The Black Dahlia murder has been a baffler. It is the most infamous unresolved homicide in LAPD history. But the solution to the Dahlia murder has been “there” for LAPD Homicide and the LA public for more than a half-century. This is a paradox with a simple explanation: the solution was shrouded in black symbolism, abstruse encryption, plus a plethora of reportage.
On January 15, 1947 a housewife named Betty Bersinger left her home on Norton Avenue in the Leimert Park section of Los Angeles, bound for a shoe repair shop. She took her three-year-old daughter with her and as they walked along the street, coming up on the corner of Norton and 39th, they passed by several vacant lots that were overgrown with weeds. She couldn’t help but feel a little depressed as she looked out over the deserted area. Development had been halted here, thanks to the war, and the open lots had been left looking abandoned and eerie. Betty felt slightly disconcerted and then shrugged it off, blaming her emotional state on the gray skies and the cold, dreary morning.
As she walked a little further along, she caught a glimpse of something white over in the weeds. She was not surprised. It wasn’t uncommon for people to toss their garbage out into the vacant lot and this time, it looked as though someone had left a broken department store mannequin here. The dummy had been shattered and the two halves lay separated from one another, with the bottom half lying twisted into what was admittedly a macabre pose. Who would throw such a thing into an empty lot? Betty shook her head and walked on, but then found her glance pulled back to the ghostly, white mannequin. She looked again and then realize that this was no department store dummy at all — it was the severed body of a woman! With a sharp intake of breath and a stifled scream, she took her daughter away from the gruesome site and ran to a nearby house. From here, she telephoned the police.
The call was answered by Officers Frank Perkins and Will Fitzgerald, who arrived within minutes. When they found the naked body of a woman who had been cut in half, they immediately called for assistance. The dead woman, it was noted, seemed to have been posed. She was lying on her back with her arms raised over her shoulders and her legs spread in an obscene imitation of seductiveness. Cuts and abrasions covered her body and her mouth had been slashed so that her smile extended from ear to ear. There were rope marks on her wrists, ankles and neck and investigators later surmised that she had been tied down and tortured for several days. Worst of all was the fact that she had been sliced cleanly in two, just above the waist. It was clear that she had been killed somewhere else and then dumped in the vacant lot overnight. There was no blood on her body and none of the ground where she had been left. The killer had washed her off before bringing her to the dump site.
The horrible nature of the case made it a top priority for the LAPD. Captain John Donahoe assigned his senior detectives to the case, Detective Sergeant Harry Hansen and his partner, Finis Brown. Shortly after receiving the fingerprints, the FBI had a match for the L.A. detectives. The victim of the brutal murder was Elizabeth Short, a 22 year-old woman who originally came from Massachusetts. During World War II, she had been a clerk at Camp Cooke in California, which explained why her fingerprints were on file. Elizabeth Short was an aspiring actress who usually dressed entirely in black. Thanks to her nice figure and attractive face, men easily noticed her. Her hair was black and her skin pale, providing a striking contrast and a look that got her noticed, even in Hollywood, where good-looking dames were a dime a dozen.
Short hailed from Medford, Massachusetts. She quit school at age 16 and became a drifter. During the last four years of her life, she floated from Massachusetts through California, through Florida through Indiana, and into Chicago where she boarded a train and rode to the Union Pacific station in Los Angeles. Soon after her 1946 arrival in LA, Elizabeth was tagged “the Black Dahlia.” Her moniker was earned because of her raven locks, penchant for wearing black, intriguingly obsessive behavior and the release of Raymond Chandler’s The Blue Dahlia as a motion picture.