Beth had always wanted to be a movie star. Ever since she was a little girl she had stared up at the silver screen, watching in awe as brave heroes and glamorous heroines embarked on adventures of every imaginable kind. They were larger than life, beautiful and invincible, the perfect escape from the monotony of everyday life. Her time in the cinema could be spent imagining she was a warrior, a gangster’s moll, or a secret agent, each of her dreams and desires brought to life through the magic of celluloid. In such a short time, she had lived through the greatest recession of all time and a war that raged across the world, but when a movie was flickering before her eyes, she was something more. The screen was a portal to another world, one where she could be whoever she wished. And when she finally arrived in Hollywood in search of fame and fortune, she believed that all of those dreams would finally come true.
It is the City of Angels, a land of opportunity where every fantasy can be realised and an urchin pulled off the street can become the next big star. It is a glistening metropolis of excess and power, the promised land for many young hopefuls desperate for stardom. With its name proudly overlooking the city from the surrounding hills, it is the epitome of capitalist success. The streets are littered with beautiful people, its cultural heritage proudly on display with its magical studios and historic landmarks. Each year thousands of wannabe celebrities step off Greyhound buses with a suitcase full of dreams, having finally reached Tinseltown. And in the aftermath of the Second World War, a young woman arrived in Los Angeles with the same desires as all those who had come before her. And while Elizabeth Short hoped to find fame, she would instead find infamy as the Black Dahlia.
She was tailor-made for Hollywood. A beautiful young woman barely out of her teens, with pale skin and dark hair, her sultry figure and stylish fashion offering a seductive blend of sex appeal and elegance. She had the look of a movie star and would have been at home sharing the screen with the likes of Humphrey Bogart or Fred MacMurray. She seemed young and naïve, and yet there was something mysterious in her eyes. Elizabeth Short was a born femme fatale. She attracted attention everywhere she went; men were captivated by her, women found her fascinating. Those soldiers who returned from overseas battle-worn saw a glamour in her that they had been missing from their lives for some time.
Hollywood may be the place where dreams come true, but Los Angeles has a dark underbelly, a secret world beneath the surface where abuse and addiction eat away at the city. Ever since the early days of cinema, movie stars have been treated as disposable products by the studios, moulded into their latest sensations and sold to the masses, only to be discarded when they have outlived their use. Yet L.A. during the forties, when Elizabeth Short first arrived, was a land of political corruption and organised crime, with prostitution and murder the name of the game. Life on the streets was even more bloody than depicted on screen, and even as war continued across the sea, another was being fought at home. The mob had taken control of the city and even the police were powerless against its ruthless influence, with anyone opposing their authority gunned down without mercy. There were many demons hidden within the City of Angels.
But the bright lights of Hollywood prove too tempting, and for those who land their big break, riches await. There are stories of parties held by stars that would have put Caligula to shame, and celebrities in Los Angeles, especially new blood, are treated like royalty. It is this life of Riley that lure many in, while others crave the adoration and validation that success promises. In times of adversity, the public turn to art as an escape, and as the Axis powers fought the Allied forces for supremacy, a new breed of cinema known as the film noir offered audiences dangerous heroines and flawed antiheroes, a reflection of the troubled times. One could have imagined Elizabeth Short as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, or Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice, a seductress with the power to charm, but a darkness inside that could prove deadly. But who was this raven-haired beauty, and how did the world come to know her name?
It was just before dawn on a frosty January morning in 1947 when a teenager called Bobby Jones left his home in the Leimert Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles with his bicycle in tow, making his way out to his daily paper route. In these early hours the streets were quiet as the boy strolled slowly through a vacant lot, minding his own business as he navigated his push-bike across the uneven ground. As he reached the corner of 39th Street and Norton Avenue something caught his eye, a black sedan parked close to the sidewalk, its occupants obscured within. Several hours later, at around 10:30am, young housewife Betty Bersinger headed out to a local shoe repair store with her three-year-old daughter when she noticed what appeared to be a discarded mannequin lying among the weeds close to the road. She stopped to inspect the figure, which was broken apart at the waist, but as her eyes adjusted, she noticed red marks on the surface that appeared to be blood and bruising.
Looking up at the face, it wasn’t as featureless as she had first presumed, and within moments she realised that she had stumbled upon the remains of a dead body. Making her way to a nearby house, she immediately phoned the police but failed to leave her name. ‘I think a drunken man is lying in the weeds,’ she would claim. The dispatcher relayed the information and two patrol officers were sent to the scene. There they found the remains of Elizabeth Short, her naked corpse butchered and bisected, displayed spread-eagled for the world to see. It was the most gruesome crime that Hollywood had ever witnessed, and with the victim a beautiful young woman, the public became fascinated with her story. And once the tabloids had christened her the Black Dahlia, a name locals had bestowed upon her, her life and death became a regular fixture of newspapers around the country. How could such an endearing young woman with her whole future ahead be murdered in such a brutal way, her remains left like garbage in a city lot?
The scene had already been overtaken by Homicide detectives and curious onlookers by the time that reporter Agness Underwood stepped out of her car and crossed over the lot to where the naked figure lay discarded like an unwanted trophy. She was small in stature and with the frame of a middle-aged housewife, yet the forty-four-year-old woman was more imposing than any of the officers present that day. She had survived in a male-dominated world by employing a ruthless, anything goes mentality, adding a touch of empathy when relevant, but never allowing sentiment or fear to stand in the way of a story. And in the Los Angeles of the forties, she was never short of a headline. As one newspaper reported, in a single day there had been two assaults against women, twenty-three stolen cars, and almost a hundred thefts. In a city as rife with sin as L.A., there was never a quiet day in the world of journalism. Murder had become such a common occurrence that often they would prove to be too insignificant to report, but the crime that had been discovered that Wednesday morning would send a cold chill through the heart of California.
But even the stoic Underwood, who had gained reputation for her tenacity and unflinching determination, was shocked to her core by the sight of what young Elizabeth Short had been forced to endure. ‘When Aggie first viewed the victim’s remains, Sergeant Perkins recalled, ‘You could see the colour drain right out of her like you’d opened a spigot on her bottom side,’’ detailed author Donald H. Wolfe in his 2006 book The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder. ‘Although Aggie had seen many murder victims in her career, the sight of the mutilated body lying in the weeds near the sidewalk knocked her off balance, and Perkins remembered that she ‘staggered backwards, almost right off the edge of the curb, and almost fell down off her keester.’ Aggie had recovered her composure by the time Will Fowler returned to the scene, but she didn’t realise that he had been there earlier, and Aggie derisively remarked, ‘How come you let the Times beat you here, Fowler?’ It wasn’t until the Examiner Extra, with Fowler’s story and Felix Paegel’s photos, beat the Herald-Express onto the streets, that Aggie realised Fowler had been there much earlier.’
Ever since joining the Los Angeles Herald-Express more than a decade earlier, Underwood, known around the city as Aggie, had become the newspaper’s most celebrated reporter, writing front-page articles on an array of celebrities and violent crimes. At the time there were three rival newspapers in the city, all fighting for supremacy as they rushed to be the first to bring the headlines to the public, with the Herald-Express facing off against the Los Angeles Examiner and the Los Angeles Times. And while there may have been a certain rivalry between the reporters from each of the newspapers, there was also a modicum of respect. New York-born Will Fowler was, at twenty-four, one of the youngest in a new generation of journalists and had already made a name for himself in the three years that he had been writing for the Examiner, one of several publications owned by the legendary media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
I took a few minutes to get used to the look of this gargoyle
For Fowler, who lacked the experience that Underwood had gained through her twenty years of journalism, the sight of Elizabeth Short had knocked the wind out of the young man. ‘I took a few minutes to get used to the look of this gargoyle lying there like a discarded marionette, separated from itself by about one foot. There was no blood on the grass and her body was exceptionally clean. I figured it had been bisected and scrubbed somewhere else, then transported to this spot off the main drag during the dark hours,’ he recalled in his memoir Reporters, published in 1991. Fowler had been the first journalist on the scene, something that came to be his legacy. ‘This scoop put the Examiner so far ahead of its opposition, they were never able to catch up. Hours before other papers had a clue that the body had even been identified, our crews of reporters and photographers were digging into Elizabeth’s life. The competition actually had to read our paper before they knew what step to take next in the investigation.’
Never one to back down from a fight, Underwood saw the exclusives that the Examiner had landed by being the first on the scene as a challenge worth rising to, and over the next few days, each of the three primary newspapers in Los Angeles raced for the next big lead, from the revelation that the victim was twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short to the details of her brief-yet-eventful life. But as the troubled upbringing of the young woman gradually came to light, Underwood may have sympathised for the victim, having endured her own share of adversity as she struggled through a tragic childhood that had begun in San Francisco on 17 December 1902. The daughter of glassblower Clifford Sullivan and his wife Mamie, Agness and her younger sister Leona’s world would fall apart in November 1907 when their mother passed away during childbirth. Overcome with grief and unable to raise two children as a single parent, Clifford made arrangements for his daughters to stay with relatives in Indiana, but the lack of stability finally resulted in the siblings being relocated to separate foster homes.
For the next few years she lived in Portland at the home of Charles and Belle Ewry, and while she once again had a place she could call home, the isolation from Leona proved too much for the young girl. Ten years had passed since the death of her mother when Angess finally decided to enter the workplace and, having turned her back on school education, found a minimum wage job as a clerk in a department store. In April 1917, the United States formally entered a worldwide conflict between Britain, Germany and their global allies. Three years earlier, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by a revolutionary, and the political ramifications that this event caused would lead two military forces to wage war against one another. The American government had been reluctant to join the Allied forces against the Triple Alliance, but when it was discovered that Germany had promised to help Mexico regain control of land that had been seized by North America, President Woodrow Wilson announced that they would be joining what had been dubbed the ‘war to end all wars.’
As a fifteen-year-old girl, Aggie was safe from military conscription, but as men across the country were sent overseas to an uncertain fate, those that remained at home were in a constant state of despair as they feared for their loved ones. With Aggie’s foster brother Ralph having been dispatched to France, she no longer had anyone in the home that she felt close to, and so decided that she would move back to San Francisco. Having been informed by Belle that her father had succumbed to tuberculosis, and that her foster parents had withheld letters from both Clifford and Leona, Aggie left Portland with an overwhelming feeling of sadness and anger over the real family that was now lost to her. As the Great War finally came to an end in November 1918, after more than four years of bloodshed that claimed the lives of more than twenty-two million men, women and children, Aggie arrived in San Francisco and, having arranged to stay with a relative, searched the city for employment. But one day she returned home to the apartment to find that the relative had moved out, and without warning the fifteen-year-old was cast out onto the street.
Without a dollar to her name and no longer having family that could support her, Aggie was forced to forage for food and seek shelter anywhere she could to protect her from the cold winter evenings, but salvation would come in the form of a kind lady called Dolly Peterson. With lodging and a new job, it seemed that her luck was finally starting to turn, and when a relative from Los Angeles made contact and offered her a home, she once again relocated with a sense of optimism. But this new life was not the haven she had hoped for, and soon Aggie found that her new charge was intent on exploiting her. ‘She put big bows in my hair, dressed me so that I looked younger than my sixteen years, and traipsed me around to the motion picture studios,’ she explained many years later. ‘My relative finally realised I was hopeless as film fodder. One day she commanded me to go out and get a job.’
Realising that she was no longer safe, she moved into a Salvation Army home and found work at a restaurant called the Pig n’ Whistle. It was here that she would meet the man that was to become her husband. Harry Underwood worked at the soda fountain and the two soon became friends, which gradually developed into a relationship. At age seventeen she became Agness Underwood, and on 17 August 1922 she was a mother. By the time that she entered the world of journalism she had given birth to a second child. But as the family faced financial difficulties, she decided that they needed a second income. ‘I got my first job on a newspaper because my husband wouldn’t buy me a new pair of stockings,’ she later admitted. ‘I got a bear by the tail and couldn’t let go. Newspapers has become my life, and I fear I’d be miserably unhappy if, while I’m in my prime years, I should forgo, or be crowded out, of my calling.’
Her life would change when, one day in 1926, she applied for the position of switchboard operator at the Los Angeles Record. Despite not being as recognised as its contemporaries, it was a popular newspaper that allowed Underwood the opportunity to see first-hand the chaotic and larger-than-life environment of a newsroom. ‘Lacking background or education, Underwood learned the newspaper business by paying attention to the messages that flowed back and forth through the switchboard,’ wrote Kevin Starr in Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace 1940-1950. ‘She later graduated to supervising community toy, food, and clothing drives at Christmas time and then, being a superb typist, she was allowed to do back-up work on rewrite, amazing one and all with her ability to transcribe on her Underwood Number 5 even the most rapid-fire dictations from reporters in the field. It took Underwood six years to work her way into a reporter’s position on the Record.’
But two years before Aggie Underwood first graced the corridors of the Los Angeles Record office, Elizabeth Short entered the world three thousand miles away on the East Coast. Short, known as both Beth and Betty to her family and friends, was born during the ‘roaring twenties,’ a time of prosperity in the United States following the end of the Great War. With the economy improving by the turn of the decade, Americans were optimistic about their future, but pressure from moral groups led to the introduction of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, in which the sale of alcohol was prohibited throughout the country. While the Prohibition was enforced by the government, organised crime seized the opportunity to bootleg liquor and sell it under the radar of local authorities. And even as violence began to fill the streets of both New York City and Chicago, Elizabeth Short was born in the Hyde Park district of Boston on 29 July 1924.
Her father, Cleo, had returned from the war to open an automobile garage in Wolfboro, New Hampshire, and as his business began to grow, he was finally ready to settle down with his wife, Phoebe. Desperate to build a better life for their two daughters, Virginia and Dorothea, Cleo and Phoebe relocated to Hyde Park, where they used the profits from the sale of their garage to launch a new company installing miniature golf courses. It would be here that their third child, Elizabeth, was born, and as their finances began to improve, they fulfilled their ambition of affluence by moving to Medford. Established in 1639 and originally known as Meadford, representing the ‘great meadow,’ the Massachusetts city first became known for its manufacturing of rum, but by the early years of the twentieth century it boasted a selection of prestigious theatres and even a long-forgotten film studio. It would be here that Short would spend the majority of her childhood, her parents initially purchasing a house on Sheridan Avenue close to Interstate 93.
The family enjoyed their new life and the benefits that it would bring, but tragedy struck on 25 October 1929 when a stock market crash had unexpected repercussions on the world economy. ‘In the weeks that followed the Great Crash, the dazed financial press struggled to make sense of what had happened,’ explained author Liaquat Ahamed in Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World. ‘Despite the magnitude of the losses – $50b wiped off the value of stocks, equivalent to about fifty per cent of GNP – and the ferocity of the decline, many papers were surprisingly sanguine, calling it the ‘prosperity panic.’ The New York Evening World even argued that the panic had only occurred because ‘underlying conditions had been so good,’ that spectators had ‘an excuse for going clean crazy,’ creating a bubble and thus setting the stage for it to burst. The New York Sun made the case that the crash would have a minimal impact on the economy, that Main Street could be decoupled from Wall Street.’
There had been warning signs since as early as March that the market could face a crash, but experts believed that it would merely be a lull and easy to recover from. Even when Black Friday hit in October, which came just a few weeks after the London Stock Exchange suffered a similar crisis, the common opinion was that with careful planning the country was in no inherent danger of a recession. But the domino-like effect that would ricochet from the crash was felt around the world, and ushered in what historians have come to know as the Great Depression. In America there was mass unemployment, with businesses collapsing and empires downsizing. Thousands were forced onto the street and families began to break apart as poverty, starvation and suicide engulfed the country. At first, Cleo and Phoebe Short had attempted to keep their business afloat, but luxuries such as miniature golf were no longer a priority for the working class and they suffered significant losses. One day in 1930, Cleo drove out to the Charlestown Bridge and abandoned his car, leaving his family to fend for themselves. The police conducted a search of the area but his body was not recovered, and as their finances grew worse, Phoebe was forced to move her five daughters – with both Eleanor and Muriel following Elizabeth – to more affordable accommodation.
It was a profitable and golden age for motion pictures
But for many American youths, they found an escape from the nightmare of real life through cinema, and it was with the magic of the motion picture that Elizabeth felt most at home. ‘During the Great Depression, movies provided a window on a different, more exciting world. Despite economic hardship, many people gladly paid the twenty-five cents it cost to go to the movies,’ detailed The 1920s and the Great Depression 1920-1940. ‘Although the thirties were a difficult time for many Americans, it was a profitable and golden age for motion pictures and radio industries. By late in the decade, approximately sixty-five per cent of the population was attending the movies once a week. The nation boasted over fifteen thousand movie theatres, more than the number of banks and double the number of hotels. Sales of radios also greatly increased during the thirties, from just over thirteen million in 1930 to twenty-eight million by 1940. Nearly ninety per cent of American households owned a radio. Clearly, movies and radio had taken the country by storm.’
While many Americans would lose their jobs or watch helplessly as their businesses collapse around them, Aggie Underwood’s career was on the rise at the time of the Wall Street crash, with the world always turning to the newspapers to help guide them through a crisis. Having spent several years watching her male colleagues reporting on the latest news sensations, Underwood patiently waited, learning the ropes and studying her colleagues, so that when the moment came she would be able to seize the opportunity without hesitation. And that moment would come in the early morning hours of 24 March 1934, when forty-year-old film industry accountant Eric Madison was shot six times as he lay asleep in bed. His body lay undisturbed until a day later, at which point the local police launched a manhunt for his wife, thirty-eight-year-old Nellie May. ‘Search for the widow, Nellie Madison, was inspired by reports of a neighbour that she left the apartment alone shortly after dawn yesterday after pinning a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door,’ revealed Oakland Tribune two days after the murder. ‘The sign was obeyed until Mrs. Belle Bradley, apartment house manager, became alarmed by the prolonged stillness in the Madison quarters and entered the find Madison’s body sprawled on the bed.’
The same day that the newspapers reported on the crime, the police apprehended Madison in a mountain cabin, and she was arrested and charged with the first-degree murder of her spouse. The prosecuting attorney was determined to win the death penalty, and the public, obsessed with such outlaws as Bonnie and Clyde, were fascinated with the notion of a woman killer. ‘By the early thirties, crime reporting was a reliable circulation-booster for daily newspapers,’ claimed writer Kathleen Cairns in a 2006 article. ‘As women who seemed to live by their own rules and life choices, female outlaws received significant attention during the Depression from members of the media who were eager to play up the seductive and sexually-titillating aspects of their exploits. Los Angeles newspapers, for example, still wrote about ‘tiger woman’ Clara Phillips twelve years after her conviction, reminding readers of her sexual relationship with a smitten court-watcher who helped her escape following her murder conviction.’
By the time that Madison was taken into custody, Underwood had already impressed her superiors at the newspaper, not only with her impressive typing skills but also her ability to make those she questioned feel comfortable enough to open up to her. She had first proved this three years earlier after a District Attorney, David Clark, was accused of shooting and killing politician Charles H. Crawford. Journalists had desperately searched for a break in the case, but novice Underwood had the ingenious idea of interviewing the suspect’s parents. They maintained his innocence and the Los Angeles Record exploited this exclusive with a front-page story. It was clear from the very beginning that Underwood knew how to manipulate any given situation to her advantage, and now her attention had turned to Madison, a woman who had married a delinquent at the age of thirteen, had been married numerous times since and, as the Los Angeles Times maintained, chain-smoked and drank whiskey.
She took an immediate interest in the murder of Eric Madison and just one day after her arrest, the two met to discuss the events that had led to his death. ‘‘What was your childhood like?’ she asked. Childhood was a pet topic of Underwood’s, since she was an orphan who had been reared in a series of foster homes in Indiana before ending up in California in her mid-teens,’ said Cairns in her book The Enigma Woman: The Death Sentence of Nellie May Madison. ‘Nellie’s family life had been much more stable and secure, yet she declared her childhood to have been, simply, ‘unhappy.’ When Underwood tried to shift the conversation to the murder, she ran into a roadblock. As she had done in the interrogation, Nellie shut down, declaring, ‘I prefer to wait until my attorney gets here this afternoon. I’m sorry, but I just can’t say any more right now.’ Aggie Underwood was again in attendance early that afternoon when attorney Joseph Ryan met with reporters in the Hall of Justice press room, following his first meeting with his client.’
While she had failed to gain a confession from Madison, Underwood was told stories of domestic abuse at the hands of her husband, the motive that most women have for murdering their partners. Stories of violence against Nellie May Madison would become a recurring theme in the coverage of the subsequent trial, but the femme fatale aspect was the main angle that journalists exploited. Here was a woman murdering a man, and the fact that Bonnie Parker and her lover Clyde Barrow were killed by the authorities just two months after Madison’s arrest, made her villainous ways all the more alluring to the public. As court papers regarding Madison were released, it was discovered that she had previously accused another husband, William Brown, of abuse, and the fact that she had been reluctant to discuss the murder with the press caused the newspaper to turn on her.
Yet Underwood remained supportive towards Madison, understanding how close to breaking point an individual can get if they are pushed to their limits. It was something that she had seen through the various violent stories that had been investigated by the Los Angeles Record in the years that she had been with the paper. It would also be the murder of Eric Madison and her interactions with Nellie May that led Underwood to focus solely on crime stories, with the violence and corruption that mankind is capable of proving fascinating to the young reporter. But on 5 July 1934, a little over three months after the murder, Madison found herself convicted and sentenced to death, with the hanging set to take place in late September. Despite the negative image that the majority of the press had maintained throughout the trial, there was a public outcry against the decision, while Underwood continued to humanise the accused in her succession of newspaper articles.
At the eleventh hour, as Nellie May Madison faced the noose, Frank Merriam, the Governor of California, signed a reprieve that commuted her sentence to life in prison. ‘Since I became governor, three murderers have been sentenced to be hanged,’ he would explain. ‘In two cases, I let the law take its course. In the third, while it was a very close case, I gave the defendant the benefit of the doubt and commuted the sentence. The more I have looked into the matter, the more I am satisfied that I made no mistake.’ Thanks in part to the way in which Underwood had covered the case, a woman had narrowly escaped death, and her experience in investigating Madison gave Underwood a deeper understand of the craft of journalism, and confidence in her own ability to tell a worthwhile story. She had become fascinated with the exploration of criminals and victims, and this would come into play once again in the final weeks of 1935 with the unexpected death of Thelma Todd.
‘The finding by autopsy surgeons last night of evidence that monoxide gas poisoning caused the death of Thelma Todd, the blonde motion picture actress whose body was found in her automobile in a Castellammare garage yesterday morning, did not lesson the vigour of an investigation being made by police into the riddle of circumstances surrounding the finding of the film player’s body,’ announced the Los Angeles Times. Twenty-nine-year-old Todd, who had shared the screen with the likes of Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, had displayed no signs of depression, and no reasons could be found for why a young rising star without financial of personal issues would have taken her own life. What the investigating officers did find suspicious, however, was that in the summer prior to her death, she had received several letters attempting to extort her to the sum of $10,000.
There doesn’t have to be a prosecution
But this harassment had come to an end following the arrest of thirty-four-year-old housing superintendent Harry Schimanski. ‘I haven’t been advised lately what has been done towards disposing of the man’s arrest,’ Todd told the media on 30 August. ‘I expect more word from government officials later. The arrest of the suspect does give me the satisfaction of clearing implications that this letter-writing business was a publicity stunt. So far as I am concerned, there doesn’t have to be a prosecution, but I am ready to follow any advice investigators may give.’ The mixture of suspicious death and glamorous movie star proved too tempting for Underwood to resist, and the reporter would even be present at the autopsy. In a moment of dark humour, she looked around the morgue at all the corpses hidden under white sheets, turned to the coroner and scoffed, ‘Can you imagine what any of these guys would have given to be under a sheet with Thelma Todd?’
The death of this promising film star would remain unsolved and has since gone down in the annals of history as a Hollywood tragedy. But murder in Los Angeles had become as common as movie premieres, and even outside of the film industry, there were numerous reports of murders committed by members of organised crime families, drug dealers and pimps. And yet despite witnessing the autopsy of Thelma Todd, nothing could prepare Underwood for the sight of Elizabeth Short, another attractive young woman reduced to pieces of meat, her internal organs now on display for the curious reporter to see. She had never seen such brutal violence before, but at the time that Todd took her last breath, a series of murders more than two thousand miles away displayed the same kind of vicious dismemberment and calculating unveiling of the crime scene as that of Short. It was a horror spree that would bring the long and illustrious career of a revered law veteran to a disappointing conclusion, and yet much like the death of the Black Dahlia, it was one that both fascinated and repulsed the public in equal measures.
It was a warm afternoon on 23 September 1935 when two teenage boys made their way along Kingsbury Run, a path of unkempt land that ran through the industrial district of Cleveland. The pair were kicking a ball back and forth, enjoying the late summer weather after a day of being locked in a classroom. When one of the boys failed to catch the ball, he carefully navigated his way down the side of a slope known to the locals as Jackass Hill, where he stumbled upon a headless corpse lying among the bush. When a sergeant and patrolman from the local police station arrived, they found the remains of a young, white man, who had been decapitated while still alive and then emasculated post-mortem. Approximately thirty feet away they found a second body, an older male whose head and genitals had also been removed. While the first corpse seemed relatively fresh, the other had clearly been dead for some time, yet both had been discarded together in this wasteland. The younger man was soon identified as twenty-eight-year-old Edward Andrassy, a petty criminal, but the identity of the other victim remained a mystery.
Both the authorities and the media soon drew comparisons to a body that had been discovered a year earlier, the decomposing torso of a young woman that the newspapers christened the Lady of the Lake. Over the next three years, the city was besieged with numerous discoveries of decapitated and dismembered bodies, twelve in total, with only two being positively identified. The victims were those that would not be missed: prostitutes, the homeless, drug addicts. The police launched a manhunt that resulting in thousands of suspects being detained for questioning, with detectives interviewing slaughter house workers and surgeons due to the way in which the victims were slain. ‘Many times we thought we had something,’ Detective Peter Merylo told the press. ‘But after exhaustive search and checking, the leads always turned out to be worthless.’ With the city in a grip of panic, the public turned to the police and government officials for answers.
Eliot Ness had become a household name as the lead figure in a group of special agents combatting organised crime in Chicago known as the Untouchables. During the late twenties, he had upheld the values of Prohibition and had played a small role in the 1931 conviction of infamous gangster Al Capone. By 1934, Prohibition had come to an end, and so Ness relocated to Cleveland, where he held the position of Public Safety Director. Ness had succeeded in helping to bring down one of the most notorious crime leaders in American history, and now he was expected to bring the so-called Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run to justice. But he would fail in his mission, with the killer announcing in a letter to the Chief of Police that he was now to continue his work in Southern California. ‘I felt bad operating on those people, but science must advance,’ claimed the culprit. ‘What did their lives mean in comparison to hundreds of sick and diseased twisted bodies? Just laboratory guinea pigs found on any public street. No one missed them when I failed. My last case was successful.’
The media would make comparisons between the murders committed by the Mad Butcher and that of the Black Dahlia a decade later. In both cases, the bodies had been found naked, exposed for the whole world to see, while the torso and genitals had been mutilated and dismembered. Yet while the victims of Cleveland had been seemingly picked at random, the death of Elizabeth Short was clearly intentional, personal, even sexual. The victims of the thirties crime spree were selected because they would not be missed, but the killer of Short had left her body on display. They wanted her death to be known. But much like the Mad Butcher, and their earlier counterpart Jack the Ripper, the man who took Short’s life then taunted the police and media with letters that proved that they were the one in control. Neither Jack the Ripper nor the Mad Butcher were ever positively identified, the killers having long ago taken the truth to their graves, and now the Los Angeles Police Department faced similar pressure in the hunt for the Black Dahlia Avenger.
But why Elizabeth Short? What was it about this ordinary young woman who had made her way out West to become a star that could justify such a violent fate? Her whole life had been marred with tragedy, and while death came to her far too young, for many, her untimely demise almost felt inevitable. In a life of a mere twenty-two years, she had suffered through more than many would endure in a lifetime. While Aggie Underwood had thrived through the newspaper industry at the height of the Great Depression, Short and her family faced destitution. Phoebe Short would eventually find work in a bakery, but three of her daughters developed asthma early in life due to the cold, damp air of the East coast, and it was Elizabeth that suffered the worst, regularly finding herself under the care of local doctors. By the time she left high school, the winter weather had become too much and so her mother sent her to stay with friends in Miami, Florida until the climate improved that spring, an arrangement that continued for the next few years.
Her health began to improve during her time by the beach, and so she was determined to spend as much time away from Massachusetts as possible. Events took an unexpected turn when they received a letter from Cleo, who had apparently not taken his own life a decade earlier but had moved out to California to start a new life. While the rest of the family were dismissive about allowing him back into their lives, it was clear that Elizabeth was curious about rekindling her relationship with her estranged father. But even as life looked like it was returning to some kind of normality, once again there was tragedy around the corner. The world was already at war with Germany and the Axis powers, but once again the United States had been reluctant to enter the conflict, yet this would change on 7 December 1941 when Japan launched an attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. With this act, the United States formerly joined the Second World War. ‘President Roosevelt, with Vice President Henry A. Wallace and Speaker Sam Rayburn seated behind him, appeared before a bank of microphones and uttered words of history,’ recalled American Magazine. ‘With the gravity the urgency of the moment required, the President said, ‘Yesterday, 7 December 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.’’
Yet life continued for those who remained at home, and even as Elizabeth’s older sister Dorothea found work in Washington D.C. as a cryptographer, Elizabeth made her way back home to her family a changed woman. ‘When Elizabeth returned to Medford, she was no longer the innocent school girl who had reminded Mary Pacios of Snow White,’ wrote Donald H. Wolfe. ‘Eleanor Kurz, a friend of Elizabeth’s older sisters, Dotti and Ginnie, remembered that when Elizabeth returned from Miami, she wore heavy make-up and would often hang around a popular cafeteria on Salem Street owned by Donald Griffin. Elizabeth had only recently returned from Florida in 1942 when Eleanor spotted her in Mr. Griffin’s cafeteria. ‘I remember I hadn’t seen Betty in a while, and she was sitting very straight on a counter stool furthest from the door, dressed to the minute in a leopard fur coat and hat,’ Eleanor recalled. ‘Betty had her legs crossed, and she wore dark stockings and suede pumps and a lot of make-up by Medford standards. She was in her teens but looked older, sophisticated.’
By the time she was eighteen, Elizabeth was craving excitement. Having spent time away from her family while in Miami, Medford suddenly felt small in comparison to the world she was missing out on. Ever since Cleo had reached out to them, she had wanted to know more about his life since he had abandoned his family. And the chance to visit California, the home of Hollywood, was proving too tempting to resist. Her time in Florida had helped to ease her asthma, but now she was back in Massachusetts, she was desperate to return to warmer weather. But she had a family here, one that had not turned their back on her, so could she now do that to them? In her father’s absence, Elizabeth had grown close to her siblings, and their mother had worked hard to provide the best life she could for her daughters, but Elizabeth was a restless soul that wanted more from the world than it had so far provided. She dreamed of neon lights, handsome soldiers, and a place where she could start over again. The journey from Massachusetts to California would be long and arduous, but she had realised from a young age that nothing good came easy.
Even if she made it as far as her father’s home, she would still not have reached Hollywood. Cleo had found a house in Vallejo, a city located close to the San Francisco Bay, where he obtained work in various shipyards. It was hardly Sunset Boulevard but it was closer than Medford, and the relocation promised a reunion with the father she barely knew. A bus ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles was a relatively simple task, and if her father offered to finance the return ticket then she could at least see Tinseltown for herself. She knew that she would miss the people but this was just something that she had to do. Heading out West with only a few dollars and a head full of dreams was the ultimate ‘rags to riches’ tale, one that many Hollywood stars could claim as their own. But for every one that found fame and fortune, there were thousands of others that eventually returned home, defeated and destitute. But if anyone could make it there, then why not Elizabeth? She finally decided that she would take a leap of faith and head to California.
She’d have to go to Hollywood
One of Elizabeth’s neighbours during her time in Medford was Mary Pacios, who was just a child when the two met in 1939. ‘A warm, stunning young woman with a flawless complexion, with blackest of hair, and translucent blue-green eyes,’ she detailed in her book Childhood Shadows: The Hidden Story of the Black Dahlia Murder. In later years she would also describe the moment that she saw Elizabeth for the last time. ‘She was all dressed up in something light blue, and she took my hand as we crossed Salem Street and headed toward the gas station,’ said Pacios. ‘I remember the gas station manager stopping his work to come over and talk to her. I guess I stood there shifting from one foot to another as they chit-chatted and he made a date to see her before she left for California. She said something about Hollywood, and as we walked to United Farmers, I asked if she was going to be a movie star. She laughed and told me that’s what she hoped to do, and if you wanted to be a movie star, it wasn’t going to happen to you in Medford. She’d have to go to Hollywood.’ In the late months of 1942, Elizabeth finally decided that she had waited for Hollywood long enough and, having arranged to stay with Cleo, made the journey from the East coast to California.
But this chance of redemption was not enough to convinced him that she deserved a loving father, and before long he began to lose patience with her teenage ways. Elizabeth was untidy and was often out gallivanting with men, and soon this proved to be an irritant to Cleo, resulting in nonstop arguments between the two. After a life of poverty, she had finally made it to California and now wanted to have some fun. Although the tabloids would later paint her as something damaged and cheap, jumping from one bed to another, in truth she merely enjoyed the company of men and often went out dancing with soldiers that had returned from Europe. But her father found this behaviour obnoxious and soon the disagreements between them grew into hostility, and both came to realise that she was no longer welcome in his home. ‘I told her to go her way and I’d go mine,’ he later admitted. ‘We didn’t get along and I wanted nothing more to do with her.’ Upon hearing about the brutal murder of his twenty-two-year-old daughter, Cleo Short told detectives, ‘I want nothing to do with it.’
Allegedly following an argument over his own drunken behaviour, Cleo saw Elizabeth for the last time on Friday, 29 January 1943. Hitching a ride from a soldier, she made the three-hundred mile journey south from Vallejo to Camp Cooke, an army base located close to the California city of Lompoc. With construction having only begun on the site less than eighteen months earlier, even before the United States entered the Second World War, Camp Cooke was in its infancy when Elizabeth arrived looking for work and lodging. With this new start, she now began introducing herself as Beth, and with prior experience as a cashier she found employment at the Post Exchange. She immediately began to attract the attention of the men around the base, yet despite having the pick of the base, Beth spent her time in a plutonic friendship with the soldier that had brought her down from Vallejo. But eventually she was forced to file a complaint against him after she was viciously beaten, and instead found refuge at the home of a female sergeant, Mary Stradder.
Despite coming first place in a beauty contest, civilian cutbacks forced Beth to search elsewhere for work, moving into a friend’s spare room on Montecito Street in Santa Barbara. But on 23 September 1943, she was arrested by local police while drinking with soldiers. At nineteen, she was two years younger than the legal drinking age, and as her mugshot was taken, she knew that she had to rethink the path that she had taken. ‘Policewoman Mary Unkefer realised Beth was no one’s version of a typical barfly,’ explained author John Gilmore in Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder. ‘She stayed with the policewoman until arrangements were made at a Santa Barbara neighbourhood; here jurisdiction would be taken over Beth, and she’d be fed and taken care of. She was nineteen-years-old and her father refused to take custody of her. It was decided that Beth would be returned to Massachusetts to remain under her mother’s custody. Unkefer drove her to the Greyhound bus depot and saw her safely on board.’
Advised never to return to Santa Barbara, Beth was sent home to her family with the promise that arrest would be kept from her mother. But instead of heading to the cold climate of Medford, she instead spent time in Florida, enjoying the social scene of Tampa Bay, before eventually returning to California. This time, however, she had her sights set on Hollywood. Much like during the Great Depression, Americans had sought the sanctuary of cinemas as a way to escape the horrifying reality of war, and the film industry had begun to thrive like never before. There were new stars of the silver screen, with Humphrey Bogart as the flawed hero, and Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman as the mysterious beauties. For those that enjoyed musicals, there were the films of Fred Astaire, and as the American western gained popularity, the likes of John Wayne became cultural icons. Beth had never lost her dream of becoming a movie star, and finally she arrived in Los Angeles, where she hoped that dream would become a reality.
The image of Hollywood is often romanticised, with beautiful people living perfect lives, but the city that Short arrived in was awash with murder and conspiracy. Much like with New York and Chicago, by the forties organised crime had infiltrated the West Coast, with the most dangerous figure emerging from this world being former boxer-turner-gangster Mickey Cohen. Having previously worked under Al Capone, Cohen was sent to Los Angeles to join forces with Bugsy Siegel, who had built a gambling empire in Las Vegas and was now looking to take over Tinseltown. But the powers that be suspected Siegel of stealing money, and so on 20 June 1947, he was assassinated at the home of his girlfriend. Cohen had already begun to attract the attention of the police following the 1945 killing of bookmaker Maxie Shaman, and with the authorities desperate to clean up the streets, Chief Clemence B. Horrall ordered Lieutenant Willie Burns to assemble their own version of the Untouchables, a group of covert officers that would work outside the limits of the law in order to bring Cohen’s reign of terror to an end.
The war against crime would come in the form of the Gangster Squad, the name bestowed upon Burns’ secret operation, that was assembled to be an unshakable force of nature. ‘The names of the seven handpicked recruits suddenly disappeared from police rolls. Working deep undercover, they had no office, just two unmarked sedans,’ explained biographer Tere Tereba in Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster. ‘Given a ‘no holds barred policy,’ they did whatever was considered necessary to implement their mandate: stop Mickey Cohen. Gangster Squad member Jack O’Mara recalled decades later, ‘We did a lot of things we’d be indicted for today.’ It didn’t take long for Mickey to hear about the clandestine and elite intelligence division. Mockingly, he called them the Stupidity Squad.’ But it wasn’t just organised crime that had the city in a constant state of fear. The forties saw several stories in the newspapers relating to attractive young woman being brutally murdered by an unknown assailant, one of whom had even crossed paths with Elizabeth Short.
In the early hours of 12 October 1944, Charles Atwood, a janitor for an apartment building, was awoken by the sound of raised voices in an upstairs residence. Around this time, one of the residents also became aware of the commotion, allegedly claiming that he heard a woman scream, ‘Stop, stop, you’re killing me.’ Later that morning, Atwood and his wife noticed that one of the apartment doors was ajar and from inside came the sound of running water. After receiving no response from the occupant, they entered the premises to find the semi-naked body of twenty-year-old oil heiress Georgette Bauerdorf lying face-down in the bathtub. As police arrived on the scene, spots of blood were located around the bed, and a washcloth had been forced into the victim’s throat. The time of death was estimated to have been 2:30am and the cause asphyxiation. She had been assaulted and raped prior to her murder. ‘Miss Bauerdorf cried out while she fought with the intruder, who extinguished the lights in front of her apartment and waited in the darkness until she had entered,’ reported the Reading Eagle.
Despite coming from a life of wealth and privilege, Bauerdorf had moved from her family home in New York to stay with her sister in Los Angeles. During her time in the city, she would spend many evenings working as a hostess at the Hollywood Canteen. Previously known as Dominos, a popular celebrity nightspot, the Canteen became a local hangout for servicemen on leave from the war, and was notable for many movie stars volunteering as waiters for the soldiers. It was not uncommon for a young Army officer to be served by such screen legends as Bette Davis or Frank Sinatra, but the staff would also be filled with young men and women eager to do their part for the troops, while also enjoying rubbing shoulders with their favourite stars. Among her colleagues at the Canteen was allegedly one Elizabeth Short. She had enjoyed dancing with the soldiers and working as a hostess, and on the night of her death Bauerdorf had been at the venue. Her murder would remain a mystery and her killer never identified.
In the years since both of the women were murdered, journalists and authors have investigated similarities between the crimes. ‘Someone in the Sheriff’s office made a connection between the Bauerdorf murder and the Dahlia case. The suspect Aggie had been told about might be ‘one and the same, if anyone can figure out who he was,’’ claimed John Gilmore. ‘LAPD received the lead on the Canteen and three detectives were assigned to follow it through: Marty Baughm, J. Wass, and Frank Esquival. They told Aggie, ‘If there is a link, it’s the only one we’ve made. It’s not our case and it’ll have to go upstairs. The Canteen is L.A., but the murder was in the county, so it’s the Sheriff’s unsolved…’ It was not clear if Short had acted as a hostess at the Canteen, though the detectives had been told by Lieutenant Garner Brown that she’d met several guys there, including Gordon Fickling. While records were checked with the Canteen’s sponsors, Esquival interviewed a former hostess who remembered that Arthur Lake once talked to both of the murdered girls. Lake was immediately contacted and met with the detectives.’
This was the fourth sex murder here this year
Four months after the death of Short, on 3 May 1947, the naked body of thirty-six-year-old Dorothy Montgomery was found mutilated under a tree in a vacant lot, the victim having been raped and strangled. According to news reports, she had arranged to meet her fifteen-year-old daughter at a playground, but instead of finding her mother, she found her car stained in blood. Understandably, the media immediately made comparisons to the fate of Short. ‘The method of the murder was similar in some respects to that of Elizabeth Short, twenty-two, known as the Black Dahlia, whose nude, mutilated body was found in a vacant lot on 15 January,’ wrote the Oakland Tribune. ‘This was the fourth sex murder here this year. Jeanne Axford French and Evelyn Winters were other victims of killers who have not been apprehended.’ But more murders would follow. Just nine days after the discovery of Montgomery, the body of thirty-seven-year-old Laura Trelstad was found in a field. Her clothes were torn and her face beaten. ‘The latest victim, unlike the others, was not mutilated,’ confirmed a local paper.
The gruesome sex murders of young women would continue for several years, with the 1948 death of forty-two-year-old real estate agent Gladys Kern, who was stabbed to death in a Los Feliz apartment, and the 1950 torture and murder of twenty-eight-year-old Louise Springer. One of the more intriguing cases from this era was the mysterious disappearance of Jean Spangler, a twenty-six-year-old actress who vanished after leaving her home in the Park La Brea area of Los Angeles in October 1949. Her body was never recovered and the case remained unsolved. It would seem that for attractive young women, Los Angeles was a dangerous place to be. But why would there be so many gruesome murders in such a short space of time, and were these connected or merely a series of unrelated attacks, many of which shared such similarities as rape and dismemberment? ‘Almost impossible to capture, diagnose, or predict using ordinary investigative methods, and perversely attracted to the police who are pursuing them,’ said psychologist Joel Norris in his 1988 study Serial Killers: The Growing Menace, ‘serial murderers dance just beyond their pursuers’ reach from state to state, retreating into the background, then springing up again in a different part of the country to begin another series of seemingly motiveless killings.’
Perhaps naïve to the dangers that Hollywood presented, Elizabeth Short may have been oblivious to the violence that was all around her, but for Aggie Underwood, witnessing the aftermath of rape and murder was all in a day’s work. After almost a decade of forging a reputation as a ruthless and determined reporter, her perseverance finally paid off in January 1935 when she was offered a position in the Los Angeles Herald-Express. The newspaper had entered the Hearst empire just four years earlier when two rival publications, San Francisco Examiner and the Los Angeles Express, were merged together to create a rival to the Los Angeles Times. For Underwood, this promotion meant that her journalism would reach a wider readership, and with the city full of rape and murder, there was no shortage of sensational stories to report on. And while the release of ‘tiger girl’ Clara Phillips in the summer of 1935 would gain significant exposure, her first new story at the newspaper was the arrest of Laurel Crawford.
On 10 December 1939, forty-one-year-old Crawford was the sole survivor of an automobile accident after his car plunged a thousand feet from the Mount Wilson Observatory, killing his wife and three children. Described as a shell-shocked veteran of the Great War, Laurel H. Crawford had initially pleaded his innocence and blamed the incident on mechanical failure. ‘It’s all my fault. I shouldn’t have been driving the car. It had bad brakes and the old gear box was in bad shape,’ he maintained. ‘The car was going faster and faster. Ruth and Helen in the front seat with me started screaming. My wife grabbed the wheel. We headed over the side of the road. Somehow I managed to jump as the car shot out into space.’ With a trial date set for 6 February 1940, Crawford faced four counts of murder as suspicion began to mount against him, with the revelation that he had recently taken out a $40,500 life and accident insurance policy on his family.
Underwood took an immediate interest in the case, and with her reputation now demanding respect not only from her contemporaries but also from law enforcement, she became a key part of the investigation. ‘When asked by Sheriff’s investigators for her opinion, Aggie said she had observed Laurel’s clothing and his demeanour and neither lent credibility to his account. She concluded that Laurel was ‘guilty as hell,’’ explained Joan Renner in her biography The First with the Latest: Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City. ‘Her hunch was right. Upon investigation, police discovered that Laurel had engineered the accident to collect over $30,000 in life insurance. Hollywood was Aggie’s beat too. When stars misbehaved or perished under mysterious or tragic circumstances, Aggie was there to record everything for Herald readers.’
By 1943, Underwood had been married for over twenty years, and with a growing friction between Aggie and Harry over her long work hours, the inevitable finally came when they finally decided that the logical course of action was to divorce. From there on, Underwood remained a working single mother, working hard to feed and clothe her two children, while also bringing the headlines to the Los Angeles masses. ‘I remember my folks discussing divorce when my brother and I were quite young,’ recalled their daughter. ‘They called us together and said they were thinking about living separately and we could choose which one we wanted to live with.’ Despite the end of her marriage, Underwood never allowed her personal life to stand in the way of a story, and for the remainder of her life she would continue to write under her married name, the one that become respected all across Los Angeles.
Through her journalism, Underwood was known as relentless and even more imposing than her male counterparts. ‘When covering trials, Aggie would cajole lawyers into ‘switching witness order so she could make the most exciting deadline.’ She had a large network of city and court officials in her pocket, and would use them to get the story, fairness be damned,’ detailed L.A. Weekly in 2017. ‘‘Once,’ she remembered, ‘I quietly dialled the phone on the desk of the clerk just before he was handed the verdict. He let the receiver lie open, and as he read, his words were carried to the Herald-Express city desk and the rewrite man a couple of minutes before the deadline.’’ Yet while her ruthless approach to landing the exclusive could have alienated her from other reports, her no-nonsense attitude earned her the admiration of other journalists and would prove to be an inspiration for other aspiring reporters. ‘She was one of the best crime and court reporters of the thirties and forties,’ declared Tom Reilly, the chairman of the journalist department of the California State University, Northridge.
But all of the horror that she had witnessed in her two decades of reporting could not prepare her for the gruesome sight that she would see on the morning of 15 January 1947, as she stepped into a vacant lot in Leimert Park to see the mutilated remains of Elizabeth Short. The girl had clearly once been attractive, but the beauty had been slashed and drained from her face, it was difficult to imagine that just twenty-four hours earlier she had been so full of life. With no identification, the corpse was labelled Jane Doe #1 and relocated to the County Morgue, but over the next few days the mystery surrounding the Black Dahlia would fascinate America, her endearing smile and intoxicating black hair becoming a regular fixture of the front pages of newspapers across the nation. This girl had travelled from back East to seek fame in Hollywood, but a series of events had led her to be tortured, mutilated, murdered and bisected. How and why this came to be is still often debated, but what is known is that Short travelled to California in the summer of 1946, and in less than six months she was dead.
She had claimed to have once been engaged, having met an Air Force officer in Florida called Matthew Michael Gordon Jr., but his plane had been shot down the previous August and the young woman had struggled to accept the loss. Short had also dated another pilot called Joseph Gordon Fickling, and the two had remained good friends after she had moved out to Los Angeles, regularly corresponding in letters. But as details about her life were discovered following her death, the tabloids began to paint a negative portrait of Short, often claiming she had loose morals and had appeared in pornography, despite no evidence having ever been found to support these theories. ‘Beth had gravitated to the fringes of the Hollywood set,’ claimed an article published by Murder Casebook in 1990. ‘Like many attractive young women of the time, she was trying to get into the movies. She had a few jobs as an extra, but was more often to be found on the casting couch than on a film set. To make ends meet, she worked as a waitress or as a nude photographic model. Slowly but surely, she was drifting into a life of prostitution.’
Elizabeth always wanted to be an actress
While the accusations that Short had traded sex for money, or had even posed for naked photographs, is without merit, one cannot deny that during her time in Los Angeles he consorted with some questionable characters. But often this was out of necessity: she was a young, vulnerable woman thousands of miles from home with no money and no guarantee on where her next meal would come from. She was known to go on dates with men, often for a meal and a dance, but sex was never promised to the suitor. ‘Elizabeth always wanted to be an actress. She was ambitious and beautiful and full of life, but she had her moments of despondency,’ admitted her mother in the days following her murder. ‘Sometimes she would be gay and carefree one moment, then in the depths of despair another. She was a good girl. She wrote often, at least once a week. It was only ten days ago when she wrote me from San Diego telling me she had a job in the Naval hospital there. I never dreamed she was having financial difficulties. Her letters were always so cheerful.’
In August 1946, Short crossed paths with Marjorie Graham, an old friend from Massachusetts, and the two shared a sleazy room at the Hawthorne Hotel on North Orange Drive, before Graham brought her to the home of Mark Hansen. A Dutch immigrant who had moved to the United States to open a series of cinemas, along with the Hollywood nightclub Florentine Gardens, Hansen allegedly had ties to the criminal underworld, with a casino hidden within his venue. His home on Carlos Avenue would house many fresh-faced hopefuls after they had first arrived in the city, and he took an immediate shine to Elizabeth Short. But her habit of going out in the evening with a consortium of young men began to anger her host, and before long he had demanded that she would have to find alternative lodgings.
During her time at the house she became friend with another wannabe actress, twenty-four-year-old Ann Toth. ‘She lived there about two months,’ Toth told the authorities. ‘Then she went away for about three weeks, I don’t know where. When she returned, she said her girl friend, Marjorie Graham, had left for Boston, but that she hadn’t gone because she would rather die than bear the cold of the East. Two or three weeks before Christmas, she said she was going to Berkeley. But instead, she went to San Diego. Just before Christmas Day, she sent me a wire saying she was low on funds and asking me to send her $20. She had been gone about three weeks when I received another wire saying she was coming back and stating that a letter would follow. That is the last time I heard of her. The letter never came.’ While Short had intended on travelling north to visit her sister Virginia in Berkeley, she instead headed south and found herself in San Diego.
Much like Aggie Underwood thirty years earlier, Elizabeth Short found herself on the street, struggling to keep warm as the cold winter weather gradually approached. Having run out of money and with no friends in San Diego, she found refuge at the Aztec Theatre on 5th Avenue, where she spent the night alongside several other homeless youths. It was here, on 8 December, that a twenty-two-year-old cashier from the theatre called Dorothy French would find the young woman and, taking pity on the suspected runaway, offered to give her somewhere to rest for the night. The pair returned to Dorothy’s home in Pacific Beach where she lived with her mother, Elvera. The stranger revealed very little about herself, but did claim that he fiancé had died during the war and that she had come to San Diego in search of work. Despite her moments of depression, both Elvera and Dorothy took a shine to Short, who introduced herself as Beth and explained that she wanted to be a movie star.
During the investigation into the murder of Elizabeth Short, the police would initially focus their search on a red-haired man that was finally identified as Robert Manley. Having been discharged from the Army, Manley and his wife Harriette had recently become parents, and he had arrived in San Diego on business. But as he drove through the city, he saw an attractive young woman standing outside the bus station. ‘She was such a pretty girl that I stopped and raked up a conversation with her,’ he admitted. He would later insist that he had decided to approach her as a way to test himself, to prove that he still loved his wife. ‘I knew Betty Short, sure,’ he told Underwood in an exclusive interview she had obtained for the Herald-Express. ‘I saw her twice. I even kissed her a couple of times. But believe me, knowing her has taught me to walk the straight and narrow. If ever a guy found himself in a mess, I’m it.’
The two had spent the evening together dancing and enjoying a meal while they got to know each other, before Manley returned her to the French home without anything developing between them. He intended on never seeing her again, but when he discovered that he was set to return to San Diego on 8 January, he wired her a message arranging to meet. By the time he arrived, she knew she had outstayed her welcome with Elvera and so asked Manley if he would drive her to Los Angeles. He agreed, and the next day they made the hundred-and-twenty mile journey from San Diego to Hollywood, finally arriving at approximately 5pm on a cool Thursday afternoon. From there, they made their way to the Biltmore Hotel on South Grand Avenue, where she intended on meeting her sister. After waiting in the lobby for some time, Manley said his farewell to Short and left the hotel, where she would remain until 10pm, when she finally made her way back out into the city. As legend would have it, this was the last confirmed sighting of Elizabeth Short until her remains were discovered the following week.
In the days following her exclusive interview with Manley, Aggie Underwood was suddenly removed from the Black Dahlia story for reasons unknown, but almost immediately her superiors changed their minds once again and she was promoted to city editor. No woman had ever held this position before, and it was a testament to Underwood’s talent and determination that she had succeeded to obtain such a title in a male-dominated industry. She had once gained a reputation for her no-nonsense approach to journalism, and now she would receive even more recognition in her new role. ‘She tells staffers, ‘Don’t lie to me. If you’re drunk, tell me about it, and I’ll replace you for the day. But if you’re drunk on the job, watch out!’’ revealed the Messenger-Inquirer. ‘An errant reporter phoned in a story, and then repaired to the nearest bar. He was startled to get a phone call from Aggie. ‘Howdja know I was here?’ he mumbled. ‘I know all the places, dear,’ Aggie replied ominously. ‘I never bawl out a reporter for making an honest mistake,’ Aggie says. ‘I figure he feels bad enough about it already, and there’s no need to rub it in.’ But when a reporter can’t do the job, Aggie adds, ‘I fire him myself. I don’t leave dirty work for an assistant.’’
While Manley was one of the last people believed to have seen Short alive, he was soon eliminated as a suspect, and on 25 January 1947, twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short was laid to rest surrounded by her mother and sisters at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. It had been ten days since her body was discovered and neither the police nor the authorities were any closer to identifying a suspect. The following day, the Los Angeles Examiner received a postcard from an individual claiming to the Black Dahlia Avenger, who took responsibility for the murder and offered to provide proof that they were the man the police were looking for. ‘Here is it,’ the correspondent said. ‘Turning in Wednesday 29 January, 10am. Had my fun at police.’ Soon afterwards, the newspaper received Short’s purse, which included a black address book that featured contact details for the likes of Joseph Gordon Fickling and Mark Hansen.
It would be another two years before the investigation had any further developments, during which time Underwood had settled into her position of power and had penned an autobiography, Newspaperwoman. ‘Aggie took great pains to distance herself from the sob-sister line of reporting that was the traditional beat for female journalists,’ wrote lawyer Piu Eatwell in Black Dahlia, Red Rose. ‘Underwood wrote like a man, cussed like a man, and joined in her male colleagues’ pranks. Once, she slapped the city editor in the face with a fish that had been brought to the office in a tank. It was a matter of great pride to Aggie that she was tougher than any man when it came to covering gruesome crime stories. ‘I was no sissy in my control of my reaction to blood and guts,’ she said. Once, when police discovered two rotting corpses on a living room sofa, male officers and newspapermen waited outside for the room to air. Aggie marched straight in, climbed over the corpses, retrieved their IDs, and phoned in her story. Afterwards, she sent her brown dress to the cleaners, but complained that ‘the odour persisted.’ But even Aggie was shocked at what she saw on Norton Avenue the morning of 15 January 1947.’
Meanwhile, the police continued to detain and question suspects in the murder of Short, and in January 1949, almost two months to the day since she had met her demise, the police arrested a twenty-seven-year-old bellhop called Leslie Dillon. With him now their primary focus, the Gangster Squad would lead the interrogation, leading to Dillon revealing his friend Jeff Connors as the Black Dahlia killer. Despite his suspicious behaviour, without any strong evidence they were forced to release Dillon and instead, on 13 January, Connors was taken into custody. Dillon wasted no time in going to the press to claim police brutality, reporting that he had been handcuffed to a radiator and repeatedly asked about his involvement in the death of Short. Connors, a forty-year-old freelance writer, was taken to City Hall for questioning, during which he admitted being a casual acquaintance of Dillon.
I am absolutely innocent!
‘I can prove exactly where I was at the time of the Dahlia murder,’ insisted Connors to detectives. ‘I am absolutely innocent!’ What would arouse suspicion, however, was that the person Connors chose to use as his alibi denied that they had ever met. Vicki Evans was a dancer who had made the headlines the previous September when she had been arrested at a party hosted by screen legend Humphrey Bogart. The actor allegedly demanded that the ‘dope charge’ be thrown out of court ‘because it wasn’t in the English language,’ but the arresting officers had noted that Evans had been the only one present who was not smoking marijuana when they entered the premises. ‘I didn’t know any was in the house,’ she claimed during the trial, before being acquitted in March 1949. When asked about her relationship with Connors, she had snorted, ‘I never heard of the jerk, he’s much too old for me.’
The last significant individual that would become a suspect during the trial was arguably the most fascinating. George Hodel Jr. was a highly respected Hollywood physician that ran a venereal disease clinic in Los Angeles and had become close friends with the likes of acclaimed filmmaker John Huston and Surrealist artist May Ray. The son of a Ukraine immigrant, Hodel was born in 1907 and by the age of nine had already been heralded as a concert pianist prodigy. A gifted child with a high IQ, he attended the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena at fifteen, and around the time that Aggie Underwood became a switchboard operator at the Los Angeles Record, Hodel was working as a crime reporter for the same newspaper. Shortly before turning thirty, he graduated from the University of Southern California Medical School, and two years later joined the San Francisco County Health Department. By the end of the thirties, he had opened the First Street Medical Clinic, and offered treatment for venereal disease to a host of celebrities and politicians.
With all the wealth and fame he had accumulated through his medical achievements, Hodel purchased the prestigious Sowden House on Franklin Avenue in Los Feliz, a mansion that had been designed by architect Lloyd Wright in the twenties. ‘The result was a Mayan Revival-style fortress, complete with a stage, secret room, central courtyard, and ornamented concrete blocks,’ described Curbed in 2019. ‘The blocks were actually an improvement on the senior Wright’s experiments with the form, leading him to praise his son’s ‘treatment of the block that preserves the plastic properties of concrete as material.’ The unique house quickly became a Los Angeles curio. In a 1938 article in the Los Angeles Times, a writer profiled the home, which ‘sure makes persons from the hinterland stop and stare on their trip to Hollywood.’’ The house became infamous for the wild parties that Hodel would hold, with his celebrity friends and their beautiful dates indulging in all manner of sex-and-drugs shenanigans.
One of his most controversial friends was Man Ray. A leading figure in both the Dada movement of the early twentieth century and its successor, the Surrealist scene, Man Ray’s artwork usually incorporated elements of pornography and sadomasochism that he often tried to indulge in in real life. His eccentricity was rivalled only by his arrogance. ‘Looking back, I cannot help admiring the diversity of my curiosity, and of my inventiveness,’ he boasted in his memoir Self Portrait. ‘I was really another Leonardo da Vinci. My interests embraced, besides painting, human anatomy, both male and female; ballistics and mechanics in general. For the first, I used my brother, two younger sisters, and casual playmates as guinea pigs. One outraged little girl complained to her mother and I received a thrashing, which I almost enjoyed; was I a budding sadist and masochist?’
When Hodel and May Ray became friends, they began to indulge in their shared love of sadomasochistic sex, sharing a fascination with the erotic writings of the Marquis de Sade. Both a nobleman and a writer that championed sexual liberation, he spent much of his life incarcerated in an asylum, where he wrote his most celebrated work, the most recognised of which was The 120 Days of Sodom. ‘Therиse was sixty-two; she was tall, thin, looked like a skeleton, not a hair was left on her head, not a tooth in her mouth, and from this opening in her body she exhaled an odour capable of flooring any bystander,’ he detailed in the novel. ‘Her ass was peppered with wounds, and her buttocks were so prodigiously slack one could have furled the skin around a walking stick; the hole in this splendid ass resembled the crater of a volcano what for width, and for aroma the pity of a privy; in all her life, Therиse declared, she had never once wiped her ass, whence we have proof positive that the shit of her infancy yet clung there. As for her vagina, it was the receptacle of everything ungodly, of every horror, a veritable sepulchre whose fetidity was enough to make your faint away.’
On 1 October 1949, Hodel’s fourteen-year-old daughter Tamar unexpectedly ran away from home, and when she was finally apprehended she claimed that her home life was depressing. As the detectives probed further, they uncovered far more than they had bargained for. ‘Finally, Tamar broke down: ‘Because of all those sex partes at the Franklin House.’ How did she know about such things, the Juvenile officers wanted to know; had she seen them? ‘Not only seen them,’ she said, ‘I took part in them myself,’’ explained her brother, former LAPD Homicide detective Steve Hodel, in his 2003 book Black Dahlia Avenger. ‘By the time the questioning was over, she had implicated not only father, but Fred Sexton and two other adult women in the ‘bizarre sex parties’ at our home. She also admitted to having had oral sex with numerous different men and boys, outside of the home, many of whom were stunned at the revelations and quickly moved to file charges.’
The trial of George Hodel began on 8 December 1949, during which his daughter accused Sexton of performing oral sex, before she had intercourse with her father. Following their copulation, twenty-two-year-old Barbara Sherman then gave Tamar cunnilingus. She also claimed that George Hodel had arranged for an abortion for her and even paid for the procedure. To mount his defence, Hodel hired respected attorney Robert A. Need, whose primary incentive was to discredit the young woman. Hodel had encountered his first taste of notoriety in 1945 when Ruth Spalding, his young secretary, passed away in the Georgia Street Receiving Hospital from an apparent overdose, but some suspected foul play. Now his own daughter had accused him of incest and sex with a minor. ‘My father and Barbara had their clothes off,’ she recalled. ‘Connie (Tarin) didn’t disrobe. Barbara helped take my clothes off.’
Many years later, Tamar would describe the sexual abuse and humiliation she had felt under the dictation of her father. ‘His domination was extreme. ‘My father used to stand at the mantel and read poetry to everyone, and inform us this was God speaking,’ she said,’ revealed DuJour writer Sheila Weller in 2015. ‘She was sexualised. ‘Man Ray took nude pictures of me,’ Tamar said. ‘I knew he was a great artist, but I didn’t feel comfortable. He felt like a dirty old man.’ She was pressured to sunbathe nude. Her father gave her erotic books to read, determined ‘to make me a sex goddess.’ When Tamar was eleven, Hodel forced her to perform fellatio on him. ‘I gagged! I was scared! I was embarrassed!’’ To her surprise, during the trial several people close to her, including her own mother, insisted that she was lying about the sex parties and her own sexual abuse, but when Neeb attempted to play a wild card in order to prove how ridiculous her claims were, it backfired.
‘Attorney Robert A. Need Jr., in the second day of a blistering cross-examination, suddenly demanded the young witness if she remembered a conversation with one Joe Barrett in a room in the Hodel home,’ reported the Los Angeles Daily News. ‘Need wanted to know if Tamar said to Barrett, ‘This house has secret passages. My father is the murderer of the Black Dahlia. My father is going to kill me and all the rest of the members of this household because he has a lust for blood. He is insane.’ Tamar said she couldn’t remember any such thing. Need failed similarly to wring an admission from Tamar that she threatened to ‘get even’ with her father weeks before she caused his arrest by telling others she would falsely accuse him of incest.’ But this attempt at discrediting the witness instead left a courtroom in silence, the onlookers watching in shock as they processed the accusations that he had announced. And whether or not there was any credence to this, by the next morning it had made the headlines of every newspaper in Los Angeles.
Despite the accusations levelled at George Hodel, and Corinne Tarin’s insistence that he had employed hypnotism in order to seduce her into his bed, on 23 December 1949, he was acquitted on all charges. ‘Tamar, who accuses her father of incest, bears the same name as Tamar, who was raped by her half-brother, Amnon, as related in Chapter 13 of the Second Book of Samuel,’ highlighted the New York Times in an October edition. But the controversy surrounded the trial had tarnished his well-crafted reputation, and even the police became suspicious of his association with the Black Dahlia, placing him under surveillance. By the early fifties he had grown tired of the harassment and decided to emigrate to the Philippines. Following his death in 1999, Steve Hodel looked through his father’s belongings and became convinced that George Hodel was in fact the Black Dahlia Avenger, publishing a series of books to support his claims. But more than seventy years have passed and despite investigations from the police, the Gangster Squad and the media, no culprit was ever brought to justice for the murder of Elizabeth Short.
A legend in the field
Even Aggie Underwood, who had remained dedicated to the story even long after other reporters had lost interest in the unsolvable case, failed to identify the assailant. She had helped to humanise Nellie May Madison through her heart-warming stories, and convinced the police of Laurel Crawford’s guilt, but she had progressed no further through the investigation of the Black Dahlia than anyone else. Underwood remained as city editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Express until 1964, the longest in California’s history, until she was promoted to the position of assistant managing editor, where she remained until her retirement four years later. Her rise through the ranks of journalism and her unflinching approach to landing a headline has made her a legend in the field.
‘At first glance, Aggie seems a bit tame for a job that’s driven many a man to the bottle or the funny farm,’ wrote the Messenger-Inquirer in 1961. ‘Aggie – no one calls her anything else – is fifty-eight, a tiny grandmother with grey hair, shy smile and quavery voice. But under unblinking lights, immersed in tobacco fumes and mountains of mail, surrounded by jangling phones in a city room that at deadline time has all the clamour of a riot in a boiler factory, Aggie is a city editor. And most agree she’s a damn good one, too.’ Even years after her retirement, her reputation remained undiminished. ‘I love Agness like anyone,’ said Los Angeles Times writer Jack Smith two years before her death. ‘I have a great admiration for her. She’s a remarkable woman; tough, terrific, competitive.’
But why does the public obsess over the crimes committed by rapists and murderers? In the age of Netflix, serial killer documentaries are one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Convicted murderers like Ted Bundy are treated like sex symbols, while cult leader Charles Manson made it onto the cover of Life. Attention is often given more to the perpetrators than the victims, although in the case of the Black Dahlia, the identity of the killer was never discovered, so all the public could obsess over was the life of the murdered woman. ‘A serial killer is frequently an unassuming everyman or everywoman who could easily be a next-door neighbour or co-worker,’ commented author Scott A. Bonn in 2014’s Why We Love Serial Killers. ‘Public fascination with serial killers probably dates back to the late 1880s, when a series of extremely brutal, unsolved prostitute murders occurred in the Whitechapel area of London, England, and those killings gained worldwide notoriety. In the fall of 1888, a series of five grotesque murders were committed in London by an unknown individual who, legend has it, called himself Jack the Ripper in letters he allegedly sent to the London police, claiming credit for the crimes.’
The Black Dahlia murder shared some similarities with the Jack the Ripper killing spree, as the victim was a young woman, the death came through mutilation and dismemberment, and ultimately the man responsible was never apprehended. ‘Unless Elizabeth Short’s murderer of forty-five years ago miraculously emanates to confess the crime, this chapter closes the case for good and all,’ declared former Los Angeles Examiner journalist Will Fowler in the early nineties. ‘Intense interest lingers regarding this murder mystery simply because it remains a mystery. And by this fascination, it has earned a niche in the annals of crime history as being the most notorious unsolved murder of the twentieth century. Elizabeth Short’s slaying might be solved in the distant future, but I sincerely hope not. It’s like an unopened present. The present always remains a wondrous thing, as long as it remains unopened.’ It would seem that the truth behind the death of the Black Dahlia has become lost in time, the murderer now long since gone to his grave, and the reason for her death forever remaining a mystery.
‘Elizabeth Short was emblematic of her time,’ claimed author James Ellroy in 1987, while promoting his recently-released novel The Black Dahlia. ‘She came from the East to be a movie star, like many girls of that more innocent era.’ Short represented both the beauty of Los Angeles and the corruptive influence of Hollywood, and it was this juxtaposition that posthumously transformed her into a popular culture icon. ‘A penniless-but-plucky girl from back East comes to Hollywood with stars in her eyes and visions of movies in her head, her wardrobe nothing but sleek, black clothing winning her the nickname Black Dahlia,’ wrote the Los Angeles Times in the mid-nineties. ‘She perseveres in the face of adversity, getting a few bit parts in films, but is horribly slain, a moth consumed by the Hollywood flame. A darker variation makes her lazy and irresponsible, hints obliquely at stag films and the L.A. underworld. The myth usually concludes with a doorman at the Biltmore Hotel, where she was last seen, tipping his cap as he ushers her out, watching as the Dahlia vanishes into the night, only to resurface a week later horribly slain.’