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"The Black Dahlia" was a nickname given to Elizabeth Short (July 29, 1924 – January 15, 1947), an American woman who was the victim of a gruesome and much-publicized murder. Short acquired the moniker posthumously by newspapers in the habit of nicknaming crimes they found particularly colorful. Short was found mutilated, her body sliced in half at the waist, on January 15, 1947, in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, California. Short's unsolved murder has been the source of widespread speculation, leading to many suspects, along with several books and film adaptations of the story.
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 face had been slashed from the corners of her mouth toward her ears, creating an effect called the Glasgow smile. The body had been washed and cleaned and had been "posed" with her hands over her head and her elbows bent at right angles. 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.
Her severely mutilated body was severed at the waist and completely drained of blood. Although the skull was not fractured, Short had bruising on the front and right side of her scalp with a small amount of bleeding in the subarachnoid space on the right side, consistent with blows to the head. The cause of death was hemorrhage from the lacerations to the face and shock due to blows on the head and face.
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 was rampant, often being incorrectly reported as fact in newspapers.
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.
Many true-crime books claim that Short lived in or visited Los Angeles at various times in the mid 1940s; these claims have never been substantiated and are refuted by the findings of law enforcement officers who investigated the case. A document in the Los Angeles County district attorney's files titled "Movements of Elizabeth Short Prior to June 1, 1946" states that Short was in Florida and Massachusetts from September 1943 through the early months of 1946 and gives a detailed account of her living and working arrangements during this period.
Although a popular portrayal amongst her acquaintances and many true-crime authors was of Short as a call girl, the Los Angeles district attorney's grand jury proved there was no existing evidence that she was ever a prostitute, and the district attorney's office attributes the claim to confusion with a prostitute of the same name.
Los Angeles County district attorney's files state that the investigators had questioned three men with whom Short had sex, including a Chicago police officer who was a suspect in the case. The FBI files on the case also contain a statement from one of Short's alleged lovers. Found in the Los Angeles district attorney's files and in the Los Angeles Police Department's summary of the case, Short's autopsy describes her reproductive organs as anatomically normal, although the report notes evidence of what it called "female trouble."
The autopsy also states that Short was not and had never been pregnant, contrary to what had been claimed prior to and following her death.
About 60 people confessed to the murder, mostly men but also a few women. However, 25 people were considered to be viable suspects by the Los Angeles District Attorney. While some of the original 25 suspects were discounted, new ones have arisen. At present the suspects discussed by various authors and experts include Walter Bayley, Norman Chadler, Leslie Dillon, Joseph A. Dumais, Mark Hansen, George Hill Hodel, George Knowlton, Robert M. "Red" Manley, Patrick S. O'Reilly, and Jack Anderson Wilson .
Some crime authors have speculated on a link between the Short murder and the Cleveland Torso Murders, which took place in Cleveland between 1934 and 1938. As with a large number of killings that took place before and after the Short murder, the original LAPD investigators looked into the Cleveland murders in 1947 and later discounted any relationship between the two cases.
Nevertheless, new evidence implicating a former Cleveland torso murder suspect, Jack Anderson Wilson, with Short's death was investigated by Detective John P. St. John in 1980. St. John claimed he was close to arresting Wilson for the death of Short when Wilson unexpectedly died in a fire on February 4, 1982.
Crime authors such as Steve Hodel (son of George Hill Hodel) and William Rasmussen have suggested a link between the Short murder and the 1946 murder and dismemberment of six-year-old Suzanne Degnan in Chicago.Captain Donahoe of the Los Angeles police also stated publicly that he believed the Black Dahlia and Lipstick murders were "likely connected."
Among the evidence cited is the fact that Elizabeth Short's body was found on Norton Avenue three blocks west of Degnan Boulevard, Degnan being the last name of the girl from Chicago, and there were striking similarities between the writing of the Degnan ransom note and that of "the Black Dahlia Avenger."
For example, both used a combination of capitals and small letters (the Degnan note read in part "BuRN This FoR heR SAfTY"), and both notes contain a similar misshapen letter P and have one word matching exactly. Convicted serial killer William Heirens served life in prison for Degnan's murder. Initially arrested at age 17 for breaking into a residence close to that of Suzanne Degnan, Heirens claimed he was tortured by police, forced to confess, and made a scapegoat in the Degnan murder.
Despite efforts made by investigators, the case has remained one of the most famous unsolved cases in California's history.