A beautiful, poverty-stricken 22-year-old who aspired to become a movie star, Elizabeth Short wore her hair in black curls and dressed in chic, stylish black. Friends in the sleazy L.A. underculture she frequented during the 1940s called her the Black Dahlia after a popular movie of the time, Blue Dahlia.
Its a name that has resounded for decades in American criminology since January 15, 1947, when the Black Dahlias tortured body was found posed in a trash-strewn field in Los Angeles, a Joker style grin carved in her face from ear to ear, half her blood drained from her body and her torso literally cut in half with surgical precision. Other things were done to Short which are too gruesome to describe here -- sexual things of a necrophiliac nature -- she was literally strung up with wire and abused in extremely bizarre ways before being bisected.
The death of the Black Dahlia was followed by six similar murders along with a series of taunting notes to the police and local newspapers.
The killing was so sadistic and cruel that it sent shock waves resonating through popular culture: it influenced the hard-core, tough-talking detective fiction of Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane in the 1950s. It upped the ante on Hollywoods film noir movement, which painted the human heart a shade darker for shocked filmgoers. It sparked a lurid genre of L.A. fiction and films such as Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and an upcoming film on the Black Dahlia herself by crime novelist James Ellroy which will star Hilary Swank as the ill-fated femme fatale.
Who killed the Black Dahlia? Traverse City attorney William Rasmussen thinks he knows the answer to a crime that has plagued armchair detectives and real ones too for the past 58 years.
Rasmussen has published a new book, Corroborating Evidence: The Black Dahlia Murder (Sunstone Press, $22.95) which traces the eerie links between Shorts murder and many others ranging from Ohio and Pennsylvania to Chicago and Los Angeles.
A Traverse City attorney who specializes in real estate law and some criminal cases, Rasmussen, 57, began working on his book in 2002 while tracking down information on another investigation into the Zodiac Killer of the San Francisco area. His new book has been called a detective masterpiece by a British organization called the New Criminologist and its piqued the interest of detectives in the Los Angeles area where the Black Dahlias murder is still an open case.
This is an ongoing murder investigation, but I think the only way it will ever be solved is by people like me who keep investigating it because the police dont have the time, Rasmussen notes.
Ive always been interested in historical cases and unsolved crimes have always fascinated me, he adds. I always wonder, why couldnt they solve them?
In that regard, Rasmussen has pursued the Black Dahlia case with the diligence of a detective, tying threads together from across the country to link similar killings and suspects.
It had to have been someone with the same skills, which were close to surgical precision, and someone who disposed of the bodies in the same way and sent the same taunting letters to the police, he says.
Ironically, Elizabeth Short also had a fascination with unsolved murders and its possible that she got too close to the suspect or suspects for her own good.
She was cut ear-to-ear the same way that low-level crooks were cut who talked too much, Rasmussen says. I think thats what happened to Elizabeth Short. She knew who killed (other victims) Georgette Bauerdorf and Suzanne Degnan and these guys caught her because she was talking too much to the press.
Who was Short talking about? Possibly Jack Anderson Wilson, a sexual deviant, all-around criminal and trained butcher from Canton, Ohio, who shows up again and again at the scene of horrific serial killings, including Los Angeles in 1946-47.
To follow Wilson as a suspect, you have to go back to the turmoil of the Great Depression in the mid-1930s and a series of killings called the Cleveland Torso Murders.
THE MAD BUTCHER
At the time, Rasmussen notes, millions of Americans had been thrown into poverty. Countless men became hobos and rode the rails in search of work. Some of these hobos, along with other unfortunates that fit a similar profile, became targets of one of the most horrific killers in the history of the United States, Rasmussen writes.
From September, 1934, to August, 1938, a total of 13 torso murders were committed in Cleveland, Ohio, by a psychopathic killer who became known to some as The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, Rasmussen adds.
People were tortured and literally cut into sections -- arms, legs, head, torso -- with the body parts stuffed and tossed into sewers, lakes and other hiding places. Drained of blood and expertly cut around the joints, police at the time theorized that only a surgeon or skilled butcher could have performed the dismemberments. Rope burns on one victims wrists indicated that he may have been conscious while being decapitated.
Similar killings occurred in Pennsylvania, then Chicago and Los Angeles. On December 23, 1938, someone in Los Angeles mailed a letter to Clevelands Chief of Police claiming, among other things, to be the Butcher.
Coincidentally, the Ohio killings stopped in 38, but resumed elsewhere, including Los Angeles.
Rasmussen believes that the Butcher, or Cleveland Torso Murderer, was Jack Anderson Wilson, who shows up repeatedly at similar murder sites across the country. Constantly in and out of jail, Wilsons cell companions linked him to various murders through the years, such as the killing of a prostitute named Flo Polillo, whose face was slashed in the same manner as the Black Dahlia, or to a headless Tattooed Man in Cleveland.
According to Rasmussens book, police dismissed the connection between the Black Dahlia murder and the Cleveland Torso killings because certain signature aspects of the killings differed. But through a process of comparitive research, Rasmussen has been able to show that Wilson was closely connected to the Torso killings in terms of time, place, witness accounts and inclination.
Described as a sodomist by police, Wilson was arrested numerous times for robbery, grand theft and lewd behavior. Everywhere he went, bad things seemed to follow in his wake.
On January 6, 1946, for instance, a six-year-old named Suzanne Degnan was kidnapped from her first floor bedroom of her parents apartment on North Kenmore Avenue in Chicago, strangled to death, dismembered, and herr body parts discarded in a Chicago storm sewer system.
Police arrested a 17-year-old burglar named William Heirens who was beaten and tortured in a Chicago jail for more than a month before signing a confession to Suzannes killing.
But Rasmussen, among others, believes that Heirens was framed and the real killer was Jack Anderson Wilson, who was on the drift at the time. Heirens is still in prison for the crime and Rasmussen has interviewed him for his book.
POSING AS A REPORTER
Significantly, a number of witnesses claimed that Elizabeth Short was also in Chicago after the childs murder, posing as a reporter and inquiring into the crime. One reporter who met the Black Dahlia in Chicago said she was obsessed with murder cases.
Less than six months later she gets killed expertly and her body is severed in half in Los Angeles, Rasmussen says. She was also an acquaintance of Georgette Bauerdorf, a beautiful young L.A. socialite who was killed shortly before the Black Dahlia.
Did the Black Dahlia follow Wilson to Los Angeles? Did she know him and his possible accomplice? She was reportedly a party girl who hung out with a rough crowd; a woman with congenital sexual problems that led her into kinky situations; a woman so poverty stricken that she had to pack the untreated cavities of her mouth with wax because she couldnt afford a visit to the dentist.
By 1982, Wilson had gelled as a suspect in the case. Unfortunately, he died in a hotel fire in Los Angeles before a detective could interview him on the case.
Well be hearing more about the Black Dahlia in the year ahead when the film directed by Brian DePalma comes out in 2006. In the meantime, Rasmussens book, Corroborating Evidence, offers an intriguing rundown on the similarities between her death and the Cleveland Torso Murders, not to mention the grisly details and crime scene photos.
Rasmussen did much of his research through the newspaper accounts of the times which were packed with information planted by police reporters in search of clues. He also scoured university libraries in Ohio, where a remarkable series of coincidences gradually took shape.
What does Rasmussen hope to accomplish with his findings in a case thats attracted scores of researchers through the decades?
Im really interested in getting the police to pay attention to what Ive learned so theyll pay attention to the first book I started writing on the Zodiac Killer, he says. He adds that the book he set out to write initially is about the Zodiac serial killer who claimed to have killed 37 people in and around San Francisco in the late 60s. While researching that book, he stumbled on the path of the Black Dahlia killer.
I hope to get enough evidence to get the police interested in taking a look, he adds. In the Black Dahlia case, people think it cant be the same person involved in these different cases, but there are so many similarities that deserve a look.