On the morning of January 15, 1947, a mother taking her child for a walk in a Los Angeles neighborhood stumbled upon a gruesome sight: the body of a young naked woman sliced clean in half at the waist.
The body was just a few feet from the sidewalk and posed in such a way that the mother reportedly thought it was a mannequin at first glance. Despite the extensive mutilation and cuts on the body, there wasn’t a drop of blood at the scene, indicating that the young woman had been killed elsewhere.
An autopsy found that the victim had perished from repeated blows to the face and the subsequent blood loss, the torso’s bisection and other mutilations, at least, coming after she was already dead.
As for her identification, an editor at the Examiner suggested sending fingerprints via the paper’s “Soundphoto” – an early fax machine – to an office in Washington, D.C., where they could be relayed to the FBI. By the evening of January 16, authorities had matched the prints to those of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, who previously worked at an Army base in California and once been arrested for underage drinking.
There are a number of competing theories about who exactly coined Short’s infamous moniker. Some say it was a media invention, while others claim Short’s friends had nicknamed her “Black Dahlia.” But most accounts pin the inspiration on a film noir written by Raymond Chandler that hit theaters one year before the murder: The Blue Dahlia, starring Veronica Lake. Why the switch from “blue” to “black”? The FBI cites a rumor that Short wore lots of black clothing, but some reports point to her dark hair color instead.
On January 24, 1947, a suspicious manila envelope addressed to “The Los Angeles Examiner and other Los Angeles papers” was discovered. The envelope included a letter using cut-out words from newspaper clippings that said, “Here is Dahlia’s belongings.” Inside the envelope were Short’s birth certificate, business cards, photographs, names written on pieces of paper, and an address book. All of the contents of the envelope had been cleaned with gasoline, similar to how Short’s body had been cleaned. This lead authorities to believe the letter was definitely from Short’s killer. Police contacted approximately 75 men from Short’s address book, but the majority of the men claimed to have only known Short briefly. Due to the nature of the precise cuts on Short’s body, authorities suspected someone in the medical field could have been the killer, and police served a warrant to the USC Medical School, which was located close to where Short’s body had been found. But after several interviews and background checks, they were still no closer to solving this case.
Former Los Angeles police department detective Steve Hodel has spent the last 15 years cataloguing evidence that his dad killed Elizabeth Short – and others
As he went through his father’s possessions, Steve found a photo album tucked away in a box. It was small enough to fit in his palm and bound in wood. Feeling like a voyeur, he perused it. It was filled with the usual pictures – his mom, dad and brothers – as well as portraits of the family taken by the world-famous surrealist artist Man Ray, a family friend.
But towards the back, something caught his eye: two pictures of a young woman, her eyes cast downward, with curly, deep-black hair. Steve still doesn’t know why he had the idea, but as he looked at the images, he thought to himself: “My God, that looks like the Black Dahlia.”
In 1949, Hodel’s beautiful teenage daughter Tamar ran away from the house. When questioned by the police, she said she had left because “her home life was too depressing,” on account of “all the sex parties at the Franklin House.” Tamar then accused her father and other adults of raping her during a party at the house.
When questioned by police, George responded bizarrely, stating that he had recently been “delving into the mystery of love and the universe,” and that the acts of which he was accused were “unclear, like a dream. I can’t figure out whether someone is hypnotizing me,” he insisted, “or I am hypnotizing someone.” When police raided the home, they seized pornography and questionable objects.
The year before, in May 1945, Ruth Spaulding, the secretary at Hodel’s venereal-disease clinic (and thus the keeper of many secrets), was found dead of an overdose. Police suspected it was forced but couldn’t prove it. Her death was ruled “suicide.”
With the family in complete agreement over this one, who are we to question?