Black Dahlia: On the Anniversary of Elizabeth Short’s Murder, a Guide for the Hasty Reporter

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My Page 1 story on the Black Dahlia case. Now behind the Los Angeles Times pay wall. The full version of the story (expanded by two-thirds) is available on my old, old website.


The anniversary of Elizabeth Short’s murder, coming up Friday, always promotes a flurry of retrospectives on the 1947 Black Dahlia case. The stories are typically scraped off the Internet by reporters dashing off stories who rarely venture beyond Wikipedia.

A few guidelines to avoid the more common mistakes:

The Victim

Los Angeles Daily News, Jan. 17, 1947 –She was not Elizabeth Ann Short. She had no middle name. She sometimes went by Beth, sometimes by Betty or Bette.

–Elizabeth Short was nicknamed the Black Dahlia at a drugstore in Long Beach that she patronized in the summer of 1946, not by newspapers after the killing. The killing was nicknamed by the Los Angeles Herald-Express as “the Werewolf Murder,” which did not catch on.

–Elizabeth Short lived with her father, Cleo, in Los Angeles for a few weeks in January 1943 before she left for Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg AFB).

–She arrived in the Los Angeles/Long Beach area by bus in late July 1946 and stayed until December 1946, when she went to San Diego, returning in early January 1947.

–Elizabeth Short was not an aspiring actress. She was essentially homeless at the end of her life.

–Elizabeth Short did not have “infantile genitalia.”

–Elizabeth Short was not a prostitute.

–Elizabeth Short was not a lesbian.

–Elizabeth Short did not smoke – she had asthma – and generally did not drink alcohol.

–Elizabeth Short did not exclusively wear black outfits.

–Elizabeth Short was last seen in the old lobby of the Biltmore Hotel now called the Rendezvous Court. There is nothing to connect her to the Hotel Cecil or any other location except folklore.

–Nobody knows where she went after the left the Biltmore. Stories that she went to the Crown Jewel Cocktail Lounge were thoroughly investigated and eliminated.

–No one knows where she was from when she left the Biltmore on Jan. 9, 1947, to when she was found Jan. 15, 1947. Many people came forward with purported sightings, but all of them were investigated by the police and eliminated.

Los Angeles Daily News, Jan. 15, 1947
The actual front page of the Daily News of Jan. 15, 1947, contrasted with the altered front page floating around the Internet.


The Killing

–Elizabeth Short’s body was found Jan. 15, 1947, in a vacant lot in Leimert Park by a young woman wheeling her daughter in a stroller en route to a shoe repair shop. They were not “out for a walk.” The daughter was not a willful, disobedient child who failed to mind her mother and discovered the body. The girl never saw the body.

–Google maps has the wrong location for the crime scene and I’m not going to correct it. So much for the wisdom of the Web.

–Examiner reporter Will Fowler was not the first reporter on the scene (even I fell for this one). Among the first reporters to arrive were Aggie Underwood of the Herald-Express, Sid Hughes of the Los Angeles Examiner and Marvin Miles of the Los Angeles Times, along with photographers for those papers.

–The body was mutilated, drained of blood, cut in half with surgical precision, washed and scrubbed with a brush. The killer did not henna her hair or give her a makeover.

–Detective Harry Hansen, quoting medical examiner Dr. Frederick Newbarr, called Elizabeth Short’s bisection “a fine bit of surgery” and “a clean, professional job.”

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–The term “Glasgow Smile,” often used to describe the slashes to her mouth, did not exist in 1947. The term is a 2007 contamination from Wikipedia.

The Investigation

–A rewrite man from the Examiner called Phoebe Short and claimed that her daughter won a beauty contest, then said Elizabeth Short had been murdered. Phoebe Short didn’t believe the call until police in Medford, Mass., arrived to convey the news in person.

–The killer mailed an envelope of items from Elizabeth Short’s purse to the Los Angeles Examiner. The letter was addressed with letters cut out of a newspaper. Original investigators believed that only the first letter – with her belongings – was authentic. The rest, and there were many of them, were considered pranks, a relatively common practice in the 1940s.

–Police considered everyone who knew Elizabeth Short as potential suspects who had to be eliminated. Detectives interviewed thousands of people. Men and women confessed to the killing. All were eliminated.

–The LAPD conducted a state-of-the-art investigation (for 1947) of the Black Dahlia case. Some parts of the investigation involved hundreds of officers from the LAPD, Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol.

–The Black Dahlia murder was not a serial killing. The original investigators were familiar with the phenomenon, then known by such terms as “chain murders.” The investigators looked for similar murders, like the Cleveland torso killings, and determined they were unrelated. The Black Dahlia murder is one of a kind.

Suspect: Leslie Dillon

–In 1949, self-styled police psychiatrist Dr. J. Paul De River conducted a rogue investigation of the Black Dahlia murder using members of the Gangster Squad, bypassing the lead detectives and the homicide division. The inquiry violated all standards of best practices and procedures, and ignored the appropriate chain of command.

–De River’s rogue investigation of Leslie Dillon, a fiasco for the LAPD, resulted in a grand jury investigation of the Black Dahlia case.

District Attorney's Lt. Frank Jemison report on Leslie Dillon , Nov. 23, 1949
District Attorney's Lt. Frank Jemison report on Leslie Dillon , Nov. 23, 1949
Dist. Atty’s Lt. Frank Jemison’s report on Leslie Dillon, Nov. 23, 1949. According to this report “P.D.” rather than the widely reported “B.D.” was written on Jeanne French’s body.


Los Angeles Mirror, Sept. 14, 1949, Hotel Aster–Dr. River’s suspect, Leslie Dillon, was in San Francisco when Elizabeth Short was murdered, as determined by an exhaustive investigation.

–Leslie Dillon was in Oklahoma when he supposedly robbed a hotel in Santa Monica, thus Oklahoma officials refused to extradite him to California.

–There was no connection between Leslie Dillon and nightclub executive Mark Hansen.

–Mark Hansen had no connection to whatever minimal “organized crime” might have existed in Los Angeles at that time.

–The Aster / Astor Motel on South Flower Street was thoroughly examined by police. Nothing was found to indicate Elizabeth Short was killed there or had ever been there.

Suspect: Dr. George Hodel

–Dr. George Hodel had no connection to Elizabeth Short.

–Dr. George Hodel was never a “prime suspect” in the Black Dahlia case. He was put under surveillance from Feb. 18, 1950, to March 27, 1950, and then eliminated.

Feb. 20, 1951, final report by District Attorney's Lt. Frank Jemison
Feb. 20, 1951, final report by District Attorney's Lt. Frank Jemison
Dist. Atty. Lt. Frank Jemison’s final report on the Black Dahlia case. “All of which tend to eliminate this suspect [Dr. George Hodel].”


–Dr. George Hodel was never suspected of killing his secretary, who committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills in 1945. Nor was he suspected of killing Jeanne French in 1947 nor Louise Springer in 1949.

–Dr. George Hodel had minimal surgical training – just enough to graduate from medical school. He had no admitting privileges at any hospital in Los Angeles and was not accredited by the American College of Surgeons. Without this accreditation, Dr. Hodel would not have been allowed to operate at any hospital.

–Hemicorportectomy, bisecting a patient at the lower spine, was hypothesized in 1947 but never performed until 1960. This radical procedure was not taught in medical school in the 1930s.

–Dr. George Hodel specialized in public health, particularly STDs. His clients were poor Blacks living in Little Tokyo, renamed Bronzeville, during World War II, not the wealthy elite of Los Angeles.

Oct. 6, 1949, George Hodel, Tamar Hodel 19 boys–In 1949, Tamar Hodel accused her father and 19 boys at Hollywood High School of having sex with her.

–Dr. George Hodel was neither rich nor influential, and took out a loan on his house to cover his legal expenses when accused of molesting his daughter Tamar.

–A jury of eight women and four men found Dr. George Hodel not guilty of molesting his daughter Tamar. Numerous witnesses, including Tamar’s mother and grandmother, said she had been a “pathological liar” for many years and prone to making up fictional stories about sex. All of them said they would not believe her even under oath.

–Dr. George Hodel did not flee to escape prosecution in the Black Dahlia case. His reputation was so ruined after being accused of molesting his daughter – even though he was found not guilty – that he had to go to Hawaii (then a U.S. territory) to find a job. The LAPD could have extradited him to Los Angeles if it wanted to.

Random Allegations of Dirty Cops

–Dr. J. Paul De River conducted a rogue investigation of the Black Dahlia murder using members of the Gangster Squad, bypassing the lead detectives and the homicide division. The inquiry violated all standards of protocol and ignored the chain of command.

–De River’s rogue investigation of Leslie Dillon, a fiasco for the LAPD, resulted in a grand jury investigation of the Black Dahlia case.

–The 1948 Brenda Allen prostitution ring scandal involved members of the vice squad, not the homicide division. The original homicide detectives remained on the case for years. Harry Hansen, one of the lead detectives, was in charge of the case until he retired in 1968.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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