Massachusetts’ Connection to the Infamous ‘Black Dahlia’ Murder
Just over an hour north from New Bedford is Medford, Massachusetts, a town that is surprisingly connected to big things in American culture. Amelia Earhart lived there, "Jingle Bells" was composed in this small town, it happens to be home of one of the biggest bank robberies and jewel heists of all time, and it was the birthplace of the legendary "Black Dahlia."
You have likely heard of the Black Dahlia from the first season of American Horror Story or perhaps from the countless documentaries and true crimes specials about the historic cold case. Legally, the murder has still never been solved and it remains the oldest cold case file in Los Angeles to date – and it all started in Massachusetts.
That is where Elizabeth Short was born. Short was one of five daughters born to Cleo and Phoebe Short in 1924. Sadly, by 1929, the family was destitute due to the great stock market crash and in 1930 Cleo was thought dead by suicide by his family. All six Short girls, mother Phoebe included, then moved to a tiny apartment in Medford.
Elizabeth did not stay long, however. She had asthma and other health problems that took her to Florida to live where the climate was warmer. Though she would summer in Massachusetts, life eventually took her to California where her apparently not-actually-dead father had started a new life. Though she hadn't seen him since she was six, 18-year-old Elizabeth decided to move across the country to be with him.
It may not have been the best move. After only a few weeks, arguments between the two caused her to move out and live with an allegedly abusive boyfriend instead. Several months later, she had left that situation only to be arrested for underage drinking and shipped back to her family in Medford.
From there she had a short-lived engagement with an Army pilot who tragically died during World War II, and Short found herself right back in California by the summer of 1946, working as a waitress and aspiring to become one of Hollywood's elite. Sadly, that was not to be.
Just months after her relocation, Short went missing in early January 1947. On the morning of January 15, 1947, her naked and disfigured body was found in the Leimert Park neighborhood of L.A. by a local resident and her three-year-old daughter. The body had been drained of blood and was so mutilated that the woman first thought she had discovered a discarded store mannequin, only to realize it was, in fact, a corpse.
Horrible things had been done to Short. Her body was severed in two pieces and completely drained of blood. She had received several blows to the face as well as slices to the sides of her cheeks, giving her a "Glasgow smile." There were other cuts and bruises all over her body and her intestines were completely removed. Though police believed most of the damage was done postmortem, investigators also felt Short had been tortured for days due to ligature marks on her wrists, ankles and neck.
Not surprisingly, the case quickly gained national media attention and became the first major crime post-World War II. With the massive amount of attention given to the case, separating the fact from the fiction became increasingly difficult. Police found themselves with 150 suspects and zero arrests, and not much has changed there in the last 70-plus years.
To date, there have been no arrests in the Black Dahlia murder, though many people have claimed to know who the killer was. Theories blaming bellhops, mobsters, doctors, famous Hollywood actors and prominent publishers have all been discussed by authors and experts, with some surprising names in the mix. Actor Orson Welles was a suspect, mobster Bugsy Seigel, even folk singer Woody Guthrie, but it there is one theory that seems to ring truer than all the others.
We spoke with Dahlia Schweitzer, author and associate professor in film studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, whose book L.A. Private Eyes discusses many prominent cases out of the City of Angels, including the Black Dahlia murder. Schweitzer opened my eyes to Dr. George Hodel as a likely suspect in the case, telling me he "has long been believed to be the 'Black Dahlia Killer,' however there was never enough proof to put him away."
"Hodel was already on the LAPD's radar because of his daughter, Tamar, and her allegations not only that her father had molested her, but that he was the Dahlia killer," Schweitzer said. "The fact that he had a medical degree was also suspicious, since the way the body had been mutilated seemed to reflect a certain amount of surgical skill."
There also could have been a connection between Short and Hodel.
"There were also several witnesses who said Hodel and Short knew each other," she said. "I believe that George Hodel and Elizabeth Short first met in his clinic, which specialized in venereal disease. The LAPD had also investigated Hodel for the murder of his secretary, Ruth Spaulding, a woman who knew many of George Hodel's secrets."
Schweitzer's belief in Hodel as the killer was strengthened for me after further digging into the long-dead doctor showed his son as well as his daughter came to believe he committed the crime, and that his son was in fact a Los Angeles homicide detective.
Steven Hodel allegedly started looking into the theory his father was the "Black Dahlia Killer" with the goal of proving him innocent to his sister Tamar. He wound up finding enough buried evidence within the LAPD to convince himself that not only was his father responsible for Short's death, but that he likely killed several other women as well. Knowing Dr. Hodel fled to the Philippines from 1950-1990 makes him look even guiltier, if you ask me.
Sadly, Short never got the justice she deserved. Dr. Hodel died in May of 1999, a suspected serial killer never convicted of a single crime. At the time of her death, Short's life was one that many in America would have questioned. A young girl, living on her own, dating but not settling down and trying to make a go of a career in Hollywood. She was portrayed as a sex fiend, a prostitute, even a lesbian in the newspapers leading many to feel she almost deserved what happened to her.
She obviously did not. Elizabeth Short was just a young woman with big dreams living far away from where she was born and raised. This girl from Medford's death was not entirely in vain, however. Just two weeks after her murder, California would introduce a bill to create the nation's first sex offender registry and went on to become the first state in the U.S. to make the registration of sex offenders mandatory.
Would this bill have made any difference in the outcome of the Black Dahlia murder case? Who knows. But for Elizabeth Short she certainly did become more famous than she may have ever dreamed.
Visit her memorial on Fountain Street in Medford.