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The FBI & the Black Dahlia

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black dahlia

Elizabeth Short. The notorious "Black Dahlia."

Chances are you know the name, and the horrific circumstances of her mutilation and murder. What may be less familiar is the role the FBI played in the investigation.

In the early morning hours of January 15, 1947, the body of a young, caucasian female was found in Leimert Park, a neighborhood in southern Los Angeles. Her body was bisected at the waist. No internal organs were damaged except for the severed intestines. A clean slice separated the backbone. Mercifully, this was all performed post mortem. But, the sadistic killer made a three inch incision on either side of Short's mouth while she was alive. He (or she?) also concussed Short's brain with several blows to the forehead. Marks around her legs, wrists, neck and right thigh indicated she was bound while tortured.

In oddly understated fashion, her death certificate reports that Elizabeth Short died from "hemorrhage and shock; concussion of the brain; and lacerations of the face."

As if the brutality of the murder wasn't difficult enough, the Los Angeles police had no idea who the victim was. This is where the FBI entered the case.

The police fingerprinted the victim but had no means to quickly forward the images to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. A newspaper, the Los Angeles Examiner, offered to transmit the prints via their "soundphoto" apparatus - an early fax machine. The bureau compared the prints against the 104 million specimens in their database and remarkably - within 56 minutes - found not one, but two, matches. One was created during Elizabeth Short's 1943 Santa Barbara arrest for underage drinking. The other was a National Defense print required when Short applied for a clerk position at Camp Cooke (today Vandenberg Air Force Base) in Lompoc. The Los Angeles police (and panicked public) now at least knew who the dead girl was.

Elizabeth Short mugshot

Born in Massachusetts on July 29, 1924, "Betty" (as her friends called her) was 22 when she died. At 5-feet-6-inches and 118 pounds she was slim - a fact those closest to her chalked up to her inability to afford regular meals rather than intentional dieting. Her hair was naturally light brown but dyed raven-black, which made her fair complexion and green eyes all the more arresting. Sadly, though, her lifestyle and poverty had taken a toll on her teeth which were already rotting.

So many newspapers reported the FBI's success at identifying Short that many in the general public assumed the bureau was leading the investigation. Assistant Director L. B. Nichols responded to requests from reporters and others by explaining that the case was under the jurisdiction of the local police. As such, he said, the FBI was hesitant to involve itself in the matter.

Although Nichols was telling the truth, in actuality the FBI couldn't avoid involvement. Tips arrived regularly, and the bureau meticulously filed and responded to each one, forwarding many to the L.A. field office. One such letter, dated January 19, 1947, listed eight characteristics the writer was certain Short's murderer possessed: ex-Marine, caucasian, 28 to 30 years of age, red hair (and handsome), about 160 pounds, Irish/English heritage, 5-feet-10-inches tall, and stationed in a camp or hospital in California. A reply went out signed by J. Edgar Hoover thanking the writer for such "thoughtfulness." Some time later a suspect matching this exact description was questioned by the police. Hope that they had found the fiend faded, however, when he passed two lie detector tests.

As powerful as Hoover's FBI was, it ran into a brick wall with the relatively new Social Security Administration. As a means of creating a list of possible suspects, police wanted Short's employment history - information only SSA records could furnish. The two government agencies had worked together during the war, on the FBI's promise that it would only request information on individuals suspected of espionage or other subversive activities. After the war, however, the SSA returned to the policy promised to the American people during its creation. It would only use its data for the purpose of dispensing benefits. Regardless of Hoover's persistent attempts, his request for Short's employment records was flatly denied.

Though the FBI processed several additional police requests for fingerprint identification of men deemed "very likely suspects," no arrests were ever made. As the years passed, the FBI's Black Dahlia File 62-82627-2 slipped into inactivity.

Nearly 70 years after her murder, professional and amateur criminologists still discuss and debate who really killed the raven-haired beauty - and why.

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