The Black Dahlia Murder Case

The Most Famous Unsolved Case in California's History

Black Dahlia - Elizabeth Short
Black Dahlia - Elizabeth Short. Police Photo

The Black Dahlia Murder case remains one of Hollywood's long-running mysteries and one of the most gruesome of the 1940s. A pretty young woman, Elizabeth Short, was found cut in half and posed in a sexually explicit manner in a vacant lot. It would be sensationalized in the media as the "Black Dahlia" murder.

In the media frenzy that followed, rumors and speculation were published as fact, and inaccuracies and exaggerations continue to plague accounts of the crime until this day.

Here are the few real facts that are known about the life and death of Elizabeth Short.

Elizabeth Short's Childhood Years

Elizabeth Short was born on July 29, 1924, in Hyde Park, Massachusetts to parents Cleo and Phoebe Short. Cleo made a good living building miniature golf courses until the Depression took its toll on the business. In 1930, with his business suffering, Cleo decided to fake his suicide and abandoned Phoebe and their five daughters. He parked his car by a bridge and took off to California. Authorities and Phoebe believed Cleo committed suicide.

Later, Cleo decided he made a mistake, contacted Phoebe and apologized for what he had done. He asked to come home. Phoebe, who had faced bankruptcy, worked part-time jobs, stood in lines to get public assistance and raised the five children alone, wanted no part of Cleo and refused to reconcile.

Her High School Years

Elizabeth was not academically inclined earning average grades in high school.

She left high school in her freshman year because of asthma which she suffered with since childhood. It was decided that it would be best for her health if she left New England during the winter months. Arrangements were made for her to go to Florida and stay with family friends, returning to Medford during the spring and summer.

Despite her parents' difficulties, Elizabeth continued to correspond with her father. She was growing up to be an attractive young girl and like many teenagers enjoyed going to the movies. Like many young pretty girls, Elizabeth developed an interest in modeling and the movie industry and set her goals to someday work in Hollywood.

A Short-Lived Reunion

At the age of 19, Elizabeth's father sent her money to join him in Vallejo, California. The reunion was short-lived, and Cleo soon grew tired of Elizabeth's lifestyle of sleeping during the day and going out on dates until late at night. Cleo told Elizabeth to leave, and she moved out on her own to Santa Barbara.

The Next Three Years

There is much debate about where Elizabeth spent her remaining years. It is known that in Santa Barbara she was arrested for underage drinking and was packed up and returned to Medford. According to reports up until 1946, she spent time in Boston and Miami. In 1944, she fell in love with Major Matt Gordon, a Flying Tiger, and the two discussed marriage, but he was killed on his way home from the war.

In July 1946, she moved to Long Beach, California to be with an old boyfriend, Gordon Fickling, who she dated in Florida before her relationship with Matt Gordon.

The relationship ended shortly after her arrival and Elizabeth floundered around for the next few months.

A Soft Spoken Beauty

Friends described Elizabeth as being soft-spoken, courteous, a non-drinker, or smoker, but somewhat of a loafer. Her habit of sleeping late in the day and staying out at night continued to be her lifestyle. She was pretty, enjoyed dressing stylishly and turned heads because of her pale skin contrasting against her dark hair and her translucent blue-green eyes. She wrote to her mother weekly, ensuring her that her life was going well. Some speculate that the letters were Elizabeth's attempt to keep her mother from worrying.

Those around her know it that over the next few months she moved often, was well liked, but elusive and not well known. During October and November of 1946, she lived in the home of Mark Hansen, owner of the Florentine Gardens.

The Florentine Gardens had a reputation as being a rather shoddy strip joint in Hollywood. According to reports, Hansen was said to have various attractive women rooming together at his home, which was located behind the club.

Elizabeth's last known address in Hollywood was the Chancellor Apartments at 1842 N. Cherokee, where she and four other girls roomed together.

In December, Elizabeth boarded a bus and left Hollywood for San Diego. She met Dorothy French, who felt sorry for her and offered her a place to stay. She stayed with the French family until January when she was finally asked to leave.

Robert Manley

Robert Manley was 25 years old and married, working as a salesman. According to reports, Manley first met Elizabeth in San Diego and offered her a ride to the French house where she was staying. When she was asked to leave, it was Manley who came and drove her back to the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles where she was supposed to be meeting her sister. According to Manley, she was planning to go live with her sister Berkeley.

Manley walked Elizabeth to the hotel lobby where he left her at around 6:30 p.m. and drove back to his home San Diego. Where Elizabeth Short went after saying goodbye to Manley is unknown.

The Murder Scene

On January 15, 1947, Elizabeth Short was found murdered, her body left in a vacant lot on South Norton Avenue between 39th Street and Coliseum. Homemaker Betty Bersinger was running an errand with her three-year-old daughter when she realized that what she was looking at was not a mannequin but an actual body in the lot along the street where she was walking. She went to a nearby house, made an anonymous call to police, and reported the body.

When police arrived on the scene, they found the body of a young woman who had been bisected, displayed face-up on the ground with her arms over her head and her lower half placed a foot away from her torso. Her legs were wide open in a vulgar position, and her mouth had three-inch slashes on each side.

Rope burns were found on her wrists and ankles. Her head face and body was bruised and cut. There was little blood at the scene, indicating whoever left her, washed the body before bringing it in the lot.

The crime scene quickly filled with police, bystanders, and reporters. It was later described as being out of control, with people trampling on any evidence investigators hoped to find.

Through fingerprints, the body was soon identified as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short or as the press called her, "The Black Dahlia." A massive investigation into finding her murderer was launched. Because of the brutality of the murder and Elizabeth's sometimes sketchy lifestyle, rumors and speculation were rampant, often being incorrectly reported as fact in newspapers.

Suspects

Close to 200 suspects were interviewed, sometimes polygraphed, but all eventually released. Exhausted efforts were made to run down any leads or any of the several false confessions to the killing of Elizabeth by both men and women.

Despite efforts made by investigators, the case has remained one of the most famous unsolved cases in California's history.