Investigating The Gruesome, Unsolved Black Dahlia Murder

Published October 25, 2017
Updated May 22, 2020
Published October 25, 2017
Updated May 22, 2020

Over 70 years after this brutal murder, the Black Dahlia case remains open.

Black Dahlia Mugshot

Wikipedia CommonsMugshot of Elizabeth Short, AKA the Black Dahlia.

The 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, known as the “Black Dahlia,” is the oldest unsolved murder in the history of Los Angeles — as well as one of its most brutal — making it one of America’s most horrific and mysterious killings.

In the decades since the Black Dahlia murder, police, the press, and amateur investigators alike have been fascinated with this case and come up with several convincing theories. Though we may never know who really killed the Black Dahlia, poring over the evidence in this enigmatic case is just as darkly fascinating now as it was in 1947.

The Murder Of Elizabeth Short

On Jan. 15, 1947, Short’s mutilated body was found in a residential neighborhood outside of Los Angeles by a mother out for a walk with her child.

According to the woman, the way Short’s body had been posed made her think, at first, that the corpse was a mannequin.

Short’s body was severed at the waist, and her intestines had been removed, folded up, and tucked under her lower torso. Pieces of her skin had been removed, there were ligature marks on her wrists and ankles. Her stomach was full of feces.

Black Dahlia Murder Scene

Getty ImagesA sheet covers the horrific dissection of Short’s corpse.

There was no blood at the scene — and her body had been entirely desanguinated — leading L.A. Police Department detectives to conclude that she had been murdered elsewhere. Her corpse had also been completely wiped down with gasoline before being dumped.

The most chilling part, however, was the lacerations on her face.

The killer had sliced each side of her face, from the corners of her mouth to her ears, creating a Joker-like smile.

The L.A. Police Department reached out to the F.B.I. to help identify the body by searching their extensive fingerprint database. Short’s fingerprints turned up because she had applied for a job with the US Army’s Camp Cooke Commissary in 1943.

They also had her mugshot from several months after she applied for the commissary job. She had been arrested by the Santa Barbara Police department for underage drinking.

The F.B.I. provided this information to the press shortly after identifying the body, and the press widely reported every salacious detail.

The Press Gets Involved In The Investigation

Elizabeth Short Autopsy

Matt Terhune/Splash NewsAutopsy photos of Short show the terrifying smile that was carved into her face.

The media branded Short as a sexual deviant, claiming that she would trick men into giving her room and board, gifts, and money in return for sex, and then not deliver on her promises.

They gave Short the nickname, “The Black Dahlia”, due to her reported preference for wearing a lot of sheer black clothing, after the film noir The Blue Dahlia that was in theaters at the time.

A week after her body was found, Los Angeles Examiner editor James Richardson received a call from a person claiming to be the murderer, who said he would be sending “souvenirs” of Short in the mail.

Four days later, a postal worker found an envelope addressed to the Examiner. Inside were Short’s birth certificate, business cards, photographs, a list of names, and an address book.

Police searched hundreds of locations throughout Los Angeles for clues, heard over 60 confessions for the murder, and interviewed over 12 suspects, but ultimately never arrested anyone.

Most people assumed that the Black Dahlia murder was a date gone wrong, or that she had run into a sinister fellow late at night while walking alone.

After over 70 years, the Black Dahlia murder case remains open. Cold, but open.

The Man Who Thinks His Father Killed Elizabeth Short

Black Dahlia Police Bulletin

Wikimedia CommonsA police bulletin seeking information on Elizabeth Short’s activities prior to the murder describes her as “very attractive” with “bad lower teeth” and “fingernails chewed to quick.”

In the late 90s, retired Los Angeles police officer Steve Hodel was going through his father’s belongings when he noticed a photograph that bore a striking resemblance to Elizabeth Short.

After discovering this haunting image, Hodel began using the skills he had gained as a policeman to investigate his own deceased father.

Hodel went through newspaper archives and witness interviews from the case, and even filed a Freedom of Information Act to obtain FBI files on the Black Dahlia murder. Since he was retired from the force, Hodel was not able to access LAPD records on the case.

However, he did have a handwriting expert compare samples of his father’s writing to that on notes sent to the press from the alleged killer. The analysis found a strong possibility that his father had written those notes, but the results were not conclusive.

Crime scene photos showed that Short’s body had been dismembered in a manner consistent with a hemicorporectomy, a medical procedure that separates the body in two below the lumbar spine. Hodel’s father was a doctor who attended medical school in the 1930s when this procedure was being taught.

Additionally, Hodel searched his father George Hodel’s archives at UCLA, finding a folder full of receipts for various renovations on his childhood home. In that folder, there was a receipt dated a couple of days before the murder for a large bag of concrete, the same brand as the concrete bag found near Short’s body. Investigators believe the murderer used the bag to transport her body.

By the time Hodel began his investigation, many of the police officers who originally worked on the case were dead. However, he carefully reconstructed conversations these officers had with acquaintances about the case.

Eventually, Hodel compiled all of his evidence into a 2003 bestseller called Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story.

George Hodel

Wikipedia CommonsGeorge Hodel, the man Steve Hodel believes is responsible for the Black Dahlia killing.

While fact-checking the book, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez requested official police files from the case and made an important discovery.

At the time of the murder, the LAPD had six main suspects, and George Hodel was on their list.

To monitor George Hodel’s activities, the Hodel home was bugged in 1950. Much of the audio was innocuous, but one chilling exchange stuck out.

George Hodel was overheard telling someone, “Realise there was nothing I could do, put a pillow over her head and cover her with a blanket. Get a taxi. Expired 12:59. They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her.”

He continued, saying, “Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead.”

Even after this shocking revelation, which he believes confirms his father as Short’s murderer, Steve Hodel has not stopped investigating his father.

He says he has found details from a dozen other murders that match the Black Dahlia case and implicate his father as a deranged serial murderer.

Did Leslie Dillon Kill The Black Dahlia?

Mark Hansen

Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives/UCLA Library Special Collections Mark Hansen, the man Eatwell believes orchestrated the Black Dahlia murder.

In 2017, British author Piu Eatwell announced that she had finally solved the decades-old case, and published her findings in a book called Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder.

The real culprit, she claimed, was Leslie Dillon, a man who police had initially investigated but had let go. But, she said, there was much more to the case besides the killer himself.

According to Eatwell, Dillon, who worked as a bellhop, was just a hitman who was hired to kill Short by Hollywood theatre mogul Mark Hansen.

Hansen was another original suspect that had eventually been let go, and the owner of the address book that had been mailed to the Examiner.

Hansen ran a sort of half-way house at the time, and young starlets seeking fame in Los Angeles would often stay there. Short had reportedly stayed at the home for a few days with a friend of hers shortly before her murder.

Eatwell alleges that Hansen was infatuated with Short and came onto her. She rebuffed his advances but continued to tease him. Finally, Hansen had enough and kicked her out of his house.

Then, he called on Leslie Dillon, an acquaintance, to “take care of her.” Hansen, it seemed, knew Dillon was capable of murder but didn’t know just how deranged he really was.

Previously, Leslie Dillon had worked as a mortician’s assistant, where he would have learned how to bleed bodies dry and dismember them. Later, when interviewed by police, he had admitted an interest in the case, telling them that he wanted to write a “true detective” style piece on it.

Leslie Dillon

Getty ImagesLeslie Dillon, the man Eatwell believes was contracted by Mark Hansen to kill Elizabeth Short.

Eatwell also discovered, from police records, that Dillon knew details of the crime that had not been released to the public, such as that Short had a tattoo of a red rose on her upper thigh which had been cut off and shoved inside her.

Despite all the evidence pointing to him, Dillon was never tried and was let go early on by police. Eatwell claims he was released due to Mark Hansen’s ties to the LAPD.

The department was corrupt to begin with, but Eatwell believed that Hansen contributed largely to their corruption by paying off officers investigating Short’s death.

Another discovery that lent itself to Eatwell’s theory was a crime scene found at a local motel.

During her research, Eatwell came across a report by Astor Motel owner Henry Hoffman.

On the morning of Jan. 15, 1947, Hoffman opened the door to cabin three and found blood and feces splattered across the room. In cabin nine, he found a bloodstained bundle of women’s clothing.

Instead of reporting the crime, Hoffman simply cleaned it up. He had been arrested four days earlier for beating his wife and didn’t want to risk another run-in with police.

Eatwell believes that cabin three is where Short was murdered. Eyewitness reports, though uncorroborated, claim that Dillon was seen at the motel with Short shortly before her body was discovered.

Eatwell’s theories have not been proven, as everyone involved with the original Black Dahlia murder case is dead, and the official LAPD documents are locked away in vaults, not for public viewing.

However, Eatwell remains confident in her findings, and truly believes that she’s solved the mysterious and gruesome case of the Black Dahlia murder.

Though we still don’t know for certain who killed the Black Dahlia and why, these theories each present compelling cases. And it’s possible that the truth is still out there, waiting for the right investigation to finally bring it to light.

Enjoy this article on the Black Dahlia murder? Next, read about the Cleveland Torso Murders, a series of killings strikingly similar to the Black Dahlia’s. Then, read bout other creepy still-unsolved crimes.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.