Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Black Dahlia


Jack Anderson Wilson
Jack Anderson Wilson

The LAPD has refrained from speculating on the identity of killer. The truth is that Elizabeth Short's killer is most likely dead — if not of disease, of old age — and will never be brought to justice. This fact hasn't stopped a large group of amateur sleuths from picking up the torch in an attempt to solve the case. Their conclusions range from fanciful to downright risible:

  • Mary Pacios pins the blame, incredibly, on movie director Orson Welles, who once did a magic act where he "sawed" a woman in half.
  • In another book, Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer, a public relations specialist named Janice Knowlton blames her father for the murder. She writes that therapy helped her recover childhood memories of her father forcing her to watch him torture, murder and hack up Short. Knowlton goes on to accuse her father of nine such killings, including that of a son he engendered with her. Her book was a flop, but Knowlton harassed anyone writing about the case who did not support her claims until she committed suicide in 2004 with a drug overdose.

Here are some of the suspects who've topped the list as the could-haves the last 60 years:

  • Robert Manley: Manley was the last known person to see Short alive. He was initially booked as a suspect, but released after he passed a polygraph test. Beset by a long history of mental health problems, in 1954, his wife committed him to a psychiatric hospital after he told her he was hearing voices. That same year, doctors gave him a shot of sodium pentothal — aka the "truth serum" — in another attempt to glean information about the Black Dahlia murder from him. He was absolved a second time. He died in 1986, 39 years to the day after he left Short at the Biltmore. The coroner attributed his death to an accidental fall.
  • Mark Hansen: Hansen's name was embossed on the address book that was mailed to the Examiner; it's unclear how the item fell into Short's hands. The 55-year-old Denmark native was the manager of the Florentine Gardens, a sleazy Hollywood nightclub featuring burlesque acts. Many of the young women working for Hansen lived at his home, which was located behind the club. Short was his guest for several months in 1946, and the aging lothario is rumored to have tried to bed her — unsuccessfully.
  • George Hodel: In 2003, a retired LAPD detective named Steve Hodel published another daddy-did-it tract, but this one became a national bestseller.  According to the Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder Hodel Jr. depicts his dad as a tyrant and misogynistic pervert who held orgies at the family home and was put on trial for raping own his 14-year-old daughter (he was acquitted). After his father died in 1999, Steve Hodel acquired his father's private photo album, which contained two snapshots of a dark-haired woman. Hodel claims the woman was Short, but Short's family has refuted his claims.
  • Jack Anderson Wilson: In Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, actor-cum-crime writer John Gilmore fingers an alcoholic drifter named Jack Anderson Wilson. When Gilmore interviewed him in the early 80s, Wilson purportedly divulged details about the murder that only the killer would have known, including knowledge of a supposed vaginal defect which would have prevented Short from having sexual intercourse. A few days before his pending arrest, Wilson died in a hotel fire. The book's validity has been questioned by other Dahlia devotees who have failed to track down many of Gilmore's primary sources — leading them to question the sources' very existence.
  • Walter Alonzo Bayley: In 1997, a Los Angeles Times writer named Larry Harnisch suggested yet another suspect: Dr. Walter Alonzo Bayley, a surgeon whose house was located one block south of the lot where Short's body was found. Bayley's daughter was a friend of Short's sister Virginia. Harnisch theorizes that Bayley suffered from a degenerative brain disease that made him kill Short. While the police believe Short's killer was affiliated with a cutting profession — a surgeon or butcher, say — Bayley was 67 at the time of the murder and had no known record of violence or crime. Neither is it known whether he ever met Short.

Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson

None of these suspects have been endorsed by the LAPD. And because most of the key physical evidence has disappeared from the Black Dahlia file — including 13 scornful letters the killer sent the police and the media — it's unlikely the case will ever be solved. Det. Brian Carr, who inherited it in 1996, has publicly stated as much. In 2006, six decades after her death, Elizabeth Short finally made it onto the big screen in a Universal Pictures release based on the 1987 James Ellroy novel The Black Dahlia.

Directed by Hollywood heavyweight Brian De Palma and budgeted at about $45 million, the cast includes Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank and, as the enigmatic title lady, Mia Kirshner.


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