With the advent of the Internet, tabloid journalism, and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s natural to think that sensational coverage of news, especially criminal affairs, is a more recent development. Sure, Jack the Ripper, Fatty Arbuckle, and several other subjects received a glut of media attention, but one case again and again demonstrates that not only is this type of coverage not new, but it may actually be less damaging now than it was in the past.
Predating Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson by about half-a-century was Elizabeth Short, a Los Angeles murder victim who has been immortalized in film, television, and newspapers as “The Black Dahlia.” The media circus surrounding the mystery of her murder may be the largest factor in why the case was never solved. Even today, the case manages to intrigue new audiences, as Ryan Murphy demonstrated recently in an episode of American Horror Story.
For those unfamiliar with the facts of the case, as well as the countless adaptations in the media, let’s examine exactly who The Black Dahlia was and what happened to her.
Born in 1924, Elizabeth Short was a Massachusetts-born girl who moved to Los Angeles at the age of 19 with her father, but quickly found herself on her own after a falling out in 1943. After further travels back home to Medford, MA, and then to Florida, Short returned to LA to visit an old boyfriend, Lieutenant Joseph Fickling. She remained in LA for six months, which turned out to be the remained of her young life.
On January 15, 1947, Short’s body was found near what is referred to as South Central Los Angeles. Her body was cut in half at the waist, a smile was carved on her face ear-to-ear, and her body was drained of its blood. She was cleaned and posed despite the mutilations.
Due to the graphic nature of the crime, the local, then national media jumped on the case, sensationalizing Short as “victim material,” painting her as a woman who was loose with both sex and alcohol, though the opposite was true. The Black Dahlia nickname was bestowed upon her after her death by a reporter, a reference to the popular film The Blue Dahlia at the time.
The police working the case received phone calls and packages from the person purporting to be the killer, but they also received over 50 confessions to the murder. The truth was never discovered due to the fact that reporters had trampled the crime scene and tainted much of the evidence police had available.
The Los Angeles District Attorney synthesized, then analyzed the tips and confessions to create a “short”-list of 25 suspects. Predictably, speculation has abounded over the past 70 years, allowing authors and screenwriters free reign over a compelling case that is unlikely to ever be solved. The setting of 1940’s Los Angeles also provides a compelling film noir backdrop for various interpretations, ranging from the practical to the fantastic.