By Brett Peruzzi
MEDFORD – In January of 1947, a 22-year-old woman who had moved from this Boston-area city with the hope of becoming a movie actress in Los Angeles achieved a very different kind of fame and immortality.
A turbulent life
Elizabeth Short, born in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood and raised in nearby Medford, was found murdered in a vacant lot in Los Angeles on January 15, 1947. The gruesomeness of her body’s condition―disemboweled and cut in half, and drained of blood, horrified onlookers, police, and reporters. The case became dubbed The Black Dahlia Murder in local newspapers, based on Short’s striking beauty, black hair, and supposed penchant for sheer black clothes and the movie “The Blue Dahlia,” a film noir released in 1946. The media coverage spread coast-to-coast and continued off-and-on for years. More than 75 years later, the murder remains legally unsolved, the oldest “cold case” in the Los Angeles Police Department’s history.
Short dropped out of Medford High School in her sophomore year. In 1942 at age 18 she moved to southern California to live with her father, who had abandoned his family in Massachusetts 12 years earlier after losing most of his money in the 1929 stock market crash. Short’s life had been turbulent for years prior to her death. Within a few months after arriving in California, she left her father’s home after numerous arguments with him.
She worked various jobs, including one at a nearby air force base, and as a waitress, and reportedly was in an abusive live-in relationship with an Army Air Force sergeant. She was later arrested in Santa Barbara for drinking in a bar while she was still underage. Short was later supposedly engaged to a major in the Army Air Force, but he died in a plane crash before the marriage could take place. While Short had been enamored of movies since she was a child and had talked about her desire to become a movie actress, there is no indication she ever had any professional acting roles.
Enormous media attention
Due partially to the sensational and sustained coverage the murder received in the press as the police investigation continued, more than 50 confessions were received from often mentally unbalanced people apparently eager to gain notoriety. Hundreds of other suspects were investigated. None panned out and the suspect remained at large. In 1950 a Los Angeles doctor, George Hodel, became a prime suspect and was also suspected in another murder, but he was never charged.
Over the decades, more than 25 movies have been made about or influenced by the Black Dahlia murder. One of the most recent and probably best-known is director Brian De Palma’s 2006 film “The Black Dahlia,” which starred Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, and Scarlet Johansson. The number of books about the topic is at least 30, and countless magazine and newspaper articles have been written as well.
And her hometown has not forgotten Elizabeth Short either. Exactly thirty years ago, in 1993, the city of Medford’s historical society placed a large stone with a plaque dedicated to her on Salem Street, where she lived as a child.
The public fascination with this horrible crime appears to have no end. Today, three-quarters of a century after Short’s tragic demise, the Los Angeles Police Department still gets telephone calls about the case.