© Larry Harnisch 2005

Common Myths About the Black Dahlia and Their Origins

Here's a quick guide to the most frequent errors made in writing about the murder of Elizabeth Short::

                    Myth: Her name was Elizabeth Ann Short.
                      Fact: Her mother testified at the inquest that she had no middle name.
                      Origin: A Los Angeles Times story in the 1970s erroneously added a middle name, which now appears in seemingly reputable sources on Los Angeles history. To add the semblance of authenticity, the middle name has even made its way into her FBI file. Whenever you hear someone call her Elizabeth Ann (like "Black Dahlia Avenger") you can be sure they don't know what they are talking about. A headline with the same story erroneously said there were hundreds of confessors. As the story says, there were hundreds of suspects.

                    Myth: The newspapers nicknamed the case.
                    Fact: Elizabeth Short got the "Black Dahlia" nickname in a Long Beach drugstore. The Los Angeles Herald-Express tried to nickname the case the "Werewolf Murder," but dropped it after several days.

                      Myth: She was a lesbian.
                      Fact: She disliked homosexuals, according to a report to the Los Angeles County Grand Jury.
Origin: In trying to determine how she survived for a week without her luggage or any change of clothing, the original detectives  theorized that she had been with a woman and from that, guessed that she had been killed as part of a lesbian love triangle. The idea that lesbians are murderous degenerates certainly reflects the thinking of the 1940s.

                     Myth: She worked at the Hollywood Canteen.
                      Fact: The Hollywood Canteen closed in 1945, while Elizabeth Short didn't get to Los Angeles until late July or early August 1946, according to a time line of her life prepared by the district attorney's office, among many other sources.
Origin. "Severed" claims that Elizabeth Short worked at the Hollywood Canteen  as part of its attempt to link this killing to the 1944 murder of Georgette Bauerdorf.
                      The claim in "Severed" that she met Gordon Fickling at the Hollywood Canteen is even more ridiculous. As an officer, Fickling wouldn't have been allowed inside because it was strictly for enlisted men, as any photo of the front will prove. (The sign above the door said: For Service Men.") As I say many times throughout this Web site, "Severed" is 25% mistakes and 50% fiction. For the record, when I interviewed Fickling in 1996, he said they met in Florida.

                      Myth: She lived at the Alto Nido Apartments
                      Fact: The original newspaper accounts identified three places Elizabeth Short lived in Hollywood: The home of Mark Hansen at 6024 Carlos Ave. (demolished), the Hawthorn Hotel  on Orange Drive (demolished) and the Chancellor Apartments at 1842 N. Cherokee (still there).  I have identified two other locations where she stayed briefly, but since they have never been publicly identified, I'm withholding them for my book.
Origin. This relatively new myth appears in "California Babylon." Since she couldn't afford $1 a night for a bunk bed at the Cherokee, I can't imagine how anyone would think she lived at the Alto Nido.
                 "Famous" people who actually lived at the Alto Nido, 6350 Franklin Ave., include the prolific, obscure screenwriter Eugene Walter, who died there in 1941; building manager Burt Berry, who died there of acute alcoholism in 1937 at the age of  48; Bunco artist Roy Kirkham in 1938;  Harry Michael, a witness in the 1944 fatal shooting of Hollywood figure Harry Lucenay (trainer of Pete the bulldog in the "Our Gang" comedies) over allegations of a crooked card game;  actress Collette Lyons (you may remember her as the telephone operator in "Return to Peyton Place"), whose nylons (a rationed item) were stolen there in  1945; and my favorite, Lila Leeds, who took an overdose of sleeping pills there in 1948, a few months before being arrested with Robert Mitchum for possession of marijuana at her house in Laurel Canyon.

                   Myth: She was a regular at the Snow White Waffle Shop, the bar at the Biltmore Hotel,  the Spanish Kitchen and just about every other restaurant in old Los Angeles
                    Fact: Except for one or two places, nobody knows for sure where she ate her meals. The laundry lists of restaurants that appear on the Web are--at best--nothing but fantasy and wishful thinking with absolutely no supporting proof. The amusing thing is that the few places where she was definitely placed by investigators are never mentioned in these lists.

                    Myth: She was a prostitute.
                    Fact:  The final report to the Los Angeles County Grand Jury states that she was not a prostitute.
Origin: Although this myth is deeply entrenched in the public imagination, it is relatively recent. Accounts as late as Jack Webb's "The Badge" (a fairly flawed account in its own right) portray her as a drifter, con artist and tease, but it isn't until the 1970s, with "True Confessions" that Elizabeth Short is first cast as a prostitute.

                     Myth: Her body was found at 39th and Norton or at 3925 S. Norton Ave.
                      Fact: The body was found on South Norton Avenue halfway between 39th Street and Coliseum, 54 feet north of the fire hydrant, according to the coroner's inquest.
Origin: The mislocation of the crime scene appeared quite early, presumably because it's easier to say "39th and Norton" than "Norton between 39th and Coliseum."  While this may seem like a trivial distinction, I hate to think of all the tourists who come to L.A. to see where the body was found and visit the wrong spot. "California Babylon" inexplicably places the body a block away and includes a picture of the house at that address. How the authors could be that far off is truly amazing.

                     Myth: William Randolph Fowler of the Los Angeles Examiner was the first reporter at the crime scene.
                      Fact: Based on a lengthy analysis of crime scene photos, I believe Will was probably one of the last reporters to arrive, just as Aggie Underwood said. The photograph he always used as proof (the one that appeared on the front page of the Examiner) was cropped to eliminate the fender of a car that is visible in the full image.
Origin: Will Fowler adamantly insisted for years that he was the first reporter on the scene, and told a  long, dramatic story of encountering the first police officers (who drew their guns, of course) of rushing back to the Examiner, which put out an extra, and returning to the crime scene to fool the competition so they wouldn't realize they had been scooped. He claimed that he had another photo of himself with the body, but that it had "disappeared." Even I fell for this one. It's impossible to state with 100% certainty since I wasn't there, but to the best of my knowledge, the first reporter on the scene was most likely Marvin Miles of the Los Angeles Times, based on the position of the shadows in the photos and the other people who are present. .

                       Myth: The killer washed her hair, dyed her hair or gave her a makeover.
                      Fact: Her hair had been hennaed and was growing out so the roots showed.   
Origin:  This myth appeared in one of the Los Angeles newspapers within two weeks  of her death, then  vanished for many years until it resurfaced in various crime books.

                     Myth: She was covered with cigarette burns.
                      Fact: False. There were no cigarette burns.
Origin: A few weeks after the killing, a teenage  girl disappeared and  then returned home, claiming to have escaped from her abductor. To bolster her story, she burned herself with a cigarette, all of which was reported in the Los Angeles newspapers.

                     Myth: She was strangled.
                      Fact: False. Although the body showed restraint marks around her wrists, neck and ankles, the coroner's inquest says Elizabeth Short died of shock and loss of blood. 

                     Myth: She was hacked in half.
                      Fact: Her bisection was a clean, professional job, according to one investigator who was at the crime scene. In sworn testimony before the Los Angeles County Grand Jury, Detective Harry Hansen said he believed the bisection was done by "a very fine surgeon."
Origin: This is one of the claims in "Severed."

                    Myth: She was forced to eat feces.
                    Fact: The fecal material found in her stomach was from the natural digestion of food and a result of her being cut in half, according to doctors and investigators I have interviewed.
Origin: Still another claim from "Severed," attributed to a nonexistent LAPD detective.

                    Myth: She was disemboweled, her ovaries were "switched,"  etc. etc.
                    Fact: Her body was mutilated, cut in half and drained of blood, but all her internal organs were present, as the coroner's inquest shows.
                     Myth: She had a last drink at the Biltmore bar before vanishing to meet her grisly fate.
                     Fact: Elizabeth Short didn't drink except for perhaps the last month or two of her life (her autopsy showed a very slight presence of liquor). Her alleged sighting in the Biltmore's bar is nothing by P.R. hype, unsubstantiated by any official reports whatsoever.