January 15, 1947 was just like any other Wednesday morning in sun drenched Leimart Park, a quiet neighborhood in Southwest Los Angeles, California. Betty Bersinger and her husband John had lived in the area only a short time, since 1945. They’d chosen it specifically because it was flush with newly married couples with young kids looking for the same thing they were; a safe place to raise a family. Even though there was a housing shortage, driving up the prices of available properties in the area to a whopping eleven thousand dollars on average, the war had stopped further development at their block. Lots to the south of the Bersinger’s were mostly overgrown with weeds.
Around ten in the morning Betty had decided to take her three-year-old daughter Anne on a walk in her stroller as she ran an errand to pick up her husband’s shoes from the repair shop. Cruising along Norton towards Crenshaw she glanced right into a vacant lot and discovered what at first she mistook for a department store mannequin, due to the unnatural whiteness of the skin and the fact it had been neatly severed in half – the two parts staged nearly a foot from each other in tableau. Upon further inspection she realized it was in fact a corpse, systematically drained of blood and scrubbed clean, severed at the waist, and carefully posed with her arms bent over her head at right angles and her intestines neatly tucked under her buttocks, while her legs were left spread suggestively wide open.
The victim, twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short, was left just inches away from the sidewalk, her lifeless blue eyes open and staring skyward, with gashes cut from the corner of her mouth to give her a grisly ‘Glasgow smile’ and clear evidence of having been repetitively bludgeoned. Ligature marks were present on her throat, wrists, and legs as well. There were cuts made to her thighs and breasts. In some places chunks of flesh had been sliced away altogether.
A shroud of lazy flies hovering over the body were the only harbinger to the media circus that would descend down on this poor dead woman, her family, and everyone who ever knew her from the moment Bersinger ran to a nearby house and phoned in her gruesome discovery. It was a time when reporters routinely paid off cops for good leads and followed the police dispatch the way gamblers at Hollywood Park follow their races, generally with unbeatable results. It came as no surprise that the media were at the crime scene well in advance of the authorities. Will Fowler, a former reporter from the L.A. Examiner, recalled closing Short’s eyes just before the police arrived on Norton Street.
Elizabeth Short would grow to become the most infamous unsolved murder in the history of all of Los Angeles, one that to this day still remains shrouded in myth and mystery. Dubbed as ‘the Black Dahlia’ by Bevo Means, an eager reporter covering the case after interviewing some workers at a pharmacy a half block from where Short once stayed for two weeks, Elizabeth’s brutal death has captivated the American public’s dark imagination for generations now. It has spawned countless articles, a few television shows, a movie adaptation of a fictionalized version of events featuring Robert de Niro, a bestselling novel by popular author James Ellroy (who was haunted by nightmares about the Black Dahlia as a small child owing to his mother’s murder), and the Brian de Palma adaptation of that book which holds little resemblance to the actual facts of the case but is nevertheless largely remembered as the official version of events by the public. The horrible crime has also been responsible for countless confessions that continue to this very day. In fact the current detective assigned to the case, a young female officer, starts by asking for the “guilty” party’s date of birth to narrow down her work load. At the time of Short’s death as many as sixty people came forward to admit to the crime. Most of these men were rejected for not knowing anything beyond the papers lurid descriptions, which, in the hands of William Randolph Hearst’s greedy gremlins, took a prim and quiet girl with an inexplicable wanderlust and transformed her into a brazen harlot hell bent on Hollywood success who prowled the night in search of enlisted men in an effort to placate her insatiable sexual lust.
Her real killer, on the other hand, did come forward once. He reached out to the editor of the Los Angeles Examiner on January 23, 1947 to express his concern that news of the murder was tailing off and offering to mail items belonging to Short to him. The following day an envelope arrived containing Short’s birth certificate, business cards, photographs, names written on pieces of paper, and an address book with the name Mark Hansen embossed on the cover. Hansen, an acquaintance at whose home she had stayed with friends, was cleared as a suspect in her death shortly afterward. Although police still suspect several men of possibly being her killer, the murder remains officially unsolved to this day.
Unlike quiet and secretive Elizabeth Short, Jeanne Thomas French had lived an outgoing life reminiscent of a romance novel heroine. She’d been an aviatrix, an airline stewardess, a Hollywood movie extra, an Army nurse, and at one time the doting wife of a wealthy Texas oil tycoon.
A few weeks after the ‘Black Dahlia’ murder a construction worker walking to work around eight in the morning along Grand View, in a lover’s lane type area popularly known as ‘the Moors’, spotted a small pile of women’s clothing in the weeds a few feet from the sidewalk. Curiosity got the better of him and he lifted up the discarded fur trimmed coat to discovered French’s nude body.
French had been savagely beaten to death. She’d suffered blows to the head and face, which most likely knocked her unconscious, as well as multiple fractured ribs and damaged internal organs. The appearance of heel prints on her chest lead police to believe she’d been viciously stomped to death by someone with a nasty grudge and a terrifying temper. Jeanne slowly bled to death, succumbing in the end to hemorrhage and shock, but in all likelihood did not regain consciousness after the initial blows to the head and face. It was a brutal, animalistic murder that, like the Black Dahlia murder, would produce a laundry list of possible suspects, a series of confessions, and in the end no convictions.
After her death the killer used French’s red lipstick to scrawl a note on her desecrated and broken body: “Fuck You, P.D. – Tex.” The media originally reported the initials as “B.D.” trying to establish a link to the Black Dahlia killings, but later it was confirmed that the initials were in fact “P.D.” – most likely a taunt for the “police department” since the area was near a station. A range of suspects from her former husband to her current one were questioned and cleared. Her own son was under suspicion at one point but he, too, was found to be innocent.
But French and Short weren’t the only women murdered in that period in Los Angeles in brutal ways by unknown killers living among the decent people of the city. In fact in the 1940s the unsolved slayings of Laura Trelstad, Georgette Bauerdorf, Ora Murray, Jeanne French, and Elizabeth Short shocked, frightened and enraged the public to the degree that in 1949 an L.A. Country Grand Jury was assigned to investigate the failure of law enforcement to crack these ghoulish cases. This was no easy task, considering that by the winter of 1941 Los Angeles was awash with a flood of transients that included military personnel, army rejects, and the dishonorably discharged. Many of them were drawn to the same nightlife culture, increasing the chances that the victims may have died at the hands of total strangers, further complicating investigations already compromised by the media. Despite the best efforts of some of the finest and brightest minds the city had to offer, these haunting murders were never solved and continue to be the subject of speculation for many inside and outside of law enforcement.
Veteran detective Steve Hodel is one of the people still looking for an answer, and he thinks he has found one. The former Los Angeles police department homicide detective believes he has solved both murders, and connected the killer to dozens more from the last century. The man responsible for these hideous and blood chilling crimes? His own father, the late George Hodel.
An indisputable genius, George Hodel had an IQ of 186, was declared a piano prodigy at an early age. By turns he was a poet, a crime reporter, a surgeon, a doctor, and a businessman. He was the head of the leading venereal disease clinic in Los Angeles, with a circle of friends that included artists and film directors, who enjoyed hosting lavish, over-the-top parties. He was also a well known philanderer, even long after he’d been acquitted of incest charges with his son’s half-sister. Quite simply he was incorrigible, a man used to getting his way, and, according to his son, a man admired for his misdeeds as much as his virtues.
Recently his son came into possession of a secret photo album previously belonging to his father containing two photographs of a woman that bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Elizabeth Short. One image shows her with a pair of paper roses playfully entwined in her hair. The other is a nude shot, with Elizabeth’s eyes shut, her young mouth a wide ring of erotic surprise, her eyes unfocused and trained off in the distance, as if she were in a trance. Hodel, who now works as a private investigator, has since written a 460-page book entitled “Black Dahlia Avenger” laying out his case. The evidence the former Hollywood Homicide Division detective has uncovered is considered largely circumstantial, but that hasn’t stopped many from being convinced, including other officers familiar with the case.
Steve Hodel has also suggested a link between Elizabeth Short’s murder and the 1946 murder and dismemberment of six-year-old girl named Suzanne Degnan in Chicago. One Captain Donahoe of the Los Angeles police department has also publicly announced that he believes the Black Dahlia and Lipstick murders were “likely connected” due to striking similarities between the writing of the Degnan ransom note and that of the Black Dahlia Avenger, both which used a combination of capitals and small letters and included the same letter P and an exact match of a another undisclosed word.
Convicted serial killer William Heirens was sentenced to life in prison for confessing to Degnan’s murder after he was caught breaking into a residence close by, but later recanted claiming he was tortured by the police until he confessed. One of his alleged victim’s mothers later said she did not believe he was responsible for her daughter’s death. A petty thief, he’d kept nothing from the murder and didn’t seem to possess the intelligence needed to pull off the crime which included an elaborate ransom scheme that ultimately was abandoned. Heirens was later subjected to questioning under Sodium Pentothal (aka truth serum) and even passed a polygraph test authorities then deemed inconclusive. He maintained his innocence until the day he died in prison.
Since the publication of Hodel’s incendiary book some new facts have emerged which seem to further support his claim that his father George was the sociopath responsible for at least Elizabeth Short’s death, if not many others. A transcript has been discovered from the investigation, with what appears to be a conversation George had inside his house. Steve had not known prior to the release of this transcript that their house had been bugged by police in 1950 in a desperate effort to bring an end to the ghastly case. George Hodel’s words are a chilling even now.
“Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia,” the doctor is heard saying. “They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary because she’s dead.”
That may be the closest we ever come to a full confession, or it may just be idle chatter from a man bedeviled for a crime he swore he didn’t commit. And so the debate rages on. Feel free to chime in and let me know what you think.