Murder in Hollywood: Who Killed the Black Dahlia?

Murder in Hollywood: Who Killed the Black Dahlia?

Patrick Lynch - January 24, 2017

The murder of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia, is one of the oldest and most compelling unsolved cases in the history of Los Angeles. The aspiring actress was just 22 years old and worked as a waitress in the City of Angels. Her brutal murder shocked the city, and despite a detailed investigation, none of the hundreds of suspects were ever charged.

Black Dahlia’s Early Life

Short was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1924 and suffered from asthma and bronchitis. As a result, her mother sent her to Florida when she was 16, where she would spend the next three winters. She moved to Vallejo, California with her father at 19, but after an argument, Short went her own way. The teenager was arrested in Santa Barbara in September 1943 for underage drinking, and the authorities sent her back to her hometown.

She returned to Florida and fell in love with Major Matthew Gordon, a U.S. Army Air Force Officer, but after proposing, the man died in a plane crash less than a week before the end of World War II. A heartbroken Short moved to L.A. in July 1946 to visit another army officer she knew from her time in Florida. Like most aspiring actresses, Short worked as a waitress to make ends meet while waiting for her big break. It never came because the unfortunate young woman was brutally murdered in January 1947.

Murder in Hollywood: Who Killed the Black Dahlia?
Major Gordon and Elizabeth Short. Scared Yet

Death & Sensationalism

A woman named Betty Bersinger discovered the naked body of Short in a vacant lot in Leimert Park in Los Angeles on January 15, 1947. It was a particularly gruesome murder, as the victim was drained of blood and was severed at the waist. The killer had viciously slashed, but also cleaned the corpse. One of the detectives at the scene, Brian Carr, commented on the brutality of the slaying and said he couldn’t imagine anyone doing such a thing to another human being.

Newspapers such as the Los Angeles Examiner helped the case gain notoriety by sensationalizing the murder. Part of the media campaign involved smearing the young victim’s reputation with lies and half-truths. For example, Short wore a black tailored suit when last seen; the Examiner said she wore a sheer blouse and tight skirt. The media also gave Short the Black Dahlia nickname, and described her as someone that prowled Hollywood Boulevard for men.

Misconception surrounded the case from the start, especially over the details of Short’s life. True crime books suggested she lived in L.A. at various times during the 1940s, but there is no evidence of this. Indeed, there are accounts of her residing in Florida and Massachusetts for most of the period from 1943 to 1946. Suggestions that she was a call girl or even a prostitute are almost certainly fiction.

Another rumor involved Short being pregnant at the time of her death; again, this is complete nonsense. The media coverage surrounding the case made it difficult for police to conduct an effective investigation. This is clear by the number of people who came forward to falsely confess to the Short murder.

Murder in Hollywood: Who Killed the Black Dahlia?
Suspect George Hodel. Daily Mail

Who Did It?

Every time a movie or book has been released about the murder, several people come forward with evidence that they claim proves the identity of the killer. At least 50 people have confessed to the murder of Elizabeth Short, but in every single case, they are typically attention seekers. In reality, there are only a few genuinely intriguing suspects.

George Hodel

George Hodel’s son Steve is a retired L.A. police detective turned private investigator. He claims his father murdered Short and a host of other people. Steve found images of a woman very similar to Short in his father’s possessions after George died in 1999. Steve conducted research and published a book in 2003 that claims his father is the killer.

There could be some truth to the accusation. Unbeknownst to Steve, his father was a suspect in the case, and police interviewed him in 1947. However, the evidence against George Hodel is circumstantial at best. Also, Steve has accused his father of multiple murders including 10 in Asia in the 1940s, and he even believes George was the infamous Zodiac Killer.

Walter Bayley

Bayley was an L.A. surgeon who lived just one block away from the location where police discovered Short’s body. Bayley had a degenerative brain disorder, which could have resulted in violent behavior. FBI profiler John Douglas said the violence perpetrated on Short’s body suggests personal anger towards the victim.

Short routinely told men she had a son who died tragically; Bayley’s son died at the age of 11 after being struck by a car. Her body was found two days after the anniversary of Bayley’s son’s death. However, Bayley was 67 years old at the time of the murder and had no history of violence.

Other Suspects & Theories

The LAPD’s investigation into Elizabeth Short’s murder was the largest in 20 years, and the department used hundreds of officers from other agencies. Intense public attention focused on the case hampered investigators, as they spent most of their time spent chasing down useless leads. The L.A. District Attorney named 25 viable suspects, including the two mentioned above.

Other suspects include Leslie Dillon, Norman Chandler, Mark Hansen, and George Knowlton. Famous suspects included film director Orson Welles and gangster Bugsy Siegel. In most cases, there was little or no evidence, and practically every person can be discounted for various reasons.

One wild theory suggests a link between the death of the Black Dahlia and the Cleveland Torso Murders of 1934-1938. Once again, the LAPD looked into a possible connection but quickly discounted the theory. Crime authors claim a link between Short’s murder and that of 6 year old Suzanne Degnan in Chicago the previous year. There were a couple of similarities between the killings, but nothing concrete.

In truth, Elizabeth Short’s killer will never be identified, but expect more theories to emerge as time goes on. Now 70 years after the murder, the death of the Black Dahlia still captivates would-be detectives and amateur sleuths.