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 pieces 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 life 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 military 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, The 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 Mark 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 in 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 killer 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 hundreds 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.