‘My father killed the Black Dahlia’ – 70th Anniversary interview
She only ever existed in our imaginations: the Black Dahlia, siren of Hollywood Boulevard. For the true story of Elizabeth Short’s life and death has been heavily fictionalised like a biopic taking major liberties with the facts. Short wasn’t an alluring vision of black widow danger, but a pretty girl-next-door type eager to make an impression; less femme fatale more charmingly naïve bobby-soxer. Only a 1943 photo taken at a police station hints at the sultry persona talked up in the days following her barbaric death.
Aged 19, she’d been cuffed for underage drinking in Santa Barbara, California. It’s said when the Black Dahlia took a stroll or frequented a nightspot for an evening of dancing and entertainment, horny soldiers on weekend leave and married men looking for a one night stand practically fell over themselves in a scrum to ask her for a date. A penchant for black dresses and raven dark hair (dyed) led Long Beach patrons of a drugstore to start calling her ‘the Black Dahlia’ (a pun on a recently released movie, The Blue Dahlia, written for the screen by crime novelist Raymond Chandler). This name, bequeathed light-heartedly and teasingly, took off when the press got hold of it. The nickname was not coined by reporter Bevo Means, despite papers at the time naming high-profile murders after flowers (the White Gardenia Murder, the Red Hibiscus Murder). Until the now-iconic sobriquet became known, the media tried labelling it the ‘Werewolf Murder’.
70 years after her body was found by young mum Betty Bersinger, as she pushed her three-year-old toddler in a pram down south Norton Avenue, the Black Dahlia murder remains one of the most infamous cold cases in history. Due to police corruption and incompetence, LAPD never caught her killer and it is unlikely that they ever will, despite a plethora of suspects and a file full of facts, that are now seemingly worthless.
Wondery is running weekly episodes on the case in season 1 of its Hollywood and Crime podcast, while we spoke with Steve Hodel, a former Hollywood homicide detective turned writer who firmly believes he knows who killed the pretty young girl several decades ago.
MY FATHER’S THE KILLER
Was Elizabeth Short a prostitute?
No. She didn’t even drink alcohol nor did she do drugs. In Black Dahlia Avenger (2003) I write a chapter attempting to rehabilitate her character assassination by the many hack writers who painted her as a drugged out whore, providing oral sex in back alleys. Elizabeth Short was a naïve young woman looking for “Lieutenant Right” in wartime and post- war Los Angeles, that’s all.
In Black Dahlia Avenger you confronted the myth of Short’s missing week as being nothing of the sort. But is there any hard evidence beyond eyewitness testimony?
Eyewitness testimony is considered direct evidence and the dozen sightings I reference during that so-called ‘missing week’ are not coming from me, but rather from the newspaper and police reports of that time. I provide a list of 13 reliable witnesses who saw and spoke to her during the week of 9-14 January (seven of who personally knew Elizabeth and could not have been mistaken in their identification). In addition to those witnesses, DA investigator Lieutenant Frank Jemison in his 1950 follow-up investigation provides us with a new 14th witness (Connie Starr) who saw and spoke with Elizabeth on 11 January at the residence of Mark Hansen. Perhaps the most impressive witness was LAPD Officer Myrl McBride who I interviewed in 2001. She unequivocally confirmed her original 1947 statements of having spoken to Elizabeth Short on two separate occasions in the afternoon hours of 14 January (Elizabeth came running up to Officer McBride, who was on foot patrol, claiming, “…a former suitor had just threatened to kill her.”). McBride informed me that a short time later she saw Elizabeth a second time in downtown bar.
What do you think happened to Miss Short in this week?
Difficult to say, and it is purely speculative. Normally Elizabeth appeared in public well dressed and always presented a well-groomed appearance. During this time several witnesses described her as looking “out of sorts” and her clothing was soiled and dishevelled. Witnesses seemingly paint a very different picture of her in their brief contacts; she was not the self- assured, flirty young woman that they knew. More introverted and withdrawn. Nervous and fearful. Reluctant to talk.
You’ve written books about your father, Dr George Hodel, being the Black Dahlia Avenger.
Initially, my position was “no way.” It was not possible that my father could be involved in a murder. I began my investigation with the intent of showing that he had nothing to do with any crime and expected to fully exonerate him. I followed the evidence and, as they say, the rest is history.
There is an undoubted medical perspective to the case, right?
There is no question that Elizabeth Short’s killer was a skilled surgeon. The performing autopsy coroner Dr Newbarr himself stated to LAPD detective Finis Brown, “This is a fine piece of surgery.” Additionally, I now have five independent doctors (all experts in surgery) who each has independently opined that the bisection between the second and third lumbar vertebrae (a surgical procedure taught in the US in the 1930s and known as a hemicorporectomy) had to have been done by a highly trained doctor. That certainly limits the suspect pool. Despite naysayers claims to the contrary, Dr George Hodel was a skilled surgeon.