Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Black Dahlia

I have a theory about certain murder cases. When a crime goes unsolved for years and years...the Black Dahlia, Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac...it somehow allows us to see into a period in history more than any other cultural phenomenon or byproduct could. For me, there is something about an unsolved murder case that serves as a window in time. By keeping the momentum of the crime going, via the evidence, photos, and narratives of those who were there, the era becomes frozen, available, alive. This tangible link, coupled with the continued interest in the event on the part of writers and readers and researchers, keeps the crime alive, and I believe it keeps the historical era alive as well. It's as if the idea of "open" in an unsolved murder case carries over into the world itself, creating an opening in time.

When I look at the crime scene photos taken in Mary Kelly's tiny hovel of a room, or the pictures of the hotel where Elizabeth Short was last seen alive, or even reading an account of Catherine Eddowes' last night on earth, the people and places I see and read about remain alive in some way. It's as if in order to understand what happened, contemporary readers need to actually go 'back there' and see when and where it happened. When I read about the Ripper crimes, I experience Victorian London as if it were still there physically, much more so than I would if I simply read an account of life during Queen Victoria's reign. When I look at photos of the neighborhood where Beth Short's severed body was found, Los Angeles of the 1940's looks back at me, real, alive, tangible.

Today marks the 61st anniversary of the discovery of the body of Elizabeth Short, better known as the Black Dahlia. If you don't know the case, there is a good overview here. Beth/Betty/the Dahlia lived a life that, like most, was mostly hidden from those who knew her. Part of the intrigue of the crime is trying to piece together her Hollywood self (and I honestly didn't intend the pun at all...) based on testimony given by those who knew her. She moved to LA from Medford, Massachusetts, partly to find the father that deserted her family when she was a child, partly to find a new start, and probably, partly out of sheer boredom with small town life during World War II. But what she did during that time is shadowy and speculative, especially the last few years.

Her life of moving from place to place, occasionally returning to Massachusetts before setting off again for a new destination, suggests a dissatisfied woman, but was she really miserable, or is this just conjecture? Who knows what Beth Short really thought of her life. She is painted as a Hollywood wannabe, a prostitute, a tease...but what do we really know about her? She was just a person like any one of us, looking for her life and more than likely, not finding it.

In any event, one night in January of 1947 she met up with evil. She was found six days later, her body cut in half, drained of blood and washed clean, in a vacant lot in a middle class neighborhood. She was last seen at a hotel where she told the sometime boyfriend who drove her there in his car that she was going to meet her sister. She got out of his car and walked into six days of hell, torture and eventual death, a time about which no one knows much of anything.

So Betty Short goes down in history, another woman we feel like we knew, but we didn't know at all. Another woman with secrets to tell, secrets of a mundanely mysterious life and a horrible death, secrets we will never know. Another woman wanting fame during her life, yet only finding it in the brutal mystery surrounding her death. Elizabeth Short, rest in peace.


Peanut said...

I have always been fascinated by "True Crime" stories. The Black Dahlia case has always fascinated me. I watched some documentaries on the A&E channel about it. I'm going to check out that website now. Who this woman was is just as intriguing as who murdered her and why. I haven't read the book, but I need to put it on my summer must-read list!

Julie said...

Ellroy is a god to me. I have an autographed copy of his "L.A. Confidential." He wrote in it: "Fear this book!" Love him.

Yes, read it. It's one of my favorite books ever, and definitely my favorite Ellroy.

tod said...

I've always been partial to the theory that Dr. George Hodel was the murderer. Of course, many of Steve Hodel's claims have been disputed, but still, he makes a pretty convincing argument. And I think Ellroy at one time embraced Hodel's theory about his father as well.

Julie said...

Ellroy did support Hodel's theory after a certain point in time, much to the chagrin of other Dahlia theorists and aficionados, myself included.

I just don't buy the roundabout way he arrived at his conclusion. Man Ray had a photograph that looked like a woman being beheaded? Please! I also don't believe for a minute that those pictures Hodel found in his dad's photo album were Betty Short. Plus any kind of 'tell all' book written about a parent makes me cringe. No doubt George Hodel was a creep, and he liked young girls, but that doesn't make him the Dahlia murderer.

I feel like if the killer was any of the existing suspects, it was Jack Anderson Wilson, the guy with all the aliases, who died in the fire at his apartment before he could give a final interview to the police. He seemed to have an awful lot of knowledge about exactly how the crime itself happened. Of course, he might have just been a psychopath with a vivid imagination, or Gilmore might have invented much of the story.

According to crimelibrary.com, a large part of the physical evidence of the crime has 'disappeared', and it is most likely never going to be solved.

Chicken & Waffles said...

I always found this case extremely fascinating. Thanks for this very intriguing and interesting post.

Anonymous said...

You have given us a beautiful explanation of how a time and place can live forever, unfortunately through horrific crime.