NBC News
updated 12/8/2003 2:37:02 PM ET 2003-12-08T19:37:02

There were thousands of young women like her in Hollywood. There still are. Beautiful, star-struck, dreaming of fame. She did become famous, but for all the wrong reasons. Her unsolved murder became known as the Case of the Black Dahlia, an enduring symbol of Tinseltown’s dark side. Now a retired homicide detective is convinced he has finally cracked the case — though sometimes he may wish he hadn’t. You can read an excerpt from Steve Hodel’s book, “Black Dahlia Avenger,” below.

CHAPTER 1: THE BILTMORE

January 9, 1947

It was mid-week, Thursday evening at 6:30 P.M. There were only a handful of people milling around the Biltmore Hotel lobby, scanning for the bellhops to take them up in the elevators. Few noticed when the strikingly beautiful young woman with swirling jet-black hair was escorted into the lobby by a nervous young red-haired man, who stayed for a while, then said goodbye and left her there. Maybe one or two guests observed the woman as she went up to the front desk, where she begged for attention from an officious young man who avoided her stare until she spoke up. She stood there, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, watching the clerk riffle through a stack of messages below the counter. He shook his head, and the young woman made her way silently across the deep red carpet to the phone booth, as if she’d been through the place a hundred times before. A couple of people turned to look at her when she hung up the receiver with a loud click.

Now, as she stood outside the phone booth, she seemed crestfallen, almost desperate. Or maybe it was fear.

Again she walked over to the desk, then back to the phone booth, endlessly fidgeting with her handbag and looking around as if she were waiting for someone. A date? More people began to notice her. Perhaps she was a newly discovered actress or just another wannabe scratching at the door of fame to get herself in. She didn’t look L.A. Maybe she was from San Francisco. She looked more like Northern California-well dressed, buttoned up, edgy, her fingers twitching nervously inside her snow-white gloves.

Increasingly, people in the lobby couldn’t keep their eyes off her, this woman in the black collarless suit accented by a white fluffy blouse that seemed to caress her long, pale white neck. A striking presence, she looked a lot taller than most of the people in the lobby that night, probably because of the black suede high-heeled shoes she was wearing. She was carrying a warm full-length beige coat, a portent of the approaching January chill that creeps along Wilshire Boulevard from the ocean every night at the leading edge of the raw, swirling fog.

As the lobby began to fill, each man who passed her, seeing her standing alone with a look of expectation on her face, was sure she was waiting for someone special. Her eyes seemed to widen a bit every time a new guy in a suit came through the door. And each man probably wished in his heart of hearts that he was the Prince Charming she was waiting for that night, probably for a late dinner or dancing at one of the Hollywood clubs.

As time passed, the young woman became increasingly anxious. Where was he? She sat down. She stood up. She paced the lobby. The woman with no name walked over to the check-in clerk at the front desk and had him change her dollar bill to nickels. Again she went into the phone booth and dialed a number, this time more frantically than before as she snapped the rotor with a loud click between each digit. She slammed down the receiver. Still no answer. Where was he? She slumped into one of the lobby easy chairs and nervously thumbed through a magazine without reading. Every ten minutes or so she once again went over and made a phone call. What kind of man could keep such a beauty waiting?

One hour turned into two. If you were watching her face from across the lobby, you would have seen her jaw tighten, her anxiety turn to anger. He was always like that, late when you wanted him to be on time, early when you wanted him to be late. It was all his way. She thought about that afternoon in early December, just a month ago, when he’d told her-ordered her was more like it-to meet him at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles’s grand dame, west of downtown on Wilshire Boulevard. “Meet me for a drink at five,” he had said.

That time he had forced her to suffer through a three-hour wait at the bar. She had sat there spinning on her red barstool, playing with swizzle sticks, nursing her ginger ales and Cokes, and batting away the advances of seven men, from the twenty-three-year-old bartender to the wealthy real estate broker in his seventies with a Palm Springs tan that made his face look like leather. The remaining five guys had thought she was a high-class hooker or possibly a bored housewife, all dressed up and looking for a little fun. She had suffered a sugar high that night, she complained, after all those sodas she had drunk at the bar just waiting for him. When he finally showed, it was without apology. “I was delayed.” Arrogant and simple, just like that. And she took it, too.

That was then. She said to herself she wouldn’t take it again. It was late now, pitch-black outside. The bright lights inside the Biltmore lobby sparkled as if they were still greeting the New Year. The beautiful young woman thought about the past eight months. She had expected them to be great when she came back to L.A. from Massachusetts. She’d marry Lieutenant Right and raise a family. But it didn’t happen that way.

Then things got worse and she was becoming afraid. Maybe the New Year would bring her better luck.

She dropped another nickel into the payphone and redialed the office number just a few short blocks from where she stood. Finally he picked up. “Yes, I’m here,” she said with a show of irritation. “At the Biltmore. I’ve been waiting well over two hours. Yes, all right, I’m on my way.” She hung up, and her demeanor immediately changed. She was radiant.

She walked east through the lobby, stopping first at the concierge desk to look at the large calendar, next at the front desk where she’d checked for messages when she came in, and then down the interior steps toward the Olive Street entrance. The doorman held open the large, ornately designed glass doors for her, and she stepped out into the chill darkness of a California midwinter’s night. She turned back one last time toward the hotel, noticed her reflection in the glass door, and straightened the large flower that shone like a white diamond pinned atop her thick black swept-back hair. She paused briefly to straighten it, smiled at the onlookers who stared at her from inside the glass divide, and then turned south, walking toward 6th Street into the deepening fog that curled around her like smoke, making it seem as if she were disappearing into the night. The darkness had a life of its own, folding her into itself.

CHAPTER 2: JANE DOE NUMBER 1

Dahlia: From the family Asteraceae, bred as an ornamental flower whose leaves are often segmented, toothed, or cut.

The morning of January 15, 1947, was especially cool and overcast for Los Angeles. At about 10:30 A.M., a woman walking with her young daughter caught a glimpse of white flesh through a clump of brown grass in a vacant lot. She turned and saw what she figured was a body lying right there in the dirt, just a few inches from the sidewalk’s edge. She ran to a nearby home and called the University Division police station.

Even though the communications officer on the other end of the line tried to get her name, in her excitement the woman never gave it, so dispatch assigned the call to a patrol unit as a “possible 390 down in the lot at 39th and Norton Avenue.” A 390 is a stuporous drunk. Nobody knew yet that they were dealing with a corpse. The lot in question was in the Leimert Park section of Los Angeles, a middle-class, residential neighborhood west of downtown in LAPD’s University Division. The glamour world of Hollywood lay just five miles to the north, a short ten-minute drive away.

When the call went out, it wasn’t just to the patrol unit ordered to respond, it was also to a whole cadre of newspaper reporters cruising their beats, with police radios in their cars crackling out cryptic messages to LAPD patrol units. In 1947 it was as common for the newspaper reporters to monitor the police and fire radio bands on receivers hanging under the dashboards in their private cars as it is for today’s reporters to carry handheld digital scanners on their belt clips. If you were a reporter working an L.A. beat in the 1940s you bought the most powerful police radio you could find and the longest whip antenna for your car, in the hope of being the first at a crime, fire, disaster, or any other newsworthy event. Even reporters working for the same paper raced one another to a location at the mere scent of a possible story, because a byline for a reporter meant ownership. And that, too, hasn’t changed since the 1940s.

Los Angeles Examiner reporter Will Fowler, son of the famous writer Gene Fowler, and his photographer partner Felix Paegel caught the call from University Division dispatch just as it was broadcast over the police radio and were the first to arrive at the scene. Before any police officers pulled up and posted men to guard the crime scene, Fowler and Paegel were standing there, two eyewitnesses gaping not at a drunken man but at a naked corpse lying spread-eagled in the grass. Fowler later described what he had seen that morning in his book Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman: Then an ivory-white thing caught my eye. “There she is,” I said. “It’s a body all right.”

There’s something about a dead body you couldn’t mistake. I approached it like I half-expected it to jump up and run after me.

As I got closer, I called back to Paegel, who was pulling his Speed Graphic from the car trunk: “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”

It’s difficult to describe two parts of a body as being one. However, both halves were facing upward. Her arms were extended above her head. Her translucent blue eyes were only half-opened so I closed her eyelids.

As Fowler knelt over the dead woman in the moments before the police arrived, he could see that her fingernails had been poorly cared for, and her chestnut hair, as it appeared from the roots, had been dyed jet black. He also could see that the woman’s lower thoracic vertebrae had been neatly severed-not sawed-because he could see no evidence of bone granules at the separation.

Paegel began documenting the crime scene itself, taking a shot of the body in the barren field and another of Fowler, all alone, stooping beside the body. The photos, which would be published later that same day in the Los Angeles Examiner, were retouched by the photo artist, because the editors wanted to spare their readers the shock of the grisly brutality of the victim’s condition. The photo artist covered up the lower part of the woman’s body with an airbrushed blanket. He also concealed the gruesome facial wounds the victim displayed by removing the deep slashes on either side of her mouth.

While Paegel was shooting his photographs, the first black-and-white arrived at the scene. The two uniformed officers approached Fowler, not knowing at first who he was, until he showed them his police ID. One of the cops had already pulled out his gun. As more units arrived, Fowler left the scene for a phone booth to call in the story to his city editor, James Richardson. When Richardson heard the victim had been cut in half, he ordered Fowler back to the office right away with the negatives. The photo was quickly processed, and Richardson made the decision to beat the other afternoon papers with an “extra” that he got out onto the street even as Fowler returned to the crime scene for a follow-up.

By now the scene was alive with other reporters, more police units, and detectives who had positioned the uniformed cops and some of the reporters into a human strip of crime-scene tape. Word had spread over the police radios that a woman had been murdered, cut in half, and dumped. That brought an onslaught of reporters, elbowing their way past one another for a closer look at the body. By the time the two crack homicide detectives Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, who had been assigned to the case by Captain Jack Donahoe, arrived at the scene, not only did they have to contend with the groups of reporters and photographers, but also with uniformed officers from the divisions adjacent to the University Division in whose jurisdiction the responsibility for the case belonged.

The crime scene remained open to the press, with photographers free to roam at will for the best shots. Today a crime-scene investigator would never permit the press to trample on what might be evidence and photograph a murder victim lying in the open. But conditions were very different in 1947 Los Angeles. Police and press were interdependent, and in a sense were very real partners. Most reporters carried police badges and often impersonated detectives to get the real stories any way they could. The press needed the power and the doors that were opened by carrying a badge, and the police needed the press to make them look and sound good, even when they screwed up. Before the days of access journalism and a hostile media, reporters and the police in 1947 Los Angeles formed a mutual admiration society.

Whenever investigating detectives asked the press to hold back certain information they didn’t want made public, editors and reporters would almost always comply. When a well-connected reporter asked for certain confidential information from the police on a person for a story he or she was working on, the reporter would usually get it. In such a quid pro quo world you broke the rules at your own peril. In this case, the crime-scene photographs of the butchered body would be held back from the public by the press for almost four decades until, it seemed, nobody cared anymore, and the graphic untouched images of the victim’s body finally found their way into print. The first public display of these photographs of which I’m aware was in Kenneth Anger’s book Babylon II, published in 1985. More followed, six years later, in Will Fowler’s Reporters, showing the body at different angles and with longer perspectives.

The photographs from both these books verified for the first time that the body was lying supine, cleanly bisected at the waist. Carefully examining the photographs: the two separated halves lie in close proximity, although the upper torso appears to have been placed asymmetrically, approximately twelve inches above the lower portion and offset to the left by approximately six inches. Both of the victim’s arms are raised above the head, the right arm at a forty-five-degree angle away from the body, then bent at the elbow to form a ninety-degree angle. The left arm extends at a similar angle away from the body, and then bends again to form a second ninety-degree angle that parallels the body. This was no normal “dumping” of a victim to get rid of a corpse quickly. In fact, the body had been carefully posed, just six inches from the sidewalk, at a location where the victim was certain to be discovered, to create a shocking scene.

This kind of cold and conscious act was exceptionally rare in 1947. According to criminal researchers, it occurs in less than one percent of all homicides even today. Most veteran homicide investigators, even those who’ve been involved with hundreds of murder cases, never see an instance where the body is posed the way the Black Dahlia was that January morning.

As reporters arrived and left and more police units reported in, detectives and forensic crews continued to collect whatever physical evidence they could find. Among the pieces of evidence they retrieved was a paper cement bag with small traces of what appeared to be water-diluted blood on it. This bag, clearly visible in the photographs, was lying just six inches above the victim’s outstretched right hand, and one detective speculated that it had been used to carry the two sections of the body from a parked car at sidewalk’s edge to the grassy lot.

Police noted a vehicle’s tire prints at the curb’s edge, close to the body. There was also a bloody heel print from what was believed to be a man’s shoe. Later newspaper reports revealed that these two important pieces of evidence were not secured or photographed by the on-scene detectives.

Detectives Hansen and Brown quickly determined that, due to the absence of any blood at the scene, the killer had committed the crime elsewhere, then transported both halves of the body to the empty lot on Norton. No identification was found at the location and the victim was initially listed as “Jane Doe Number 1.”

The Los Angeles newspapers were already running wild with the story when, the following morning, Dr. Frederic Newbarr, then chief autopsy surgeon for the County of Los Angeles, performed the autopsy. His findings showed the cause of death to be “hemorrhage and shock from a concussion of the brain and lacerations of her face.” He determined further that “the trauma to the head and face were the result of multiple blows using a blunt instrument.”

It was clear to the medical examiner that not only had her body been neatly and cleanly bisected, but that a sharp, thin-bladed instrument, consistent with a surgeon’s scalpel, had been used to perform the operation. The incision was performed through the abdomen, and then through the intervertebral disk between the second and third lumbar vertebrae. The bisection had been carried out with such precision that it was apparent it was the work of a professional, someone trained in surgical procedures. Police criminologist Ray Pinker confirmed the medical examiner’s opinion, and later his findings were confirmed after a study he made with Dr. LeMoyne Snyder of the Michigan State Police.

Dr. Newbarr’s preliminary estimate set the time of death within a twenty-four-hour period prior to the discovery of the body, thus establishing the time of the murder as sometime after 10:00 A.M. on January 14.

But who was the victim?

On January 16, 1947, the Los Angeles Examiner offered this questionnaire:

Description of Dead Girl Given

Do you know a missing girl who chewed her fingernails?
If so she may be the victim of yesterday’s mutilation slaying.
The dead girl’s description:
Age-Between 15 and 16 years.
Weight-118 pounds.
Eyes-Gray-blue or gray-green.
Nose-Small turned up.
Ears-Small lobes.
Eyelashes-Virtually colorless.
Hair-Hennaed, but original dark brown growing out.
Foot size-6-1/2.
Toenails-Enameled pink.
Scars-3-1/2 inch operational scar on right side of back: 1-1/2 inch scar on right abdomen, possible appendectomy; vaccination scar, left thigh; small scar on left knee and another above the knee.
Moles-Six small moles on back of neck below collar line; another in small of back.
General description-Rather well developed, small bones with trim legs.

Scrambling for any piece of the puzzle that would allow the winner of the who-is-Jane-Doe-Number-1 contest to emblazon the victim’s name in a full-page headline, the city editor of the Los Angeles Examiner suddenly had an idea. In a meeting with LAPD detectives, he made an offer that was immediately accepted-to transmit the fingerprints of Jane Doe Number 1 via an early photo facsimile machine called a “Soundex” through their proprietary communications network to their Washington, D.C., bureau. Reporters in the D.C. office had FBI agents standing by to transport the fingerprints immediately to their records section for identification. That the city editor’s motive was to be the first one on the street to carry her identity didn’t matter, for the detectives were as hungry for information as the press.

A memo to J. Edgar Hoover, dated June 24, 1947, and now available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, identifying Jane Doe Number 1, speaks for itself:

FBI MEMO

I. I #590

June 24, 1947

SOUND-PHOTO TRANSMISSION OF FINGERPRINTS LEADS TO IDENTITY OF ELIZABETH SHORT

During January, 1947, the police in a Southern California city were not only confronted with the problem of solving mad butcher murders of women, but in the first instance were many times unable to determine the identity of the victims.

When the body of a young woman, severed at the waist and mutilated in other ways, was found in a vacant lot in Southwestern Los Angeles on the morning of January 15, 1947, they were again confronted with this problem. It appeared she had been dead about ten hours and the body had been placed in full view only a few feet from the sidewalk. The authorities were practically at a standstill in their investigation until the deceased victim could be identified.

The fingerprints of the body were taken by the police, who then sought the cooperation of the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper to transmit the fingerprints by wire photo to the FBI Identification Division in Washington, D.C. Eliciting the aid of the International News Service, the newspaper transmitted the prints to its Washington headquarters. At 11 a.m. on January 16 the pictures were received by the Identification Division. Within 56 minutes an identification was established with two fingerprint cards previously on file bearing the name of Elizabeth Short.

Despite the fact that two of the impressions were missing entirely and three others were badly blurred, FBI fingerprint technicians were able to make an identification by searching all possible fingerprint combinations. At this time there were approximately 104,000,000 fingerprint cards on file.

One of the fingerprint cards submitted and identified as that of Elizabeth Short indicated that Miss Short was an applicant for a position as a clerk in the Post Exchange of Camp Cooke, California, on January 30, 1943. The other set was submitted by the Santa Barbara, California, Police Department reflecting her arrest on September 23, 1943, on charges of violating juvenile court laws, after which she was released to the probation department.

The successful use of scientific communications equipment in this case was referred to by the Director of the FBI as follows: “The action of the Los Angeles Examiner in transmitting to the FBI the fingerprints of the unidentified murder victim is an excellent illustration of the cooperation of the press with law enforcement, and it is such cooperation that aids law enforcement in curbing the increase in crime.”

As the FBI memo indicates, within hours of the transmission the victim’s prints were connected to an arrest in Santa Barbara, a coastal community some ninety miles north of Los Angeles, where three years earlier in September 1943 the victim had been detained as a minor for being present with adults where alcohol was being served. That arrest report provided Los Angeles police with the necessary information about her identity and background.

Her name was Elizabeth Short. The Santa Barbara police report from 1943 described her as a female, Caucasian, born July 29, 1924. Her mother, Mrs. Phoebe Short, resided in Medford, Massachusetts. As a result of the records the LAPD assembled, detectives were able to establish a background and history on the victim prior to her arrival in California.

They learned that Elizabeth was born in Hyde Park, a suburb of Boston, and grew up in nearby Medford. Her mother was the sole provider for Elizabeth and her four sisters after their father, Cleo Short, abandoned the family in 1930 and eventually wound up working and living in Southern California. Elizabeth was exceptionally attractive and well liked at Medford High School, but she dropped out in her sophomore year and in 1942 moved to Miami Beach, Florida, where she got a job as a waitress.

It was in Miami, on her own for probably the first time, that she met a Flying Tigers pilot named Major Matt Gordon Jr., who was stationed there. He was shortly sent overseas, and Elizabeth began to correspond with him, reportedly sending him twenty-seven letters in eleven days.

In January 1943, Elizabeth traveled to Santa Barbara, California, where she applied for and was hired at the post exchange at the Camp Cooke military base. Her employment there was brief, after which she left to seek her father, who, she discovered, was living close by, in Vallejo, California. She stayed with her father briefly, but both were uncomfortable with the living arrangements, and she returned to Santa Barbara in September 1943.

Elizabeth liked servicemen and wanted to be around them. Her attraction to men in uniform was clear both from her relationship with Major Gordon and her desire to attend nightspots and clubs frequented by military personnel. It was in such a nightspot that she was arrested on September 23, 1943, because alcohol was being served there and she was only nineteen, in violation of California’s liquor law. When she agreed to return home rather than face charges in California, Santa Barbara County probation authorities provided her with a ticket to return home to Medford.

During the rest of the war years, Elizabeth continued to write Major Matt Gordon, and in April 1945 he reportedly proposed marriage. Elizabeth accepted, but before Gordon could return home he was killed in a plane crash in India. Elizabeth Short’s marriage plans, and hopes for any future she might have had as an officer’s wife, went down in flames with Major Gordon’s plane.

During the winter of 1945, Elizabeth remained on the East Coast, and again traveled to Florida, where she took a job as a waitress in Miami Beach. In February 1946, she returned home to Medford and worked as a cashier at a local movie theater, but on April 17, 1946, returned to California, this time to Hollywood. During the nine-month period preceding her death, Elizabeth was known to have lived as a transient at various boarding houses and with a variety of roommates. She stayed at a hotel in Long Beach for several weeks during the summer months and then returned to Hollywood, where she first shared a room in a private residence, then lived in an apartment with seven other young women. She also shared rooms at several hotels in Hollywood for brief periods. In December she left for San Diego and returned to Los Angeles on January 9, 1947. That was the night she disappeared into the fog after leaving the Olive Street entrance of the Biltmore Hotel.

Subsequent to the discovery of the victim’s body, and after many of the descriptive details from the autopsy findings were leaked to the press, not only Los Angeles but the entire country became obsessed with Elizabeth Short’s murder. Before the age of the Internet, twenty-four-hour-cable news networks, or television, much of the interest in a mysterious, beautiful murder victim was driven by page-one newspaper headlines and radio announcers. Feeding the public’s intoxication with the victim was her sobriquet “the Black Dahlia,” which reporters claimed was given her by the men and sailors who saw the attractive black-haired young woman frequent their favorite pharmacy soda fountain in Long Beach. Along with this name the newspapers printed blown up high-school photos of the exotic young woman. This, combined with the horrific details of sadistic torture, bisection, and mutilation, fed the macabre imaginations of newspaper readers from coast to coast.

The ongoing murder investigation remained on page one of the Los Angeles newspapers for a record thirty-one successive days. The January 16 first-day edition sold more newspapers than any other edition in the history of the Los Angeles Examiner, with the sole exception of VE Day. This Los Angeles frenzy was also driven by the fierce competition among the six newspapers in the city, as the Hearst syndicate, which owned the Examiner and the Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express, vied with the Chandler empire, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and its tabloid the Los Angeles Mirror. Most rounds went to the Los Angeles Examiner, whose night city editor had sent the victim’s fingerprints to the FBI for quick identification, thus gaining initial favor with LAPD and the investigating detectives.

In truth, the crime reporters were usually way ahead of the detectives, especially when it came to locating and interviewing witnesses. They didn’t punch the time clock at five o’clock, but kept on working until they had the story. Reporters also worked for newspaper owners who had deep pockets and paid whatever it took to get a big story on the streets first. If it meant paying cash to help out a witness who was going through a rough patch, a reporter could always get the money. Then, after he’d called in the story, he’d turn over what he had learned to his friendly detective on the force. Thus both the police and the press had the power to get things done for each other. For the most part they tried to share their findings, but ultimately it was an uneasy partnership.

All of these factors were at work in the Black Dahlia case, to such an extent that the reporting of and publicity about her murder were unparalleled in Los Angeles history. Even the Lindbergh kidnapping or the Leopold and Loeb murder trials had not taken up as much local media space. The public was so voracious for any news that reporters spread out across the nation for background on Elizabeth Short. They located and interviewed her family, close friends and acquaintances, roommates and classmates, ex-lovers, and military men. With few exceptions, almost every detail these crime reporters discovered through their independent investigations, no matter how irrelevant, turned up in print the next day and helped keep the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite fed.

After a full month of daily headlines, the Dahlia homicide had found its place as the most notorious unsolved murder of the century.

Excerpted from “Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story” by Steve Hodel. Copyright © 2003 by Steve Hodel. Published by Arcade Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.

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