True Crime: The Black Dahlia

A World-Famous Case
Before we begin, I must warn you that not only is this case world famous, but incredibly graphic in nature. You’ve probably read the case introduction in the paper, and now it’s time to delve into the theories of the case. Again, I need to warn you of the graphic content ahead. Are you ready?

The Victim
The victim in this devastating case is a young woman known as Elizabeth Short and her body was found on a vacant lot on the west side of South Norton Avenue.  That’s the basics of the case. Short was a waitress at the time and hoping for a ‘big break’ into the acting world. Technically she did get her ‘big break’ and did become famous; however, not for the reasons you would ever want to be famous for. Her official cause of death was by haemorrhage and shock due to the injuries to the face and concussion of the brain.

How Did She Die?

Warning: Graphic Content Ahead
As mentioned above, Short died due to haemorrhage and shock caused by a concussion to the brain and lacerations of the face. The laceration measured 4.25 inches in length (10.7cm for the metric fans out there), running from the belly button to the pubic area.  As a result, the exposure of fat and tissue matter were found in the area in the autopsy. Other lacerations were found on her mid-forehead, right forehead and the top of the head, creating a gruesome kill.

Furthermore, another laceration was found stretching from the corners of her lips out towards her ears, resembling the Joker’s scars in The Dark Knight. Her body was also discovered cut in half below her ribcage with most internal organs intact as well as being drained of blood, giving an almost mannequin-like appearance. I won’t go into any more explicit detail but if you would like to see more about the autopsy report from the case, you can check out the link below:

Her Killer
The Black Dahlia killer is one of a rare variety; a sadistic sexual killer. It’s believed that this type of killer obtains a form of sexual excitement and satisfaction from inflicting psychological and/or physical suffering, eventually leading to death. Even the disposal of her body was not done in the fashion of a ‘normal’ murderer.  It’s quite common for a killer to dispose of the victim in such a way that would delay or even prevent discovery of the body, therefore, delaying or preventing arrest and prosecution. However, this time the body was left at the front of a vacant lot where it would most definitely be found, which, in a rather sadistic simile, is much like a child proudly displaying their work to their parent.

It is also thought that the killer held Elizabeth Short captive for up to five days, keeping her imprisoned until her death. Two to three of those days were, suggestedly, made up of unrelenting torture followed by her murder, the draining of her blood and removal of organs before finally dumping her where she was then later found.

So surely there would be a lot of evidence for a crime so messy, right? Lets take a look.

The Evidence
-Letters being sent to the local papers.
-Short’s belongings also being posted in.
-A photograph, resembling Elizabeth, though not confirmed, was found in suspect Hodel’s house.

The Timeline

July 29, 1924- Elizabeth Short is born in Hyde Park, Massachusetts

Early 1943- She moved to California to live with Cleo Short

Mid 1943- She moves again, this time to Los Angeles

September 23, 1943- She was arrested for underage drinking in Santa Barbara

May-October 1946- She lives with Mark Hanson in his home

July 1946- She returns to South California

December 8, 1946- She moves to San Diego where she meets and lives with Dorothy French

January 8, 1947- Robert Manley picks her up from Dorothy French’s home

January 9, 1947- Dropped off at Biltmore Hotel in LA and was last seen alive here

January 15, 1947- Elizabeth Short’s body is found on a vacant lot in LA

January 17, 1947- Short’s photo first appears on the front page of the Herald Express and is the first instance of the case being referred to as the ‘Black Dahlia’; a play on the name from the movie Blue Dahlia. The case was previously referred to as the ‘Werewolf Murder’ due to the condition of the victim.

January 23, 1947- The Herald Express was called, supposedly, by the killer. Apparently, he didn’t approve of the press coverage and would send Short’s belongings.

January 24, 1947- An examiner from The Herald Express receives a box containing her birth certificate, business cards, photos and address book. Her handbag and shoe were found in the trash a few miles from the lot where she was found.

February 25, 1947- LAPD sends a letter to the FBI requesting them to consider medical students studying at nearby universities at the time of the murder.

June 1947- LAPD has now processed and eliminates over 75 suspects

December 1948- LAPD has now considered over 192 suspects in the case

Spring of 1947– this is when the case became a cold case.

Early 1949- A grand jury is convened to discuss the suspects and corruption in the case

It’s also important to note that corruption levels were high within the LAPD at this point in history during the reform of the police force issued by Mayor Frank Shaw. Officers were accused of incompetence and, in some cases, were being paid off and making the case even harder to solve.

The Suspects
Over 60 suspects confessed to the murder of Elizabeth Short, but only 25 were viable suspects. Hundreds of people were initially considered suspects throughout the case and, as a result, thousands were interviewed throughout the investigation. However, three people stood out throughout the investigation, according to popular theories:

  •        Mark Hansen
  •        George Hodel
  •        Walter Bayley

The Theories

The Walter Bayley Theory
The theory of Walter Bayley was devised by Larry Harnisch, an LA Times copy editor. Harnisch consulted a retired FBI profiler who advised him that the public location where the body was displayed was rather significant. Instead of using a remote location, ultimately delaying the discovery of the body, the site itself was found to be just a block away from Walter Bayley’s house. This would mean that it would be quite easy for Bayley to dump the body without having to travel very far.

The motive, it would seem, is an interesting one. It was brought to light that the facial lacerations indicated a personal anger towards the victim. It’s theorised that this anger could have possibly come from Short falsely claiming to have a son who died tragically. Bayley had a son who died tragically at eleven from being struck by a car and as such could hypothetically have been angered by the tale and triggering feels of mourning within Bayley.  His son’s birthday was the 13th January and would coincide with the finding of Short’s body on the 15th January.

‘So how did Bayley know Short?’ I hear you ask.

Bayley’s daughter was a good friend of Elizabeth Short’s sister and had even been the matron of honour at their wedding. Despite this, Bayley claimed to have never met or known Elizabeth.  He didn’t have a known history of violence nor criminal activity, leaving him to not be suspected for the Black Dahlia case. Although he was never considered a suspect during the case, this didn’t stop him from being in many theories, mainly because of his medical knowledge and distant (perhaps even non-existent)  relationship with Short.

It was also revealed that Bayley suffered from a neurodegenerative condition, which would eventually lead to death by natural causes but was known to cause violent behaviour even in the most passive of individuals. In addition, Bayley was a surgeon with specialisms including mastectomies, hysterectomies and the removal of fat, which would give him the knowledge needed to commit the acts upon the victim. Although his condition would make him most likely physically incapable to commit the murder- it can also be theorised that she was cut in half as a method to make it easier to transport her body rather than a sadistic act upon her body after death.

With the ease of transporting Short’s body (a sentence I would never have expected to type until now), it could indeed be theorised that Bayley is a plausible suspect.

The Mark Hansen Theory
This theory relates to the plausibility of Mark Hansen being the killer of Elizabeth Short. Hansen remained a prime suspect in the case as late as 1951 and was also linked to three other suspects during the case. No charges were ever brought against him and he died of natural causes in 1964. However, on several occasions throughout May to October in 1946, Elizabeth stayed in Hansen’s home, located near the nightclub he also owned. Short would often share a room with Hansen ’s girlfriend, Ann Toth. The address book that was posted to the examiner from The Herald Express would be found to be embossed with Hansen’s name. That being said, Short used the address book herself as Hansen never used it. This seems rather strange for Short to have something which belonged to her despite having somebody else’s name on it with very few people knowing of Hansen’s address book belonging to Short.

Sounds confusing? You’re absolutely right. Furthermore, it’s believed that Hansen attempted to seduce Short but was rejected, which would present a possible motive. Again, much like Bayley, Hansen had no criminal record and no known history of violence, making Hansen still seem like a plausible suspect, but an unlikely one.

The George Hodel Theory
The final theory discusses suspect George Hodel. Created by researchers, a file found in police vaults and even Hodel’s own son, this theory is one of the most popular theories around the case.

Hodel first came under suspicion of murder in 1945 when his secretary suddenly died of a drug overdose. It was initially believed that her death was to cover up financial fraud, with an example being Hodel charging patients for tests that he simply didn’t perform. Hodel’s medical degree also aroused suspicion, as it was believed that a certain level of surgical due to the precision of the separation of Short’s body. In 1950 it was revealed that a file contained Hodel being the prime suspect of the Black Dahlia case and was discovered in police vaults. This file included transcripts from bugs placed inside his home which included Hodel discussing performing abortions -an illegal action at the time-, and paying off law enforcement. On top of this, Hodel even implying his possible involvement in the deaths of both his secretary and Elizabeth Short.

It was the statement below that was particularly damning:

“Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They can’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead. They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her. Maybe I did kill my secretary.”

This transcript seemingly incriminates him for both the murder of Elizabeth Short and his secretary.

Throughout the investigation towards Hodel, Lt. Jemison had gathered enough evidence by April 1950 to arrest George Hodel but he had fled the country to an unknown location in Asia. This would appear as suspicious behaviour to flee the country at around the same time that his arrest was to take place, and by doing so would escape justice and conviction.  After he died in 1999, his son, Steve Hodel, found a photo album containing the photo of a dark-haired woman he believed to have a remarkable resemblance to Elizabeth Short and then led Steve Hodel to believe his father had indeed killed Elizabeth Short. He also began to suspect that his father had killed more than once, and even believes that George Hodel was the lipstick killer of the 1940’s, and even the Zodiac killer of the 1960’s.

At the time of the Black Dahlia murder, George Hodel lived in the famous Sowden House which he had bought. Some researchers argue that the Sowden house is where Short was held and killed. Steve Hodel, many years later, brought a police cadaver dog, as well as performed some soil analysis tests from the Sowden house, which identified the presence of human remains at Sowden House. In addition, it’s also believed that George tortured and then killed Elizabeth inside the house, and, using his medical knowledge, transported her body to the vacant lot using empty cement bags.

Despite these theories, the case remains a cold case to this day. I firmly believe in the George Hodel theory due to the apparent evidence and Hodel’s surgical ability, but nobody really knows who the true killer of Elizabeth Short is.

This then raises the ultimate question:

Can You Solve It?

Have your own theory of what may have happened? We’d love to hear it! Feel free to send us your own theories of the case:

by Becky Barnfather


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