Elizabeth Short was born on July 29th 1924 in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. The family soon moved to Medford, Boston and whilst her father built up a successful business this was cut short by the recession in 1929. Elizabeth’s father faked his own suicide leaving behind a wife and five daughters. Her mother Phoebe was left with the debt and responsibility of bringing up her daughters alone. Years later the father surfaced in California and asked the family to join him. Cleo refused, but Beth remained in contact with her father.
When Beth was older her father invited her to come and live with him in California, until she was able to find a job and support herself. The new arrangements didn’t last long the relationship became strained and her father threw her out. Unfazed by this Beth applied for a job at Camp Cooke. It was not long before the servicemen took notice of her she was a very striking girl with long dark hair. However pressure from the men became a problem and she left.
After living within a girlfriend in Santa Barbara, Beth moved back to Hollywood. At the Hollywood Canteen she met Lieutenant Gordon Fickling. They fell in love and started to plan the marriage. Sadly he was shipped out to Europe and Beth was left on her own. It wasn’t long before she met a new love Major Matt Gordon. He too was to leave but promised to marry her on his return. Beth set about planning the wedding as was very excited about his return. A telegram arrived from Gordon’s mother “Received word war department. Matt killed in plane crash on way home from India. Our deepest sympathy is with you. Pray it isn’t true”
Beth took the news very badly; she went back to her old circle of friends and started to rebuild her life. Known for always dressing in black her friends began to call her “The Black Dahlia”. She continued dating and met a salesman from LA called Red Manley. On January 8th 1947 he picked her up and they went to a hotel room for the night. The next day Beth told him she was meeting her sister at the Baltimore Hotel in Hollywood. He dropped her off and remembers seeing her making a phone call in the lobby. He was to become the last person to see her alive.
On January 15th 1947 a mother and daughter were walking along Norton Avenue, Leimert Park, LA. They were passing by a vacant lot when the mother noticed what looked like a store mannequin broken in half. Upon closer inspection and with horror she realised that what she actually saw was the severed body of a woman.
The first police officers on the scene were Frank Perkins and Will Fitzgerald. What they found was shocking even to the most hardened detectives. The bisected and mutilated body had been carefully posed in an erotic way. Ligature marks round her ankles and wrists indicated that she had been bound for several days. The killer had also cut her mouth from ear to ear in a sickly smile.
The area was soon crawling with reporters and onlookers who were unwittingly destroying the crime scene and any evidence left by the murderer was lost. Beth’s body was taken to the Los Angeles County Morgue. Cause of death was determined as haemorrhage and shock due to concussion of the brain and lacerations to the face.
Red Manley became a prime suspect but was released after he passed two polygraph tests. Several days after the murder a package arrived at the Los Angeles Examiner. The note said “Here are the Dahlia’s belongings - note to follow” Inside the package were Beth’s social security card, Birth certificate, photographs and various business cards. The letter contained no clues as to the identity of the killer.
One possible lead was prompted by Aggie Underwood a crime reporter for the Herald Express. She asked the police to look into the murder of a young girl called Georgette Bauerdorf a few years earlier. She had been severed and left in a bath tub; the two women had known each other from the Hollywood Canteen. Bauerdorf’s family did not want their daughters case reopened and any leads in the murder of Elizabeth Short ended.
In the 1980’s LAPD Investigator John St. John was approached by an informant who claimed to know the identity of the Black Dahlia killer. The suspect turned out to be Arnold Smith AKA Jack Anderson Wilson, who had incidentally been a suspect in the slaying of Georgette Bauerdorf. A meeting was set up between Smith and St. John but tragically Smith died in his hotel room in a fire which burned any evidence and proof of his guilt.
Many people have confessed to the Dahlia killing over the years and there have been numerous theories circulating about her death. In more recent times FBI agent John Douglas has compiled a profile of the killer. He is described as a white male in his 20’s, with a high school education. He would live alone and be comfortable with handling knives, maybe a butcher or slaughterhouse worker. He would be familiar with prostitutes and was a heavy drinker. He may have a personal connection to the neighbourhood where she was dumped and may also have taken a trophy after the killing.
Several books have been written about the case. The most revered and accurate being Severed by John Gilmore. Two books have been written where by the author claims that their father killed Beth. Most recent one being Daddy was the Black Dahlia Killer by Janice Knowlton. She claims that repressed memories have surfaced about an abused childhood and is convinced that her father killed Beth. There is no evidence to prove her story.
Follow up -
The Black Dahlia case remains one of the most famous unsolved crimes of the century. There are many website's dedicated to the story and many ideas and theories will keep the fascination surrounding the mystery alive for many years to come.