Yesterday’s Crimes: The Black Dahlia Lies in Oakland

The shockingly gruesome murder of Elizabeth Short remains unsolved.

Photo by Jay Lance

Elizabeth Short, also known as the “Black Dahlia,” is one of the most famous people buried in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, but how did the Los Angeles mutilation victim get to be there?

Phoebe M. Short, then 46, arrived at San Francisco Airport on Jan. 18, 1947. She had flown to California from her home in Medford, Mass. that Sunday afternoon to see two of her five daughters. One, Virginia West, who lived in Berkeley, was there to greet her. But the other, Elizabeth Short, was dead in Los Angeles, unbeknownst to her family.

Elizabeth, known by friends as Betty, was found in a vacant lot at Norton Ave and 39th Street in Southwest Los Angeles on the morning of Jan. 15, 1947. She had been cut in half at the waist, and drained of blood at some other location. The two sections of her body appeared to be arranged in the weeds with artistic intent. Her bottom half was posed with legs spread wide open. Her top half was laid with her arms above her head forming a u-shape. 

Her face had a massive bruise from where she had been pummeled to death with a blunt object, and her mouth had been cut at the ends to form a gruesome grimace. She also had rope marks on her legs and arms indicating that she had been tortured for several hours, and police found brush bristles on the body from where the killer had scrubbed her clean. She was just 22-years-old.

Elizabeth Short, with her blue-green eyes and raven hair, was maybe the prettiest girl in Medford. She had moved to California when she was still a teenager, and hopes of making it in the movies. She didn’t, but she achieved the notoriety in death that had eluded her in life. 

The gruesome murder fueled several weeks of front-page headlines in LA’s four major news dailies at the time. Reporters started referring to Short as the Black Dahlia, a nickname bestowed upon her either by sensationalist headline writers or a Long Beach soda jerk, depending on which urban legend is actually true. Either way, the name came from “The Blue Dahlia,” a 1946 noir starring Veronica Lake that now seems inadequate when measured against what it inspired. 

Phoebe Short learned about her daughter’s death from Wain Sutton, a rewrite man for the LA Examiner. Sutton first told the mother that her daughter had won a contest and they were checking with her for background info. After squeezing Elizabeth’s life story out of the mom for a while, Examiner city editor Jimmy Richardson told Sutton to give Phoebe the bad news.

The treatment of the Shorts by the press only got worse as news reports started blaming the victim. Elizabeth was labeled a prostitute and an actress in stag flicks, even though she wasn’t. She was a young girl who fell on hard times, and wasn’t above dating a guy to get a meal out of him. That was all, but reporters and their sources were still couldn’t help embellishing.

“We just can’t understand the things they say about her (Elizabeth) in the papers,” Phoebe told the Oakland Tribune on the day she flew into San Francisco. “She was never like that. We can’t believe it.”

Phoebe Short was flown down to Los Angeles for the inquest on the LA Examiner’s dime as an exclusive. She refused to ID her daughter’s body for two days, telling the coroner that she wanted to remember Elizabeth as she was. Phoebe appeared at the inquest on Jan. 22, 1947. The LA Times described her testimony as being “without a trace of emotion.”

Elizabeth’s body arrived in Oakland a day later, at the same time that police in Los Angeles were conducting house-to-house searches to find the Dahlia murder site. They never did. 

Elizabeth was buried Jan. 25, 1947 in the slope of a hill in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. Despite the hot media coverage, her funeral was a lonely one, attended by her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and a pair of men in trench coats — either cops, or reporters.  

The murder remains unsolved.

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