Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia

By Tim Lambert

Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia was the victim of an unsolved murder that took place in 1947. She was just 22. Her body was found on the morning of Wednesday 15 January 1947 on a vacant building plot in the Leimert Park district of Los Angeles in California. Her naked body was found by a woman named Betty Bersinger who was walking with her 3-year-old daughter.

The body of Elizabeth Short had been cut in half at the waist with a sharp instrument. Her cheeks had been cut to make a grotesque parody of a smile. There were also other lacerations on her body. Elizabeth’s arms were raised over her head and bent at the elbows, her legs were apart. The lack of blood at the scene indicated Elizabeth had been killed at another location then dumped on the plot. The killer had also washed the body. No attempt was made to conceal the body. It seems whoever killed her wanted to shock people by leaving the body in plain view.

The autopsy report revealed the cause of death was hemorrhage from lacerations and shock caused by blows to the head and face. Elizabeth was anatomically normal. She was not pregnant.

From fingerprints detectives identified the dead woman as Elizabeth Short aged 22. She became known as the Black Dahlia but if she was called that before she died or if the nickname was invented afterward is uncertain. Whenever the name was first used it probably came from a 1946 film called the Blue Dahlia, in which a man is suspected of murdering his wife. Elizabeth dyed her hair black and sometimes wore black clothes. Because of her appearance, she was dubbed the Black Dahlia.

The Life of Elizabeth Short

Elizabeth or Betty Short was born on 29 July 1924 in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. Elizabeth had four sisters, two older, Virginia and Dorothea, and two younger, Eleanora and Muriel. Her parents were Cleo and Phoebe Short. In 1926 the family moved to Medford, Massachusetts and Elizabeth grew up in that town. Her father Cleo Short made miniature golf courses but in 1930 he left his family. Cleo parked his car near a bridge to make it look as if he had killed himself. Phoebe Short was left to raise her daughters alone. They lived in Salem Street. After a few years, Cleo Short wrote to Phoebe and asked to be forgiven but she refused. However afterward Elizabeth wrote to her father.

Elizabeth Short was a pretty girl with blue eyes and brown hair. Family and friends called her Betty.

However, Elizabeth suffered from asthma so in 1940 she was sent to the warmer climate of Florida for the winter months. She worked as a waitress. Elizabeth returned to Medford in the spring. She went to Florida again in the winter of 1941 and returned to Medford in the spring of 1942.

At the end of 1942 when she was 18 Elizabeth moved to California to stay with her father. However, they did not get on. Elizabeth quarreled with her father and moved out. In January 1943 Elizabeth got a job as a civilian clerk in Camp Cooke, an army camp 10 miles north of Lompoc. (It is now Vandenberg Air Force Base). She worked there until late August. During that time Beth Short was voted camp cutie.

However in September 1943, aged 19 she was arrested for underage drinking in Santa Barbara. Elizabeth was sent back to Medford. In the winter she moved to Miami Beach in Florida. Elizabeth continued to work as a waitress.

Elizabeth Short n Despite her conviction for underage drinking, as an adult Elizabeth did not drink or smoke. She was also a courteous woman who did not swear.

At the end of December 1944, Elizabeth Short met Major Matthew M Gordon in Miami Beach. The couple soon got engaged. Tragically Major Gordon was killed in a plane crash on 10 August 1945 just days before the end of the Second World War.

In July 1946 Elizabeth went to Los Angeles to visit an old boyfriend named Joseph Fickling. However, Fickling moved to another state. Elizabeth then stayed in hotels and people’s homes, never staying anywhere for very long. Unfortunately being homeless made Elizabeth vulnerable.

In December 1946 Elizabeth went to San Diego. On 8 January 1947, a man named Robert Manley (known as ‘Red’ because of the color of his hair) offered to drive her to Los Angeles. They spent the night in a motel but, Manley said, they did not sleep together. The next day Thursday 9 January 1947 Manley took Elizabeth to the Los Angeles bus station where she deposited her luggage. He then went with her to the Biltmore Hotel. He left her there at about 6.30 pm.

Unfortunately where Elizabeth went after saying goodbye to him and what she did in the next 6 days is a mystery. At some point, Elizabeth met the killer. Cleo Short refused to identify the body of his daughter at the morgue. That task was left to her mother Phoebe. (Cleo Short also refused to attend his daughter’s funeral).

The Investigation

A massive investigation began but the killer was never found. As the last person to see Elizabeth Short alive, Red Manley was an obvious suspect. However, he passed 2 lie detector tests and he had an alibi. Red Manley died in 1986. There were many other suspects but none could be linked to the murder.

On 24 January 1947 somebody sent a package to the Los Angeles Examiner. It contained Elizabeth Short’s birth certificate, social security card, photos, a newspaper clipping about Matt Gordon, and an address book belonging not to Elizabeth but to an acquaintance of hers named Mark Hansen. (Some of its pages had been torn out).

In the package was a message made up of words cut from newspapers. It said ‘Here is (sic) Dahlia’s Belongings’ and ‘Letter to follow’. (These items were soaked in gasoline to remove fingerprints). It seems the killer reveled in his notoriety.

Later somebody calling himself ‘The Black Dahlia Avenger’ sent several more letters. However, these other letters did not contain anything belonging to Elizabeth. They may have been hoaxes. Unfortunately, many deranged people made false confessions to the murder which wasted a great deal of police time.

Meanwhile, On 25 January 1947, the purse and one of the shoes belonging to Elizabeth Short were found in a dumpster several miles from where the body was found. (They were identified as hers by a friend, Robert ‘Red’ Manley). However, they did not bring the police any closer to the killer.

The last detective who worked on the Black Dahlia case, Ralph Asdel died on 31 December 2003. (He was a 26-year-old detective at the time of the murder). Whoever killed Elizabeth is now almost certainly dead too and it’s unlikely we will ever know who he was.

Elizabeth was buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California on 25 January 1947. (Elizabeth loved California).

In 1993 a memorial to Elizabeth Short was erected in her hometown of Medford.