Grin and Bare it – The Black Case of the Black Dahlia

By now most of us are familiar with the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, the beautiful brunette 22-year-old who traveled to Hollywood, hoping to make it in the movies. The tragic result was a horrendous murder, where her corpse was discovered severed into two MC+The+Black+Dahlia.+Elizabeth+was+22+years+old+and_5b976e_3331709pieces at the waist, one breast nearly severed and a hideous Glasgow Smile cut into the sides of her mouth. The name Glasgow Smile comes from the geographic origin, being Glasgow, Scotland. Street gangs used the smile as a torturous trademark when fighting with one another. However the Grin was used much more often by gangs in Chelsea, England, and eventually became known as the Chelsea Grin. Either way, it’s nasty business. The way it’s made is to make two small incisions at the corners of the victim’s mouth, then to beat the victim mercilessly until the slits tear and reach the ears. I told you it was nasty.

If you aren’t so sickened by now that you can continue reading then you are almost as disturbed as me. That’s bad. At any rate, Short’s brief life hasn’t been well-documented. Her death is much more detailed as well as the nationwide manhunt for the killer. Short’s ckeilife began in Medford, Massachusetts, where she lived with her father Cleo, mother Phoebe Sawyer, and three sisters. Cleo Alvin Short Jr. managed to make a fairly affluent living by building miniature golf courses. Seriously. In 1930 when Elizabeth was 6 years old, Cleo abandoned the family. He left his car empty on a bridge, as if to appear that he’d committed suicide. Of course you’ve surmised this wasn’t the case, however his children believed it. Perhaps Cleo wasn’t a family man. Maybe he found his problem with alcohol too difficult to raise a family. Or he was too stressed about the financial hardships of taking care of six people to stay. Either way, he up and left for Vallejo, California without a word for several years. Around that time Cleo contacted Phoebe to ask if he could return to the family. Naturally, she said no and that was that for Cleo. He was done with the family and never interacted them again. With one exception: Elizabeth.

At the age of 19, Elizabeth contacted her father and asked if she could live with him. In exchange she promised to keep house for him. Cleo agreed and sent his daughter $200 in moving expenses. that would be about $2,000 today. Apparently, Cleo’s purse strings had loosened a little. However it was Elizabeth who strained the father-daughter relationship. She didn’t keep her end of the bargain: she slept the day away and went out all night. She barely cleaned and didn’t cook Cleo’s meals as promised. After several weeks and a particularly volatile fight, Cleo threw his daughter out. That was the end of that chapter in Elizabeth’s life.

Undaunted, the spunky teenager decided to travel around the states and little and find whatever work she could to sustain herself. For a while, she worked at Camp Cooke, a Black_Dahlia_Mugshotmilitary base for servicemen. Bases were everywhere, considering this was WWII. That suited Elizabeth just fine. She had a thing for men in uniform. How peculiar. Never heard of that one before. The servicemen at Camp Cooke were just as enthralled with our little Elizabeth and voted her “Camp Cutie“. However Elizabeth was a chaste, decent girl who wasn’t known to give herself to any of the men. Her employer actually stated that Elizabeth reminded her of a girl straight out of a convent. After a few months, a restless Elizabeth traveled to Santa Monica where, naughty girl, she was arrested for underage drinking. Even her mugshot is gorgeous. Small wonder Short saw modelling and movies in her future.  Following her arrest, she was sent back to Medford by the juvenile authorities in Santa Barbara. However Short wasn’t one to be hampered by a silly thing like the law. She moved to Florida to live with relatives or friends, with occasional visits to Massachusetts.

It was probably the only happy fate Short had in her life when she met Matthew Michael Gordon Jr in Florida. Gordon was a decorated United States Army Air Force officer, 415px-Matt_Gordon,_Flying_Tiger_c._1943The two fell in love and were constantly seen together until he was sent to India. Short told friends Gordon had written to her to ask her hand in marriage. She accepted his proposal, but Gordon died in an airplane crash on August 10, 1945, before he could return to the United States. Short was devastated. Gordon’s mother sent her an odd telegram that read “our sympathies are with you.” Short moved to Los Angeles in July 1946 to visit Army Air Force Lieutenant Joseph Gordon Fickling, an old boyfriend she had met in Florida during the war. Eventually Short moved in with Fickling but that arrangement worked about as well as her living arrangement with Cleo. After only a few weeks, Fickling told her to leave. Oddly, the two remained friends until the end of her life.

While in Hollywood, Short worked at a number of places as a waitress. One noteworthy establishment was the Florentine Gardens owned and operated by a seedy type named Florentine Gardens 1Mark Hansen. Hansen was the type of man who only hired gorgeous, young women to dance as “hostesses” with lonely servicemen and he also offered them a room in his house when they were “down on their luck.” Hansen became the lucky one when they moved in. For a time Short and Hansen were romantically involved but when he tried unsuccessfully to bed her, that cooled off and he also threw her out. This woman just didn’t have a good run of luck with male roommates. However Short fared better with female roomies. For several weeks she lived with an acquaintance named Marjorie Graham, also from Massachusetts although the two women hadn’t known each other then. Eventually Graham returned to Massachusetts and Short moved into another apartment complex with several other girls, all of whom were dancers, models and actresses. Keep in mind, this was Hollywood and beautiful young hopefuls were a dime a dozen.

Since Short didn’t like to work she was always broke and always hungry but she had an easy fix for that: she dated several men she met at bars and in clubs. They usually took her out for dinner. Sometimes they gave her spending cash and cheap jewellery. Short wasn’t a prostitute, however. She was an opportunist and a tease. Short became known as such although in spite of this, men still lined up to date the beautiful girl. Her rambling lifestyle and association with so many men was a dangerous combination. However, her reputation would be smeared far worse after her murder: the press portrayed her as a woman who prowled Hollywood Boulevard and falsely described her as wearing tight skirts and sheer blouses. Actually Short was a lovely, fashionable dresser, wearing modest blouses often buttoned to the neck and loose-fitting skirts. She didn’t dress only in black either: she favoured pink and blue.

On July 15, 1947 a Mrs. Betty Bersinger was walking her 3-year-old in her stroller outside along the west side of South Norton Avenue between West 39th Street and Coliseum Street, when she saw what appeared to be a mannequin that had been broken Black-Dahlia-300x197in two lying beside a vacant lot. Upon closer inspection, Bersinger saw the mannequin was very white. As she walked to a nearby house to report the find to police, she puzzled over the doll. Why would anyone sever a mannequin in half then place it near the sidewalk where anyone could find it? It made no sense. A woman living in a nearby house allowed her to use the phone and Bersinger called police stating, “someone better do something!” (There’s an idea). Accordingly, police arrived quite promptly, although not before the LA Examiner, who often intercepted police radio waves. The press was already snapping photos and trampling the scene by the time police arrived. Pictures show poor Short severed at the waist, with her upper torso placed several inches to the side and above her lower torso and legs. However, it was rumoured that Short had been placed in an even more obscene pose: her upper half placed on her legs in such a position to make it seem that she was performing oral sex on herself, and the police moved her into a more respectable pose.

The autopsy revealed that Short had been beaten, stabbed, and slashed with a butcher knife for at least 2 days. She may have died of exsanguination (blood loss) from blows to her head and the bleeding from her mouth. However she may have been alive when the dahlia artkiller severed her in half between the 2nd and 3rd lumbar vertebrae, although it is believed she was likely unconscious or in a coma. Thank the Lord for small mercies. She was completely drained of blood although her internal organs were intact, except for her intestines, which were partially pulled out of her lower torso and tucked beneath her buttocks. You sick yet? Of course all hell broke loose all over Los Angeles and Hollywood. A massive manhunt began and police interviewed no less than 1,000 people, including witnesses and suspects, of whom there were maybe twenty-three. Naturally police suspected medical surgeons and butchers but of all the suspects they interviewed only two were medical doctors and maybe one was a butcher. Another suspect, quite fittingly, had worked in a funeral home before he moved to Los Angeles. Ultimately, police were unable to locate the man they believed had murdered Short and they traced and re-traced every possible lead they had. Detective Harry Hansen, who was assigned to the case stated, “I didn’t meet the killer in my interviews. There was no way he slipped by us.” 

You may wonder why it is that Short’s murder became so famous when there were Dahlia-Curlshundreds of beautiful women in Los Angeles who met with equally horrible fates yet are relatively unknown today. The reason is simple: not only was Short young and beautiful but the name the press dubbed her, The Black Dahlia, was a play on words of The Blue Dahlia, a movie that had been released the previous year although the dahlia in the film wasn’t a person, it was a nightclub. Det. Hansen was convinced the exotic name given to Short by the press was the reason why Short’s murder remained in the front page headlines for as long as it did (about two months) and why it still fascinates people today with two exceptions at the time of the murder: Cleo Short and Matt Gordon’s family. When informed about his daughter’s murder and asked to identify the body, Cleo adamantly refused, telling investigators that he was “through with all that” (meaning his family). He didn’t attend his daughter’s funeral. As for the Gordons, perhaps due to humiliation or the fear that they would become ostracized simply do to the connection, vehemently denied that their late son had been engaged to or ever involved with Elizabeth Short. To this day, Short is Los Angeles’ most famous cold case murder, yet just a cardboard box among thousands in the LAPD archives.

I couldn’t help but become as obsessed with the Dahlia as everyone else. My awesome blog (though I say so myself) is called (you guessed it) grin and bare it – the black dahlia murder case.  Do come for a visit and inform me of any new information I could happily use.

 

 

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16 Responses to Grin and Bare it – The Black Case of the Black Dahlia

  1. I am actually pleased to glance at this website
    posts which consists of tons of valuable information, thanks
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  2. MarcTheDuck says:

    This looks like a new site for the Black Dahlia murder. Thanks for posting it. I’ve read a couple of books (Severed, Black Dahlia Avenger) and although it’s a fascinating story (in a macabre sort of way) it is also very very sad. Beth Short was a very young girl when she was murdered and apparently too young and naive to realize that her flighty lifestyle was also a very dangerous one. A couple of corrections – the first reference you have to where Beth was arrested is a typo (you wrote Santa Monica, but it was Santa Barbara as you did write lower down). The other is the rumor that her torso was stacked on top of her waste. I don’t know for a fact, but I don’t believe this was the case because 1) Betty Bersinger described her as being in two pieces (doesn’t sound like she was posed the way you posited), 2) I have never read that rumor anywhere before (so I doubt it is much believed), 3) police would not have likely changed the pose before taking crime scene photos, and 4) the written police reports all describe her in the position in the picture you posted.

    Of the suspects and people within one or two degrees of separation from her, Dr. George Hill Hodel sounds like the most likely (BDA book). But I’m still not that convinced he did it. Jack Wilson is the main suspect in the other book – I don’t think he was involved at all. I do think he crossed paths with her some though. But he seems to have confessed to the author just for money and his version of the murder doesn’t sound credible at all to me. I think it is just as likely that a complete stranger was the murderer. Beth had a habit of hooking up with different men all the time in exchange for a meal or a place to sleep. She does not, in fact, sound like a prostitute though. She actually even had a deformation of her vagina that prevented her from having “normal” sex. Of course, she could have done other things and it sounds as if she did on a few occasions based on testimony during the investigation (eg. a shoe salesman she knew said she helped him out “orally” in exchange for a pair of shoes one time)… but usually she seems to have not done anything with most men she hooked up with.

    Besides George Hodel, I am somewhat suspicious of a doctor friend of his named Dr. Francis C. Ballard based on a statement he made to a friend after performing an abortion on Hodel’s 14 year old daughter, Tamar (via incest). Ballard, according to the BDA, said he would like to cut a piece of Tamar’s thigh off, cook it and eat it in front of her. Part of Beth’s thigh had been cut off. And he sounds sadistic enough to be a suspect to me. It could be that Hodel and Ballard both tortured Beth to death. I’ve often thought (I don’t know why) that there was more than one person involved.
    But I think it was just as likely that Beth hooked up with a complete stranger one night, as she often did, and that one turned out to be a serial killer.

    I feel quite sure that whoever did it was a serial killer. This looks like the work of someone who took his time and really enjoyed himself. That’s typical of one type of serial killer – they enjoy the process of killing. And that’s why they do it more than once. In the BDA the author (actually the son of George Hodel) thinks his father was, in fact, a serial killer.

    Whoever did it was obviously a monster. But also I do think it was a doctor or butcher or someone very skilled at dissections. The reason is because the bisection of her body was very precise. The cut is very straight and just happens to have gone through her duodenum (separates the stomach and small intestines) so that no organs were damaged. The incision was perfectly placed. I doubt that was a coincidence if it was an amateur. Also the incision went perfecting through a vertebral disc – the bone would have been much harder to cut through. All with one straight incision… no hacking, no curves. Other parts of her body appear to have been more hacked though. And that’s part of the reason I wonder if more than one person was responsible.

    I wish the murderer had been caught and that there could have been some measure of justice for Beth. What she went through is unthinkable. And such a young girl still. May she rest in peace and her killer be damned to hell.

    • marilyn4ever says:

      Thank you for your response. Clearly you are well-versed on the subject and I am going to pursue some of your tips to add to my site. By no means am I an expert and it is likely that many of the rumours I publish aren’t verifiable and may never have happened, as I wrote in the about section of my blog. Haha about the typo – I must change that one. Maybe I like the name Barbara as much as Monica 🙂 I didn’t know about Ballard – I have no doubt the pregnancy was by incest – Hodel was a sick man. I’m very certain Beth’s killer is in hell. I believe in the afterlife and I believe in justice, if not in this life then at least in the next.

      • MarcTheDuck says:

        Yeah, I hope her killer is in Hell. No one, no matter what they may have done, deserves to go through what Beth Short went through. If only it were possible to go back in time and warn her about the dangers of the lifestyle she was living.

    • David V says:

      Mark, I thought the autopsies showed that her genitalia was normal…?
      I just happened to watch the Bill Kurtis episode of Cold Case Files, in which he dedicated an entire hour to it. Have you seen it? I thought he did a good job and even interviewed the detective currently assigned to the case.

      • marilyn4ever says:

        Personally I have read two different accounts about the Dahlia’s anatomy. One states she was malformed and the other states she was normal. A documentary has stated she had abnormal genitalia based on her medical files. Hard to know what to believe about that one.

      • MarcTheDuck says:

        I’ve read info about her genitalia problems several places and although the info is ambiguous, like everything else about Beth, it looks likely that she had some kind of problem. The autopsy said she had normal genitalia but some kind of “female problem” without saying what that was. Some references say she had infantile genitalia and some say her actual problem was with a gland that lubricates the vaginal. Either way she either couldn’t have intercourse or had a very difficult, uncomfortable time with it. I’ve forgotten the name of that gland but I’ll try to find it later. I found it on some other blog sitesso there is no definitive proof.

      • MarcTheDuck says:

        No, I didn’t see that episode. Is it on YouTube or did you see it on TV?

        BTW, Steve Hodel just put out a follow up book to BDA. I’m reading it now. More evidence that his father was the LAPD prime suspect. And he is very definitely a possible culprit. And definitely a real creep. But I’m still not entirely convinced it was him. I’ll write more on my thoughts, for what they are worth, later.

    • MarcTheDuck says:

      I found an error in one of my attributions above. It was not Dr. Ballard who was quoted as having said that he wanted to cut out a part of Tamar’s thigh, fry it and eat it in front of her. It was Dr. Ballard’s assistant, Charles Smith. Ballard was an illegal abortionist (it was illegal back in 1947) and performed an abortion on Tamar Hodel (14 years old, via incest or via one of her father’s friends, with whom he shared Tamar with). This came from a witness testimony during the incest trial of Dr. George Hodel, by Lillian Lenorak who was girlfriend of Dr. Ballard at the time.

      • MarcTheDuck says:

        Also, I believe it was her calf, not her thigh, that Charles Smith indicated. This is from Steve Hodel’s book, Black Dahlia Avenger (I’m currently reading a follow up by the same author called Black Dahlia Avenger II).

      • marilyn4ever says:

        I see Ballard kept himself in good company.

  3. Daniel says:

    check out http://coldcasecameron.com/killers-timeline/1933-1949/ edward wayne edwards , fascinating

    • MarcTheDuck says:

      You may not believe this, Daniel, but according to Steve Hodel (who I referenced above) the Chicago Lipstick murders you referenced in the link may have also been committed by Hodel’s father, Dr. George Hill Hodel. I’ve seen that theory written a couple of other places and never thought it was very credible so I was surprised to see Hodel reference it. To me the most compelling evidence for this to be true is how the killer writes his lower case “c”… it has a loop at the top such that it looks like a lower case “e”. Well, the black dahlia murder had the same curl on top if his “c” – he sent several letters to the police including one with Elizabeth Shorts social security card and address book. The police believed those letters were from the actual murderer. But, get this, Elizabeth Short actually traveled to Chicago to “investigate” these murders herself after little Suzanne Degnan was murdered. This was documented in the police reports and a Chicago policeman even slept with Beth there. The thinking was that she did that to try to get some info from him. She also hung out with some reporters there. She stayed three weeks then returned to LA. More weirdness: her body was left just one block away from Degnan Street in LA. That could have been a simple coincidence but Steve Hodel thinks it all fits in with Beth knowing or suspecting that Dr. Hodel was the Chicago Lipstick murderer and went to investigate that. Definitely strange at the very least.

  4. MarcTheDuck says:

    I’m ready to write a few notes about Steve Hodel’s most recent book, Black Dahlia Avenger II. It’s not a book review, just some thoughts and notes. I actually haven’t finished it (I’m at the 80% mark) but I know enough to write the following.

    Is it worth buying? Yes, if you are really into getting as much info about the Black Dahlia murder as is available.

    In this edition (a follow up to two (I think) previous books covering the Black Dahlia), Hodel adds more information in support of his belief that his own father, Dr. George Hill Hodel, was the Black Dahlia murder… also possibly the Chicago Lipstick murderer and possibly the Zodiac Killer about 20 years later. The first half of the book lays out the new info Hodel has collected as well as reiterating what he wrote in his other books. After reading that I do have to say I’m a little more in the camp of believing that maybe his father is, indeed, the culprit. Prior to reading this book I thought his father may be the leading (or one of the leading) suspects but I wasn’t convinced it was him. I thought it was equally likely that it was a random stranger who Beth happened upon and who just happened to be a serial killer of the torture-to-death variety (some serial killers kill quickly and some take their time and enjoy the process). Beth’s lifestyle – hanging out with different strangers every day or so put her in contact with a huge number of anonymous people and a lot of low lifes. Hodel has found enough evidence from the DA files (the LAPD have managed to lose all or nearly all of their BD evidence, possibly to cover up their own corruption back in the day) that shows that, at the very least, the DA dept in the time frame of 1950 did believe that Dr. Hodel was Beth’s murderer. They didn’t seem to have the corruption problem that LAPD had (they were taking bribes from abortionists and Hodel was likely a big one… and he would likely have spilled the beans if they had really taken him down), and investigated him heavily and then stored away the files in a secret location that Hodel (the younger) has managed to find. Many current LAPD and some current ADAs seem to believe that Steve Hodel has solved the murder. So a lot of people buy it now.

    As I said, I am now more inclined to think Dr. Hodel was the real murderer – or at least in on it (I’m still pretty suspicious of abortionists Charles Smith and/or Dr. Ballard who were friends of Dr. Hodel’s and, at least Smith if not both, were also pretty creepy (see what I wrote above about them). I now move Hodel and/or his buddies, in my mind, to the top of the list, over a random stranger serial killer based on this new info.

    The second half of the book brings forth some other “evidence” that points to Dr. Hodel having been the Chicago Lipstick, and Zodiac murderer as well. And this leads me to the problem I still have with the theory that Dr. Hodel was the murderer. The total sum of evidence from Steve Hodel’s books do seem to make it quite likely that Dr. Hodel was the Black Dahlia murderer. But a lot of that evidence is really just evidence that the police and especially the DA from 1947-1950 believed Hodel was the murder – ie. on it’s own the evidence he presents doesn’t strike me as air tight evidence. Sometimes Steve Hodel claims to have proven something when, in my mind, he has only shown some circumstantial evidence pointing toward his father. That leap to calling those things “proof” makes him seem less credible to me. Some of his evidence (like the two pictures of his fathers that Steve thought were of Beth Short) looks completely wrong to me. The first time I saw those two pictures I knew they weren’t Beth but Steve thought they were proof of a connection between Beth and Steve’s father – or darn close to it. Steve now admits that one pic is not Beth. In fact he determined who it really was and comparing THOSE pictures I agree with him on that point. But he still thinks the other picture may be Beth… I don’t think it looks like her at all. The facial features are quite different to my eye. I would be absolutely amazed if it turned out to be Beth… I’m that sure that it is not. In other cases Steve has leapt to the conclusion that some “evidence” was further proof of his father’s involvement. In each of those cases I wouldn’t make that leap. They support his theory but I don’t believe they prove it… for example when Dr. Hodel’s house was bugged by the LAPD/DA office he was heard to say “Supposing I was the Dahlia’s killer, they can’t prove it now. My secretary’s dead.” (I didn’t get the quote perfectly correct but that’s pretty close.) That, to me, is not proof or a complete admission of guilt. It means Dr. Hodel knew he was a suspect and was musing about whether the police had a strong case or not. He could have just as easily been innocent and still mused over the same thing. Yeah, it adds another log on the fire and is something you would expect the killer to say, but it isn’t proof. There are a lot of leaps like that. And the LAPD had a couple of other suspects that they believed were Beth’s killer before Hodel and they tried to proceed to prosecute those (eg. Red Manley). So the fact that the police believed someone to be the culprit doesn’t prove that they were guilty to my way of looking at it.

    I do, however, put a lot more credibility into the fact that the DA’s office seemed to believe that Dr. Hodel did it and based on that aspect I do think Hodel is the most likely culprit. But Steve Hodel would have built a stronger case if he were more skeptical of some of the evidence rather than making so many proclamations of “proof” when the evidence was really less that full proof. So a lot of the ancillary “proofs” Steve puts forth (like Beth was killed in the basement of the house Dr. Hodel and family lived in, and her body was dissected in the master bath) are just not really proven. And that’s too bad because some of the evidence is really compelling while other evidence looks like a huge leap to a conclusion that looks very weak.

    Overall it is worth reading just to go through the new “good” evidence (mostly from the DA’s files) and then you can sort through, for yourself, what you believe or don’t believe about all of his conclusions and conjecture.

    One last note: I bought the Kindle edition from Amazon and it’s not the highest quality ebook. Some pictures that were referenced were missing and some places the text is garbled. But it’s not so much that you don’t understand what’s going on. Still it may be worth waiting to see if Steve Hodel gets Amazon to correct those things before buying it. Unless you don’t mind some blips in your copy of the book.

  5. MarcTheDuck says:

    Haven’t been to this site in months but I still had it bookmarked so I thought I’d drop in and see if anyone else had ever left any comments. Nope. I haven’t done any more reading on the subject of the BD murder… I’m not sure there’s anything more to be learned at this point. The books I haven’t read are said to be either almost completely non-factual or more about Beth as a person (eg. one childhood friend from Mass. wrote about her when she was growing up) and not about the facts of this case. I find it extremely frustrating and sad that whoever committed this crime, torturing that poor girl so inhumanly for so many hours before finally killing her, was never caught and punished. A perfect crime? Maybe he (I assume it was a man – or men) was caught for something else and punished for that. You can only hope he didn’t live out his life as a free man.

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