Here’s a riddle: Let’s suppose for a moment that you are writing a historical piece; nothing terribly esoteric for a scholarly journal but something for the average reader. You have a choice between a schlocky, sensational paperback and original documents that few people are allowed to see.
If you’re Donald H. Wolfe, you’d forget the LAPD summary in the district attorney’s files and pick the schlocky, sensational paperback, “Severed.”
“Mogul,” Page 12; “Severed,” Page 9
“By the time Hansen and Brown reached the new location, reporters from L.A.’s newspapers had converged on the area, littering the street and sidewalk with cigarette butts and blackened flashbulbs from cameras. Several more police and onlookers had found their way to the site—some were driving around the block while others parked and stood on the roofs of their cars for a better view.”
Let’s have fun with this. Here’s a better picture of Aggie Underwood at the crime scene. Note 1) that she is standing in the street. Note 2) the police officer next to her also isn’t permitted to get any closer to the body and 3) notice that the news photographer has to stand on the roof of a car because he isn’t allowed any closer to the body. Also note that nobody is tromping through the crime scene. The books that insist the crime scene was violated are lying.
We turn to Wolfe’s bibliography to check his sources and Ach! Mein Gott this is worse than I thought! Wolfe reproduces the first two pages of the police summary (“Mogul,” Page 325-326) and totally ignores it. In-cred-i-ble.
As clearly stated in the LAPD summary as reproduced on “Mogul,” Page 325, police officers present at the crime scene included, along with responding Officers Perkins and Fitzgerald: “Sgts. Wynn, Vaughn, Forensic Chemist Ray Pinker, photographer Laursen from Sci. Investigation Division, and representatives and photographers from the newspapers. Pictures had been taken by the newspapers of the body. They were later joined by Lt. Leland V. Jones of the Scientific Investigation Division.”
Do any of these people appear in Wolfe’s treatment of the crime scene? Except for Pinker, no. For an alleged history, this is extremely poor work. It’s one thing not to have access to material and quite another to be granted access and ignore it.
Instead Wolfe recycles “Severed’s” treatment of the crime scene, with Hansen bellowing at Pinker in the best Moe Howard fashion “Get over here!” (Cue SFX: bop, slap, bonk!). I almost expect Gilmore to have Hansen say: “Spread out!”
More important, the contention in “Severed” and all the books that follow is an insult to the men who worked the Black Dahlia case. This was not a case of dozens of police officers tromping through the grass, as portrayed in either “Who Is the Black Dahlia?” or more likely “True Confessions” (sorry, I know it’s in a film, but I forget which one).
For the record, there isn’t a single crime scene photo showing anyone in the grass and weeds to the west of the body except for the two lead investigators, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, and they don’t approach the body until they have been cleared by Gilbert Laursen, the gent in the sweater seen in so many gruesome pictures on the Internet.
Take a look at the picture above: Nobody is standing in the grass but keeping carefully on the sidewalk. People aren’t circling the block to get a better view. There’s nobody standing on a car except the photographer who took this picture, and that was because he couldn’t get any closer. Bonus fact: This picture is from a website that doesn’t reveal its extreme manipulation of photos. This image has spread and is now deemed an authentic picture of the Daily News front page. In fact, the real Daily News front page had a large white arrow painted on the picture to indicate the body.
If you’ll notice in the pictures, Ray Pinker—one of the leading forensic chemists of his day—has his hands either in his pockets or otherwise secured so he won’t touch anything. These investigators were the elite of their era. Any statement other than that is simply not supported by the facts.
This is why I keep saying “Severed” is 25% mistakes and 50% fiction.
(And let’s backtrack for a moment to “Mogul,” Page 11. Wolfe puts the Hollywood Citizen-News at the crime scene, but that’s not so easily established. The Citizen-News’ Page 1 story reads like a rewrite of the Herald but makes a significant error, wrongly stating that Elizabeth Short’s right leg was broken, virtually ensuring that the writer didn’t see the body. This error gets picked up in a few minor treatments of the Dahlia case, but luckily hasn’t assumed the status of an Internet virus).
“Watson, you see, but you do not observe.”–“A Scandal in Bohemia.”