Some people see Elizabeth Short as a real-life femme fatale from a film noir thriller. She was a wannabe actress who walked the mean and dangerous streets of 1940s LA, and she also had connections to some very dangerous men. Sadly, like many women of film noir, Short had a brutal end to her life—even more sadistic than most horror movies. Her senseless attack by an unknown assailant created a media frenzy that literally stopped the country in its tracks. But who was Elizabeth Short? Let’s peel back the fiction and get some true facts about Elizabeth Short—AKA the Black Dahlia.
On January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger was walking with her young daughter in an area of Los Angeles called Leimert Park—which at the time was mostly an undeveloped wasteland. She walked by a vacant lot in it when something surprised her. Someone had thrown away an old department store mannequin.
The mannequin was actually in two pieces—separated at the waist.
As Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter walked closer, she made a horrifying realization. The mannequin was actually a real person. Bersinger had no idea at the time, but the lifeless body in two parts was Elizabeth Short, and this murder was about to become the case of the century.
While most people consider the story of The Black Dahlia to be a quintessentially Los Angeles tale, it actually started way over in Boston. Elizabeth Short was number three in a quintet of daughters. She was born on July 29, 1924, to Cleo A Short and his wife Phoebe May Sawyer.
Short’s father had a great idea to make money and invested and built his own miniature golf courses.
Sounds like a good idea, except for one thing: he could never have anticipated what a terrible surprise he was in for.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Short’s father lost everything he had. At the same time, extravagances like playing mini golf became less popular, so his business was also a bust.
Cleo A Short had a wife and five kids to feed, and he had no idea how he was going to do it. Despondent, he got into his car and drove to the Charlestown Bridge.
Short’s father didn’t come home that night, or any night after that. When they found his abandoned car by the bridge, they were forced to grapple with a disturbing possibility. He’d purposely jumped off the bridge to end his life. Sadly, this was an all too common occurrence in the years following the stock market crash.
Short’s mom was left to care for, feed, and raise five young girls all on her own. Elizabeth Short was just six years old at the time.
Short’s mother soon got a job as a bookkeeper in order to keep her girls fed and clothed, but luck was not on her side. Elizabeth was suddenly struck with both asthma and bronchitis.
Her case was so serious that she required lung surgery when she was 15 years old. After the surgery, the doctor told Mrs. Short that her daughter needed something that mom’s low-paying job probably couldn’t pay for: winters in a warmer climate.
Mrs. Short had to do something—Elizabeth’s life depended on it.
Luckily, Short’s mother had family and some friends in Florida that could put Short up during the winter. That would at least take care of Short’s health problems. Living in both Boston and Florida, however, gave Short a very disjointed life.
She suffered at school, and eventually she dropped out in her sophomore year. Her young life seemed already headed for disaster—and a mysterious letter waiting at her mother’s house was about to throw her a curve ball.
In 1942, an envelope arrived at the Short household.
It would change their lives forever. From the postmark, mom could see that the letter was from California and her curiosity was piqued—who did she know in California? When she opened the letter and started reading it, I’m sure her heart skipped a beat. After all, the letter had come from beyond the grave.
Short’s mom stared at the letter and tried to make sense of it. Surely, there was some kind of mistake. It was from her husband—the one who had jumped off the bridge after the stock market crash. It turned out that he hadn’t jumped at all, but had faked his own disappearance in order to start a new debt-free life. He’d moved to California and he felt very, very guilty about leaving his family alone.
Mom had been raising five daughters on her own and was dealing with Elizabeth’s health concerns. Suddenly, Mrs.
Short saw the solution right there in front of her.
Elizabeth Short was soon on her way to sunny Vallejo, California to live with her father—and take care of her bronchitis. She hadn’t seen dad since she was six years old, but she hoped they would get along. Well, she was in for an unpleasant surprise. Before long, Short was arguing with her father, who worked at a nearby shipyard.
The arrangement wouldn’t work after all, but Short was not about to leave California behind so easily. She’d tasted the West Coast lifestyle and she wanted more. Sadly, it was this love for California that would lead to her dark end.
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After a year of battling it out with her father, Short decided to jump ship.
She was just 19 when she walked out the door, found a place to live and got herself a job. Not bad for a high school dropout. Her job, working for a US Army Sergeant at an Air Force base, ended up being horrible—all for one twisted reason. Her boss abused her.
This deplorable situation led Short to quickly leave town and she ended up in Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, there was just more trouble in store for her there.
What young person wouldn't want, after a hard day’s work, to have a few cool drinks with friends? Well, because Short was just 19 at this time, having a drink meant that she broke the law.
In 1943, officers detained her for underage drinking. The authorities in Santa Barbara saw a young woman who was not under any adult supervision, so they did something heartless.
They sent her back to live with her mom. Short had gotten used to a certain amount of independence, so she came up with a plan.
Short didn’t return to her mother’s home, instead she headed to Florida. Remember WWII was heating up, and there were army personnel all over the US at this time. For a young romantic woman, this was a bit like being a kid in a candy store.
Handsome men walked the streets in uniform and lived in fear of Uncle Sam sending them overseas.
Short fell for an officer—and it got serious fast.
Short’s new boyfriend was Major Matthew Gordon Jr: an Army Air Force officer training to head to Southeast Asia to fight for his country.
When his time came, Short tearfully said goodbye. The two love birds promised they would reconnect the moment he got back. Over the next months, they exchanged letters, but one letter in particular made Short almost fall off her chair.
The letter that Short received from Gordon contained some devastating news. He’d been in a plane crash in India. Luckily, Gordon had survived the crash, but he needed to heal in the hospital in India.
It seemed that the crash had made Gordon do some soul-searching because he ended the letter with something shocking: a proposal of marriage.
Short could not get her response down on paper fast enough. She certainly did want to marry Major Matthew Michael Gordon Jr and she said so much in her letter.
Now, all they had to do was wait for Gordon to return to the states and her life would be perfect. When it came to living during the time of WWII, anticipating anything was dangerous—you never knew what could happen next.
Short managed to keep her spirits up while waiting for Gordon to return.
In August of 1945, a few days before the end of WWII, she experienced a tragedy of cruel coincidence. Gordon was in another plane crash. This time the young officer was not so lucky: he passed on August 10, 1945. Short, of course, was a wreck. Her perfect life was not going to happen after all.
A year after losing Gordon, Short left Florida and went to California. She was visiting another Gordon: Lieutenant Joseph Gordon Fickling, whose station was in Long Beach. Short ended up staying in California and not returning to Florida. She got a job as a waitress and a room in a boarding house located behind a nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard.
Yes, she was waitressing—but she had bigger dreams than that.
Short’s boarding house was behind the Florentine Gardens—a nightclub owned by Mark Hansen. Short’s roommate was Ann Toth, who was also Hansen’s girlfriend. Some say that Short was also linked to Hansen romantically—which would make living with Toth a little awkward. It seemed that Hansen was the type of guy who had a lot of girlfriends all of the time.
As we’ll soon see, that Hansen was not the type of guy Short should have trusted.
It was during this time in Los Angeles that Elizabeth Short became more determined to start a career in show business. She had spoken to someone about appearing as an extra in a movie.
She had also talked Hansen into letting her perform at his nightclub. Like other young women hanging around Hollywood, she had a one in a million chance of succeeding.
There were so many stories of young starlets getting their big break, so why wouldn’t Short believe she had a chance? Sadly, there was nothing but horror awaiting her.
Short was in relentless pursuit of a career in show business, but there was something else going on in her life—something much more mysterious. Toth said that Short often made furtive calls from the phone line at Florentine Gardens, Hansen’s nightclub. She also noticed that Short would only do this when Hansen wasn’t around.
Toth was very suspicious of the phone calls, and one day she found out exactly who Short was calling.
Toth found out that Short was secretly calling a man named Maurice Clement, who worked for Columbia Studios. This was likely the man who was getting Short a job as an extra. But there was something else here. Sure, Clement worked in the movie business, but he also had ties to gangs.
His circle of associates included Murder Inc founder Bugsy Siegal and boxer Mickey Cohen—both known for being brutal in their many illicit dealings.
If this wasn’t bad enough, Clement also worked with a notorious woman named Brenda Allen.
Short clearly knew Maurice Clement—she called him from the Florentine Nightclub on more than one occasion. Well, Clement was also friendly with Brenda Allen, who was a madam to the mob.
Allen was supplying women to a dangerous class of people, and yet her boyfriend was from another area altogether: he was a Sergeant of the LAPD.
Was Short contacting Clement because she was working—or wanted to work—for Allen? Clearly Short needed money to stay in LA, but would she be willing to sell her body to the mob?
For some reason, Short left the apartment she shared with Toth and temporarily stayed with Dorothy French. On January 2, 1947, Short sent a letter to Toth and asked her for some money. French said that a few days after Short sent the letter, some men came to her house looking for Short.
French noticed that Short was very anxious as the car pulled up in front of her home.
Short spoke to the two mysterious men, but French was too scared to meet them. But that’s not the most disturbing part. After the conversation, Short was visibly shaken.
In early January 1947, Short began an affair with Robert Manley, who his friends called “Red”. His name may have been Manley, but he was hardly a gentleman. You see, Manley already had a wife, and was seeing Short on the side. The two wanted to get away from the city—and the chance of getting caught—so they went for a short visit to San Diego.
When the trip was over, Manley drove Short back to LA.
Once they arrived, Short told him to drop her off at the Biltmore Hotel. Short said she had a plan to meet her sister, who was visiting from Boston, at the hotel. Sadly, she’d meet her dark fate instead.
Once she got into the Biltmore Hotel, staff there said they saw someone who followed Short’s description in the lobby and on the telephone. A short time later, witnesses swear they saw her at the Crown Grill Cocktail Lounge, located a few blocks from the Biltmore.
And that’s when the clues dry up. No one knows what happened to Short after that.
Or at least, no one is admitting they know.
The next time anyone admits to seeing Short was the mother with her child who discovered her lifeless body in the vacant lot.
Besides being cut in half, there were all kinds of wounds on Short’s body. Someone had also drained all of Short's blood and taken care to wipe her clean afterward with gasoline. Calling the scene gruesome would be the understatement of the century.
But how had Short ended up in this state?
Where had she gone after witnesses saw her at the Crown Grill Cocktail Lounge?
Of course, it took a while for the authorities to identify the body as belonging to Short. It did, however, take less time because of Short’s earlier run in with the law concerning her underage drinking. Because of this altercation, Short’s fingerprints were on file, so she was eventually identified. For some strange reason, a newspaper learned Short’s identity even before Short’s mother did.
This bizarre state of affairs led to a prank that was especially evil.
William Randolph Hearst published the Los Angeles Examiner and he had a reputation for sensationalizing new stories—and using tricks to be the first to break a story. When the newspaper realized they knew the identity of the victim even before the next of kin, they devised a sinister plot. They wanted to get more info about Short than any other newspaper had.
They wrote a letter to Short’s mother—and not a word of it was true.
Someone on staff at the Los Angeles Examiner wrote a letter to Phoebe Short that withheld the news about her daughter’s horrible demise. Instead, they played an incredibly cruel trick.
They claimed that Elizabeth Short had won a beauty contest. Phoebe Short was, of course, thrilled and filled the reporter’s ear with tidbits of information about her lovely daughter.
Once they had their fun—and got their information—they told Phoebe the horrifying truth. Sadly, the newspaper wasn’t through with terrorizing Phoebe Short.
The next trick the Los Angeles Examiner played on Phoebe Short was to offer to pay her flight so she could help detectives investigate Short’s murder. Short accepted the offer and came out to LA on the newspaper’s dime. The newspaper, however, had a chilling motive. They actually kept Short away from the detectives working on the case and other newspapers.
Hearst and his minions would do anything they could to maintain control over the case and make sure they were the ones profiting from this horrible incident.
The Los Angeles Examiner and the Los Angeles Herald-Express—both owned by Hearst—felt they had ownership of the story around Short’s murder. Together they decided the best way to drive the narrative of the story in order to make the most money from headlines.
They depicted Elizabeth Short as a woman who “prowled Hollywood Boulevard” wearing revealing clothes.
They called her an adventuress—which led to Short’s nickname: the Black Dahlia.
A year before Short’s murder, there was a popular film called The Blue Dahlia. Veronica Lake and Doris Dowling play typical noir seductresses and the events of the film center around a nightclub called the Blue Dahlia. Since Short was a nightclub goer and apparently wore provocative clothing—often black—she got the nickname.
But who thought of it first?
No one knows. Some even speculate the name came from Short’s own friends—before she became a media sensation. The public took to the nickname like a moth to a flame. They were hungry for any news about The Black Dahlia and the person who had taken her life.
About one week after the discovery of Short’s body, the Examiner received a phone call congratulating them on how they were covering the case. At the end of the call, the caller made a statement that would make anyone’s blood run cold. He claimed to be the person behind the murder.
He also said that he planned on giving himself up to authorities, but not before he would send some souvenirs of Short to the newspaper.
Was it that easy? Was the case really solved already?
The unnamed man really did send a package, but it didn’t get to the newspaper. The US postal service stopped a suspicious envelope on January 24 because the sender had written the address in cut out letters.
And there was something else that made the letter standout as a clue. It said on the outside of the envelope: “Here is Dahlia’s belongings letter to follow”.
You didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to know this package was important to the Black Dahlia case—but what was in it?
Detectives eventually got their hands on the manila envelope and tore it open.
Likely they thought the package was a hoax by someone with a twisted sense of humor. However, when they saw the contents, they knew it was something much more sinister. Inside were photographs of Short, her birth certificate and some business cards. More surprisingly, the sender had included an address book with a name clearly embossed on the cover:
Remember Hansen? He was Short’s lover, and her best friend’s lover as well. Maybe this was Hansen’s way of turning himself in. If so, the case would be easy to solve.
Mark Hansen’s name on the cover of the address book was already pretty incriminating, but the detectives wanted proof that it was Hansen who had actually sent the parcel. To do this, they needed fingerprints.
Sadly, the sender of the package had wiped all the contents clean with gasoline—much as he’d done with Short's body.
The contents were free of fingerprints. The envelope, however, was not.
Experts lifted a few fingerprints from the envelope and sent them to the FBI—they were the ones who could test them, come up with a match, and hopefully solve this case. The FBI received the package containing the fingerprint samples and started their procedure.
Except once they started they realized something devastating. Somehow, the fingerprints were now unreadable.
Something—or someone—had tampered with the only evidence they had to convict Hansen.
On the same day as the package arrived at the Examiner, there was a stunning discovery. It occurred about two kilometers (three miles) from where the woman and her daughter had first discovered Short’s body. An unidentified person had found a handbag and a single black suede shoe.
Again, this was another potential for fingerprints.
Unfortunately, the killer had been clever again: he—or she—had wiped both items with gasoline. Investigators, however, still wanted to talk to Hansen and see if he had any involvement in the case.
Even though there had been no fingerprints to incriminate Hansen, they still had his name on the address book mailed to the newspaper.
So, when the shoe and handbag surfaced, they showed them to Hansen. He confirmed that they belonged to Short. Toth, Short’s roommate, spoke up and said that recently, Short had rejected Hansen when he made romantic moves on her.
Toth thought this was an excellent motive, and she wanted the detectives to detain Hansen for her friend’s murder.
Apparently, Hansen had an airtight alibi and the detectives let him go—either that, or Hansen had friends in high places at the LAPD. But what about Manley?
He was the last one to actually have a conversation with Short before she disappeared. And the evidence against him was very convincing. She was his mistress, and he said he’d dropped her off at the Biltmore.
But what if something else had really happened?
Authorities brought Manley in and quickly hooked him up to a polygraph to check out his story.
One of two things was possible: Manley was telling the truth when he said he was not responsible for Short’s murder, or he was an expert at passing lie detector tests. Well, he did pass, and detectives started to look elsewhere for the person responsible for Short’s brutal demise.
At this point in the investigation, the LAPD had a whopping 750 investigators working on the case, who were tirelessly scouring LA for any evidence.
The investigators focused much of their search on storm drains around Los Angeles, and other places around the L A River. They found nothing. With no hope in sight, they had no choice but to try something else. Something that showed how desperate they really were.
With the support of a city councilman, the LAPD posted a reward to help them catch Short’s attacker. A reward of $10,000 sounds like a pittance now, but in 1946 it felt more like $120,000.
Surely, this would help get some much needed clues. Sadly, it only resulted in a bunch of false confessions. Some of the confessors ended up getting charged as what they’d done was an obstruction of justice.
Sadly, investigators were still no closer to solving the case of the Black Dahlia.
It had been nearly a month since the gruesome discovery of Short’s body, but the case was still dominating the media. Headline writers were getting more and more desperate for new information to keep readers glued to their coverage. They got it on January 26 when a disturbing letter arrived at the Examiner. This letter was hand written—not made of cut out letters like the others—but again, it seemed like a confession. The writer said he would turn himself in on Wednesday, January 29.
Detectives and officers waited anxiously at the location provided by the letter writer. The indicated time of his arrival came and then passed. Instead of showing up, the writer of the letter sent another missive. The message in the envelope said that he had changed his mind about turning himself in.
The letter ended with a strange sentence that said that he had a justified reason for his actions against Short.
Who was this mystery letter writer, and what did he mean by justified?
After the January 29 disappointment, the press continued to report daily about Short. With no fresh news, editors let their writers speculate about what had happened to Short for the six days between the last time anyone saw her and the discovery of her remains.
The headlines and articles became more and more lurid, and the public ate them up.
For some reason, the authorities didn’t try to put a stop to this sensationalist reporting. In reality, they had a very good reason for wanting it to continue.
The investigators working on the case were allowing writers to go hog wild on reporting unsubstantiated facts about Short—because it was all part of a plan. They wanted to keep something secret from the public:
The real reason for Short’s demise. With all the crazy theories out there, the public had no idea that a cerebral hemorrhage had caused Short’s death, likely from a serious knock to the head.
Only the perpetrator would know this, and detectives wanted to use the information to test any future confessors.
With no restraints, however, the media had a field day.
One of the more bizarre speculations came from a Herald-Express reporter named Bevo Means. Means found that a stripper had told the detectives that Short liked to rile men up and then “leave them hanging dry”. This piece of information made Means make a ridiculous leap in logic.
He claimed that Short was a lesbian. Yeah, because that’s what lesbians like doing in bars.
This idea garnered a few headlines and then, thankfully, disappeared.
One angle that detectives came to late in the investigation was looking at the very precise way Short had been dissected.
Couldn’t, then, the culprit be a doctor or surgeon? Following this logic, the LAPD collected names of all medical students at the University of Southern California Medical School. Again, nothing came of this investigation—but why did they only look into medical school students? We’ll soon see that the doctor theory would surface again…in a very. very bizarre way.
Steve Hodel, like many retired LAPD detectives, had an obsession with the Black Dahlia case even though he was just a child when it happened. When his father passed, and Hodel collected his belongings, the ex-detective faced a horrifying discovery. It was a picture of Elizabeth Short.
This discovery led Hodel down a rabbit’s hole of an investigation.
Hodel came to a truly bizarre conclusion: his father had committed the Black Dahlia murder. That was all Hodel needed to get started on a book.
Hodel filled his 2001 book with convincing evidence that his father, Dr.
George Hodel, was the culprit. The fact that most of the evidence is circumstantial doesn’t make the book any less compelling. Some critics agreed with Hodel’s conclusion, others saw it was just a way to sell books. Hodel had certainly gained a lot of attention, and then he went a little overboard.
According to Hodel, his father was also responsible for the Zodiac murders.
Okay Hodel—and where was your dad when Kennedy was shot?
In 2017, Piu Eatwell published her book Black Dahlia, Red Rose. Eatwell offers up her own suspect—a man named Leslie Dillon. Dillon was a bellhop, but he had also been a mortician assistant, which may give him information about how to cut a body in half.
Dillon also had ties to Mark Hansen, the man whose name appeared on the address book in the first confession package.
He also had a connection to Sergeant Fisin Brown, who was allegedly corrupt and could keep Dillon from getting caught. The authorities had questioned and released Dillon during the case—saying there wasn’t enough evidence to convict. Dillon passed quietly in 1988.
The case of the Black Dahlia remains unsolved. What we do know is that the media was responsible for mudding up the investigation with their bizarre claims, and wacko speculation using circumstantial evidence. As far as a reason for their unrelenting interest? Well, here’s a relevant fact: The only event that sold more newspapers than the discovery of Short’s body was when the allies won WWII.
One last bizarre and heartless note on this sad and grisly story:
the bar at The Biltmore Hotel—the last place anyone saw Short alive—has a drink on their menu called the Black Dahlia Cocktail.
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