Black Dahlia: Blogging ‘Black Dahlia Files’ Part 27 — The Pinata Collecting Our Thoughts

Note: This is an encore post from 2006.
The two-minute executive summary:

In analyzing Donald H. Wolfe’s “The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles,” we have spent the last week on the identification of Elizabeth Short and her autopsy, finding fiction, literary fraud, a studious disinterest in the facts and an annoying inability to distinguish between city and county agencies.

In addition, research in original newspapers has revealed that despite the claims of living near Bugsy Siegel when he was killed in 1947, Wolfe apparently lived elsewhere as his mother sold the house in question in 1944.

And most important, Wolfe makes statements about the autopsy which not only contradict the facts, but contradict his supposed sources. Specifically, Wolfe attributes a statement to former FBI profiler John Douglas that is actually the precise opposite of what Douglas says. If I were Douglas, I would be none too happy about having my work misrepresented in this manner.

On a minor note, three bloggers have posted reviews of Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” from an advance screening in Sherman Oaks, all of them absolute pans. A sample comment: “There is so much wrong with this film that I don’t even know where to start!”

Let’s try to finish up this chapter today.

Page 33

“Mogul” states that Elizabeth Short’s autopsy has been lost.

“Yet in the 1970s, duplicate copies of all autopsy reports in Los Angeles were put on microfiche; the inevitable question arises—What secret is contained in the autopsy report that officialdom still does not want the public to know after a lapse of more than half a century?

Well, for me the inevitable question is: When did it disappear? The autopsy could have been swiped by a souvenir hunter (although I imagine it would have shown up on ebay by now) or simply discarded. Unfortunately, many public agencies regard their documents as something less than a priceless repository for historians. I don’t believe it’s any secret that before Hynda Rudd took over, the city of Los Angeles’ archives were a mess. Although Hynda has since retired, the city archives remain a tremendous resource on life in Los Angeles.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the Los Angeles County material, which is a very mixed bag, as reflected by the district attorney’s collection of historic material, a terrific resource, although it is haphazard and incomplete.

“An alleged copy of the autopsy report was printed for the first time in Janice Knowlton’s book, ‘Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer’ (Pocket Books, NY, 1995). But this too was suspect and proved not to be the official autopsy report. It was based on a handwritten copy by an ex-officer of the Sheriff’s Department who led Knowlton to believe it was copied word for word from the original. But it was a word for word deception that once again hid the dark secret that the authorities did not want the public to know—a secret known at the time only by Capt. Jack Donahoe, Medical Examiner Dr. Newbarr, Finis Brown, Harry Hansen and the killer or killers.”

Hm. Note the “killer or killers,” taken from the same page of “Cop Talk 101” as “the male suspect exited the vehicle and fled on foot westbound.” Based on the absolutely false claims earlier about two styles of knife work in the killing, I’d say Wolfe is setting us up for some sort of dual murder.

And it’s time to drag in Janice Knowlton. The poor woman was so crazy; absolutely detached from reality. She would call my answering machine and leave long, angry, rambling messages every time a story appeared anywhere about the Black Dahlia case. It was easy to make fun of her while she was alive, but since she committed suicide I’ve only felt pity for her.

Like the coroner’s “Death in Paradise,” “Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer” is one of those books I don’t even let in the house. But I do have a photocopy of the section on Elizabeth Short’s autopsy and it’s clear Wolfe isn’t being entirely accurate here.

Luckily, amazon’s search engine will help us out. Hm. Janice Knowlton (and Michael Newton) say they got access to five autopsies on unsolved cases. Let’s see if we can figure out which ones:

First of all, they requested the Gertrude Landon autopsy and were told it was missing (Page 118). (An LAPD case).

Ditto Mary Tate (Page 208). (An LAPD case).

Perhaps they got the autopsy of Laura Trelstad (Page 212), although they don’t say definitively (Page 360). (Long Beach Police Department).

Maybe Geneva Ellroy (Page 277). Ah. They got the Geneva Ellroy autopsy (Page 360). Interesting. Of course, it’s not an LAPD case, but a sheriff’s case.

Maybe Helene Jerome (Page 279).

Well, I just used up my allotment of amazon searches for the day, so this not necessarily burning question will have to wait.

I’ll spare you the word for word textual comparison on the different versions of the autopsy in the interest of time. What I’m doing here is a beach book compared to that.

How accurate is “Daddy’s” version of the autopsy? The base of reference has to be the sworn testimony included in the transcript of the inquest, which Wolfe publishes, Pages 327-338, in a cleaned-up version. (What? It’s been cleaned up? Yep. It’s been photoshopped. If you know where to look, you can see the vestiges of little circles drawn around many of the line numbers. Case in point, Page 336, line 7).

The important note is that as Dr. Frederick Newbarr read his report into the public record, he was interrupted by Deputy Coroner Edwin Lenox, who told him to hurry things along and simply state why Elizabeth Short died. As a result, the inquest transcript is incomplete—sworn testimony, taken under oath, but incomplete.

There’s also a version of the autopsy in the LAPD summary on the case contained in the district attorney’s files. I wonder why Wolfe hasn’t referred to it. Hm. I hope we find out later. If not, that’s a huge omission.

Compared to the inquest transcript, the “Daddy” version makes some copying errors and the are some sections that appear nowhere else. Is it accurate? It’s impossible to say. But it is equally impossible to say that it was a malicious deception. We have to treat it as an unverified (and so far, unverifiable) copy and as such give it less credence than the two official sources: The inquest transcript and the LAPD summary.

Is the autopsy in “Daddy” a “word for word deception?” Frankly, if there’s anything guilty of that, it’s “Mogul,” given the book’s dismal record in distorting the facts and fabricating misinformation.

Let’s push ahead and finish the chapter.

Wolfe says Jim Richardson (again, he was the city editor, not the editor) asked Donahoe for a copy of the autopsy.

Oh no, Will Fowler in action! Here’s a laugh from beyond the grave:

“Fowler disclosed that Richardson was informed by Donahoe that the killer had inserted an earlobe as well as the tattooed flesh cut from the victim’s leg into her vagina.”

Of course, Elizabeth Short had no earlobes and her ears weren’t pierced. Will used to make up things about her earlobes all the time. A foxy grandpa to the end.

I could quibble more, but let’s pack it in for the day.

Oh by the way, in case you thought I forgot, “Daddy” wasn’t the first book to publish Elizabeth Short’s autopsy. That achievement belongs to “Severed,” (1994) Pages 121-124. Now why do you suppose Wolfe doesn’t tell us that? Could it have something to do with the autopsy information being attributed to the fictional Detective Herman Willis?

I wonder.

Shout out to:

France [ISP redacted]

Hurry back!

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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