On January 15, 1947, a mother and her three year-old daughter were going to a shoe repair shop when they came across a vacant lot. At first glance, there was an object that appeared to be a mannequin due to the pale skin and how still the object was laying. The mother got a weird feeling and was attracted to the object. This object was not a mannequin. It was a corpse. This corpse belonged to Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia. She was cut in half, severely mutilated, nude, and posed. The body was drained of all blood and was scrubbed clean.
Elizabeth Short was born on July 29, 1924 in Hype Park, Massachusetts. Shortly after her birth, her parents moved to Medford, Massachusetts. Cleo Short (her father) `was designing and building miniature golf courses to make his living. In 1929, when the Great Depression hit, he abandoned his wife (Phoebe Short) and his five daughters. Cleo faked his own suicide. He parked his car by a bridge and left it empty leading authorities to believe he died in the river below. Phoebe was left to raise her five daughters on her own during the depression. She worked multiple jobs and received public assistance. One day Phoebe received a letter from Cleo where he says he moved to California but he wants to come back home to his family. Phoebe refused to see him again.
At a young age, Elizabeth had a love for the movie industry. She was told that she looked older than she was and acted mature for her age. Even though she had asthma, Elizabeth was a lively character according to her friends and continued to follow her dreams. Going to the theater to see a new film allowed Elizabeth an escape from her normal, ordinary life.
When moving to California to try and start her career as an actress, Cleo offered her to live with him until she could find a job and get on her feet. She made the move to live with Cleo in early 1943 in Vallejo, California. This was 4 years before her death. Not very long after Elizabeth moved in with Cleo, their relationship began to falter and spiraled out of control. Cleo would scold Elizabeth for being lazy, poor housekeeping, and her dating habits. Elizabeth was kicked out in mid 1943 to live on her own.
Elizabeth applied for a job at the Post Exchange at Camp Cookie to be a cashier. She was immediately noticed for her beauty and she won the title of “Camp Cutie of Camp Cookie”. Even as men drooled over her beauty, she was not an easy woman to get. She was emotionally vulnerable and wanted to have a relationship that was serious and would be sealed in marriage. Eventually, Elizabeth was uncomfortable working at Camp Cookie and left, moving in with one of her friends.
While she was living with this friend, she got in trouble with the law for the first and only time during her life of 22 years. On September 23, 1943, she was at a restaurant with a group of rowdy friends. The owners eventually called the police, and Elizabeth was fingerprinted since she was under the age of 21 while being intoxicated. This was the second time she was finger printed. The first time was when she applied as a clerk at Camp Cookie (she got the job). During this time, only around 100 million fingerprints were in the system. She was never charged for underage drinking. The police officer who took her into the station felt bad for Elizabeth and arranged for her to move back to Massachusetts. It was not long until she returned back to California.
While being in Los Angeles, Elizabeth met a pilot by the name of Gordon Fickling. They fell in love and immediately made plans to get married. These plans were halted when Gordon was shipped off to Europe. She ended up taking modeling jobs, but she still felt discouraged with her dream career of being an actress. She began dating again with marriage in the back of mind. She fell in love with another pilot by the name of Matt Gordon. He promised to marry Elizabeth after he was sent to India. However, Gordon was killed in action. Even though they were never married, Elizabeth told her friends they got married and that their child had died during birth. Once she began to stop mourning, she became herself again, and got back on track for her career.
One of her friends that she told about losing her “husband” was her ex-boyfriend Gordon Fickling. She saw him as a replacement for Matt Gordon and began to write to him and began to fall in love with him once again. She agreed to join him in Long Beach before she eventually moved back to Los Angeles, California.
On December 8, 1946 Elizabeth left Los Angeles and moved to San Diego. Before she left for San Diego, she had been reportedly worried about something and started to act strange. Elizabeth was staying with a friend named Mark Hanson. When he was questioned by Frank Jemison on December 16, 1949, Hanson said “I didn’t see her but she was sitting there one night when I came home, with Ann about 5:30, 6:00 o’clock – sitting and crying and saying she had to get out of there. She was crying about being scared – one thing and another, I don’t know.”
During Elizabeth’s last days of being alive, she continued to party and go on dates. Another man that she fell in love with and went on dates with was Robert “Red” Manley who was a salesman from Los Angeles and had a pregnant wife. Robert admitted he was attracted to Elizabeth but denied ever having any sexual relations with her. One night Elizabeth asked Robert for a ride back home from Hollywood on January 8, 1947, and he agreed. When they got back from the car ride and reached the hotel, Robert slept in the bed and Elizabeth slept on a chair.
Robert had an appointment on the morning of January 9, 1947. Later that day Elizabeth had asked him for a ride. He then proceeded to come back and picked up Elizabeth around noon when she told him she wants to go back home to Massachusetts, but first had to meet her married sister at the Biltamore Hotel back in Hollywood. Robert did not wait for Elizabeth to get finished meeting with her sister because he had an appointment at 6:30 p.m., nor did he wait for her sister to show up. The last time he saw Elizabeth alive, she was making phone calls in the hotel lobby.
Robert and the hotel employees were the last people reportedly to ever see Elizabeth alive. The last thing she was seen wearing was a black suit with no collar, white fluffy blouse, black suede high-heels, nylon stockings, white gloves, and a full-length beige coat. She was also carrying a black plastic handbag in which she kept a black address book. The only person to see her alive after January 9, 1947, was her killer as that was the only thing the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) could tell. She was missing for six days before her dead body was found on January 15, 1947. What happened during those six days, only the killer knows, but the LAPD had an idea.
After the police arrived to the scene, they noticed she was posed. She was laying on her back with her arms raised over her shoulders, and her legs were spread in a disturbing way to show seductiveness. There were cuts and abrasions all over her body, but the most disturbing thing was the cut on her face. The cut extended from ear to ear to make her smile bigger. Investigators believed that Elizabeth was tortured during those six days she was missing. She had rope marks along her wrists, ankles, and neck. No blood was present at the investigation sight. The LAPD believe that Elizabeth was murdered somewhere else, drained of blood, cleaned, and thrown in the vacant lot overnight.
Detective Lieutenant Jesse Hankins described the scene. He stated, “The body was lying face up and the severed part was jogged over about ten inches, the upper half of the body from the lower half… there was a tire track right up against the curbing and there was what appeared to be a possible bloody heel mark in this tire mark; and on the curbing which is very low there was one spot of blood; and there was an empty paper cement sack lying in the driveway and it also had a spot of blood on it… It had been brought there from some other location… The body was clean and appeared to have been washed.”
While they were trying to identify the body of Elizabeth Short, her body was examined in the coroner’s office. The autopsy revealed she had multiple lacerations to the face and head. There was no sperm found on the body since the killer washed her body clean. The cause of her death was hemorrhage and shock.
New articles began to be written about Elizabeth Short. On January 17, 1947, Elizabeth Short was the front page and she was nicknamed the Black Dahlia. She got this nickname because she was most remembered for her black hair, black clothing, and pale skin.
Investigators believed that Elizabeth’s killer was someone she knew personally. They believed this because of the mutilations that were present on her body and the way she was posed after death. John Douglas, who was a FBI criminal profiler and author, believed her killer knew her before hand and wanted to display Elizabeth in public to expose her of the wrongdoings she did to him.
On January 23, 1947, The Examiner (newspaper) received a call from a man who claimed to be Elizabeth Short’s killer. He told editor J.H. Richardson that he was displeased with the way the story was being portrayed in the newspapers. He offered to mail some of Elizabeth Short’s belongings to prove he was the killer. The Examiner did receive a package and letter that was not handwritten. The letter was made out of magazine clippings so there would be no handwriting that could give away his identity. The package that was received included: Elizabeth Short’s birth certificate, business cards, photographs, and an address book that had the name Mark Henson on the cover. Since Elizabeth had stayed with Mark on more than one occasion, he became the prime suspect.
On the same day that The Examiner received this package, Elizabeth Short’s shoes and purse were found in a trash can. This trash can was only a few miles away from where her body was found in the vacant lot. The items were identified by Robert Manley before he was no longer looked at as a suspect from the LAPD. This was a mistake for the killer because it showed that he was in walking distance form the vacant lot to the trash can.
Soon after this, more letters began to be sent. The letters were formulated the same way that the first letter was sent. A quote from one of the letters was, “I will give up in Dahlia killing if I get 10 years. Don’t try to find me.” These letters were viewed as the killer taunting the LAPD. The letters were often found confusing and hard to decipher.
Everything that was sent to the LAPD was covered in gasoline. This included all of Elizabeth Short’s belongings that were sent, from her birth certificate to the photos. Even the letters that were sent in were covered in gasoline. The killer did this because gasoline removed finger prints from objects.
The LAPD was convinced that Elizabeth’s murderer had some form of medical training due to they way she was cut perfectly in half with no major organs being damaged. The University of California gave information to the LAPD regarding who their medical students were. This is proven by a letter that was sent to the FBI on March 6, 1947 which stated, “Reference is made to your letter of February 25, 1947, submitting a list bearing the names of students enrolled in the Medical School of the University of Southern California and requesting that these names be searched through the criminal indices of the Identification Division…”
The first person who was arrested for her murder was not one of these medical students. It was Robert “Red” Manley. Along with the hotel employees, he was the last person to see her alive. He did have an alibi for January 14 and 15 so he was let go.
Since the case was so complex, the LAPD went through 75 suspects by June 1947. By December 1948, the LAPD had a total of 192 suspects. 60 people confessed to killing Elizabeth, but out of the 60, only 22 were considered possible suspects.
Even to this day, no one knows who truly killed Elizabeth Short. The murder of the Black Dahlia will probably remain a cold case.