Her name was Elizabeth Short…

At 11:47 pm on January 14, 2019, I parked my black Accord on Salem Street, in front of the ironically-named Brookline Bank; behind where I sat was the rotary where one accesses I-93 from MA-60—or continues along MA-60 into Medford Center. The drive from Brookline, including stops at an ATM and my old Star Market in North Cambridge (which, I was heartbroken to learn, is no longer open 24 hours[1]) had taken less time than I had anticipated.

I wanted to perform my modest version of The Poe Toaster’s ritual precisely at midnight, so I sat quietly in the darkened car for about eight minutes. At around 11:55 pm, I grabbed the plastic-wrapped bundle on the seat next to me, braced myself against the cold, and exited the car. After briskly walking to the other side of Salem Street, I stopped at the large black metal trash bin on the sidewalk in front of Nunzio’s Upholstery to strip the plastic wrap and rubber bands off my bundle.

Turning toward the rotary, I crossed a narrow side street and continued walking along the sidewalk past a small parking lot and a two-story red brick apartment building. Just beyond its entrance lay a narrow patch of grass; it separates the sidewalk from the cul-de-sac ending Fountain Street.

Toward the end of this narrow strip of grass stands a piece of rock, less than a yard high. I arrived at this rock with three minutes to spare, so I tried to read the plaque embedded in the side of the rock facing the street. I need not have bothered, since I had read it maybe half a dozen times before.

At the moment my iPhone switched from “11:59” to “12:00,” I knelt down and carefully arranged the bundle of white flowers I had bought at the Star Market along the base of the memorial. I was greatly heartened to see that others had recently left fresh flowers as well.

I then took two photographs with my iPhone. This is the second one; I like the effect of the flash reflecting off the metal and stone.

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And then I stood quietly, remembering why I was dropping off these flowers for the fourth year in a row (as I previously described here).

On the 72nd anniversary of the discovery of her body in an empty, grassy lot in Los Angeles, I wanted to honor Elizabeth Short, whose last home in Medford had stood about where the rotary is now, as a real human being, a naïve and imperfect 22-year-old dreamer who simply wanted to make it in Hollywood.

“The Black Dahlia” was an ingenious nickname, nothing more.

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I wrote about this ritual last April in the context of finding a photograph of a key suspect/witness in her slaying, Robert “Red” Manley, on the same page of the January 21, 1947 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer as a story about the Dock Street strikes in Philadelphia; Herman Modell, the lawyer who arranged my adoption, represented some of the strikers.

When I think of the investigation of Elizabeth Short’s murder, one thing that comes to mind is a wide range of lurid headlines from the Los Angeles newspapers, notably the Herald and the Examiner.

Having spent much of the last 18 months immersed in online editions of the Inquirer, thanks to the indispensable Newspapers.com, I was curious to see how they covered the murder of Elizabeth Short; it was hardly a local case. This curiosity was greatly inspired by my desire for a reliable compendium of primary-source information about the case analogous to The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion.

Limiting myself to the first month (i.e., through February 15, 1947), I quickly learned two things. First, the Inquirer relied upon the wire service United Press Associations (UP) for their Elizabeth Short stories; presumably, this meant that only the “key” facts were being reported. The one exception was “Special to the Inquirer” coverage of the “confession” of a corporal named Joseph Dumais, stationed at Fort Dix, NJ, just 38 miles northeast of Philadelphia. The other thing I learned is that this was enough of a national story to regularly merit coverage on page 3, and occasionally on page 1.

Here then are those 19 articles, presented in chronological order (with brief commentary). Read in order, they reveal how the case unfolded in real time—and how quickly the lack of genuine clues and likely suspects manifested itself.

The case first appeared on page 3 of the January 16, 1947 edition. And I cannot imagine the UPI (United Press International, following the UP’s 1958 merger with International News Service), Associated Press, Reuters or McClatchy using the word “Fiend” in a headline today.

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This is only the first article, and there is already a mistake in reporting. Elizabeth Short’s body was not discovered by “a motorist,” but by a woman named Bette Bersinger, who was walking along the edge of Leimert Park (on South Norton Street) with her young daughter at about 10:30 am PST.

The next day (January 17) brought only a photograph of the victim on page 3, now identified by her fingerprints as Elizabeth Short. She had in fact been born in the Boston neighborhood of Hyde Park (July 1924), although she was raised primarily in the suburb of Medford.

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On January 18, 1947 (page 3), we see the slow building of the mythology that still surrounds Elizabeth Short: the “trail of boy friends,” the “sheer black gowns” and, most importantly, the nickname “Black Dahlia.” The presence of this macabre sobriquet in a wire story only three days after her body was discovered confirms that it was given to her while she was still alive, most likely in a Long Beach drugstore (supposedly in a nod to the 1946 film noir The Blue Dahlia and because of the amount of black clothing she wore and the white flowers she would wear in her hair).

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The story of policewoman McBride (who believes she encountered a frightened Elizabeth Short on the night of January 14—the last of the “missing days” between her last verified sighting on the evening of January 9 and the discovery of her body on the morning of January 15) is an intriguing one—and deeply tragic, if true.

Meanwhile, the UP reporter is apparently confusing Ann Todd with an actress named Ann Toth, who actually was a friend of Elizabeth Short.

This article, finally, gives readers the first hint of a key witness/suspect named “Red,” who sent her a telegram in San Diego (where she had lived since December 1946).

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The first persons to be considered (and rejected) as suspects appear in this page 3 article on page 3 of the second edition of the Sunday morning Inquirer (January 19, 1947). Mrs. Phoebe Short, tricked into giving a reporter information about her daughter through a lie about her winning a beauty pageant, arrives in Los Angeles (where Elizabeth’s married sister Virginia West had recently married). And the hunt for the “handsome red-haired ex-Marine flier” named “Red” continued.

He would be discovered the next day, though he was actually only 25 years old. This story put of the murder of Elizabeth Short on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer for the first time (January 20, 1947).

And here I correct a mistake (as I interrogate my own memory) I made in my April 30, 2018 post: Robert Manley did not turn himself into the police voluntarily. Rather, he “was taken into custody…for questioning,” in that he “was arrested” although “no charges had been filed.”

Manley would later admit that when he first saw Elizabeth Short on a street corner in San Diego (in December 1946, I believe), he had picked her up to test his love for his wife. He would also attempt to sleep with her in the motel (not, as the article says, “hotel”) room they shared on the night of January 8, 1947, but got nowhere. For this intended-if-not-consummated transgression, Robert Manley would be hounded (though not by his forgiving[2] wife Harriette) for the rest of his life: he would be confined to a mental hospital (yes, by his wife) in 1954.

There is a curious slip in this article (and not the mythologizing about her being a “party girl”). Manley and Short were seen “at a drive-in restaurant near San Diego the day before” the latter’s body was discovered in Leimert Park. The waitress who saw them, Jadell Gray, claims to have served the “black-haired, black-clad” girl on the night of January 14—but that makes no sense given the Manley last saw her on the evening of January 9 (as will be established below).

Was it a case of mistaken identity, a misremembering of dates (confusing the night before her disappearance—or some other visit to the restaurant by “Beth”—with the night before the discovery of her body?), or did the UP reporter simply miswrite the date?

Robert Manley’s custody ended after one day, as the full text of the article (back to page 3) accompanying the photograph I first posted in April 2018 reveals. How disappointed must the Los Angeles Police Department have been not to be able to break Manley’s alibi?

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For the first time, we read about (though not by name) the Biltmore Hotel, where Manley dropped Elizabeth Short on the evening of January 9, 1947; this was the last place she was confirmed to have been seen (other than by her killer) alive. We also get the first intimations (whether true or not) of a violently jealous boyfriend.

The humanity of the story, meanwhile, returns with Elizabeth’s mother Phoebe being (understandably) unwilling to view her daughter’s remains unless absolutely necessary.

Four days would pass before the Elizabeth Short murder reappeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer—on the front page, with one heck of a headline.

So far as I know, nothing ever came of the arrest of the 21-year-old 6’1” blonde Caral Marshall and her “male companion.” If anything, the UP buried their lede: the interception of the envelope addressed in cutout letters to the “Los Angeles Examiner and other Los Angeles papers” containing a wide range of Elizabeth Short’s personal belongings (including an address book stamped with the name Mark Hansen). Incidentally, the note actually read, “Here! is ‘Dahlia’s belongings letter to follow.”

One day later (back to page 3), the UP was no longer burying its lede. The receipt of Elizabeth Short’s belongings—and the extraction of usable fingerprints (despite the sender—almost certainly Ms. Short’s killer—having soaked the envelope and its contents in gasoline) was one of the biggest breaks in the investigation. One of the only big breaks, really.

fbi gets prints

 

Of course, they had to drag poor Robert Manley back in to the story (he did identify the shoe—though it was found in a restaurant dumpster, not in the “city dump”) and make sure the readers knew he had “had a few dates with Miss Short shortly before she was killed, but who was absolved of any implication in the crime.”

There was no Inquirer article about the case on January 27, 1947, but on January 28 (page 3), the “Black Dahlia Avenger” makes her/his first appearance—supposedly he would turn himself in to Los Angeles police on the morning of January 29 (exactly two weeks after the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s body).

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S/he never did, as we will see.

A small story appeared on the front page of the January 29, 1947 Inquirer marking an inevitable turn in the investigation: the first of dozens of false confessors turned himself in to the Los Angeles police.

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Even more fake confessors appear in this January 30 article (back to page 3). The focus on the false confessions is telling—little new evidence was emerging.

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The lack of new evidence is also revealed by the fact that the UP did not put out a new wire story relating to the death of Elizabeth Short until February 11, 1947 (and that was about an entirely different murder victim). Or, at least, the Inquirer did not print any UP story during that period.

In the meantime, however, Inquirer reporters had uncovered a possible lead much closer to home—and they broke the story on the front page on February 6, 1947.

While the latter half of this story provides no hard new information, it does tie a black bow around the emerging (and distorted) portrait of “man crazy” Elizabeth Short, based solely on a collection of photographs of men in her album—and the discreet sentence “She never did have a steady job, and made money by a variety of part-time work, including posing for a Hollywood photographer.” I let the probable implications of “posing” speak for themselves.

One day later (back to page 3 again), the “Corporal Joseph Dumais killed the Black Dahlia in an alcoholic blackout” story was already unraveling—and the single clipping in his wallet had become “clippings.”

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The unraveling continued on February 8, 1947 (page 3), with some confusion as to the accuracy of records (this is a military base, mind you—and Dumais was military police) indicating Corporal Dumais had returned to Fort Dix on January 10 (and not left after that—it is a near-certainty Elizabeth Short was still alive on the night of January 14).

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Meanwhile, the casual aside about Elizabeth Short’s “fondness for sheer black lingerie” (did she exhibit her underwear in the Long Beach drug store where the moniker “Black Dahlia” likely originated?) is telling. It is almost as though Elizabeth Short is becoming only a bit player (ironically) in her own murder investigation.

The saga of Corporal Dumais continued on the front page of the February 9, 1947 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, as he had now formally “confessed” to a killing he was supposedly too blackout drunk to remember committing.

And Elizabeth Short is still wearing sheer black undergarments around Long Beach.

Beyond that, however, no new hard evidence is cited in the article…and the story of the “confession” of Corporal Joseph Dumais essentially comes to an end the next day (February 10, 1947), albeit on the front page.

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The UP stories returned to the front page of the Inquirer the next day, but with an entirely new victim: 40-year-old Jeanne (not “Jeane”) T. French, former flight attendant and Army “flying nurse,” whose murder superficially resembled that of Elizabeth Short[3]. The most “tangible” connection were the initials “B.D.” written in lipstick on her body (under an obscene phrase).

Corporal Dumais makes an encore appearance in a three-paragraph article just under the story of Jeanne French. Clearly, the Inquirer was reluctant to let their local connection to the murder of Elizabeth Short go.

A page 3 article on February 12 offers no new evidence in the Elizabeth Short murder investigation.

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And by February 13, 1947, investigators were clearly grasping at straws, as this tale of a 21-year-old Boston parolee named George F. Poleet shows. As in the previous two articles, Elizabeth Short herself barely appears.

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This was the last article about the case—which remains officially unsolved—to appear in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the month after Elizabeth Short’s body was discovered in Leimert Park. I will not speculate here on who killed her, for the simple reason that I have absolutely no idea.

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I offer a brief “mea culpa” postscript to this retelling of the first month of the investigation into the death of Elizabeth Short.

I drive our two daughters to school on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. This past Tuesday, January 15, 2019, was the morning after my ritual drive to the Elizabeth Short marker in Medford. Half-asleep, I was telling the girls in the car about my adventure the previous evening (leaving out the meh slice of pepperoni pizza I bought near Tufts University—most of whose campus is in Medford—after leaving the marker). Forgetting how young our precocious daughters actually are, I let slip some of the details about her murder. When I mentioned she had been bisected (I may have said “cut in half”) our eldest daughter responded “Oooh, really?” with a mixture of disgust and fascination; she does like her murder mysteries. Our youngest daughter said nothing.

I had completely forgotten the conversation until just after 9 pm that night, when the younger daughter emerged from her bedroom crying, though she did not know why. My wife Nell took her back into her bedroom to comfort her.

A few minutes later, Nell called out from her bedroom in her “you’re in trouble, mister” tone of voice. Reluctantly leaving the “A” block of The Rachel Maddow Show playing on our television, I walked into the bedroom.

“Do you want to tell Daddy why you were crying?”

It transpired that she had been lying quietly, thinking about the morning, then remembered the conversation she had overheard in the back seat.

Ooops.

At this the eldest daughter sleepily poked her around the corner to find out what was happening. When told, she worried aloud that SHE would now have nightmares.

Double ooops.

Luckily, neither had any nightmares (though I did awaken the younger daughter a few hours later rearranging the pots and pans in a kitchen cabinet) that night, nor so far tonight.

Fingers crossed.

Until next time…

[1] When I lived just over the line in Somerville from September1989 to February 2001, Porter Square had a 24-hour supermarket, a 24-hour CVS (still there, still open 24/7), a 24-hour White Hen convenience store (long since demolished) and a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts (still there, no longer 24/7). Fin de siècle, indeed.

[2] And, if I may be forgiven a personal note, absolutely beautiful. I have never found Elizabeth Short particularly attractive…but Harriette Manley is another story entirely.

[3] Ms. French was one of a number of female murder victims in Los Angeles spuriously linked to the death of Elizabeth Short, most notably a 20-year-old oil heiress named Georgette Bauerdorff.

6 thoughts on “Her name was Elizabeth Short…

    1. Thank you very much. You will see I have a post on Jack the Ripper as well (these are my two favorite unsolved crimes). If you look on my home page, you will find a link to a page summarizing all of my true crime writing.

      Liked by 1 person

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