It’s one of Hollywood’s most notorious murder mysteries. A beautiful young woman found dead in South Los Angeles, her body sliced clean in half. Police launch a sweeping investigation that produces countless dead-end leads. The media pounces on the graphic details, bestowing the victim with a nickname that would engrave her in history. Today, the murder of the “Black Dahlia” remains unsolved.
The fascination with the 1947 death of Elizabeth Short hasn’t died down, even 70 years later. The story has inspired numerous books and films, including the 1987 novel “The Black Dahlia” and 2006 film of the same name starring Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett.
“Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins has taken on the tale in her new TNT show “I Am the Night,” starring Chris Pine and India Eisley. Though the series is fictionalized, it revolves around the family of the man whom enthusiasts have held as perhaps the most probable suspect for the “Black Dahlia” murderer.
Take a look back at the woman whose life ended prematurely but whose death has lived on.
A Gruesome Discovery
Betty Bersinger, a local housewife, left home with her 3-year-old daughter to run an errand on Jan. 15, 1947. It was a cold morning as the two walked along Norton Avenue in Leimert Park at the south end of the Los Angeles. Bersinger and her daughter passed vacant lots on their way, which was common, as the area was just beginning to develop and there were many empty lots. But as they approached the corner of 39th Street, something appeared out of the ordinary.
A large white body could be seen in the grass. Bersinger initially thought it was a separated mannequin someone had tossed aside. But upon closer inspection, Bersinger realized it wasn’t a mannequin. After letting out a scream and pulling her daughter away, she ran to call the police and tell them about the mutilated corpse she just found.
Los Angeles police arrived at the scene to find the body of a young woman severed just above the waist with stunning precision. The upper half lay several inches away from the lower half, both facing up in suggestive poses. There were cuts all over her body, including slices on each side of her face that ran from the corners of her mouth to her ears, giving her a disfigured grin.
Despite the extensive damage to the body, investigators found no blood at the scene. They determined she must have been killed somewhere else, drained of blood, washed and dumped at the site.
The grisly nature of the murder haunted the police and public. Reporters and passersby swarmed the lot as the news spread, and investigators wanted to find out who she was — fast.
After lifting the woman’s fingerprints, police enlisted the help of the Los Angeles Herald-Express to quickly send them to the FBI in Washington. The newspaper used its new Soundphoto technology, which amounted to an early fax machine, to transmit the prints. And in just 56 minutes, the victim was identified as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short.
Who Was Elizabeth Short?
Born on July 29, 1924, Elizabeth Short grew up in Massachusetts with her parents and four sisters. Her father designed and built golf courses, but he left the family when the Great Depression hit in 1929. Elizabeth’s mother, Phoebe, worked several jobs to help support her five daughters.
Elizabeth had several nicknames, like “Betty,” “Bette” or “Beth,” and was described by childhood classmates and friends as kind, pretty and funny. She was known for her distinctive dark hair and bright blue eyes.
By 1943, Elizabeth had moved to California to be with her father, but their relationship became strained and she moved out a few months later. Not long after, while out with some friends, 19-year-old Elizabeth was arrested for underage drinking.The fingerprints and mugshot taken at her booking would later lead to her posthumous identification.
Elizabeth left California but eventually returned, working as a waitress in Los Angeles and dating several men. She dreamed of being a famous actress, according to several reports, but ultimately it would not be her art that would bring her the attention she sought.
It was on Jan. 9, 1947, that Elizabeth was last seen alive, working in the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. at the time. She vanished that evening.
Why the 'Black Dahlia'?
Newspapers at the time were known to sensationalize murder stories and grant nicknames to the killers and their victims. Some early headlines referred to the killing as the “werewolf” murder, and stories ran with rumors that painted Elizabeth as an “attractive” woman “whose romances had changed her … from an innocent girl to a man-crazy delinquent known as the "Black Dahlia."
It’s not entirely certain where the nickname originated. Some papers attributed it to the 1946 film noir titled “The Blue Dahlia,” changing the name for a victim with “dark beauty” and a “penchant for sheer black dresses.” Others said Elizabeth herself was given the name because of her dark hair. The Los Angeles Times wrote that Elizabeth was dubbed the Black Dahlia by co-workers making a play on the film title.
A Never-Ending Investigation
Over time, police received innumerable tips related to the case and dozens of people claimed responsibility for the murder. However, investigators were quickly able to rule out most of them. During the probe, it was suspected that the person who killed Elizabeth had a medical background, because of the incredible precision that was used to dissect her body. The FBI looked into a group of students at the University of Southern California Medical School, but the lead turned up empty.
Investigators thought they caught a break in the case when anonymous letters were sent to authorities and Los Angeles newspapers, presumably by the killer. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner received a call on Jan. 23 from someone claiming to be Elizabeth’s killer and disapproving of the way the story was being covered. The caller offered to send his victim’s belongings to the paper to prove himself.
The Herald Examiner then received a package with Elizabeth’s birth certificate, some photos, business cards and an address book, along with a letter pasted together from newspaper and magazine letter clippings that read, “Los Angeles Examiner and other Los Angeles papers here is Dahlia’s belongings letter to follow.”
More letters followed, indeed, taunting the recipients with more clippings. They claimed that Elizabeth’s murder “was justified” and warned people, “Don’t try to find me.”
Police attempted to lift fingerprints off one of the letters, but to make matters worse, all the packages were doused in gasoline, destroying any evidence police could have used to help close the case.
By mid-1947, police had eliminated dozens of possible suspects. With no one to pursue, the case had gone cold.
A Buried Family Secret?
After his father died in 1999, former LAPD detective Steve Hodel was left sorting through his belongings. Dr. George Hodel had left the family early on, but he reconnected with Steve in his last decade of life, and his son helped pick up the pieces after his death.
Steve found a small, wooden photo album packed inside a box among George's possessions. Two photos inside caught Steve’s eye; they showed a young woman with dark curly hair and her eyes looking down.
“My God, that looks like the Black Dahlia,” Steve said to himself, according to The Guardian.
Steve then began a years-long investigation into his father’s relationship with Elizabeth and possibly being the murderer that got away.
“I didn’t go to this story. It came to me,” Steve told InsideEdition.com.
Steve said that after his discovery, his half-sister Tamar Hodel told him in a phone conversation, "Our dad was a suspect in the Black Dahlia murder."
Steve was shocked, and decided he needed to get to the bottom of what she claimed.
"I started out to show that dad had nothing to do with it. I would be able to exonerate him completely. And I just started following the evidence," Steve said.
But soon, the evidence led him to a different conclusion.
George was known to run with socialites in L.A. and hang out with groups that liked sex and drugs. Several people reportedly referred to Elizabeth as a girlfriend of George.
In 1949, George was accused of incest. He was eventually acquitted of the charges, but the case, along with George's familiarity with surgical techniques, led police to include him in the list of suspects for the Black Dahlia murder.
The next year, police put George under surveillance at his L.A. home. Recordings captured the doctor's voice making a seemingly incriminating statement: "Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary any more because she’s dead.”
Another recording captured his voice saying, "Maybe I did kill my secretary." And a woman is heard screaming at another point.
Steve argued that George killed his secretary to keep her quiet.
The 1949 case and the tape transcripts are on record, but Steve pointed out other aspects that seem to connect his father to the murder. George was friends with surrealist photographer Man Ray, and Steve claims two of the artist's 1930s photos bear a resemblance to the way Elizabeth's body was posed in the Leimert Park lot. He argues George used the murder to emulate Ray's art.
Steve added that he recognized his father's handwriting in the letters sent to authorities and papers in the wake of Elizabeth's murder. And he said he has connected his dad to several other murders in L.A. around the same time.
Steve said police had a "slam dunk case" against George at the time, But "he split and left the country. Literally, they were out looking for him to arrest him. They had built that much of a case."
George died without having any charges filed against him.
Steve published a book in 2003 about his findings, "Black Dahlia Avenger." Former Deputy District Attorney Stephen Kay, who prosecuted the Charles Manson case and worked with Steve for many years, examined Steve's evidence. He supported Steve's conclusion and told him he would have filed a case against his father were he still alive.
The Black Dahlia Legacy
The murder of the Black Dahlia has continued to haunt Los Angeles and armchair investigators around the country, some 70 years later. The grisly crime and the lack of resolution remains intriguing for today's audience of the true crime era.
"It's become synonymous with unsolved murders of beautiful women," Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, told The Associated Press.
Mystery writer Robert Crais added that "certain things are part of the fabric of Los Angeles, and the Black Dahlia is one of them."