The Black Dahlia murder: About the mysterious and brutal unsolved crime from 1947

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The Black Dahlia murder 1947

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

The murder of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short in January of 1947 was one of the biggest news stories of the 20th century, and continues to fascinate people to this day.

Partially because of Short’s striking beauty, and in part due to the particularly brutal nature of her murder, the media of the time latched on to the case with a vengeance, with William Randolph Hearst’s papers, in particular, sensationalizing the case, and giving publicizing the nickname “the Black Dahlia.”

After running through a laundry list of suspects — some self-confessed, others collared by police — the murder remains unsolved, and is the subject of numerous books and movies.

Even now, when a new article or book appears about the Black Dahlia murder, police receive an influx of tips and confessions to the crime — although now, they’re typically suggestions to look into a deceased older relative.

Here’s a look back at how Beth Short’s demise was initially reported in the 1940s, then follow-ups on the case from 1952 and 1960.

The Black Dahlia - Elizabeth Short
Elizabeth Short (July 29, 1924 – January 15, 1947)

SPECIAL Daily Police Bulletin – Tuesday, January 21, 1947

OFFICIAL PUBLICATION OF POLICE DEPARTMENT, CITY OF LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

WANTED INFORMATION ON ELIZABETH SHORT — Between Dates January 9 and 15, 1947

Description: Female, American, 22 years, 5 ft. 6 in., 118 lbs., black hair, green eyes, very attractive, bad lower teeth, finger nails chewed to quick. This subject found brutally murdered, body severed and mutilated January 15, 1947, at 39th and Norton.

Subject on whom information wanted last seen January 9, 1947 when she got out of car at Biltmore Hotel. At that time she was wearing black suit, no collar on coat, probably Cardigan style, white fluffy blouse, black suede high-heeled shoes, nylon stockings, white gloves full-length beige coat, carried black plastic handbag (2 handles) 12 x 8, in which she had black address book.

Subject readily makes friends with both sexes and frequented cocktail bars and night spots. On leaving car she went into lobby of the Biltmore, and was las1 seen there. 

Inquiry should be made at all hotels, motels, apartment houses, cocktail bars and lounges, night clubs to ascertain whereabouts of victim between dates mentioned. In conversations subject readily identified herself as Elizabeth or “Beth” Short. 

Attention Officers H. H. Hansen and F. A. Brown, Homicide Detail

The Black Dahlia Police-FBI information request - crime


Black Dahlia murder news story: Los Angeles girl hacked butcher style (1947)

Burlington Daily Times News (North Carolina) January 17, 1947

Los Angeles — Hampered by a scarcity of clues, police today pressed a roundup of suspects in the gruesome butcher-slaying of a young woman identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as Elizabeth Short, 22, whose birthplace was Hyde Park, Mass.

The Los Angeles Times said she was the daughter of Mrs Phoebe M Short, 46, of Medford, Mass.

The identification made by the FBI in Washington was from fingerprints obtained when the girl was employed in the Post Exchange at Camp Cooke, Calif, in 1943, when the girl was taken into custody for alleged violation of juvenile court laws.

Black Dahlia - Elizabeth Short mug shot

Santa Barbara Policewoman Mary Unkefer recalled that she put Miss Short, whom she described as a very attractive girl, on a train for Medford, “about nine days later.”

In Medford, Mrs Phoebe M Short said she would not believe that the victim was her daughter until she was notified by police.

Mrs Short said her daughter, Elizabeth, one of her five daughters, had been working as a motion picture extra until two weeks ago, when she was believed to have gone to San Diego to work in an Army hospital. Mrs Short said a severe case of asthma made it necessary for Elizabeth to go to a warmer climate in the winter.

Black Dahlia - Elizabeth Short snapshots

At San Diego Police, Detectives Ed Storter and Gerald Walk said Mrs Elvert French told them the slaying victim stayed at her home in Pacific Beach, San Diego suburb, for a month, and left last January 7 with an unidentified red-haired youth, presumably headed for Hollywood.

Mrs French, the detectives related, said her daughter, Dorothy, met Miss Short in a theater early in December and invited her to their home.

Mrs French said the Short girl appeared “depressed and moody and unwilling to discuss her past other than to say she came from Hollywood.”

In the rundown of suspects, police were questioning a 23-year-old Bakersfield man who, officers said, had been reported molesting women at a bus depot. The back seat of his automobile was missing, but the suspect said he removed it to carry machinery.


Police believe ‘Black Dahlia’ killed by woman

Harrisburg Daily Register (Harrisburg, Illinois) January 21, 1947

Los Angeles — Police made a complete about-face today in their efforts to find the torture-murderer of pretty Elizabeth Short, and began an intensive search for a woman, rather than a man, as the mutilator of the “Black Dahlia.”

Former roommates of the strikingly beautiful 22-year-old girl were placed first on the list of those to be questioned.

The decision to change all previous tactics of the week-long search came after a meeting of the city’s top-ranking police officials which began last night and lasted well into the morning hours.

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Black Dahlia and a date at a night club table

Prime suspect in the new drive is a girl roommate who disappeared January 15, the day Miss Short’s tortured and mutilated body, hacked in two, was found in a lover’s lane.

Adding to their belief that the girl’s slayer may have been a woman were two factors.

First, the fact that she was known to be in Los Angeles January 9th without any luggage which would indicate she spent the week before she was killed with some woman who could provide extra clothing and makeup.

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Second, police officials said they believed the killing followed a pattern of other horror-murders by women.

Her presence in Los Angeles on January 9th was sworn to by Robert (Red) Manley, 25, who was cleared of suspicion yesterday after a long grilling by the police and two lie detector tests.

Manley suggested another possible suspect, a swarthy, stocky “blind date” who jealously scratched Miss Short’s arms until they bled. The man was insanely jealous of the girl, he said.


‘Black Dahlia’ slayer plans to surrender

Article from the Anniston Star (Anniston, Alabama) January 27, 1947

Letter received by newspaper says he will give up on Wednesday

Los Angeles — A person believed to be the torture slayer of “Black Dahlia” Elizabeth Short, 22, today offered in a taunting letter, to surrender to police Wednesday.

The letter, addressed to The Los Angeles Examiner, “appears to be legitimate” Homicide Capt Jack Donahue said. A quick examination by Police Chemist Ray Pinker showed no fingerprints.

The card, mailed in downtown Los Angeles late yesterday, read: “Here it is. Turning in Wednesday, Jan. 29, 10 a.m. Had my fun at police. Black Dahlia Avenger.”

The note was scrawled in boldly-printed capital letters. It was written in ink on a penny postcard.

Elizabeth Short birth certificate

Donahue said the note might be the “letter to follow” referred to by the sardonic slayer last week when he mailed newspapers a package containing several personal effects of the beautiful “Black Dahlia,” whose mutilated body was found January 15.

Authorities, who received by mail the butchered beauty’s papers and little address book, said a roundup of 75 names listed in the book added little to what was known.

Officers plowed through scores of false clues, sifted dumps for bits of evidence, interviewed hundreds of persons, only to return their investigation to the letter writer who mailed in Miss Short’s “belongings” Friday and promised another communication.

Elizabeth Short murder victim - Purse and shoe


Death of the Black Dahlia (1952)

A famous mystery writer offers her own solution to one of the most bizarre murders of our time

By Craig Rice (Author of “Home Sweet Homicide” and “The Innocent Bystander”) — From the Miami Herald – November 9, 1952

Beth Short was known as the Black Dahlia. Why? Perhaps because of the lovely hair that fell over her shoulders.

Perhaps because of her love for the black dresses she wore so well. Or perhaps because a fortune-teller might have picked out a card and said, “The color for you is — black!”‘

Elizabeth Short - Black Dahlia portrait

Her story has always fascinated me — not only because I was so intimately connected with it from the time the city editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Express called and said, ‘This one is for you” — not only because I saw her tortured and mutilated body — but, because of the strange and mysterious character of the Black Dahlia herself.

It was an anonymous telephone call that sent Los Angeles police to a vacant lot near the corner of Crenshaw and Santa Barbara Boulevards were two officers found the nude body of a young girl, cut in two at the waist, and bound with rope.

A beautiful girl, with black hair, and gray-green eyes.

Black Dahlia - Elizabeth Short at a door

There was nothing, not even a scrap of clothing, to provide a clue to her identity, let alone the identity of her murderer. The Los Angeles Examiner arranged for her fingerprints to be sent by sound photo to the FBI in Washington.

If she had ever worked in a defense plant, or been in trouble with the law, her prints would be on file.

The report came back quickly. The murdered girl was Elizabeth Short, last known address Santa Barbara, California. Born July 29, 1924, in Hyde Park, Massachusetts.

The call went out for information on Elizabeth Short, 22, dark hair, eyes green, five foot three. The hunt for the Black Dahlia slayer had begun.

It was a Long Beach druggist who introduced Beth Short’s nickname into the case.

“She’d come into our drug store frequently,” he said. “She’d usually wear a black two-piece beach costume which left her midriff bare, or she’d wear black lacy things. Her hair was jet black.

“She was popular with the men who came in here, and they got to calling her ‘The Black Dahlia.'”

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Beach swimsuit snapshot from Elizabeth Short's photo album

Police questioned everyone who had been in her company or even remembered seeing her, but the results were baffling. Many people had known Beth Short — but nobody knew very much about her.

The crime itself was an unusually hideous one. Beth Short had been tortured before death put an end to her agony.

The torturer had then severed the body at the waist, bound it with ropes, and transported it to where it had been found.

It was learned that Beth Short — penniless and homeless — recently had spent a month at the home of a girl friend in San Diego, and that from there she left to meet a former bandsman in the Air Force who was known only as “Red.”

In two days’ time, “Red” was in police custody. He readily admitted that he knew Beth Short and sometimes called her the Black Dahlia, but without further evidence, he was exonerated as a suspect.

Red Manley - LA Times - January 21 1947

Several people had seen and talked with Beth in the days before her death. All told the same story — that the girl was a lost soul, obviously sick in heart and mind, wandering about town aimlessly, and scared of something she refused to talk about.

Something of Beth’s life was told in letters that police found tucked away in her luggage located at a bus station in Los Angeles.

These were love letters, neatly tied in ribbon, and revealing a story of men, heartbreak, more men, and more heartbreak.

A sense of guilt which plagued Beth’s unfaithful heart revealed itself in letters which she wrote but never mailed.

Desperation was their keynote. They revealed her as a beautiful, passionate girl, desperate for love, and for protection.

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Robert Red Manley with wife - LA Times - January 21 1947

In the days after the discovery of the Black Dahlia’s tortured and mutilated body, tips poured in.

A girl who worked as a dancer in Hollywood nightspots said she saw Beth Short sitting alone in the Gay Way bar on South Main Street, six days before she was murdered.

Another girl acquaintance repeated that she saw her, that same night, sitting in the lobby of an apartment hotel embracing a  young man “dressed like a gas station attendant.”

The head bartender at a Hollywood Boulevard bar said he saw her, five days before she died, in the company of two girls “of dubious reputation,” looking ”seedy, as if she had slept in her clothes.”

Betty Short - Black Dahlia - outdoor portrait on stairs

Four days before the Black Dahlia’s death, a South Pain Street bartender had seen her and an unidentified blond girl in an argument with two sailors.

The next morning, another tip revealed, she took a room with an unidentified man in an East Washington Boulevard hotel. That evening, she was seen alone again by the same dancer who had seen her before, and in the same bar, the Gay Way.

Early in the afternoon, the day before the murder, a bus driver saw the Black Dahlia board his bus in the Santa Barbara bus terminal and alight at the Los Angeles terminal. On the same day, late in the afternoon, she was in a café in San Diego, with a man dressed in a green suit.

Black Dahlia news report - January 16 1947

There the trail ended. Nobody seemed to know where the Black Dahlia was between that afternoon and the next morning — January 15, 1947 —  when her dismembered body was found in the vacant lot.

The police recalled that Beth Short had failed to pick up her bags at the bus station during the last five days of her life. Had she been prevented from doing so”? Had she been held prisoner during those days, free to move around only as long as she was under guard or the surveillance of others’?

Investigation of this angle was hardly underway when an anonymous letter seemed to crack the case wide open. Soaked in gasoline and addressed with lettering clipped from newspapers, it was found to contain a note reading: “Here is Dahlia’s Belongings. Letter to follow.”

First cutout note about Black Dahlia murder - January 25 1947

In the envelope, police found a black address book known to have been carried by the murdered girl, a newspaper clipping telling of the marriage of a former sweetheart, Beth Short’s birth certificate, and a baggage claim check for the suitcases the police already had found and examined.

There was no doubt that these things had been taken out of the Black Dahlia’s purse.

The following day another letter came. It read: “Here it is. Turning in Wed Jan. 29, 10 A.M. Have had my fun at police — Black Dahlia Avenger.” 

Authorities knew that the ‘Avenger’ might be a prankster. On the other hand, it is not unusual for the psychotic killer to taunt the police with such notes and eventually give himself up. And in this case, vengeance might well have been the motive, because it was known that the Black Dahlia lived in constant fear.

It was obvious that the “Avenger’ had access to Beth’s purse, so if he was not the actual killer, he was someone who could throw some much-needed light on the case. Would he give himself up Wednesday as he had promised?

On Tuesday night a man giving his name as Voorhees gave himself up because he couldn’t “stand it any longer” and signed a one-line confession.

In 24 hours his ”confession” was discredited as the fantasy of a mentally sick man. He could never have known Beth Short. His was not the first “confession” nor the last, all the work of cranks.

As for the “Avenger,” apart from a last note saying, “Have changed my mind,” that was the last anybody ever heard about him. All other leads have proved equally fruitless.

Second cutout note about Black Dahlia murder - January 30 1947

Who killed Beth Short, the Black Dahlia? The police are still working to find out. They will never give up. I don’t know, either, but I have made some interesting deductions.

Everybody knows that the body of Elizabeth Short was cut in two at the waist — but what everybody does not know is that the job was done with precision and every evidence of professional skill.

Elizabeth Short was only five feet three inches in height, and weighed no more than 105 pounds Why did the killer bisect the body? For more convenience in transporting it?

If the killer was a man, he would have had little difficulty in carrying the body. But suppose he were an undersized man, a cripple — or a woman?

It seems likely that the mad killer must have been a doctor, a trained nurse, an undertaker or an undertaker’s assistant.

Of the four, I would bet on one of the last two. Here are my reasons.

A doctor’s office or even a private hospital is not a handy place to mutilate a girl and then cut her body in half. Patients, nurses, anybody can drop in. On the other hand, an undertaking parlor offers privacy.

I believe that someone working in an undertaking parlor tortured and killed the Black Dahlia.

Black Dahlia - Elizabeth Short graveside funeral services in Oakland - January 26 1947


Black Dahlia’s life fast, short (1960)

By Robert Flick, The Miami Herald (Florida) January 10, 1960

After 13 years, her murder stills baffles police.

Los Angeles — She was a 22-year-old, raven-dressed, cameo-skinned beauty who lived and laughed on the fringes of Hollywood’s movieland with a fast crowd, a different boyfriend every night, and a mania for black clothes.

Her name was Elizabeth Short, and she had come west from her native Medford, Massachusetts, to have a good time.

Friends called her “Black Dahlia.”

Black Dahlia photo with a friend

Always dressed from the skin out in black, her life consisted of bright lights and flashy convertibles until one night when a slender man crept silently from a vacant lot, entered a 12-year-old sedan and drove away in darkness.

At dawn, on Wednesday. Jan. 15 1947, a southwest Los Angeles housewife looked out through her kitchen window and saw the nude body of a woman sprawled in the weeds.

Black Dahlia was dead.

Elizabeth Short had lived fast and died young and violently. Her body was covered with 20 stab wounds, and was cut in half at the waist.

Her murder became one of the most baffling in the annals of crime.

First Black Dahlia news report - January 16 1947

Address book returned

Police said she was slain elsewhere and her mutilated remains dumped in the lot. perhaps by the man seen driving away a few hours before the body was discovered.

A week later police received a letter containing a black address hook, belonging to Miss Short, and her birth certificate. The envelope, addressed with letters clipped from magazine advertisements, prompted an emergency conference of homicide officers.

Elizabeth Short's mother and sister - January 19 1947

A detective announced:

“The big push is on. Our men are fanning out now to bring in the killer.”

That was Jan. 25, 1947.

The push is still on today, some 13 years later. The bizarre crime has not been solved.

First questioned by police was a man who admitted picking up the brunette beauty in front of a bus station and leaving her outside a downtown Los Angeles hotel the following afternoon, six days before her death.

Although he was the last person known to have seen Elizabeth Short alive, he was quickly cleared of any connection with the crime.

300 suspects grilled

Through months of methodical investigation, a clue never was found to provide a motive for the murder. The search produced a parade of some 300 suspects, however.

Thirty-nine persons, including several women, have falsely confessed the murder, one as recently as last year.

Suspects came from all walks of life, from penniless panhandlers to Sunset Strip playboys. They included an actor, an unemployed butcher and a used car salesman. An Army corporal and a bellhop also have been questioned about the crime.

Dahlia love life traced news story - January 1947

A man who said he was an ordained minister confessed to police twice in 1949 that he was the killer. Another man confessed four times, another three times and a third, like the minister, twice.

A carnival roustabout was the next self-professed killer, followed in order by a Sunday school teacher, a 34-year-old mother of three children, and a skid row bum who knew he would get a place to spend the night and a free meal for his story.

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Some who admitted the brazen slaying were crackpot publicity seekers. Psychiatrists attributed other false confessions to “exhibition tendencies” and to various forms of “mental suicide.”

One-third of the ”confessors” were sentenced to jail for other crimes or committed to mental institutions. A few were given a meal and sent on their way.

Elizabeth Short's mother identifying her in court - January 23 1947

Love letters checked

Suspects were questioned in eight California cities and in other states.

A Montana farmer wrote police that he was the killer. So did men in Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago. Arrests were made in Seattle, Wach., and Houston, Tex, and a soldier wags taken into custody at Ft. Dix, N.J.

Amid a steady flow of crank letters and telephone calls, detectives Investigated the past and friends of Elizabeth Short.

They found that Black Dahlia, until a few years before her death, was a shy, retiring schoolgirl, She arrived in Santa Barbara, Calif, in 1943, to work as a clerk at Camp Cooke, then an armored division training base.

Fellow workers at the post exchange said she was a blushing “sweet girl.”

Black Dahlia - Beth Short with Major Matt M Gordon - later killed in an airplane crash

A year later she was arrested in a bar drinking with a group of soldiers. Juvenile authorities sent the teenager home to Massachusetts.

Soon she was back on the West Coast, embarked on a nightclub spree after obtaining a room in a Hollywood boarding house.

Many names and faces then found their way in and out of the restless narrative of Elizabeth Short. Women, mostly pretty, and men, mostly handsome and debonair.

A photograph album, showing her arm-in-arm with smiling suitors, and bundles of love letters were checked and rechecked for clues.

Reports on the murder cover more than 6,000 typewritten pages. At one time, 50 detectives and 200 uniformed officers worked on the case,

Black Dahlia - Elizabeth Short funeral services in Oakland - January 26 1947

4 key questions

Police theorize that the Black Dahlia killer never has struck again, although in the months right after the murder, a series of eight other unsolved sex-slayings were committed in Los Angeles.

Police still are attempting to answer these four key questions in their quest for the sadist who killed the Black Dahlia:

Where did she spend her time in the days just before her death?

Where are the clothes she wore just before she was slain?

Where was she murdered and where was her body dissected and slashed?

Who was the man seen driving away from the vacant lot a few hours before the body was found?

Perhaps somewhere in Los Angeles police still may find out what happened to a fun-loving girl with luxuriant black hair and petal-white skin — Black Dahlia.

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