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Who Killed Elizabeth Short? The Enduring Unsolved Mystery of the Black Dahlia Murder

In 1947, the butchered body of Elizabeth Short was discovered in a vacant lot outside downtown Los Angeles.


In the annals of unsolved American crime, few cases cast a spell quite like the Black Dahlia murder. The slaying occurred late on January 14th or in the early morning hours of January 15th, 1947. But while decades have passed since newspapers first broke the brutal crime—”LA Girl Slain; Body Slashed in Two”, “Body Dismembered, Left in Field”—the case remains as mystifying as ever.

Part of this infamy can be attributed to The Black Dahliathe 1987 novel by noir master James Ellroy, and the 2006 film adaptation of the same name. But the public’s continued obsession goes beyond such narrative reimaginings.

Professionals and amateurs alike continue to pore over case details in hopes of a break. As recently as a year and a half ago, retired LA detective Steve Hodel announced he had cracked the case with evidence that implicated, of all people, his own father.

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  • A young Elizabeth Short sits with American Amy Major Matthew M. Gordon Jr.

Despite this scrutiny, no one has conclusively fingered the murderer of the Black Dahlia, whose real name was Elizabeth Short. For 21 of her 22 years, Short bounced between Boston and Miami; she only lived in southern California for the final six months of her life. Yet it’s the arid hills of Los Angeles that are most commonly associated with the victim, and it was the dusty basin due south of downtown LA where her body was found on January 15, 1947.

Betty Bersinger discovered the remains around 10 a.m. in a vacant lot in Leimert Park. At first, she thought she had discovered a discarded mannequin. The truth was far more grisly; Short’s body had been bisected at the waist. Her intestines were tucked beneath her buttocks; her legs had been spread apart and her elbows bent at right angles in a grotesque pose. Short’s face was slit from ear-to-ear in a maniacal Joker-face rictus. Her breasts were slashed, her nose broken, vulva mutilated, and her body was drained of blood.

Related: The Goodbar Murder

Short had been missing since January 9. Her whereabouts during this ‘missing week’ remain a mystery—and for many, contain the key to her death.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What isn’t a mystery is the wave of coverage triggered by the murder. Multiple factors pushed the slaying to the front page—the grisly state of Short’s corpse, her age, her attractiveness, and a sustained media effort to engage in a brand of old school victim blaming via shaky reporting on Short’s sex life.

Even the nickname ‘Black Dahlia’ speaks to the media’s two-faced presentation of Short. On the one hand, she was portrayed as a girl lost in the big city, murdered by predators who took advantage of her innocence. In the same breath, many journalists insinuated Short had worked as a call girl. The barely concealed subtext was that a sex worker had been burned in her line of work. Such a death was unfortunate, but perhaps also to be expected.

Related: Inside the Demented Mind of John Wayne Gacy Jr.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney determined Short had never worked as an escort, but this was only one of the many misconceptions surrounding the case. Witnesses who had supposedly seen Short during her missing week were, one by one, questioned and dismissed by investigators, who determined they were either outright lying or had mistaken Short for another woman.

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  • The John Sowden House in Los Angeles

Some 60 people came forward and confessed to the crime. Of these, 25 were seriously considered by the LAPD. Many of the suspects were household names, including Fred Sexton, the artist who created the Maltese Falcon prop in the iconic movie of the same name; Norman Chandler, publisher of The Los Angeles Times; Jewish mobster Bugsy Siegel; and the aforementioned George Hodel, a physician who purchased the famous Sowden House and, according to Hodel’s son, buried bodies in the back yard.

And yet, no convictions were ever made. The open-endedness of the Black Dahlia murder stoked the ensuing pop culture bonfire. Any LA noir film or TV show or video game can trace its creative ancestry to Short’s murder. The popular game L.A. Noire has an entire level inspired by the killing. In many ways, Elisabeth Short’s death is the country’s preeminent brand-name mystery.

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Ironically, while the Black Dahlia case remains unsolved, the nittiest of its gritty details are open to the public. If anyone wants to search through the crates of material related to the crime, just head to the FBI vault, where official investigative materials are now public record. There you can witness the exhaustive work that went into the investigation. It’s a record that, at the very least, puts to rest the myriad rumors that continue to haunt Elizabeth Short long after her tragic end.

Photos (in order): Wikimedia Commons; International News Photo / Getty; Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons