The Black Dahlia

Nikita Kaushik, BA, Batch of 2024, Kirit P. Mehta School of Law, Mumbai

On January 15, 1947, the remains of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, commonly known as “The Black Dahlia,” was discovered by Betty Bersinger on a morning stroll on the block of 3800 Nortan Avenue, LA. The body was cut in half and was so pale, thoroughly drained of blood that Bersinger mistook it for a mannequin at first. The body was cut with such surgical precision that there was no trauma to internal organs or bones. Short’s face had also been cut from her mouth towards her ears, forming an ever-present and haunting smile. Additionally, there was no blood that was found on the ground, indicating that the body was moved there after she was murdered. Nine days after the discovery of Short’s body, an envelope was received by The Examiner, addressed in horrific fashion using cut out letters clipped from movie ads. It read:

“Los Angeles Examiner and other Los Angeles papers, here is Dahlia’s belongings, letter to follow.”

As promised, the envelope contained Short’s social security card, birth certificate, snapshots, and an old address book with some pages missing. Gasoline was rubbed on the contents to remove any fingerprints. Before arriving in LA, Elizabeth spent time in San Diego with a man named Robert Manely, who drove her and checked into the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown LA. Many reports state that this was the last place where Short was seen alive. Others say that after Manley left, the guy who dropped her off, Short, headed to a nearby ‘Crown Grill Bar’, which stands today as Club Galaxy, also claimed to be the last place where Short was seen alive. Although this case has been unsolved for over 75 years, there are no shortages of interesting suspects.

The first suspect was Robert Manley, the guy who dropped her off at the Biltmore hotel. However, not only did he return to San Diego almost a week before her body was discovered, but he also passed a polygraph test. It was worth noting that in 1954, he was committed to a mental hospital due to hearing voices in his head. However, he also managed to pass the sodium pentothal test or “truth serum” test.

The second suspect was Army corporal Joseph Dumais, who claimed to be blackout drunk with Elizabeth in San Francisco, a few days before her murder. When asked if he thought he could have killed her, he replied yes. However, the evidence showed that he was in his military base a day before her death.

The final suspect was George Hodel. He had a house in LA at that time, which had a secret room that was off limits. George’s son, Steve Hodel, who was five at the time of the murder, later became a police investigator and served for 17 years. After retiring from the force, he became convinced that his father had killed the “Black Dahlia” and made a very compelling case. George was brilliant and studied surgery in medical school and also ran LA county’s venereal disease clinic, which would be the place where he could have disembowelled and mutilated Elizabeth Short’s body. Despite being busy as a doctor, he also had a hectic private life as a bachelor, having 11 children from 5 different women.

Additionally, Steve Hodel also found pictures of a woman who appeared to be Elizabeth Short in his father’s photo album. However, when the pictures were examined by a forensic artist, he claimed that he was 85% sure that it was not Elizabeth in the pictures. However, in 2014, another forensic artist claimed that it was a 90-95% match. However, like other tests, these results were inconclusive.

Steve also claimed that the Black Dahlia murderer’s handwriting was eerily similar to his own father’s. However, when examined by experts, they were received with mixed results ranging from probable to inconclusive. Another fact to be noted was that George Hodel was accused of sexually assaulting his own daughter; however, he was found not guilty.

The police officers did get suspicious of George at some point and planted listening devices in his home where he was heard saying, “Supposing I did kill the Black Dahlia, they couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she is dead.” Additionally, he was caught saying, “This is the best payoff I’ve seen between law enforcement agencies and I’d like to get a connection made in the DA’s office.”

George’s son also tracked down the LAPD case files that contained a female witness who mentioned that George and Elizabeth knew each other. We also have to remember that the LAPD was notoriously corrupt around that time, which would explain why the case was dropped even when George was emerging as a clear prime suspect. This fact could also explain why the physical evidence from the case magically disappeared, leading us to believe that George had paid the LAPD off the case. It could’ve also been a classic case of police incompetence; we will never know for sure. In 2012, the ever-vigilant Steve Hodel returned to his childhood home with a police dog that indicated the scent of human remains. Soil samples were taken and were positive for human remains as well. While this doesn’t conclude that George was, in fact, the Black Dahlia murderer as Short was not buried, one can conclude that George was perhaps not a stranger to murder. However, the LAPD remained reluctant to reopen the case. This made it seem as though they were still trying to keep it covered and, therefore, unsolved.

References –

  • THEREALDAWG, ‘The Black Dahlia’ (The Dog Tooth, 17 June 2016) <https://thedogtooth.wordpress.com/2016/06/17/the-black-dahlia/> accessed 5 March 2021
  • Buzzfeed Unsolved Network, ‘The Chilling Mystery of The Black Dahlia’ (Buzzfeed Unsolved Network, 2 April 2016) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gM6NG2PN4Q/> accessed 5 March 2021
  • Cheyna Roth, ‘A True Crime Mystery: Extended Theories of Unsolved Cold Cases’ (Ulysses Press, 21 August 2020) <https://ulyssespress.com/blog/a-true-crime-mystery-extended-theories-of-unsolved-cold-cases/> accessed 5 March 2021
  • Korzik M, ‘Prominent Theories’ (The Black Dahlia, 2 December 2016) <https://blackdahlia.web.unc.edu/prominent-theories/> accessed 5 March 2021



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Kirit P. Mehta School of Law Publications