Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 22nd November 2017 | Manchester, UK

The Black Dahlia Murder

The body was found in a vacant lot, severed from the waist and drained of blood. The mouth had been slit towards the ears, creating a ‘Glasgow Smile’, multiple cuts were found all over the body with portions flesh ripped from the body. The torso was positioned a foot away from the rest of the body with the intestines positioned neatly under the buttocks. However, this is not a scene from the latest Hollywood horror flick, instead it is the injuries suffered by a young woman named Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles on January 15th 1947. It was a horrific crime and nobody has ever been held accountable. The murder of the ‘Black Dahlia’ remains Los Angeles most notorious unsolved crime.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

One of the major factors that made this unsolved crime fascinating was the nature of the press response to the murder of Elizabeth Short. The press’ fascination with the murder came primarily from the desire to get the best scoop and the most information leading them to malpractice. A newspaper called Elizabeth’s mother, Phoebe Short, after her murder asking for information about her daughter, under the premise that Elizabeth had previously won a beauty pageant. The reporter waited until the interview was over to reveal to her that Elizabeth was dead. It was the first time she had heard her daughter had been murdered. Furthermore, when coverage had died down, a man claiming to be the killer sent Elizabeth’s birth certificate, photographs and business cards to the paper to stimulate interest back into the story, much to the happiness of the press who wanted to keep the story in print.

The press during the 1940s was, much like today, sensationalist and this applied to this murder. In lieu with other murders it was given a name; The Black Dahlia Murder. Other murders have been nicknamed throughout history to give a sensationalist edge to the reporting such as the “Lipstick Murders” of 1945-6 in which three women were killed by William Heirens and more notoriously the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, which, like Dahlia, remain unsolved and still hold large importance in the press in contemporary times. Another sensationalist aspect of the reporting of the Black Dahlia Murder is the slanderous picture painted of Elizabeth Short by the press. She was reported as a beautiful, dark haired, promiscuous woman with some papers even going as far as to claim she was a prostitute. For example, the tailored suit she was last seen in became a sheer skirt and blouse. In terms of reporting, The Black Dahlia became a victim who deserved it because she was, in the eyes of a patriarchal press, promiscuous.

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