The Black Dahlia: Another Good Story Ruined

Houston Press

Black Dahlia: 5 Songs for a Famous Murder Victim by “Jef With One F.”


The anniversary of Elizabeth Short’s 1947 disappearance from the Biltmore has provoked the usual outpouring of mistakes and nonsense, much of it swiped from Wikipedia (see: “Me vs. Wikipedia”). Let’s see if I can untangle this.

Mistake 1: Elizabeth Short wasn’t murdered in Hollywood. Nobody knows exactly where she was killed. Her body was found in Leimert Park, not Hollywood.

Mistake 2: She wasn’t nicknamed by the papers. The Herald-Express tried mightily, but unsuccessfully, to name it “the Werewolf Murder.” She acquired the nickname the Black Dahlia when she was living in Long Beach in 1946, as a riff on the then-current film “The Blue Dahlia,” at the lunch counter of a drugstore near her apartment.

Mistake No. 3: She was 22.

Mistake No. 4: The original newspaper accounts never portrayed her as a “midnight-party prowler.” That came much later in books like “Severed,” which is 25% mistakes and 50% fiction, and all the books that followed.

Mistake No. 5: None of the original accounts called her “victim material.”

Mistake No. 6: Since it surfaced in the Wikipedia article on the Black Dahlia, the “Glasgow smile” virus has spread all over the Internet.

This term is relatively new and I’ve only seen it applied to the Black Dahlia case, where writers use it with ghoulish delight. It was certainly never used in the original coverage. Research on Google shows that the term emerged about 1995 in the UK. Another early occurrence is Jan. 24, 1998, “Saturday Story — The Thugs From Suburbia” by Kim Sengupta in The Independent.

Searches of the Google Books corpus of American English and the corpus of British English reveal no usage. “Glasgow smile” is a misleading description when applied to the Black Dahlia case and imparts a false sense of easy expertise, the way Agent Mulder used to casually dispense strange facts on “The X-Files,” for anyone old enough to remember the TV show.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1947, Another Good Story Ruined, Black Dahlia, Cold Cases, Downtown, Film, Hollywood, LAPD. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Black Dahlia: Another Good Story Ruined

  1. Great article as always, Larry! In one of my past lives as a print journalist, I used to joke that the purpose of an editor was to keep writers from making fools of themselves. In the new world of “open source” online journalism, the usual standards of care–such as multiple corroborating sources–are often not applied. If something sounds interesting, and it appears on a seemingly legitimate outlet such as Wikipedia, that’s usually good enough. The problem with appealing untruths in the age of the Internet is that they often propagate so quickly that they end up burying the actual truth about twenty link-pages deeper in Google. On occasion, I’ve spent hours trying to track down the original source for a particular piece of “information” that had been regurgitated, verbatim, across a hundred different links and websites, few of which bothered to cite a source.

    On the Internet, we are exposed to a virtual avalanche of information, both good and bad. Yet our big, pattern-seeking brains haven’t been properly trained to cope with this unprecedented deluge of information in a discerning way. With our lack of critical thinking skills, and our baffling propensity to believe the most preposterous of all possible explanations for a given thing, it’s easy to see how we end up with birthers and truthers, and Moon hoaxers, and the “Loose Change” crowd…

  2. Eve says:

    Larry, I am going to sit outside your home with a bullhorn, yelling, “write a book!” till you write a book about this case. You are the only person who knows the knowable facts, who doesn’t have an axe to grind, and who can WRITE. Those of us who would like to read a factual, non-crazy book on the Dahlia have nowhere to go!

  3. Sam Flowers says:

    Larry, Eve is correct you know the facts and you certainly can write. If you hear two bullhorns outside your place it is just me joining Eve.

  4. Don Danard says:

    I’m with Eve and Sam. Write the damn book!!!!

  5. Riley says:

    Do you think the killer might have been inspired by “The Man Who Laughs”?

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