Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Black Dahlia

Macabre Discovery

Black Dahlia's body, covered
Black Dahlia's body, covered

On the morning of January 15, 1947, a housewife named Betty Bersinger was walking down a residential street in central Los Angeles with her three-year-old daughter when something caught her eye. It was a cold, overcast morning, and she was on her way to pick up a pair of shoes from the cobbler.

At first glance, Bersinger thought the white figure laying a few inches from the sidewalk was a broken store mannequin. But a closer look revealed the hideous truth: It was the body of a woman who'd been cut in half and was laying face-up in the dirt. The woman's arms were raised over her head at 45-degree angles. Her lower half was positioned a foot over from her torso, the straight legs spread wide open. The body appeared to have been washed clean of blood, and the intestines were tucked neatly under the buttocks. Bersinger shielded her daughter's eyes, then ran with her to a nearby home to call the police.

Black Dahlia's (Elizabeth Short) body found in vacant lot
Black Dahlia's (Elizabeth Short) body found in
vacant lot

Two detectives were assigned to the case, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown. By the time the duo arrived at the crime scene — on Norton Avenue between 39th and Coliseum streets in Los Angeles — it was swarming with reporters and gawkers who were carelessly trampling the evidence. The detectives ordered the crowd to back off, then got down to business.

From the lack of blood on the body or in the grass, they determined the victim had been murdered elsewhere and dragged onto the lot, one piece at time. There was dew under the body, so they knew it had been placed there after 2 a.m., when the outside temperature dipped to 38 degrees.

LAPD Detectives Harry Hansen and Finis Brown with Elizabeth Short's body
LAPD Detectives Harry Hansen
and Finis Brown with Elizabeth
Short's body

The victim's face was horribly defiled: the murderer had used a knife to slash three-inch gashes into each corner of her mouth, giving her the death grin of a deranged clown. Rope marks on her wrists and ankles indicated she'd been restrained, and possibly tortured.

By measuring the two halves of the corpse, the detectives estimated the victim's height to be five-foot, six-inches and her weight to be 115 pounds. Her mousy brown hair had been recently hennaed, and her fingernails were bitten to the quick.

After calling the Los Angeles County Coroner to retrieve the body, the detectives were left with a daunting assignment: finding out who the woman was.

 

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