Short, Elizabeth (1925–1947)

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Short, Elizabeth (1925–1947)

American murder victim known as "The Black Dahlia." Name variations: The Black Dahlia. Born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1925; daughter of Phoebe Short; murdered in Los Angeles, California, on January 15, 1947.

On January 15, 1947, in an L.A. suburb, a nude body was spotted amid the refuse of a vacant lot by a passerby; the corpse had been severely mutilated, hacked in two at the waist, and the initials "B.D." carved deeply into one thigh. There was reason to believe that most of the mutilation had taken place while the victim was still alive. Checking for prints, the FBI came up with the name of Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old from Medford, Massachusetts, who had a police record caused by a one-time arrest for juvenile delinquency: she had been charged with drinking while underage.

In a swirl of publicity, Elizabeth Short's mother was brought to L.A. Though Phoebe Short was unable to give a positive identification because the body was so disfigured, she did produce a recent letter from her daughter, mailed from San Diego. The inquiries began there.

The dual investigations of press and FBI to uncover the events leading up to the death of Elizabeth Short revealed the following: she was born in Medford. Her parents had separated when she was six and her father had moved to California, taking one of the family's five children with him. Phoebe Short had a difficult time working, feeding, and attending to four children on her own. As a result, in 1942, Elizabeth left home at 17 and took a job as a waitress in Miami. She soon fell in love with a young soldier, but the country was at war, and he was killed in battle. It was said that Short found solace in drink and other men. While drinking with soldiers in a café in Miami, she was arrested for being underage, given a rail ticket to Medford by the authorities, and told to return home. Instead, she exited the train early and found another waitressing job in another town. Again she fell in love; this time with Army Air Force Major Matt M. Gordon, Jr., and in 1944 Short went back home to await her soldier's return. On August 22, 1946, she received a telegram from Gordon's mother: the Air Force major had been killed in action.

The following day, Short set out for California in search of a movie career, joining the Hollywood casting lines for work as an extra. She was said to be beautiful. To contrast her milkwhite complexion and raven hair, she began to dress in black, including her dress, stockings, and underwear; she even wore a jet black ring. Someone nicknamed her the Black Dahlia, and the name stuck. When movie work grew harder to find, Short moved to San Diego and took another waitressing job. Reputedly, she also continued drinking and continued to be seen with an assortment of men.

The slaying of Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. The Black Dahlia, is one of the most famous unsolved crimes in American history. There were no clues that led to the killer. Weeks after the murder someone anonymously sent a few of Short's belongings to an L.A. newspaper: her birth certificate, address book, and Social Security card. Aside from that, the police followed up on hundreds of phony leads. Many men and one woman confessed to the crime, but they could not match the gory details of the slaying known only by the police. In lieu of a serious suspect, the press held Elizabeth Short's reputation accountable.

Author James Ellroy, whose mother Jean Hilliker Ellroy was murdered in 1958 under similar unsolved circumstances, published The Black Dahlia in 1987. In 1995, Janice Knowlton published Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer, in which she pointed the finger at her father George Knowlton, who had dated Short. As well, John Gilmore, whose father was an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) at the time of the murder, claims in his Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder (1998) that the LAPD's chief suspect was Jack Wilson, a reclusive burgler, alcoholic, and possible serial killer. Wilson, however, died in a hotel fire in the 1980s, just days before his pending arrest. Gilmore also contends that Wilson might have been responsible for the slaying of socialite Georgette Bauerdorf , who was murdered only months before Elizabeth Short. According to Larry Harnisch, a Los Angeles Times reporter who is working on a book about the murder, Short was killed by L.A. surgeon Walter Alonzo Bayley, whose daughter knew Short's sister, and whom he says may have been suffering from problems with alcohol and the early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. With the increasing passage of time and the deaths of so many putative suspects, it seems likely that the mystery of who killed Elizabeth Short will endure.

suggested reading:

Ellroy, James. The Black Dahlia, 1985.

Gilmore, John. Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder. Los Angeles, CA: Amok, 1998.