The Black Dahlia Murder: Background information when reading Windhall

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by Ava Barry

Windhall by Ava Barry X
Windhall by Ava Barry
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2021, 368 pages

    Jan 2022, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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The Black Dahlia Murder

This article relates to Windhall

Print Review

1947 LAPD flyer featuring black and white picture of Elizabeth Short In Windhall, the murder of Hollywood starlet Eleanor Hayes is the unsolved crime of the century. Eleanor's friend and movie director Theodore Langley was initially accused of the crime, but he was never charged, and speculation abounds as to what exactly happened on that unfortunate night. Although Eleanor Hayes and her murder are fictional, real-world Hollywood has seen its fair share of unsolved murders, perhaps none so famous as the brutal killing of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress who posthumously became known as the Black Dahlia. Like the murder in Windhall, Short was killed in the 1940s, and her death held Hollywood and the nation in thrall.

Elizabeth Short was born in 1924 in Boston and grew up in the midst of the Great Depression. Although her family did not have much expendable income, Elizabeth loved film, and in 1943, she moved to California to live with her father and pursue her dreams of Hollywood stardom. Unfortunately, this dream would never come to fruition.

On the morning of January 15, 1947, a young mother and daughter walking in the Leimert Park neighborhood of southern Los Angeles saw what they thought was a mannequin lying next to the sidewalk. As they approached, the mother was horrified to realize that it was actually the body of a deceased woman. She immediately contacted the Los Angeles Police Department, who took charge of the scene and made a number of startling discoveries. Despite extensive mutilation, including being cut in two, there was no blood on or around the body, indicating that the victim had been cleaned up and moved from the original location of the murder. Police used fingerprint analysis to identify the victim as Elizabeth Short, who had last been seen more than a week before.

The Los Angeles County Morgue coroner's report revealed the extent of what had been inflicted upon Elizabeth. In addition to being severed at the waist, she had three-inch long gashes on either side of her mouth — often referred to as a "Glasgow Smile" — rope marks on her wrists, ankles and neck, and numerous cuts and abrasions. Interestingly, the coroner determined that much of this damage was inflicted postmortem. Based on his findings, the coroner declared the official cause of death to be hemorrhage and shock due to concussion of the brain and lacerations of the face. He also noted that the condition of the cuts on Elizabeth's body — clean and without hesitation marks — likely indicated that the killer had some form of medical training where he had learned proper dissection skills.

The Los Angeles Herald-Express, owned by famous newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, was the main source of information for the Elizabeth Short case. The paper developed a relationship with the LAPD, sharing leads, evidence and tips. It was the Herald-Express that first referred to Elizabeth by her famous nickname: the Black Dahlia. This name was a reference to The Blue Dahlia, a noir murder mystery film released the summer prior to the murder, and Elizabeth's black hair and penchant for black clothing.

The newspaper and the police were both inundated with letters and calls about the case, although many of these proved to hoaxes or false leads. However, on January 23rd, the Herald-Express, received a call from a man claiming to be Elizabeth's murderer and complaining about the way the story was being portrayed in the newspapers and the fact that the police hadn't solved the case. He offered to mail Elizabeth's missing belongings to the paper to prove that he was the killer and to provide hints, and a package with the proffered items arrived the following day along with an anonymous letter. The package contained Elizabeth's birth certificate, some business cards, a bus station claim check, her address book and various photographs. That same day, Elizabeth's handbag and one of her shoes were found in a trash can a few miles from the crime scene. These last two items had been rinsed in gasoline to destroy any fingerprints, and the police were unable to gather any helpful information from the papers they had been sent. Ultimately, no suspect was identified based on the call.

Because of the lack of leads, everyone who knew Elizabeth was considered a suspect. In the month following her murder, LAPD asked the FBI to look into medical students at the nearby University of Southern California to follow up on the theory that the killer had a medical background, but nothing of note was discovered. By June of 1947, 75 suspects had been processed and ruled out; by December, almost 200. Approximately 60 people confessed to Elizabeth's murder during this time, but fewer than two dozen were ever considered viable suspects.

Today, Elizabeth's killer remains unidentified. Numerous books, movies and documentaries have been made about the case, but no one has ever been charged. The relentless media coverage at the time — the case was front-page news across the country for more than a month — cemented the crime in the minds of the public and ensured familiarity with the Black Dahlia moniker for years to come. Countless theories have been proposed over the decades, with one theory naming Elizabeth as another victim of the Cleveland Torso Killer, a serial murderer active in Cleveland in the 1930s whose killings were characterized by dismemberment, just as was seen in Elizabeth's case. Others have claimed to have evidence proving that one individual or another was the killer; a former homicide detective for the LAPD even proposed that his father, George Hodel, murdered Elizabeth Short. Interestingly, Hodel was on the shortlist of suspects for the crime, and despite being a medical doctor and also a suspect in several other crimes — including the suspicious death of his secretary — Hodel was never charged.

Many remain hopeful that the murder of Elizabeth Short will one day be solved and that the young woman will finally get justice. However, the lack of evidence and the intervening years mean that the truth may never be known.

LAPD flyer seeking information about Elizabeth Short, 1947, courtesy of the FBI

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Jordan Lynch

This "beyond the book article" relates to Windhall. It originally ran in April 2021 and has been updated for the January 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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