Real Crime

The Black Dahlia: How 'Moral Panic' Gripped the Community in the Wake of Elizabeth Short's Gruesome Murder

Murder victim Elizabeth Short, also known as The Black Dahlia
Head shot of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, a murder victim nicknamed the Black Dahlia. Photo: Bettmann/ Getty Images
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    The Black Dahlia: How 'Moral Panic' Gripped the Community in the Wake of Elizabeth Short's Gruesome Murder

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      Laura Barcella

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      The Black Dahlia: How 'Moral Panic' Gripped the Community in the Wake of Elizabeth Short's Gruesome Murder

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      August 08, 2020

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      A+E Networks

The following content contains disturbing accounts of violence. Discretion is advised.

The still-unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short—the 22-year-old woman later dubbed “The Black Dahlia“—has captivated crime-watchers since the day her body was found on January 15, 1947.

The undisputed facts of the case remain: an aspiring starlet from Medford, Massachusetts, Short moved to Los Angeles with hopes of “making it” in Hollywood.

Fame wasn’t in the cards for Short; at least not the way she’d envisioned it. The young woman, whom family and friends described as beautiful and charming, drifted around Southern California, dating various men and staying with acquaintances, until she met her tragic end.

Who found Elizabeth Short’s body?
Betty Bersinger, a woman who was out for a neighborhood stroll with her young daughter, discovered Short’s body in a vacant lot in L.A.’s Leimert Park neighborhood. The body had been severed in half and drained of blood, with Short’s mouth sliced, at the ends, into a broad smile.

The gruesome murder swiftly became a media sensation, instilled fear throughout Los Angeles and came to represent a cautionary tale for young women aspiring to become Hollywood stars.

The city of L.A. was already experiencing rising levels of crime, and gang connections were everywhere (even among the police). At the same time, there was an incoming tide of young women moving to the City of Angels from across the United States. “It was the post-war period, with increasing freedoms for women, and more and more women [were] coming in from around the country to try to make it in Hollywood,” says Piu Eatwell, author of Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder.

How was L.A. affected by the ‘Black Dahlia’ murder?
Short’s slaying became a huge sensation, both because of its brutality and because of the actions of the alleged killer. Someone claiming to be the killer called the Los Angeles Herald Examiner newspaper disapproving of the way the story was being told in the press. He offered to mail Short’s possessions to the paper. The next day, the Examiner received a package with Short’s birth certificate, photos, business cards and address book, as well as a bizarre letter formulated with magazine clippings that read: “Los Angeles Examiner and other Los Angeles papers, here is Dahlia’s belongings. Letter to follow.”

The taunts (whoever sent them) and the frantic hunt for Short’s killer sparked a city-wide panic—and the press jumped. The local Herald-Express newspaper even developed a symbiotic relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department, offering them access to their reporters’ fresh leads in exchange for exclusives from the cops. “When the first headlines came out about the murder, it sold more copies than [papers about] the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” says Eatwell.

Some pointed to Short’s horrific demise as a warning for young women hoping to make it in the movies. “The murder became something for people to use—preachers, the press—as an example of what happens when you leave the safe confines of your family or husband,” says Eatwell.

And although the press’ coverage of Short started out by painting her as an innocent victim, her public reputation slowly began to shift “from virgin to vamp,” according to Eatwell. As reporters learned more about the young woman’s history, they began to shame her for the relationships she’d had with men. (One of the police reports reads, “This victim knew at least fifty men at the time of her death and at least twenty-five men had been seen with her in the sixty days preceding her death…She was known as a teaser of men.”) They also jumped on Short’s previous underage-drinking arrest in Santa Barbara.

How did Elizabeth Short get the nickname ‘The Black Dahlia’?
Even her press-given nickname, “Black Dahlia” came about due to her “rumored penchant for sheer black clothes and for the Blue Dahlia movie out at the time,” according to the FBI’s online account of the case.

There was also false speculation, Eatwell says, that the killing had been linked to a sadistic lesbian. “There was an obsession and sexualization…with the idea that the killer could have been a woman, though there was no shred of evidence to suggest that.”

All of the speculation only exacerbated the public panic. Women were scared, but actresses and other entertainment workers were especially frazzled.

Eatwell recalls speaking to women who danced in popular L.A. nightclubs at that time “who were  worried about a serial killer, [and the idea] that the same thing could happen to them.” “The way the media covered it was to teach women a lesson, that it was not a good idea to hang out with these men,” she says. “There was a sense of moral panic.”

Who was a prime suspect in the ‘The Black Dahlia’ murder case?
After an initial month-long frenzy right after the body was discovered, coverage eventually died down and the case grew cold. Some questioned the LAPD’s treatment of the murder—particularly their shoddy handling of one-time prime suspect Leslie Dillon. Dillon, a bellhop and former mortician’s assistant, got the attention of authorities when he wrote a letter to LAPD psychiatrist J Paul De River in 1948, after reading an article in a detective magazine where De River spoke about the Black Dahlia case. The two struck up a correspondence, with Dillon theorizing who may have killed Short. But he started providing some details that only someone connected to the case would know, and he soon became a suspect. Although he was interrogated and the police discovered some circumstantial evidence, he was never charged, and he went on to sue the police department over his treatment, including unlawful detention and false arrest. He ultimately dropped his lawsuit, but there are conflicting reports as to whether he did, in fact, receive a payout from the police department anyway.

In February 1947, California became the first state to require a registration process for convicted sex offenders, and that legislation was a result of the Black Dahlia killing. But otherwise Eatwell says there was very little press coverage between 1947 and 1949. The next media boom began in 1949, when a grand jury investigation was launched to address the LAPD’s mishandling of the case.

Though many considered Dillon the most viable suspect in Short’s murder, he was eventually released from police custody and was never tried for the crime.

The Black Dahlia’s legacy remains great to this day. There are few other murder cases that spark the same level of horror and fascination—partly because of the lack of resolution, but also because of what the case came to symbolize in the public eye.

“People began to see it less about the murder of an individual,” says Eatwell, “…but about a symbol of everything that was wrong in Hollywood then, [especially] for women.”

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