The Storytellers Ch. 05byParis Waterman©
The Black Dahlia
July 18th, was a hot, sultry afternoon in Los Angeles. Belva had left for work and I was reading the Examiner and having a second cup of coffee in a diner around the corner from Police Headquarters. It had taken me a week to gain access to the investigating officers in the Short case. I had spent the time trudging the streets of Los Angeles covering the scene of the crime and as many of Elizabeth Shorts haunts as possible. I had spoken to several of the principal witnesses in the case and learned absolutely zilch.
The front page of the Examiner was still buzzing about the engagement of Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. It was being turned into a rags-to-riches fairy tale. He didn't have a dime, or so they said. In the pictures I saw, he looked like a pretty dapper guy. But what did I know. What didn't look to good for him was the fact that his sisters had both married Germans with Nazi links. What did look good was the fact that the princess loved him, and we all know that love conquers all.
Turning to the sports pages, the Yankees were rolling again; having extended their winning streak to 19 straight victories with a doubleheader sweep over the Indians. This equaled the American League record set by the White Sox in 1906. In the first game, Bobo Newsom got his 200th career victory and George McQuinn hit a two-run homer in a 3-1 win. Billy Johnson's three RBI's were enough to get Vic Raschi the 7-2 win in the second game.
Along with almost everyone else following the National Pastime I had been watching the early going for Jackie Robinson, the first Negro to play in the majors with the Dodgers. Now in a small sidebar, I noted that the St. Louis Browns had bought the contracts of two other Negros, Hank Thompson, an infielder and Willard Brown, an outfielder from the Monarchs of Kansas City. It might take a year or two, but I figured baseball was definitely upgrading its talent base.
I left a ten cent tip; lit one of the Pall Mall's Belva had left on a bedside table, and found my way to the Homicide Division of the LAPD.
It was not as easy to find as I'd thought it would be. The third floor of the police department in downtown Los Angeles carries the aura of decades past. Old battered lockers are crammed against the walls of a winding corridor. The black speckled floors and orange walls reveal that the divisions housed on this floor haven't had a major overhaul in years.
It was a classic looking division though, filled with old desks, and even older telephones. The files and desks were lodged against one another, creating small aisles from which one could move from one detectives "space" to another. To me, it looked very much like the newsroom at the Tribune. I met with the detectives assigned to the case and found them cordial enough; and considering that they had come to a virtual dead-end in the Black Dahlia case, I guessed they felt that I might possibly develop a new twist that might lead them to the killer.
"The case is different from most," Harry Hansen, the lead detective told me. "It's got signs of serial murder all over it, but we haven't been able to link any other murder to it."
He went on to explain what I already knew, that the fact that Elizabeth Short wanted to be a movie star was an emotional factor that caused the public to hang onto the story long after most such murders had faded into obscurity. She was constantly being depicted as the girl next door who had such dreams. This, along with the brutality of the murder itself was the reason the Black Dahlia murder remained as prominent now as it was back in January.
"Here's the deal," Detective Harry Hansen told me after I'd sat down at his desk. "Me and Finis Brown are the lead dicks on this case. By the time we arrived at the crime scene it was swarming with reporters and gawker's who were trampling the evidence. We ordered the crowd to back off, then got down to business.
"What we found was the nude, mutilated body of a young woman, cut in half at the waist. The bottom half lay in the weeds a few feet away from the top, legs splayed open. Her gash had been sliced open, the flaps of skin pulled back and her sex organs had been removed. The top half was worse: the breasts were dotted with cigarette burns, the right one hung loose, attached to the torso by a few shreds of skin. The left one was slashed around the nipple. The cuts went right to the bone, but the worst was the girl's face. It was one purple bruise, with the nose crushed into the facial cavity, the mouth cut ear to eat into a smile that leered up at us, mocking the brutality that had been inflicted on her. I'll carry that smile with me to my grave."
"From the lack of blood on the body, or in the grass, we determined the victim had been murdered elsewhere and dragged onto the lot, one piece at time. There was dew under the body, so we knew it had been placed there after 2 a.m., when the outside temperature dipped to 38 degrees. The victim had rope marks on her wrists and ankles indicating she'd been restrained while being tortured.
"After calling the County Coroner to retrieve the body, we were left with finding out just who the woman was. We identified her as Elizabeth Short from fingerprints on file with the FBI in Washington, DC two days later.
"The case itself took a life of its own," Hansen explained. "It was front page news every day for almost two months. The pressure to solve the murder was unbelievable."
"I understand you had a number of people try to take credit for the murder," I said.
"We sure did. We always get a number of "confessions."
"Any possible suspects emerge?" I asked.
He laughed, and said, "Sure," as he handed me a slim file. "Here they are. See for yourself."
The first page dealt with one, Joseph Dumais: This combat veteran was reported to military police by another soldier. The two had quarreled over money. After returning from a 42-day furlough, Dumais was found with bloodstains on his clothing. He also had a slew of newspaper clippings about the murder. Dumais was promptly cleared of any suspicion as he was not in Los Angeles at the time, but he was fascinated that he might be a suspect, and stated, "It is possible that I could have committed the murder. When I get drunk I get rough with women." Dumais was sent to a psychiatrist.
The next page was about one Daniel S. Vorhees: This 33-year-old former restaurant employee, called the police, telling them to come get him. He was brought in, and he mumbled, "I killed her." But when asked about details, he replied, "Ah, I'm not going to talk to you anymore. I want to see my attorney."
He was jailed, not as a suspect, but as a mental case.
Vorhees was followed by one John N. Andry: A pharmacist who boasted about his ability to cut up bodies. When the police arrested him, he first insisted he had killed Elizabeth Short. Later, he said, "Well, I'm capable of doing it." Then he admitted that he was kidding.
The remainder of the folder touched on various men and women who confessed and later recanted, unable to provide any clear details of the murder, and who were also proven unreliable as they had confessed to other crimes in the past, or were mentally unstable and, or attention seekers. Detective Hansen also told me that dozens of letters and phone calls continued to pour in about the murder. They are all checked out against "sealed" information to help rule out hoaxes and crackpots.
I spent two days going over the photos of the crime, and talking with the lead detectives, and several others, including the reporters covering the story for the LA Times. I made extensive notes and came up with the following: Elizabeth Short was hacked in two, reportedly with a butcher knife (there is some speculation that that the precision used required a saw or medical instruments). Some authorities believe she was alive, yet unconscious at the time she was being held by the limbs with rope, or some other tying device, and severed in two. After her body was drained of blood, it was delivered to the Crenshaw district, where it was discovered in the early morning.
I learned that while an autopsy report for Elizabeth Short does exist, I was unable to obtain a copy. In fact, the LAPD doesn't possess the report, which is instead kept at the coroner's office "under lock and key."
There was also an envelope supposedly mailed to the LA Times. I was not able to persuade anyone to let me see it. The detectives would not even say if the envelope was thought to be mailed from the real killer, or if it was fabricated.
They also admitted that the killer probably knew Elizabeth Short, but would not say if the killer was thought to be just an acquaintance, or someone who knew the victim well. Anyone with a known connection to Miss Short had been interviewed; some for longer periods than others. Over time all had been cleared of any suspicion of the crime.
Then too, the LA Daily News published a story on January 17th just two days after Miss Short's body was discovered leading off with the headline: "The Grizzly LA murder similar to sex slaying of seven San Diego women." The failure to solve those murders resulted in the entire San Diego Police Administration being replaced. But when I brought this up, Detective Hansen was adamant that there was no direct tie-in between those murders and Short's, but neglected to say why.
I drove down to San Diego to see for myself if there was any connection to the Short murder with those they had on file only to be rebuffed by a Police Captain at the Main Headquarters. When the police don't want to cooperate, even money doesn't loosen lips. Not that I had ready cash to dole out. So I turned tail and returned to the City of Angeles and its somewhat friendlier police force.
On my own dime, I determined the following; Elizabeth Short embodied the feminine ideal of the time, with her meaty legs, full hips and a small, up-turned nose. From a writer's standpoint, she was drama personified. She dyed her mousy brown locks raven black, painted her lips blood red, and pinned white flowers in her hair. With her alabaster skin and startling light blue eyes, she looked like porcelain doll. The provenance of her nickname is unclear. Some say her friends started calling her the "Black Dahlia" because of her fondness for the color black and in reference to a 1946 movie called "The Blue Dahlia." The press liked it and ran with it, and doing so, made Elizabeth Short a legend.
After leaving LA Police Headquarters that afternoon, I sat back in a booth of a cocktail lounge on Hollywood Boulevard toying with a scotch and envisioned Elizabeth Short sashaying down the sidewalk in peep-toed heels. She would have held her head high, primly aware of her effect on each male passersby. They undoubtedly gawked, whistled, and more than one might have offered to buy dinner.
I know this. All too often, she accepted dinners and dates. Eager beavers to fuddy-duddies, they paid for her meals, bar tabs, rent, clothes. They gave her cash. What were a few greenbacks for the privilege of basking her dazzling aura?
I wondered if Elizabeth had taken this to an extreme and worked as a prostitute; but there was no solid evidence to back this up. It had been established that whatever money she managed to accumulate on her own through waitressing was used to expand her wardrobe. Several reliable witnesses had told police that she'd rather go hungry than wear outdated, or worn clothing. When she stepped outside, she was always dressed to the nines, favoring tailored black suits, feminine ruffled blouses, high heels and long gloves.
Elizabeth embodied the cool sophistication of a post-war working gal. It was also clear that she had a particular fetish for men in uniform. In July 1946, she had returned to Southern California to be close to one Joseph Gordon Fickling; an intensely handsome air force lieutenant with sensual dark eyes. They'd met in California two years earlier, shortly before he was shipped overseas. It was a rocky relationship from the start. In their private letters — which were confiscated by the police and excerpted in newspapers after Short's murder — Fickling expressed impatience with Short's flirtations, wondering if he ranked higher in her heart than any other man.
Apparently she wasn't able — or didn't try — to convince him that he did. He moved to North Carolina to work as a commercial airline pilot, but they stayed in touch. And he continued sending her money, including a $100 wire transfer the month before she died. The last letter Fickling received from Short was dated January 8, 1947, seven days before her murder. In it, she told him she was moving to Chicago, where she hoped to become a fashion model.
In the last six months of her life, Short moved constantly between a dozen hotels, apartments, boarding houses and private homes in and around Los Angeles. She crashed for free where she could; paid as little as possible where she couldn't. She was chronically short on cash.
From November 13 to December 15, Short lived in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Hollywood with eight other young women — cocktail waitresses, telephone operators, dime dancers — other out-of-towners who hoped to break into showbiz. The women paid $1 a day for a bunk bed and a couple feet of closet space. But Short couldn't even afford this paltry sum, and snuck out a side door to avoid the manager when the rent was due.
Her roommates told the LA Times after her death that Short was out "with a different boyfriend every night," and didn't have a job. "She was always going out to prowl [Hollywood] boulevard," Linda Rohr, 22, had told the paper.
The last person known to have seen her alive was a recent acquaintance, a 25-year-old married salesman named Robert Manley, nicknamed "Red" for his flaming auburn hair. According to press reports, Manley had picked her up on a street corner in San Diego. He noticed her standing alone, a beautiful woman with no apparent destination, and pulled over to ask if she wanted a ride. Short played coy, turning her head and refusing to look at him. But Manley kept talking, reassuring her that he was harmless, that he just wanted to help her out, give her a lift home.
At the time Short was staying with a family who took pity on her after finding her at the 24-hour movie theater where she'd gone to spend the night. But they soon tired of her. She lazed around their small house during the day, and spent her evenings out partying. In early January 1947, they asked her to leave. It was Manley who came to pick her up.
They stayed in a local motel, but Manley insisted — even took a lie-detector test — that Short slept in her clothes, and that they didn't have sex. The next day, January 9, he drove her to Los Angeles, and helped her check her luggage at the bus station. She told him she was going to Berkeley to stay with her sister, whom she was meeting at the Biltmore hotel downtown. Manley accompanied her into the hotel lobby, but took leave of her at 6:30 p.m. to return to his family in San Diego.
The Biltmore was exactly the sort of place Elizabeth Short loved to hang out in. It was as glamorous as she aspired to be, filled with wealthy travelers and luxuriously appointed. Built in the early 20s, it was the largest hotel west of Chicago, with 1,000 rooms. This elegant setting could offer no greater contrast to the dirt lot where her desecrated body was dumped one week later.
In the wake of her murder, 40 police officers scoured the neighborhood, going house to house looking for clues and evidence. The checked gutters and Laundromats for blood-stained clothing, interviewed residents, poked through dumpsters. They gained no solid leads.
They questioned more than twenty of Short's former "boyfriends," but gained no solid leads. The police interviewed thousands of people who had even the slightest knowledge of Short or her acquaintances and quickly stuffed a steel filing cabinet with notes and affidavits.
On January 25, Short's black patent leather purse and one of her black open-toed pumps was found in a dumpster at 1819th E. 25th street, several miles from the crime scene. One Robert Manley identified the items as hers. He recognized the shoes because he paid to get them re-soled in San Diego and said the handbag smelled of the heavy perfume that Short wore, and had permeated his car as they drove from San Diego to Los Angeles. Someone — possibly the killer — had mailed a package to the Examiner nine days after Short's death. It reeked of gasoline the sender used to erase his or her fingerprints from the envelope. Inside were Short's belongings, including photographs, her birth certificate, social security card, and Matt Gordon's obituary. It also contained an address book containing the names of 75 men. The police quickly tracked them down and they told investigators a surprisingly similar story: they'd met Short on the street, or in a club, bought her drinks or dinner, but never saw her again after she made it clear she was uninterested in a physical relationship.
The FBI was inundated with hand-written letters to J. Edgar Hoover from individuals claiming to know who the murderer was or blaming the crime on someone they held a grudge against. Each one was investigated and proven to be unsubstantiated. Eventually, Detective Hansen confided to me that in his opinion, the murder was a stranger that Elizabeth had allowed to pick her up. I gave this some credence, but in view of all the men in her life decided to keep the door open that someone close to her had done her in. I took the opportunity to raise the question of the San Diego women whose murders appeared similar to that of Short's again.
"Forget it," Hansen replied. "We looked into it. There's no similarity."
"So the newspapers got it wrong?' I said pushing the subject.
"The only similarity is that San Diego's got seven dead women. And yeah, they were sliced with a knife. That is, five of them were. Two were strangled. But the modis operandi was different in that the bodies were left in one piece, and the number of wounds inflicted scarcely approached those in the short murder."
He gave me a baleful look and said, "We did compare and contrast the killings. San Diego was all too willing to hand the crimes over to us if we had seen anything because they had run out of leads. So drop it, will ya?"
I nodded acceptance and left headquarters. I spent several days reinterviewing witnesses, but uncovered nothing of consequence. I wondered about just what had happened from the time Short was seen leaving the Biltmore to the time her mutilated body was dumped in the dirt lot. One thing was certain: sometime during those seven days, she had a fatal date with her killer, who taunted and tortured her before snuffing out her young life in a horrific fashion.
I went back and quizzed Hansen again. Eventually, Detective Hansen and the others grew tired of me hanging around and asked me to leave the precinct, and I did.
It was seven-fifteen when I trudged back to Belva's apartment. She was dressed and waiting for me. I begged her to give me fifteen minutes to shower and shave, and managed it in ten. I slipped on a new soft-tailored sport jacket with a shirt-like spread collar, patch pockets, and a two-tone look.
Belva was pleased with it. "Love those new threads, it's one of those Loafer Jackets, isn't it?" she said, telling me something I didn't know.
I decided to thank her with a compliment of my own and studied her briefly. She had her hair up giving her a different look. Of course she was a cool kitten, and it was a good look; my Belva couldn't manage not looking good.
"Your hair... it looks different," I said as I lit up a cigarette.
"Oh, you noticed!" she beamed at me. "Lots of girls wear their hair this way, it's called a Chignon."