On the morning of January 15, 1947 Betty Bersinger and her three year old daughter were taking a morning walk on South Norton Avenue in Crenshaw when they discovered a grisly scene. The body of Elizabeth Short had been mutilated and dumped in a vacant lot on the street. The body had been cut in half at the torso and her mouth had been cut at the corners toward her ears, a process referred to as the “Glasgow Smile.” (The same look of Heath Ledger’s Joker). In addition the body had been cleaned and posed. The autopsy would reveal that she had been tied at her feet and ankles and, in addition to the obvious wounds, had been beaten with bruises covering her body and head.
If the details of the brutal murder weren’t enough, days later on January 23, the killer sent a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Examiner. The letter stated the killer’s disappointment that the coverage of the murder had not been as prominent as he’d hoped for and offered to send items belonging to the victim to the newspaper to prove he was indeed the real deal. The next day, Short’s birth certificate and several other personal items arrived at the office. One of the items was a book with the name Mark Hansen imprinted on it. Hansen, a friend of Short’s, was indeed the last person to see her alive, and immediately became the prime suspect in the case. Over the course of the next few weeks, the killer would send more letters to the newspaper.
The events fueled media frenzy, as reporters trampled the crime scene, withheld information and anything else they could to get the scoop. In addition to the press, there were dozens of people who would confess to the killings in an attempt to gain the notoriety that would follow such a title. In the end, it would destroy any chance the police would have in catching the killer, though they had several suspects and theories.
One theory, and the most popular, was that the killings were linked to the 1946 string of murders that included a six year old girl in Chicago which had been dubbed the “lipstick murders.” The name sprung from the killer leaving a note written in lipstick on a victim’s mirror. Those murders had several similarities, with the letter to the press and the Ransom note that was left in the Chicago case. All of the letters used a combination of upper and lower case letters, some of which were exact handwriting matches. Also, the victim in the Chicago case’s last name was Degnan, and Short was found three blocks from Degnan Blvd. There was only one catch to the theory; the Chicago case had already convicted William George Heirens in their case. Though Heirens had confessed to the crimes, he would later recant, saying all of his confessions were forced due to police torturing him.
As it stands, the case remains unsolved and one of Los Angeles most famous murder cases. There have been a number of books and movies produced about or based on the events, most notably, “The Black Dahlia” written by James Ellroy was both a novel and a 2006 film. In the end, it’s just another chapter in a city with a book that could have only been written in, well, Hollywood.