Haunting images and details of death
Elizabeth Short was the first to fictionalize her life, inventing stories about herself years before the first novel about her was written and the first movie was filmed. What is the truth, as much as we can know 59 years later?
What was her name?
Her birth name was Elizabeth Short, and she experimented with Betty, Bette and Beth. A 1971 feature in The Times’ West magazine erroneously gave her the middle name Ann, which has since become embedded in the myths, reference books and her FBI file.
Why was she called the Black Dahlia?
The Dahlia nickname originated in the summer of 1946 at Lander’s Drugstore at 1st Street and Linden Avenue in Long Beach as a joke among customers referring to the then-current movie “The Blue Dahlia,” because of Elizabeth Short’s sheer, black clothing and jet-black hair.
Los Angeles newspapers of the 1940s, especially the afternoon Herald-Express, frequently nicknamed the more gruesome murders of women, often after flowers. For example, there was the Red Hibiscus Murder and the White Gardenia Murder. The Herald nicknamed Elizabeth Short’s killing the Werewolf Murder before dropping it in favor of the Black Dahlia.
Many claims were made as to which reporter discovered the Dahlia nickname: Bevo Means or Agness “Aggie” Underwood of the Herald, or Jack Smith of the old Daily News. All three apparently got it within hours of one another, because “Black Dahlia” appeared in both papers Jan. 17, 1947, two days after the body was found.
Why is the case so famous?
The killing has remained notorious not for one reason but for many: There were other mutilation murders, there were other murders of attractive women, other murders with nicknames and other murders that remained unsolved. The Elizabeth Short case is the only one that encompassed all those elements: The gruesome, unsolved murder of an attractive victim with a haunting nickname.
Who killed her?
Many men and several women confessed to the crime. All were conclusively eliminated after extended questioning. We may never know who committed the murder, but one of the original investigators, homicide Det. Harry Hansen, said in sworn testimony before the 1949 Los Angeles County Grand Jury:
“I have a little pet theory of my own. I think that a medical man committed the murder, a very fine surgeon. I base that conclusion on the way the body was bisected....
“It is unusual in this sense, that the point at which the body was bisected is, according to eminent medical men, the easiest spot in the spinal column to sever.... He hit it exactly.
“I’ve seen many horrible mutilation cases, many of them, and if any of you ladies and gentlemen had ever seen a case like that, and would see the pictures of this Elizabeth Short case, you could detect the difference immediately.”
Will the case ever be solved?
If one defines a solution as the successful arrest, prosecution and conviction of the killer, then the answer is never.
Larry Harnisch is a Times copy editor. He is writing a book on the Black Dahlia case. To read his 1997 Column One article about the murder, please go to latimes.com/dahlia.