The crime scene, with Elizabeth Short's body, as it was found.

Elizabeth Short was born in 1925 to Phoebe and Cleo Short. Her father disappeared relatively early on in her childhood, and was believed to have committed suicide. However, he later sent a letter to his estranged wife asking for forgiveness, but Phoebe refused to take him back.

As a single parent, Phoebe Short took her daughter, who was 'Betty' to her family and 'Beth' to her friends, to the movies quite often. Little Beth Short soon became entranced with the silver screen and set out to become an actress.

Like most young, attractive women who aspire to be actresses, Elizabeth, after a brief stay with her father, moved to California. She was a popular and well-liked girl, who, by all accounts, cut a striking figure with her black hair, pale complexion, and black clothing. Beth had a penchant for servicemen; some accounts label her as promiscuous, while friends and roommates say she dated but was never seriously involved with someone.

It came as a total shock when, on a chilly January morning in 1947, her body was found in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, CA.

A mother and daughter were returning home from shopping, and were taking a short cut through a vacant lot. The mother caught sight of what appeared to be a store mannequin, albeit laying in two pieces, tosses haphazardly in the grass.

As the pair got closer, the mother shoved her daughter aside and shielded the little girl's eyes. It was not a mannequin at all but a young girl, her body not only bruised and battered but cut in half, nude, sprawled in the grass like a discarded doll.

Needless to say, the police arrived at the scene to find twenty-two year old Elizabeth Short's body. Her arms were thrown above her head, as if she had been posed that way. Her hair was wet and some sources say traces of henna were found in it, though that has not been proven. The LAPD was left with no clues other than an aspiring actress's body lying in a field. No murder weapon, no footprints, nothing.

The details of the crime were leaked to the press, who took the story and ran with it. To this day no one really knows if the moniker 'Black Dahlia' was a friendly nickname or a title bestowed upon Elizabeth post-mortem by the press. Either way, the specifics of the crime were unbelievably brutal, the crime animalistic in nature.

Investigators determined that her body had probably been severed with a butcher knife or an electric saw. The few surviving records of the crime scene state that there was only 'a drop' of blood found near her body. If this is true, then Elizabeth Short had been murdered elsewhere and her body dumped in the ditch after the fact. So far, there has never been concrete evidence pointing to where the killing actually took place.

Over the years, accounts of what happened to Elizabet Short have varied. Some say intials were carved into her thigh, henna was found in her hair, and her breasts had been removed. In reality, the injuries that were present were just as hideous as anything conjured by overactive imaginations.

According to autopsy reports, there was quote, "a deep laceration on the face 3" long, which extends laterally from the right corner of the mouth.....There is a deep laceration 2 1/2" inches long extending laterally from the left corner of the mouth." (Those who witnessed the body lying in the ditch said that it appeared Short was smiling.) Severe bruising was present in several places on Short's head and neck, and there were also several small cuts on her upper lip. However, the hyoid bone was intact and there was no evidence of trauma near the thyroid glands or trachea, which would be indicative of strangulation. Multiple cuts and scratches also marked her chest, torso, and arms. A small, square shaped piece of skin was missing from her thigh - it was later found shoved far into her vagina, along with a fair amount of grass. For whatever reason, her killer or killers had cut off the small rose tattoo on her thigh and placed it inside her body. It also appeared that Short had been brutally sodomized post-mortem. Her stomach was also filled with quote "greenish brown granular matter, mostly feces and other particles that could not be identified." Perhaps surprisingly, there was no precense of sperm anywhere on her body.

Elizabeth Short was no doubt subjected to some form of torture before and after she died, as brusing only occurs in the living. In the end, the injuries to her face and head were listed as the cause of death. Her injuries display obvious signs of overkill...the cuts to the face and head injuries are hallmarks of overkill. The extent of her injuries could mean one of two things: Elizabeth Short was killed by someone who knew her, someone close to her, in a fit of rage. (Overkill is often present in crimes where the killer and victim are close to one another, as are injuries to the face and head, and other forms of mutilation.) On the other hand, her killer may have been a psychopath who chose her as his next victim. But if this were true, the murder of Elizabeth Short would not be such a person's first victim. It takes years of festering madness to reach the level of brutality achieved in her death. Serial killers evolve over time and modify how they kill. If an act gives them gratification, they will build on that. If a roaming killer murdered Elizabeth Short, this was no fledging criminal.

So the question that remains is, who killed Elizabeth Short, who lies now in an unmarked grave in California? At the time of the incident, over fifty people made false confessions. (In time, this number would go to astronomical proportions.) Police would somehow get a lead on the case, only to have it be nothing. The frustration mounted to a fever pitch. There were no suspects, no evidence other than her body. There were, however, theories in abundance.

Before Elizabeth was killed, a madman terrorized Ohio. He was dubbed the 'Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run', the 'Cleveland Torso Killer'. All of his victims were dismembered in some way, with very smooth, precise cuts. Even though the famed Elliott Ness worked the case, the Cleveland Torso murderer was never apprehended. One day the atrocities stopped, and Ohio never saw the killer's handiwork again.

Could it be possible that this pyschotic from Ohio would travel to California, indulge in one more murder, and then vanish? It is possible. Kingsbury Run's 'Mad Butcher' was most certainly willing and able to inflict the kind of injuries Short suffered. More than a few serial killers are nomadic, travelling and killing. (Take Ted Bundy and Henry Lee Lucas, for example. Bundy roamed several states killed college coeds, and Lucas, along with Otis Toole, claims to have murdered hundreds.) But serial killers do not simply stop on their own. They either die themselves or wind up in prison, usually on unrelated charges. Is this what happened to the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run?

Author Janice Knowlton, in her book Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer, targets her father as the perpetrator. Although she gives many facts of the case, her reason her father, George Knowlton, was the killer is based on her own repressed memories. Although Knowlton presents some very plausible theories and insight into the case, it seems that little of what she says can be corroborated. (A more factual overview of the case can be found in James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia.)

Fifty-two years later, the LAPD is no closer to solving the case than they were in 1947. It is a known fact that as time passes, evidence, clues, and suspects tend to vanish. Any trail stumbled across today would likely be cold. Making any closure to this case even more difficult is the fact that Elizabeth Short's murderer would be either very old or already passed away - Elizabeth herself would be in her seventies.

It is for these reasons that the Los Angeles Police Department, for all their efforts, has declared this case officially unsolved.

Elizabeth Short as she was found at the crime scene.

Elizabeth Short in the morgue.

A Close-Up of Elizabeth Short's face.


Author's Note

Within the annals of crime, there are many unsolved murders. As time goes on, there will be many more. In a perfect world all killers would be captured and brought to justice, but we know by now that this is not a perfect world.

Although it was a gruesome and depraved killing, the death of Elizabeth Short is really no more remarkable than any other unsolved crime. Yet for fifty-three years, she has haunted us. Her broken-doll body, the crime scene photos, the stories of her life, have stayed with us. Why? She was but a young, pretty girl who in life was no more extraordinary than today's youth. In death, she has become a symbol of injustice, a hideous murder that was never solved. Somehow, her story-before and after she was killed-has become one of the most researched, most talked about tales of American lore.

All who study crime know that the longer a case goes unsolved, the colder the leads become. After half a century, it is doubtful that we will ever know who really killed Elizabeth Short. We have suspects, suspicious people hiding in the shadows of her life, fleeting characters in a tragedy that preys on our minds. There seems to have been no reason for her death, and her killer seems to have slipped into the backdrop, never to be heard from again.

Some say her father killed her, some say it was a rejected suitor exacting revenge. Some say Elliot Ness' nemesis, the Cleveland Torso Murderer, (who was never apprehended,) travelled half a continent away, committed one final atrocity, and then vanished.

There are no answers.

Elizabeth Short is a tragic testament to the horror humans can inflict on one another. She is tale told around camp fires, a ghost story deeply embedded in the American psyche. Her brutal murder is one of the most famous crimes in American history. Her ghost has haunted us since 1947, crying out for answers from old black-and-white photographs.

And her ghost, and the secrets it keeps, will haunt us, still.

The Black Dahlia Memorial Monument in Elizabeth Short's hometown of Medford, MA.