The face that stared back at Betty Bersinger that fateful morning in 1947 looked like it belonged in a funfair house of horrors. The Los Angeles resident had been out walking with her young daughter when she spotted what she thought was a mannequin lying in the grass. When Bersinger got closer, though, she realized that it was something which would haunt her dreams forever.
The body was almost pure white, drained – quite literally – of blood. Deep cuts had been etched into the face from its mouth to both ears. The victim stared back at the shocked mother – who rushed to the nearest house to sound the alarm – with a manic grin.
When police arrived on the scene they ascertained that the victim had been cut in half and her insides tucked under her backside. Strangely, the corpse was left in a pose, too: her legs were spread and her hands positioned above her head.
Despite the gruesomeness, police couldn’t find any trace of blood, however. The victim had, it seemed, been murdered someplace else before being dumped – and repositioned – here.
It’s been almost 70 years since this woman’s body was discovered, but still no one knows who did the horrific deed or why. For this reason it’s regarded as one of the U.S.’ most notorious unsolved murders. So what exactly do the authorities know? And can the victim’s killer ever be identified?
Within hours of Bersinger discovering the body, the LAPD had identified the victim: 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. A police bulletin issued right afterwards described her as “5 ft. 6 in., 118 lbs., black hair, green eyes, very attractive.”
Like many young men and women before her, Short had traveled to L.A. in search of stardom. But, cruelly, the fame that she had craved while she was alive only arrived when she was dead.
Before long, the gruesome details of Short’s demise – at least those that were known – were being reported by the press and lapped up by readers. The victim was given a nickname: “The Black Dahlia.”
No one really knew where the moniker came from, but some reckoned it was a reference to The Blue Dahlia movie released the previous year. One thing, though, was for sure: the hunt for the Black Dahlia’s killer was on.
Around a week after the investigation began, the Los Angeles Examiner received an anonymous package. In it was Short’s birth certificate, her address book and her social security number. No one ever came forward, however, and owing to a lack of fingerprints, police couldn’t identify who sent the items.
Detectives tried to appeal to others who may have known the victim. “Subject readily makes friends with both sexes and frequented cocktail bars and night spots,” they wrote in their bulletin.
The newspapers, meanwhile, began speculating. Had Short supplemented her waitressing pay by moonlighting as a prostitute? And could her murderer have been one of the men she had been spotted socializing with?
All eyes were initially on Robert Manley. He and Short had spent time together in San Diego before she moved to Tinseltown. He had even driven her to downtown LA’s Biltomore Hotel, the last place she was spotted alive.
Manley, however, was already back in San Diego when Short was killed. And any lingering suspicions that he may have been involved were quelled when he passed a lie-detector test.
The detectives then turned their attentions to Joseph Dumais, one of Short’s occasional drinking buddies. Why? Because he had confessed to the killing. It was later ascertained, however, that he was on a military base on the day the victim died.
After dealing with dead-end tips and false confessions, the LAPD started running out of steam. The Black Dahlia murder became a cold case file and, subsequently, one of the most fascinating and enduring murders in U.S. history.
Nearly 70 years on, though, could the truth be out there, somewhere? Former LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel believes so. He’s convinced that his late father, George Hill Hodel, was responsible for the heinous crime – and he has some evidence to back up his claims.
Hodel Sr., a physician, would have known how to cleanly dismember a body and drain it of blood. His son also discovered a photograph of a girl he believed to be Short in his father’s possessions. Moreover, when the picture was assessed by experts in 2014, it was concluded that it was a 90 to 95 percent match.
Steve Hodel also has a recording of his father talking to an unidentified individual. “Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia,” he apparently said. “They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary because she’s dead.”
Despite ongoing interest and the work of amateur sleuths, the case of Elizabeth Short remains firmly closed, however. And while it continues to inspire macabre works of fiction, few could be stranger, or more frightening, than the truth. Will the mystery of the Black Dahlia ever be solved?