This article is composed of information collected from FOIA files (Freedom of Information Act) through the FBI, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, original LAPD reports, old newspaper articles, historical military documents and genealogy databases.
At 10am, on January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger bundled up her 3-year-old daughter and left her Los Angeles home, to pick up a pair of shoes from the cobbler. As she strolled down the sidewalk, located near the industrial section of LA, she passed by a vacant lot, and something, laying in the weeds, caught her eye. At first glance she thought the large white items, that lay approximately 12 inches from the walkway, were pieces of a broken store mannequin, but as she approached the scene, something made her stop. Betty gasped, covered her mouth, and suppressed the urge to scream. She scooped her daughter up and ran as fast as she could to a neighbors house, where she phoned the police.
When the police arrived, they discovered the nude body of a woman, who had been severed in half at the waist. The corpse was lying face-up, and the scene looked to be deliberately staged. The arms of the upper-torso had been placed over the head, and they were bent at a 45-degree angle.
From the lack of blood on the ground, the color of the body, and various other clues left at the scene, it was clear that the girl had been killed elsewhere and placed in the vacant lot some time later. The body had been washed clean of blood, and her hair was still wet.
The lower of half of her body was positioned a foot over from the torso, emphasizing the dismemberment, and the legs had been spread wide apart, in an effort to degrade the victim after death.
Aside from being scrubbed clean, the body also appeared to have been drained of blood, which was highly unusual, and indicated that the killer had access to a special location, where he could execute his fiendish plan, and not be disturbed.
The intestines were removed and tucked neatly under the buttocks, but it was the injuries to the girl’s face that caused the investigators to scratch their heads and circle the body in disbelief.
The coroner would later describe the massive injuries in medical terms; “a deep laceration to the face, 3″ long, which extends laterally from the right corner of the mouth to the right ear,” and another “deep laceration, 2 ½” long, extending laterally from the left corner of the mouth all the way up to the left ear.”
The coroner further concluded that; “The surrounding tissues are ecchymotic, and bluish purple in color.”
The horrifying report went on to say; “There are multiple lacerations to the mid-forehead, in the right forehead, and at the top of the head in the midline, and multiple tiny abrasions, linear in shape, on the right face and forehead.”
He added; “There are two small lacerations 1/4″ each in length, on each side of the nose near the bridge,” and further “There is a depressed ridge on both sides, in the anterior portion of the neck, which is light brown in color.”
In plain English it means that the victim was clubbed on the the head, several times, with extreme force, until she was knocked unconscious. While she was passed out, the killer secured her head in a rusty, vice-type contraption, most likely of his own construction and this is what left the deep impressions (and orange-brown coloring) on either side of the victim’s nose, and on the back and sides of her neck.
The use of a such a device suggests that the killer had planned to slash the victim’s face open, had wanted to do it while she was still alive, and had constructed the mechanism specifically to keep her head stationary, as he performed this horrendous act.
The marks on the girl’s body indicated that wire, or heavy rope, had been used to restrain her legs, arms and lower torso. She had been in a sitting position, her legs sticking straight out, back upright, arms on either side, and elbows bent at a right angle.
After binding her, the killer savagely tortured the girl for an untold period of time, as she looked into his face. The autopsy revealed a litany of mutilations, and it was noted that feces was found in her stomach. She had been punched in the mouth so hard, that most of her teeth had been loosened, however, the most harrowing aspect of the autopsy was the fact that the cause of death was concussion, shock and loss of blood, from the blows to the head and the deep facial gashes.
Elizabeth Short, though alive, was barely conscious and nearly dead when she was cut in half.
This killer, however, was not yet satisfied, and he continued to abuse the corpse long after death.
A psychological profile, developed by William McCreary, famous FBI profiler, suggested that the killer became enraged when the victim “died too soon.” This also strongly suggests that the killer knew his victim, and had a personal score to settle. It was important to him, after the murder, to go the extra mile, drive her to a different location, take the considerable risk to himself, pose her body parts, and show her as a whore.
More than likely the killer enjoyed the fact that a woman and a child had discovered the body. He deliberately placed the girl’s body where she would be found, and his efforts had garnered him at least one additional victim that day, as Betty Bersinger would never forget what she saw, and needed medical attention after leaving the police station.
No one had any idea who the woman was, and she was mistakenly described as a teenager in the initial newspaper accounts, but as the result of an arrest report, for underage drinking, that the victim received when she was still a juvenile, the authorities quickly identified the young woman as 22-year old Elizabeth Short, from Medford MA.
Elizabeth’s sister, Mrs. Virginia West, 25, told reporters: “She was always being told how pretty she was. I guess it just went to her head.”
Elizabeth, known to her friends and family as Beth, was described in the newspapers as a “Pleasure-loving adventuress,” who was “movie-struck” and “man-crazy.” Her friends said she wanted to get a good job, but never had one, and the autopsy revealed that Beth Short bit her nails and had teeth that were in need of repair and filled with wax.
Beth wasn’t just hiding the truth from her family, she was hiding it from everyone, and her mother, Phoebe Short, was shocked when told of her daughter’s circumstances; “I never dreamed she was having financial difficulties,” Phoebe later told reporters
Lynn Martin, one of Beth’s two room mates, stated: “She was very good looking, with beautiful dark hair and fair skin, but she was broke and hungry most of the time.”
On June 1, 1946, seven months before Elizabeth Short’s body was found, Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd starred in a huge box-office hit called “The Blue Dahlia.” Elizabeth’s friends subsequently nick-named her the “Black Dahlia,” because of her fondness for sheer black clothing, her dark beauty and her raven-colored hair. Beth would often place flowers in her hair, further identifying with the film. By all accounts, when Elizabeth Short entered the room, all eyes were on her.
In spite of all the attention she enjoyed, Beth had reached an all-time low.
On a personal note, I learned about the Black Dahlia’s murder at a young age, because my father and my grandfather were policemen. My dad graduated the police academy in 1949, two years after the Black Dahlia’s murder, and one night I overheard them talking about the case, and listened from my bedroom as they described the scene and batted around theories. The case was decades old at that time, and when I asked my granddad about the story, many years later, he looked down at me and put his arm around my shoulder, “Honey, you don’t need to know anything about that,” he said, “That’s not a story for a young girl. She was a pretty gal who had too many boyfriends, and that’s all you need to know.”
His message came through loud and clear, in spite of the fact that he avoided the details; Girls with too many boyfriends could end up like Elizabeth Short, if they’re not careful.
In fact, I never forgot about the story of the Black Dahlia, and became obsessed with it over the years, reading every book, every article, in every detective magazine, and watching every documentary on the subject.
Who was Elizabeth Short? What was it that triggered this killer’s rage? What really happened that night? What led up to this crime? How did this happen?
I discovered how much misinformation is out there, not only concerning the murder, but Elizabeth Short herself. Mysteriously, the entire police file, which was stored in the LAPD archives, had been stolen or lost over the years. Poof! Gone.
At some point, between 1947 and who knows when, the files simply vanished.
This fact has made it even harder for researchers, like me, to get to the truth of what happened that terrible night.
For instance, there is a poignant story that is taken for fact, and has been used for decades to determine the timeline leading up to Elizabeth Short’s murder. Almost every account of her movements on Jan 9th, states that she was last seen leaving the Biltmore Hotel on that Wednesday evening, and never seen again after that.
This led to speculation that she was held captive somewhere for 5 days and tortured, before being left in the empty lot.
The bartender at the Biltmore Hotel, and 3 additional witnesses, stated that at 6:30 pm on the evening of the 9th, she was “waiting for her sister,” who never showed.
Harold Studholme, Chief Bell Captain at the Biltmore, stated that Beth left the Biltmore after stopping to chat with him, and that he last saw her walking south on Olive Street, where she turned, smiled, waved at him, and then walked around the corner, never to be seen alive again.
The problem with that story is; when I received the District Attorney’s files on the case, in 2006, the timeline was clear. The DA still had copies of some of the missing police reports, which showed that the 9th, was not the last time Elizabeth Short was seen alive, and according to the original police report, many things happened after Elizabeth left the Biltmore that night.
After leaving the Biltmore Hotel, Elizabeth went to the Crown Jewel Cocktail Lounge, at the corner of Eighth and Olive St, where she chatted with the bartender and several patrons, before heading back to a rooming house, where she was staying with friends.
From the 11th to the 14th, the night she really disappeared, Elizabeth Short was seen daily by many people, all renting rooms at the Astor Hotel, located at 2901 S Flower Street. Elizabeth had been headed in that direction, the night she left the Crown Jewel Cocktail Lounge on the 9th, probably around 9 or 10pm at night.
Elizabeth was never kidnapped and kept at a location, where she was tortured for 5 days, as was commonly theorized. The DA’s files, which contain some of the original police reports, set the record straight.
Who is Elizabeth Short? How did she meet the person who did this?
Elizabeth Short was born in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, which is a working class suburb of Boston. Her father, Cleo Short, was an entrepreneur, although there is some dispute as to what kind of business he ran. Some say it was an auto repair shop, while others report that he had invested all of his money in a Putt Putt Golf course. Either way, the business was doing very well, as a result of the Industrial revolution, which made many people rich.
Whatever Cleo’s business, it was hit hard by The Great Depression.
Cleo had moved his wife Phoebe, and their 4 daughters, to Medford MA, anticipating that his business would enjoy continued success, however in 1929, the stock market crashed, and shortly afterward Cleo vanished. His car was later found parked by a bridge near the family’s home, and his death was ruled a suicide. Cleo’s body was never found.
Cleo had left Phoebe and the four girls to fend for themselves, during the worst financial depression in American history, and taken the easy way out for himself.
Phoebe did the best she could. They downsized, moving to a much smaller place, and the women endured. Pheobe and her girls loved the movies, and used the magic of Hollywood as an escape from their difficult life.
Beth was shaping up to be a spectacular looking young woman, and talked incessantly of going to Hollywood and becoming a motion picture star. As it turned out, growing up, Beth looked more mature than she actually was, and her friends and family encouraged her. They all felt she was so pretty, that she could “make it” on her looks alone.
In 1940, when Beth was just 18 years old, she stayed with a family in Miami, and worked as an usherette in a movie house for the summer.
Beth had only 7 more years to live.
While Beth was in Miami, Phoebe Short received a letter, that would shock them all.
Cleo was alive.
Yes, Cleo had the unmitigated gall to pen a happy letter to Phoebe, stating that he was “alive and well,” and boasting of his job, working in a shipping yard, in Northern California. He boldly requested to come back to his family, so that everything could “be the way it was.”
Phoebe, who was angered and revolted by the news, told him she wanted nothing to do with him.
However, in 1941, the word “California” ignited visions of Hollywood and dreams of becoming a star, for a very young, Elizabeth Short. So,at 19 years old, Beth packed her belongings into a steamer trunk, and headed for Vallejo, CA., to live with Cleo.
It was a disaster. Beth’s father, Cleo Short, was as cold as ice. As if a man with a heart, would have left his wife and children to fend for themselves, during the most frightening economic crash in the county’s history, to begin with. His character was defined before Beth ever left the airport.
Cleo Short, a flaming narcissist, would likely be the reason that Elizabeth Short developed a distain for men.
The story of Beth and Cleo doesn’t end there, though. You might say that Betty’s murder could be laid at Cleo’s doorstep…at least that’s what I say.
NEXT: Who Killed The Black Dahlia? (Part Two): More interviews with Beth Short’s friends and the Black Dahlia Avenger has something to say. The killer starts sending the police and the press letters.