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The FBI & the Black Dahlia

© 2016, Updated 2020, Stephanie Hoover - All Rights Reserved. Permission Required for Re-Use or Distribution.

black dahlia
Elizabeth Short's nickname was born of her habit of wearing black dresses and hats.

Elizabeth Short. The notorious "Black Dahlia."

Chances are you know the name, and the horrific circumstances of her mutilation and murder. What may be less familiar is the role the FBI played in the investigation.

In the early morning hours of January 15, 1947, the body of a young, caucasian female was found in a vacant lot near Norton Avenue and 39th Street in southern Los Angeles. The neighborhood, known as Leimert Park, was designed by the sons of Frederick Law Olmstead, the man who created New York's Central Park. It was inhabited by middle- and upper-class families and was considered an early model of successful urban planning. Residents never guessed their idyllic community would forever be associated with one of the most notorious unsolved murders in American history.

The murderer's brutality was sickening, even to seasoned L. A. cops. Elizabeth Short's body was bisected at the waist. No internal organs were damaged except for the severed intestines. A powerful yet clean slice separated the backbone. Mercifully, this was all performed post mortem. But, the sadistic killer also made a three inch incision on either side of Short's mouth while she was alive. He (or she?) also concussed Short's brain with several blows to the forehead. Marks around her legs, wrists, neck and right thigh indicated that she was bound while tortured.

In oddly understated fashion, her death certificate reports that Elizabeth Short died from "hemorrhage and shock; concussion of the brain; and lacerations of the face."

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From Clouded in Mystery Publisher Stephanie Hoover:

Spiritualism and the Supernatural Encyclopedia

Almost worse than the savagery of the murder was the fact that the police had no idea who the victim was. This is where the FBI entered the case.

L.A. police fingerprinted the victim but had no means to quickly forward the images to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. A newspaper, the Los Angeles Examiner, offered to transmit the prints via their "soundphoto" apparatus - an early fax machine. The bureau compared the prints against the 104 million specimens in their database and remarkably - within 56 minutes - found not one, but two, matches. One was created during Elizabeth Short's 1943 Santa Barbara arrest for underage drinking. The other match was a National Defense fingerprint required when Short applied for a clerk position at Camp Cooke (today Vandenberg Air Force Base) in Lompoc. The Los Angeles police, and fascinated the public, now knew what the pretty face looked like before it was butchered.

Elizabeth Short mugshot
Short's mugshot taken after her 1943 arrest for underage drinking.

Born in Massachusetts on July 29, 1924, "Betty" (as her friends called her) was 22 when she died. At 5-feet-6-inches and 118 pounds she was slim - a fact those closest to her chalked up to her inability to afford regular meals rather than intentional dieting. Her hair was naturally light brown but dyed raven-black, which made her fair complexion and green eyes all the more arresting. Sadly, though, her lifestyle and poverty had taken a toll on her teeth which were already rotting.

So many newspapers reported the FBI's success at identifying Short that many in the general public assumed the bureau was leading the investigation. Assistant Director L. B. Nichols responded to requests from reporters and others by explaining that the case was under the jurisdiction of the local police. As such, he said, the FBI was hesitant to involve itself in the matter.

Although Nichols was telling the truth, in actuality the FBI couldn't avoid involvement. Tips arrived regularly, and the bureau meticulously filed and responded to each one before forwarding it to the L.A. field office. One peculiarly detailed letter, dated January 19, 1947, listed eight characteristics the writer was certain Short's murderer possessed: ex-Marine, caucasian, 28 to 30 years of age, red hair (and handsome), about 160 pounds, Irish/English heritage, 5-feet-10-inches tall, and stationed in a camp or hospital in California. A reply went out signed by J. Edgar Hoover thanking the writer for such "thoughtfulness." Some time later a suspect matching this exact description was questioned by the police. Hope that they had found the fiend faded, however, when he passed two lie detector tests.

Another potentially promising lead unexpectedly fell into investigators' laps when George Poteet was detained in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Poteet had stolen a 1946 Chevy sedan from Mr. J. B. Stephenson of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Unfortunately, Stephenson's bloody axe and Army shovel were still in the trunk when Poteet was arrested, arousing Boston police suspicions that he just might be the Black Dahlia's killer. The FBI interviewed Stephenson and learned that the axe had actually been used to cut up an antelope several years previously. Poteet may have been the unluckiest criminal alive, but he didn't murder and mutilate Elizabeth Short.

One of the FBI's most valuable roles in the Dahlia investigation was helping the Los Angeles police eliminate those confused souls who falsely confessed to the heinous crime. At least one young man, a 22-year-old by the name of VorHees, was determined to be emotionally unbalanced and, at least where Elizabeth Short was concerned, unworthy of additional scrutiny. Reasons for the other confessions…? One can only speculate.

As powerful as Hoover's FBI was, it ran into a brick wall with the relatively new Social Security Administration. Two weeks after the murder, L.A. investigators felt that, without new information, the case had reached a standstill. As a means of creating a list of possible suspects, police wanted Short's employment history - information only SSA records could furnish. The two government agencies had worked together during the second World War, based on the bureau's promise that it would only request information on individuals suspected of espionage or other subversive activities. After the war, however, the SSA returned to the policy promised to the American people during its creation. It would only use its data for the purpose of dispensing benefits. Regardless of Hoover's persistent attempts, his request for Short's employment records was flatly denied.

Though the FBI processed several additional police requests for fingerprint identification of men deemed "very likely suspects," no arrests were ever made. As the years passed, the FBI's Black Dahlia File 62-82627-2 slipped into inactivity - but interest in the case seems more enthusiastic than ever.

The first movie about the case was the 1975 made-for-TV film Who Is the Black Dahlia? In it, Lucille Ball's daughter, Lucie Arnaz, plays Elizabeth. It marks the point where many armchair investigators first learned about - and became obsessed with - this case.

In 2012, Elizabeth Short was transformed into a vengeful, murderous ghost in the movie The Black Dahlia Haunting.

Last year, the television network TNT ran a six-part series inspired by Fauna Hodel's search for her grandfather George Hodel - a strange and prominent L.A. physician whom police suspected might be the murderer.

2020 will see one of the most innovative interpretations of this case yet. The film Night Rain is about a modern day actress unwittingly hired by her stalker to re-create Elizabeth Short's final days and death. The stalker's motivation, however, is both reminiscent and deadly. (Click on the link above to hear the podcast of this story which includes comments from producer Jeanne Marie Spicuzza.)

In the end, even the FBI couldn't find Elizabeth Short's killer. Perhaps that's why, more than 70 years later, both professional and amateur criminologists still discuss and debate who murdered the Black Dahlia - and why.

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