unsolved: the black dahlia

On the morning of January 15, 1947, local resident Betty Bersigner and her three-year-old daughter discovered the naked, severed body of a woman in a Los Angles parking lot.

Her severely mutilated body was severed at the waist, leaving her in two separate parts, completely drained of blood. It was later concluded that due to the lack of bruising, the body must have been served after death. Medical examiners concluded that her murder was committed either late January 14th or in the early hours of the 15th. Her body had been previously washed by the killer and carefully positioned. The lower half of her body was placed a foot away from the other, with the corpse being positioned with her hands over her head, her elbows bent and her legs spread apart. The culprit had also slashed from the corners of her mouth to her ears, creating an effect known as the Glasgow smile (where individuals slash their face to leave scars that resemble a smile) and she had several cuts on her thighs and breasts, with entire portions of skins missing. The cause of death was eventually determined to be haemorrhaging from the lacerations on her face and the blows to the face/side of the head. There was a suggestion the woman may have been rapped, however, a test for sperm came back negative.

Prior to the autopsy police were able to identify the victim after her fingerprints were quickly sent off to Washington D.C. through a fax machine. The prints identified the woman as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, whose fingerprints were on file after a 1943 arrest for underage drinking. Short, born July 29, 1924, was born in Boston, later moving about and eventually relocating to California to be with her father whom she believed was dead up until the age of 18. Short was an aspiring actress, however, worked as a waitress shortly before her death and was living in a rented room behind a nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard.

On January 21, 1941, a person claiming to be Short's killer placed a call to the editor of the Los Angeles Examiner congratulating him on the newspaper's coverage on the murder and stating that he was planning on handing himself in, but first, he wished for the police to try and pursue him. He also mentioned that the newspaper should expect some Beth Short souvenirs in the mail. Three days later, an envelope arrived with a large message saying 'Here is Dahlia's belongings, letter to follow'. Inside the envelope, there was Short's birth certificate, business cards, photographs, names written on pieces of paper and an address book with the name Mark Hansen embedded on the cover. The packet had been carefully cleaned with gasoline, the same as Short's body, leading the police to believe her murderer also sent the letter. Despite efforts to retrieve fingerprints from the packet, the gasoline and the way the prints were handled in transit meant that they could not properly be analyzed.

Police quickly deemed Mark Hansen to be a suspect due to the fact his name was on the address book. Hansen was a wealthy nightclub owner and according to sources tried to make sexual advances onto Short who refused. This gave him a potential motive to kill her, however, he was eventually positively ruled out of the investigation. In addition to Hansen, police interviewed over 150 men of whom they believed to be potential suspects. However, all of the men they suspected had solid alibis the night/morning of her murder.

On January 26th, the newspaper Examiner received another letter stating a time, date and location of which the killer would hand himself in. Yet, police waited there and no one arrived. Then a few days later another letter arrived stating that he would no hand himself in as he did not get a fair deal and the killing was justified. After that, little contact was made from the perpetrator. The lead investigator on the case publicly announced he believed the murder took place on the outskirts of Los Angeles and that her body was transported and dumped. As well as this, LAPD believed that there was a chance someone with medical knowledge had conducted the murder due to the precision of the cuts on her body. They looked into a few suspects from a nearby medical school however no sustainable leads were found.

Short's murder was extremely publicised mainly due to the gruesome nature and the letters from the believed killer. Newspaper hung to any information regarding possible suspects, and any details of her murder they could find, commonly publishing facts which were untrue. The nickname The Black Dahlia was first mentioned in a newspaper, with credit coming from staff and friends at a Long Beach drugstore. However, there are many variations of where this name has come from, with others believing it was created by the media based off of her long hair.

The notoriety of Short's murder has attracted a large number of confessions over the years, many which have been deemed as false. In fact, since her murder over 500 people have confessed to her murder, even people who were not even born at the time. Suspects do remain under discussion by True Crime authors and detectives who have looked into the case. These include people such as Patrick S.O'Reilly, a medical doctor who was friends with Mark Hansen. Patrick had a history of violent sexually motivated crime and had once been married to the daughter of an LAPD captain. Another suspect is Robert Manly, the last person to see Short alive before her murder. After two polygraph tests and an alibi he was cleared, however many people still believe he was responsible for her death. Other suspects are the publisher of The Los Angeles Time at that time, who is claimed to have got Sort pregnant, as well as George Knowlton whose daughter claims she saw him murdering Short.

There has been a range of possible related crimes suggested regarding Short's murder. The Cleaveland Torso murders which took place between 1934 and 1938 were placed forward as a possible connection, and there was a common suspect in each murder, however, any links were discounted. The 1947 murder of Jeanne French was also suggested as being connected, a woman who was left nude and beaten to death on Grand Boulevardevard, yet nothing came of it. Finally, strong connections were drawn between Short's murder and the murder and dismemberment of six-year-old Suzanne Degnan in 1946. Among the evidence cited is the fact that the handwriting on the ransom note for Degnan and a letter for Short is very similar, with some letters matching exactly. The convicted killer of Degnan, George Hodel, was in the area when Short's murder took place, and his son is convinced he was responsible for her murder, using the fact he was a surgeon as circumstantial evidence. In 2003 it was also revealed Hodel's home had been wiretapped back in 1949, with him being heard saying 'Supposin' I did kill The Black Dahlia. They couldn't prove it now. They can't talk to my secretary cause she's dead.'

Short is laid to rest at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. Just two weeks after her murder, a Republican was prompted by the case to introduce a bill calling for the formation of the sex offender registry making California the first state to introduce mandatory sex offender registration. 

Regardless of the number of suspects set forward, police continue to conclude that this case is completely cold. They are not following any leads at the moment, and due to the lack of evidence and handling of whatever evidence they had at the time, it is unlikely that the true killer will ever be found, especially as the majority of the suspects are now deceased.

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