Who Killed ‘The Black Dahlia’?
The Globe, September 11, 2006
by “Katharine Cummings”
Gruesome murder of sexy wanna-be actress turned into hot new Hollywood crime thriller
For six decades, the gruesome 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short – nicknamed the Black Dahlia –has obsessed crime buffs, and now the most mystifying case in the annals of the Los Angeles Police Department is coming to the Big Screen.
“The Black Dahlia” stars Josh Hartnett as a cop investigating the case, Scarlett Johansson as his love interest, Hilary Swank as the Dahlia’s onetime bisexual lover and Mia Kirshner as the mysterious title character. The movie is based on the novel of the same name by famed crime writer James Ellroy, whose own mother was also a murder victim.
The story remains a haunting whodunit, with a compelling cast of characters including: a handsome gangster, a legendary filmmaker, several Los Angeles physicians and a transient with a criminal past. The Dahlia case has been called America’s Jack the Ripper.
“There aren’t many cases with the mythic quality of the Dahlia,” says the movie’s director, Brian De Palma. “London had Jack the Ripper. America has the Black Dahlia.
“Once you have looked at the (crime scene photos) you never forget the Black Dahlia.”
The mystery began early on Jan. 15, 1947, when a young mother spied what she thought was a department store mannequin in a field of overgrown weeds. It turned out to be the naked body of a woman who had been cut in two.
Bisected with surgical precision, the body had been drained of blood and mutilated. The face was also mutilated, cut from ear to ear, giving the corpse a creepy, unnerving smile.
There were rope marks on the wrists and ankles and other signs of torture. The scene was so shocking that newspaper photographs were doctored to hide the gore.
Identified by fingerprints, the victim was Short, a beautiful, 22-year-old aspiring actress.
At the time, there was a popular movie called “The Blue Dahlia,” starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Short, who sometimes wore a flower in her dark hair, became nicknamed the Black Dahlia.
She has been depicted as both a saint and a sinner. Short knew at least 50 men at the time of her death, but may have been a virgin, according to several authors who claim to have seen autopsy documents. Still others say she was anything but innocent and was frequently spotted on Hollywood Boulevard in the company of servicemen.
In the final weeks of her life, she moved from address to address – 11 in five months – as if she was on the run. She was last seen Jan. 9, 1947, at Los Angeles’ downtown Biltmore Hotel, where she was dropped off by a married traveling salesman, Robert Manley, who was later cleared as a suspect after taking a lie detector test.
In the weeks and months following the gruesome killing, some 50 people came forward to confess to the murder, but were dismissed as kooks. Meanwhile, the killer taunted cops by mailing them some of Short’s belongings – her address book, Social Security card and birth certificate. The killer had soaked the envelope in gasoline, removing all fingerprints.
So, who murdered the Dahlia? Here are some of the shocking scenarios:
• Gangster Bugsy Siegel and the Mob did it. The motive – it’s claimed that Beth Short had become pregnant after a tryst with Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler.
• Los Angeles physician Dr. George Hodel killed her – as well as dozens of other women. That’s the theory of Hodel’s own son, Steve Hodel, a former LAPD homicide cop, who discovered his father’s name in the case file.
• Clues also point to Los Angeles surgeon Dr. Walter Bayley, who lived just a block away from the murder site.
• Petty criminal and drifter Jack Anderson Wilson, a.k.a. Arnold Smith. He’s also linked to the killing of a Los Angeles socialite named Georgette Bauerdorf and the Cleveland “torso” killings of the 1930s.
• Filmmaker Orson Welles was fingered as the killer by Mary Pacios, who knew the teenage Short in Medford, Mass., and pointed out similarities between the murder scene and scenes in Welles’ movie, “The Lady From Shanghai.”
Others in the Dahlia lineup include a popular nightclub owner, Mark Hansen, several boyfriends, a hotel bellhop with uncanny knowledge of the crime, and folksinger Woody Guthrie, who was briefly investigated by cops because of some disturbing letters he sent to another woman.
Whodunit? It’s still a mystery, but cops aren’t giving up.
KATHARINE CUMMINGS is the pseudonym of PAT H. BROESKE