The Crime Scene
A Morning to Remember
January 15, 1947 was a cold, dreary morning for Los Angeles. Betty Bersinger, a local housewife, left her home on Norton Avenue in the Leimert Park section of the city. She was headed for a shoe repair shop and took her three-year-old daughter with her. As the two of them walked up the street and approached the corner of Norton and 39th, they passed many vacant lots bordering the sidewalks. When World War II struck, development had slowed in the City of Angels. Because the war had ended only a year and a half prior, construction was slow to start up once again. This left the lots looking abandoned and eerie, which already put Betty on edge that morning.
While Betty walked along the sidewalk, she noticed something white among the weeds. She did not think much of it at first, as many people would throw trash into the vacant lots. As she glanced at the object, she initially thought someone had thrown away a store mannequin. It seemed like an odd object to throw away, and it was even stranger that the mannequin had been separated into halves. Betty continued to walk forward, yet something drew her attention back to the mannequin. Upon closer inspection, she realized that the mannequin was not a mannequin at all – it was actually woman who had been severed in half. Betty gave a panicked scream and led her daughter away from the gruesome sight. She quickly rushed to a nearby house to call the police.
Officers Frank Perkins and Will Fitzgerald arrived to the scene within minutes. When they noticed the naked body of a woman who had been cut in half, they were able to confirm Betty Bersinger’s story and immediately called for backup.
The Los Angeles Police Department noted that the woman’s body seemed to have been posed. The woman was lying on her back with her arms raised over shoulders, and her legs were spread in a twisted display of seductiveness. There were cuts and abrasions across her body, and her mouth had been sliced to extend her smile from ear to ear. Investigators believed she had been tied down and tortured for several days due to the rope marks on her wrists, ankles, and neck. Her naked body had been cleanly sliced in half, just above her waist.
There was no blood present on the woman’s body, and there was none on the grass beneath her either. Investigators determined that she must have been killed elsewhere, cleaned of blood, and then dumped in the vacant lot overnight.
Detective Lieutenant Jesse Haskins described the condition of the body when he first arrived at the crime scene.
“The body was lying with the head towards the north, the feet towards the south, the left leg was five inches west of the sidewalk… The body was lying face up and the severed part was jogged over about ten inches, the upper half of the body from the lower half… there was a tire track right up against the curbing and there was what appeared to be a possible bloody heel mark in this tire mark; and on the curbing which is very low there was one spot of blood; and there was an empty paper cement sack lying in the driveway and it also had a spot of blood on it… It had been brought there from some other location… The body was clean and appeared to have been washed.”
While the LAPD had to frequently investigate homicides, the horrible nature of this case made it a top priority. It just was not every day that a woman was found severed in two next to the sidewalk. Captain John Donahoe assigned two senior detectives to the case: Detective Sergeant Harry Hansen and Detective Finnis Brown.
By the time Hansen and Brown received their orders and arrived at the scene, news of the gruesome murder had already spread. The crime scene was teeming with reporters, photographers, and a crowd of curious onlookers. Hansen was furious that civilians and careless officers were trampling the crime scene and destroying evidence, so he ordered the public to immediately clear the area. While the detectives investigated the crime scene, the woman’s body was transported to the Los Angeles County Morgue. The LAPD wanted to identify her as quickly as possible. They lifted her fingerprints and needed to safely send them to the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. However, severe winter storms at the time had the potential to delay the identification request for up to a week. That was far too much time to waste for a homicide investigation.
To see photographs of the crime scene, proceed to this page.
Identifying the Victim
Warden Woolard, assisting managing editor of The Herald-Express, was willing to assist the LAPD in their investigation. The newspaper had recently purchased new technology called a “Soundphoto” machine. Woolard believed he could use the “Soundphoto” equipment to send the woman’s fingerprints to the FBI. When Woolard spoke with LAPD Captain Jack Donahoe about his idea, it was promptly set into motion.
When the fingerprints were first transmitted to the FBI, they could not be read. Russ Lapp, a Herald-Express photographer, suggested that they reverse the lab process and use the prints as negatives before sending them to the FBI again. Lapp also blew the prints up to 8×10, which made them large enough for the FBI specialists to clearly read. With these readable prints, the FBI identified the victim as twenty-two year old Elizabeth Short. As far as they knew, she had last resided in Santa Barbara and had worked as a clerk at Camp Cooke.
The Coroner’s Report
While the FBI was identifying Elizabeth Short, her body was being examined in the coroner’s office. The autopsy revealed multiple lacerations to the face and head. There was no sperm present on the body because the killer had washed the body clean. There were numerous cuts in a criss-cross pattern over her pubic area, and her pubic hair had been removed by hand. Most of the damage done seemed to have been postmortem, including the severing of the victim’s body at her waist. The official cause of death was “hemorrhage and shock” due to “concussion of the brain and lacerations of the face.”
The Investigation Begins
The Herald-Express had breaking information on the case, and the LAPD had identified the victim. However, the symbiotic relationship between the paper and the LAPD began to shift. William Randolph Hearst, owner of The Herald-Express, was incredibly wealthy and had stable reporters who discovered leads and valuable evidence in Elizabeth Short’s case. He was willing to share this crucial information to the LAPD – for a price. Hearst proposed that The Herald-Express would continue investigating clues and would be granted exclusives, and the LAPD would have access to the all the information the reporters uncovered. While LAPD Captain Donahoe was not especially happy with these terms, he was desperate for information on the case and took the offer.
Wayne Sutton, a Herald-Express re-write man, was assigned to locate Elizabeth Short’s mother, Phoebe Short, in Medford, Massachusetts. Sutton quickly found Phoebe and was then instructed to give her news of her daughter’s death.
However, Sutton knew he needed to obtain information about Elizabeth Short first. Her mother would likely be too shaken up to tell him information on Elizabeth if he had initially broken the horrible news to her. Sutton received information about Elizabeth Short by feigning that she had won a beauty contest in Los Angeles. Phoebe loved to talk about her beautiful daughter and was willing to tell Sutton everything he wanted to know. Once he had received his information, Sutton’s boss instructed him to tell Phoebe the brutal truth.
Phoebe Short did not believe him. She could not fathom that her daughter was dead, let alone murdered. The LAPD had to contact local Medford cops and send them to the Short residence to tell Phoebe the story in person before she would accept the news.
The Herald-Express was soon swamped with anonymous reports and tips, some of which actually proved to be useful. One anonymous caller told the reporters that Elizabeth had kept photo albums of herself and her friends in a trunk. The trunk had gone missing during shipment form Chicago to Los Angeles; however, The Herald-Express was determined to relocate it. They found it at the Greyhound Express station in downtown Los Angeles. They would finally be able to illustrate Elizabeth Short’s story with photos of herself, her friends, and her lovers.
On January 17, 1947 a photograph of Elizabeth Short appeared on the front page of The Herald-Express. The paper had referred to her as “The Black Dahlia,” a name that would still stick almost seventy years later.