number of reasons for this. First, there was the fact that she was dissected, with her body cut in half – but the cut was very neat and even. She also had all of her blood drained as we mentioned previously, and she was arranged very carefully so that all of her organs stayed inside her body. She was also mutilated in several places, the most notable being a cut through both sides of her mouth that gave her an elongated smile. Speculation is that the killer had to be a doctor or someone who worked in a morgue, and had great experience with dealing with human bodies. Some even suggest she was the victim of a backstreet abortion gone wrong, though there was no evidence that she was ever pregnant.
11. Reporters Arrived First
After the woman who discovered the body called the police, it was not the officers who were first to come to the scene. Actually, two reporters arrived there first! This is why we have extensive photographic evidence of the body and the condition in which it was left. These images were released by the press, not by the police. The case attracted a lot of attention right from the start, with press interference reaching high levels. The Special Agent in Charge from the FBI at the time wrote that “it is not possible for the investigators to have a confidential telephone conversation or even read mail without some news reporter looking it over to see if it relates to this case.” Reporter Will Fowler and his photographer Felix Paegel were the first to arrive, and provided the famous photographic coverage that we now associate so closely with this case.
10. They Thought She Was a Mannequin
The first people on the scene to discover the body were a woman who was walking around LA with her child. The body was laying right there on the grass, posed in a suggestive manner: her arms were above her head, and her legs were splayed open. She was not wearing any clothing, and had been sliced in half at the middle. When the woman first saw the body, she thought it was nothing more than a mannequin. It was not until she got closer that she began to realize the horrifying truth. Then she had to rush away to call the police. Right now you would just call the police there and then, but in 1947 things were different. She actually had to go all the way home before she could get to a telephone and call them. It’s just luck that she was not far from her residence, and could call the police before anything happened to the body or anyone else saw it.
9. Was It Dr. Hodel?
One of the leading suspects in the case is one Dr. George Hodel. He was a physician for Los Angeles County who had treated several members of the police force in the past, perhaps for embarrassing diseases. It is rumoured that his secretary was writing a manuscript about him but then suddenly died, with the manuscript vanishing. This may not be true. But it would explain how he could get away with the murder, by threatening law enforcement with going public and by silencing those who knew. His own son is the most vocal proponent of this theory, though there are those who say he is merely seeking attention. What we do know is that Dr. Hodel also faced an incest trial involving his 14-year-old daughter, though he was acquitted. His daughter apparently gave birth to a child, though Hodel was rumoured to give illegal abortions – of the kind that may have killed Elizabeth Short.
8. She Had A Fiancé
Her death was not the first tragic incident to occur in Elizabeth Short’s 22 years of life. In fact, she had already lost a loved one. She met Matthew M. Gordon Jr. on December 31, 1944, at a New Year’s Eve party. They fell in love, but Gordon was also a Major in the 2nd Air Commandos. He was deployed in India, and they kept up their relationship via correspondence. He even proposed marriage via letter, which she was quick to accept. On his way back to the US on August 10, 1945, his airplane tragically crashed, killing him. They never managed to see each other again after the proposal. Some reports at the time suggested they had married and had a child, but this was untrue. Strangely, Gordon’s family denied that they were ever involved once she was murdered. She was apparently never short on boyfriends, and by 1946 she may have been back together with Lt Gordon Fickling, an old flame.
7. A Soldier Confessed
Early in the case, another soldier was involved as a major suspect. An Army corporal from a nearby military base claimed that he had been out drinking with Elizabeth a few days before her body was found. He was known to have frequent blackouts, and one of these occurred when he was with her. He apparently got so drunk that he had no idea what he did or where he went, until he woke up in a cab in New York City. He then recanted his confession and came up with proof that he had been in the military base the day she died, with a bus ticket to show it. But if Elizabeth’s date of death was out by as much as a few hours, or if he did not use the ticket as he claimed, he could still be a viable suspect. At the time he was ruled out with no further investigation, so we will never know.
6. Rumours Soon Arose
Elizabeth had a glamorous lifestyle, or at least aspired to. Because of this, plenty of rumours soon started to arise that she was something other than what she appeared. Some thought that she had supported herself with work as a prostitute, though this was discredited. There were even rumours that she had taken part in adult films as part of her “acting” career, but none of these have ever surfaced so it isn’t likely to be true either. One of the most outlandish rumours was that she was a lesbian – and that she was involved in a relationship with none other than a young Marilyn Monroe! These rumours have never been substantiated, and it’s likely that they were nothing more than wild theories dreamed up by journalists wanting a bit more spotlight out of the case. After all, since it was never solved, they quickly ran out of true things to print.
5. She Has Missing Days
One of the most interesting aspects of the case is Elizabeth’s missing days. She was last seen at the Biltmore Hotel in LA on January 9th, 1947. But she turned up dead 6 days later – and we’re really not sure what she was up to during that time. She had a busy social life and was known to date often, so it’s hard to pin down her movements, especially given that any male acquaintances might have feared becoming suspects. There were lots of supposed sightings during the time, but as the police investigated them, they were able to rule them out one by one as actually being women who just looked similar. Was Elizabeth held somewhere for part of those 6 days? Was she tortured or assaulted for a few days before her death? We simply can’t be sure. If we knew who she had been with during that time, we might have a clearer lead on a suspect.
4. She Was Leaving For Chicago
Sadly, she might have avoided her gruesome death if she had made a decision to leave Los Angeles a little sooner. Her acting career was not taking off as she had hoped it would, and she was having a bit of trouble with finding a fixed place to stay or making enough money to get by. She was writing to her old boyfriend, Lt Fickling, around the time of her death. She wrote to him on January 8, 1947, a day before she was last seen alive. In the letter, she told him that she was planning to move to Chicago, where she thought she might have a good chance of becoming a fashion model. It’s not clear why she came up with this plan. Did someone lure her in with a promise of a glamorous life in a new city, only to murder her instead? Or was this a case of new plans coming just a little too late to get her out of danger?
3. There Were Military Connections
Given the time in which Elizabeth was growing up, it might not be too surprising – but she did have a lot of connections to the military. One of her first jobs was at the Camp Cooke Post Exchange near Lompoc, which is now known as the Vandenberg Air Force Base. This was how the FBI had her fingerprints on file for the first time. She was engaged to Major Gordon and dated Lt Fickling. There was also the Corporal who dated her for a short while before her death and was at first thought to be a suspect. Could it be that her fate was somehow tied to this connection with the army? At the time, it was essential that sentiment towards the military was positive. The Second World War had just ended, and the Cold War was just beginning. Could it be possible that a cover-up to keep the army’s name clean would be considered more important than providing closure to the murder?
2. She Moved Often
It’s also noteworthy that Elizabeth found it very hard to settle down. She was often short on money, and had to move often. She moved to Vallejo with her father in 1942, then with him to Los Angeles in 1943. Here they parted ways and she moved to Santa Barbara, but later in the same year she was arrested and sent back home to Medford. She moved around Florida for a while before spending time in Miami and Boston. Then in 1946 she moved to Long Beach near to Lt Fickling, but continued to move around often. She would spend no more than a few months in one location, often moving out of a studio after just a few weeks. She often shared rooms or houses with other young women in an effort to save money, and we do know that in November to December 1946 she was living with a group of them. But in December she left for San Diego, and was supposed to be coming back to Los Angeles to live with her sister in 1947 when she was killed.
1. Her Father Abandoned Her – Twice
Her family life was not at all steady, and her father was a big source of upheaval. She was born in 1924, but in 1930, her father, Cleo, decided to fake his own suicide. His business had failed in the Depression, and he abandoned his wife and 5 daughters by pretending to jump from a bridge. He later tried to come back, but his wife didn’t want anything to do with him. Elizabeth, on the other hand, moved to be with him when she was 19. She was known to sleep all day and go out on dates all night, a lifestyle which irked Cleo. He soon kicked her out, abandoning her a second time and triggering her frequent moves from Santa Barbara onwards. If she could have stayed with him for longer and settled into a permanent job, it’s likely that she would never have become a victim.