The Undying Mystery of the Black Dahlia
By Lionel van Deerlin
The Dahlia's death was the last big crime case to remain the exclusive province of print journalism, minus the TV cameras, sound trucks and talking heads soon to emerge. It was the first in a number of sex-related Southland crimes, a forerunner to the Manson murders, to the Hillside Strangler, a Red Light Bandit, numerous stalkers and--most celebrated of all, perhaps--to O.J. Simpson. It was Jack the Ripper revisited. A brutal sex slaying with body parts rearranged in such precision as to suggest the work of a skilled surgeon. And like London's serial horrors of the late 19th century, this crime too would remain unsolved.
The Black Dahlia. Fifty years have passed since the grisly event chilled Southern Californians. It came to light shortly after 10 on the morning of January 15, 1947. That's when a young mother, escorting her child past a vacant lot in the Leimert Park section of southwest Los Angeles, came upon the earthly remains of Elizabeth Short.
Until a week earlier, 22-year-old Elizabeth had brightened and beautified the downtown social scene in San Diego. And though their quest was to claim more man-hours than have been expended on any case before-or since-police never found her killer. After a half-century they still have located no one who saw the doomed girl alive after she stepped from an auto in front of L.A.'s Biltmore Hotel on the afternoon of January 9.
Inasmuch as she would later be elevated to the level of sex goddess, it is ironic that an initial police bulletin on the case indicated something very different. The mother who called in thought the motionless form she had glimpsed was someone sleeping off a hangover.
Instead, the scene greeting first arrivals was one of sheer horror: the battered body of a young woman, bisected at the waist, drained of blood and yet apparently scrubbed before being dumped not far from the street curb. Rope burns on wrists and ankles seemed signs of prolonged torture. As a final indignity, upward knife slashes from the corners of the mouth fashioned an eerie grin.
Who was she? FBI fingerprint files would answer the question-prints that were there because of Elizabeth's brief employment in an Army PX at Camp Cooke, also because of an arrest for underage drinking in Santa Barbara.
Detectives thereupon took up the circuitous trail of a girl whose wanderlust, whetted by the new opportunities opened for women in a nation at war, caused her to leave home in Massachusetts and head west at 17. In his 1958 book The Badge, Jack Webb (Sergeant Joe Friday on television's Dragnet) calls Elizabeth Short "the typical unfortunate Depression child who matured too suddenly in her teens into the easy money, easy living, easy loving of wartime America."
By sheer luck, the Black Dahlia story fell into the lap of the Los Angeles Examiner. Returning with a staff photographer from a minor assignment, reporter Will Fowler heard the police radio's first bulletin on the case, reporting "a 390-W, 415 down in an empty lot." (390-W was police code for drunken woman; 415 denoted indecent exposure.) The location given was less than a half-mile from where the newsman was driving. He detoured to have a look. And thus Fowler, son of the legendary writer-biographer Gene Fowler, was on hand to greet the first police unit.
The Dahlia death was the last big crime case to remain the exclusive province of print journalism, minus the TV cameras, sound trucks and talking heads soon to emerge. The Examiner responded in a manner expected of Hearst papers. Although it was a morning sheet, Fowler's on-scene coup enabled the Examiner to have an extra on the street before the afternoon Herald or Daily News provided more than sketchy bulletins. Only a special edition on V-J Day, 17 months earlier, exceeded sales figures for that extra.
Fingerprint identification would normally be delayed by the time needed for postal special delivery to FBI headquarters in Washington. The Examiner offered to transmit blown-up prints via its then-new Soundphoto system-provided any return information would not be shared with rival newspapers. First to be told Elizabeth Short's name, the Examiner thus was able to reach her mother in the Boston suburb of Medford and glean from her every address the girl had used since leaving home.
Reporters were pulled from all regular beats to trace the victim's recent life. Acquaintances provided their recollections of her, some offering photos. From denizens of a popular Long Beach tavern emerged the sobriquet destined to heighten all subsequent news stories. Elizabeth's fondness for form-fitting black apparel, together with an upswept coiffure, had prompted one bar patron to dub her "the Black Dahlia."
From midwinter into spring, a nation's attention was riveted on the Dahlia and on the search for her killer. It was the first in a number of sensational, sex-related Southland crimes, a forerunner to the Manson murders, the Hillside Strangler, a Red Light Bandit, numerous stalkers and-most celebrated of all, perhaps-to O.J. Simpson. Yet no other crime would involve the demonic design, the senseless sadism of Betty Short's butcher.
And inevitably, as clues ran out, a haunting certainty lingered-that somewhere here in the burgeoning Southwest, mingling undetected, was a psychopath who could find delight in torture and mayhem. Someone who, eyeing his chance, might claim yet another victim.
Nowhere was that apprehension felt more keenly than in San Diego. Because it would provide all that was known of the final chapter in her life, the month that Elizabeth Short spent here came under intense scrutiny. That period had begun late on the night of December 9, 1946, at the window of an all-night movie theater, the Aztec, on lower Fifth Avenue. Perhaps hoping for nothing more than to go inside and get warm, Elizabeth struck up conversation with a young woman scarcely older than herself-the ticket-window cashier, Dorothy French.
Here was a good Samaritan. Because Elizabeth seemed destitute, Dorothy-whose work shift ended at 3 a.m.-offered to take her home. The cashier shared a Bayview Terrace Navy housing unit with her mother and a younger brother in Pacific Beach. Although the place was small, Elizabeth had found more than a night's shelter. She would remain in the French household exactly one month.
Her hosts learned little of Elizabeth's past. She spoke of having been married to an Army major killed in action-which, if true, would have meant widow's benefits. She claimed to have had bit parts in Hollywood-which no studio or casting agency could later confirm. The Frenches were told of local job interviews that never took place. Indeed, Elizabeth's mother believed she had been hired at San Diego's Naval Hospital-where Dorothy French's mother worked.
Whatever her attitude toward employment, the Dahlia seemed intent on having fun. During her stay with the Frenches, an investigation by San Diego police later showed, she was out more than a dozen times with at least three and possibly five different men. One of these, a handsome redhead, became a prime suspect because he had called for Elizabeth on the evening she finally bade the Frenches farewell.
A story within a story evolved when the red-haired swain eventually was identified as a 25-year-old South Gate hardware salesman and ex-Air Force saxophonist, Robert M. Manley. Married at war's end, Manley was the father of a month-old son. But the nature of his employment, involving considerable time on the road, entailed the temptations that years of vaudeville humor have linked with traveling salesmen. The encounter that was to land him in the middle of this murder mystery had occurred shortly before Christmas 1946, in downtown San Diego. That's where Manley first spotted Elizabeth Short. Police learned she had shared his company on as many as 10 ensuing evenings.
Although she had dated others while seeing Manley, he was the red-haired man described by cocktail waitresses, by the Frenches, by a Bayview Terrace neighbor and by the clerk at a motel along old Highway 101 where Manley registered himself and Elizabeth Short-by name-on the night of January 8. He drove her to Los Angeles the next day and then departed on yet another sales trip, this time to San Francisco.
Manley would have been smart to present himself to police there the moment he saw Elizabeth's face and name in the newspapers. He might have provided helpful leads in the case. Instead, he agonized nearly three days before returning home, badly frightened, to face arrest on suspicion of murder. Reason for the delay was obvious. Manley knew that what he had to tell could sink his marriage.
From Manley, police and newsmen learned what earlier suspects had confided-that Betty Short was a come-on girl who often encouraged men to think they could score with her, only to turn them away. Ardent at foreplay, she may have been physically incapable of sexual consummation.
Under police grilling, Manley was chided for failing to come forward immediately. "You hid out," a detective snarled. "How do you think that looks?"
"I didn't want my wife to know I was chipping on her."
"But you didn't chip on her," he was reminded. "You say Betty wouldn't put out."
"I danced slow dances with her. It's the same as chipping," Manley said ruefully. "I met Betty the week before Christmas, at the bar I've told you about. Betty let it slip that she was staying with this woman Mrs. French and her daughter, sort of temporarily. I bought her dinner at an Italian joint in Old Town. Then we went dancing at the El Cortez Hotel. We-"
He was interrupted. "Do you always chase tail when you're out of town on business?" the detective asked.
"I wasn't chasing tail," Manley insisted. "I was infatuated, that's all. I couldn't tell if Betty was a gold digger or a nice girl. ... I wanted to test my loyalty to my wife and I just-"
"Son, for God's sake tell us the truth," came the rejoinder. "You were looking for some, right? Just like you always do on business trips?"
"No! Betty was different-I don't chip my wife when I'm on the road..."
Two polygraph tests, together with alibis sworn to by a fellow salesman, by several customers and by Manley's 22-year-old wife, Harriette-who told reporters she was sticking by him*-persuaded police he had told the truth. They set free the last solid suspect this case would ever have.
Not quite two weeks after discovery of Elizabeth Short's body, a postal driver emptying mailboxes near the Biltmore picked up a simple carton wrapped in brown paper-and addressed, not surprisingly, to the Examiner. It contained Elizabeth's purse, her Social Security card, her birth certificate, miscellaneous cards and papers listing numbers and names-even an address book.
The sender, almost certainly the fiend so widely sought, had been careful. The wrappings, the postmark and printing yielded no clues. Tests showed that the entire contents had been treated with gasoline to remove any trace of where they came from or who might have touched them. As if to tantalize, many pages had been ripped from the address book, though some 200 names remained. Each was checked out, to no avail.
Then came a familiar phenomenon-the eager confessor. Nationwide impact of the Black Dahlia horror produced a stream of psychopaths, neurotics and sometimes recovering drunks, all claiming responsibility for the highly publicized homicide.
When Corporal Joseph Dumais, a curly-haired combat veteran, returned from a 42-day furlough to Fort Dix, New Jersey, military police noticed bloodstains on his clothing and found his pockets crammed with news clippings about the Short case. The idea that he might be a murderer fascinated Dumais. "When I get drunk I get pretty rough with women," he proclaimed with a touch of bravado. But police, checking his story against known facts, sent the soldier to a psychiatrist.
In Long Beach, a chief pharmacist's mate, John N. Andre, was picked up after boasting loudly to bar patrons about his deftness in carving up bodies. He first insisted he had killed Betty Short, then grumbled, "Well, I'm capable of doing it." Upon learning Andre was due for a tour of overseas duty, detectives decided they were dealing with a goldbrick who figured that detention as a murder suspect might enable him to stay home.
From the start, investigators had speculated on the possibility that a woman committed the crime. (This, it was theorized, might explain cutting the body in half: to lighten the load for disposal.) A lanky WAC was therefore taken seriously when she walked into San Diego police headquarters to announce, "Elizabeth Short stole my man, so I killed her and cut her up." Like other confessors, however, this one fumbled essential questions on location and method.
There would be no surcease. From among roughly 300 proffered confessions, Los Angeles police followed up no fewer than 40 they thought serious enough to warrant checking out, in many parts of the country. The pseudo-penitent can usually be uncovered by asking a few trick questions. Because many details of
the Dahlia's mutilation were deemed unprintable, it proved easy to discover how little a volunteer suspect really knew.
How to explain this torrent of false confessions? The late Dr. J. Paul de River, who was the staff psychiatrist examining suspects in the Dahlia case, believed they might result from outright exhibitionism, a guilt complex engendered by some forgotten childhood incident, or simple masochism. De River said detectives would continue talking to the shams "because the type of mind that actually conceived the murder of Elizabeth Short will someday have to boast about it-and then we'll have him."
But the Dahlia case remains unsolved and unavenged after 50 years. Time seems to be running out on the doctor's forecast.
Countless cops worked the case-none longer than L.A. Detective Sergeant Harry Hansen, one of the first officers at the scene on that long-ago winter morning. Hansen spent most of his waking moments on the case until his retirement in 1968 and his death 14 years later. A former San Diego assistant police chief, Captain Ken Blucher, now 82, recalls his part in a North Park stakeout that snared one of the Dahlia's local admirers-among many who would prove their innocence.
The manhunt has haunted legions of lawmen as their most frustrating failure. Those closely involved longed for a chance to nail the most brutal, perhaps the cleverest killer since the Ripper himself. Involved in this one, however, was more than professional pride. The Black Dahlia became something special. Officers seethed over the wanton abuse of a victim all could pity, a charmer any of them might have loved.