By Matthew Wendler
A cool breeze swept through the morning air in the Los Angeles neighborhood surrounding Norton Avenue Jan. 15, 1947. Sunlight shone down upon the vacant lots of land adjacent to the sidewalk. Betty Bersinger was out pushing her three-year-old daughter in a stroller around 10 a.m.
They were heading south toward Leimert Park, but something suddenly caught Bersinger’s eye. A pale figure could be seen lying a few feet away from the sidewalk in the uncut grass of an empty lot. Bersinger froze for a moment before determining it to be a department store mannequin, torn in half with it’s arms stretched overhead.
That’s odd, she thought, what is this doing here? She took a few steps forward before gasping in horror at the true nature of her discovery. It wasn’t a mannequin, but a young woman, cut in half at the waist with her mouth slit open at both ends.
The state of the body left the police unnerved to say the least. There was no blood in or around the body, as if someone had intentionally drained it. Numerous incisions were made upon the woman’s flesh and her right breast was nearly sliced off. Her intestines were pulled out and placed under her bottom half. A piece of flesh with a rose tattoo imprinted on it was cut off her thigh and put inside her vagina.
The woman had been neatly positioned and scrubbed clean before being discarded. Her wrists had rope burns, indicating that she was tied up. A large cement bag stained in blood was found close to the corpse.
An autopsy was conducted the day after the body was found. The cause of death was found to be internal bleeding due to blunt force trauma and lacerations to the face. Interestingly, it was determined that a majority of the body mutilations had been made postmortem. The precision of these cuts led investigators to speculate the murderer was a skilled surgeon.
The woman was identified as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. Short moved to California to reconnect with her father, who had previously faked his own death. A common belief is held that she was an aspiring actress, but there is no evidence to suggest she auditioned for any roles.
Many people refer to Short as “The Black Dahlia.” Although her nickname was attributed with the press, Short actually received it from patrons at a drugstore she had frequently visited in Long Beach, California. The patrons, who knew her raven black hair and habit of wearing sheer black clothing, based the name on a popular noir movie titled “The Blue Dahlia.”
Six days after the body was discovered, James Richardson, an editor for the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper received a mysterious phone call. The man on the other end claimed to be Short’s killer and congratulated the press’s coverage on the murder. He claimed that he would soon be sending Short’s belongings to Richardson’s office.
That same week Jan. 24, a U.S. postal worker discovered a suspicious looking manila envelope addressed to the Los Angeles Examiner. The contents of the envelope included Short’s birth certificate, her social security card, photographs of her, and an address book with a few missing pages. The name “Mark Hansen” was written on the book’s cover. A message pasted together with newspaper and magazine letter clippings was also found inside the envelope. It stated:
“Los Angeles examiner and other Los Angeles papers, here [are] Dahlia’s belongings. Letter to follow.”
The envelope, as well as all accompanying items, had been carefully whipped with gasoline, meaning no fingerprints could be traced.
Two days later, a handwritten note was sent to the offices of the Los Angeles Examiner. The note stated:
“Here it is. Turning in Wed, Jan. 29, 10 a.m. Had my fun at [the] police. Black Dahlia Avenger.”
Attached to the note was a location that authorities believed the killer would turn up the date and time listed. The police waited there Jan. 29, but no one had showed. On the same day, the offices of the Los Angeles Examiner received another note around 1 p.m. made of letter clippings from magazines. The letter stated:
“Have changed my mind. You would not give me a square deal. Dahlia killing was justified.”
No other letters have been received following this. Over 60 people confessed to murdering Short, but there was not enough evidence to convict any of them. The killer was never identified and the case was left unsolved.
Many years following the murder, a retired LAPD officer named Steve Hodel claimed his father George Hodel was the Black Dahlia killer. According to Steve, George was a well-known surgeon in Los Angeles at the time of the murder. After George’s death in 1999, Steve found a photo album while rummaging through George’s belongings. The album contained two photographs of a woman that looked to resemble Short. After doing more research, Steve claimed to have found more evidence connecting him to the crime. This includes a receipt made days before the murder for a cement bag that matches the one found near the crime scene.
He also discovered that George’s house was wiretapped by police in 1950 after he was listed as a suspect in the case. At one point, the microphone picked up a strange statement George made during a conversation. A transcript of the audio reported him stating:
“Realizing there was nothing I could do, put a pillow over her head and covered her with a blanket. Get a taxi. Expired 12:57. They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her. Maybe I did kill my secretary.”
At another point, George mentioned the Black Dahlia directly. The transcript read:
“Supposing I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead.”
George’s secretary, Ruth Spalding, was reported to have taken her own life through a drug overdose in 1945, but many people became convinced George killed Spalding after the discovery of the transcripts. Despite the cryptic messages, no arrests were made and police determined George had not murdered anyone.
George has become the most well known suspect in the case and although there appears to be evidence against him, more details would have to be known to establish his involvement. A possible explanation for the strange audio transcripts is that the words were taken out of context, which could explain why the police let George go. Short’s family also later examined the photos found by Steve and concluded that neither of them were of her.
One other suspect is Walter Bayley, a surgeon that lived one block away from where Short was found dead. Bayley’s daughter was reported to be good friends with Short’s older sister Virginia, establishing a connection between the two families. It was also found that the man suffered from a degenerative brain disease known to cause people to become violent. There is, however, no motivation that can be determined for why Bayley would take Short’s life. Bayley died in 1948, one year after the murder took place.
Some people theorize the murder was committed by surrealist artists for a real life version of a game known as the exquisite corpse. The game involves participants taking turns to draw on different segments of a folded piece of paper without revealing to the others what they drew. When everyone has finished, the paper is unfolded to reveal a new collaborative creation. It’s believed a multitude of artists took part in the murder, each making different contributions to the mutilations on Short’s body. This theory also links to George Hodel, who was heavily interested in the surrealist artist movement and allegedly befriended many prominent artists at the time such as Man Ray.
The truth behind the Black Dahlia murder has probably been lost over time and the person who committed the crime is most likely deceased today. Houses now fill the vacant lots of Norton Ave. Pedestrians who walk down the quiet neighborhood may unknowingly walk past the spot she was found, a spot which now lies in the neatly cut grass of someone’s front lawn.