Elizabeth Short (July 29, 1924 – ca. January 15, 1947) was an American woman who was the victim of a gruesome and much-publicized murder. She acquired the nickname Black Dahlia after moving to California. Short was found mutilated, 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 Short was born in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, as the third of five daughters to Cleo Short and Phoebe Mae. Her father built miniature golf courses until the 1929 stock market crash in which he lost much of the family's assets. In 1930, he parked his car on a bridge and vanished, leading some to believe he had committed suicide. Later Short discovered that her father was alive and was living in California. Her mother, Phoebe Mae, moved the family to a small apartment in Medford and found work as a bookkeeper.
Troubled by asthma and bronchitis, Elizabeth was sent to live in Florida for the winter at the age of 16, and spent the following three years living there during the cold months and in Medford the rest of the year. 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, however an altercation resulted in her leaving and being employed at a post exchange at Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base), near Lompoc, California. 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. During the following three years, she lived in Florida, with occasional visits back to Massachusetts.
In Florida, Short met Major Matthew Michael Gordon Jr., 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 was in while trying to rescue a downed flier. According to Gordon's obituary in the Pueblo, Colorado newspaper, he was awarded a Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, the Air Medal with 15 oak leaf clusters, and Purple Heart during his service. She accepted his proposal, however he died in an airplane crash on August 10, 1945, before he could return to the United States. She later exaggerated this story, saying that they were married and had a child who died. Although Gordon's friends in the air commandos confirmed that Gordon and Short were engaged, his family denied any connection after Short's murder.
Elizabeth Short returned to Los Angeles in July 1946 to visit 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 two weeks.
Murder and aftermath
The body of Elizabeth Short was found on January 15, 1947, in a vacant lot in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, severely mutilated, cut in two, 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. The autopsy indicated she was 5′ 5″ and 115 pounds, with badly decayed teeth, light blue eyes and brown hair.
Short was buried at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. After her other sisters had grown and married, her mother moved to Oakland to be near her daughter's grave. Her mother finally returned to the 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 word 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. Los Angeles Herald-Express reporter Bevo Means, who interviewed Short's acquaintances at the drug store, is credited with first using the "Black Dahlia" name.
A number of people, none of whom knew Short, 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 there is no existing evidence that she was ever 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.
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, such as blackdahliasolution.org and Steve Hodel, have suggested a link between the Short murder and the 1946 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. William Heirens is currently serving time for Degnan's murder. 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.
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.
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 James Ellroy novel described below, stars Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Rose McGowan 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.
Neo-noir author James Ellroy based his 1987 book, The Black Dahlia on the crime.
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.
In Jack Webb's novel, The Badge, an entire section is devoted to the case of the Black Dahlia.
Television and film
The case inspired the 1953 noir film The Blue Gardenia, including a title song sung by Nat King Cole.
In the thirteenth episode of season 4 of the television series Hunter, Sgt. Rick Hunter (Fred Dryer) investigates the case of The Black Dahlia.
1.^ Harnisch, Larry. "A Slaying Cloaked in Mystery and Myths." Los Angeles Times. January 6, 1997.
2.^ Coroner's Inquest Transcript, January 22, 1947.
3.^ Excerpts From Grand Jury Summary BlackDahlia.info. Access date: 4 November 2007.
4.^ Fact Versus Fiction BlackDahlia.info.
5.^ District Attorney Suspects BlackDahlia.info.
6.^ Black Dahlia - News 2
7.^ The Cleveland Torso Murders aka Kingsbury Run Murders - Eliot Ness Case - Crime Library on truTV.com
Daniel, Jacque (2004). The Curse of the Black Dahlia. Los Angeles: Digital Data Werks. ISBN 0-9651604-2-4.
Fowler, Will (1991). Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman. Minneapolis: Roundtable Publishing. ISBN 0-915677-61-X.
Gilmore, John (2006) . Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia. Los Angeles: Amok Books. ISBN 1-878923-17-X.
Hodel, Steve (2003). Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder. New York: Arcade Publishing. ISBN 1-55970-664-3.
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. ISBN 0-671-88084-5.
Nelson, Mark; Sarah Hudson Bayliss (2006). Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder. New York: Bulfinch Press. ISBN ISBN 0-8212-5819-2.
Pacios, Mary (1999). Childhood Shadows: The Hidden Story of the Black Dahlia Murder. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse. ISBN 1-58500-484-7.
Rasmussen, William T. (2005). Corroborating Evidence: The Black Dahlia Murder. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press. ISBN 0-86534-536-8.
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Underwood, Agness (1949). Newspaperwoman. New York: Harper and Brothers. (ISBN unavailable).
Wagner, Rob Leicester (2000). Red Ink, White Lies: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers, 1920-1962. Upland, Calif.: Dragonflyer Press. (ISBN ISBN 0-944933-80-7).
Webb, Jack (1958). The Badge: The Inside Story of One of America's Great Police Departments. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-09-949973-8.
Wolfe, Donald H. (2005). The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul, and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles. New York: ReganBooks. ISBN 0-06-058249-9.