Jack the Ripper remains the most notorious real-world fiend to have never been identified, much less apprehended. Yet the most famous unsolved murder case, at least stateside, is that of the “Black Dahlia,” aka Elizabeth Short, whose body was found in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park in January 1947. That 73-year-old slaying continues to baffle and inspire in equal measure, and audiences will again get a taste of its macabre mystery beginning January 28, when TNT debuts I Am the Night, a six-part miniseries from the Wonder Woman team of director Patty Jenkins and star Chris Pine.
While the show is only tangentially related to the City of Angels’ legendary homicide, it’s further confirmation—on the heels of such works as James Ellroy’s classic 1987 neo-noir novel The Black Dahlia, and Brian De Palma’s vastly inferior 2006 film adaptation of that tome—that the Dahlia continues to cast a particular spell over the national conscience.
And as is so often the case, the truth about the Black Dahlia is far stranger than any fiction.
The story of the Black Dahlia begins not in Los Angeles but, rather, in Boston, where Elizabeth Short was born and spent her first fifteen years, until nagging respiratory problems convinced her mother, now single because her husband had faked his own suicide and started a new life elsewhere, to ship her off to the warmer climates of Florida. After discovering that her dear old dad was, in fact, alive and residing in California, Short chose, at age 18, to move in with him, although that situation turned out to be a volatile one, and she soon returned to the Sunshine State. There, she became engaged to an Air Force pilot who died shortly after proposing, and then returned to L.A. to be with another beau. During her second West Coast residency, which would culminate in her death, she lived on Hollywood Boulevard and worked as a cocktail waitress. Though others later claimed she had dreams of being a silver-screen starlet, there’s little to suggest she was anything more than another transplant striving to make her way far from home in a big city.
If Short didn’t seek out the spotlight, she’d nonetheless find herself in the center of it—in the most horrifying way imaginable—on January 15, 1947, when a woman walking with her daughter stumbled across her corpse in a vacant Leimert Park lot. Short had been bisected at the waist, with both her upper and lower torsos posed so that her hands were above her head and her legs were spread. She’d been drained entirely of blood, and washed after being mutilated, her skin a pale white. More ghastly still, she had slashes running from the corners of her mouth to her ears, giving her a deformed grin known as the “Glasgow Smile”—an appearance not dissimilar to the one Heath Ledger’s Joker sports in The Dark Knight. In every respect, it was clear Short was the victim not of some random, passionate crime, but of a more methodically deviant mind.
Deducing who that monster might be proved an immediate challenge. Innumerable leads pored in over the course of the next few weeks and months, but almost all of them culminated in dead ends. The media, however, kept the pressure on law enforcement by doggedly sensationalizing the case, dubbing her the “Black Dahlia” because, according to their (erroneous) reports, she had been wearing a sexy blouse and short skirt on the night of her death, and also because she was some sort of promiscuous harlot. No matter that tabloid attention, persuasive suspects were in relatively short supply, even after the Los Angeles Examiner received a series of letters—some created with cut-out newspaper letters, some handwritten—from the supposed butcher, in a move that would later be mimicked by San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer.
The Black Dahlia trail went cold by the end of 1947, which only spurred wild theories and speculation—both of a real-world and fictional nature. In the ensuing decades, some have tried to link it to similar body-severing crimes committed in Cleveland and Chicago. Others have claimed it was related to the 1944 murder of West Hollywood socialite Georgette Bauerdorf, or the 1947 slaying of L.A. resident Jeanne French (whose body featured a lipstick message that was originally thought to be signed “B.D.”; later, it turned out to be “P.D,” for police department). Piu Eatwell’s 2017 book Black Dahlia, Red Rose posits the culprit as a mortician’s assistant-turned-bellhop intent on silencing Short for knowing too much about his hotel robberies. And Ellroy’s celebrated novel The Black Dahlia—the first of his “L.A Quartet”—spins a fanciful make-believe web of intrigue, with Short’s murder part of a grand saga about corruption involving Los Angeles’ cops and government officials.
I Am the Night, on the other hand, focuses on Fauna Hodel (played by India Eisley), whose grandfather George Hodel has long been fingered as the Black Dahlia killer—including by his own son (and crime author) Steve, most notably in his 2003 book Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder. An L.A. gynecologist who first came to law enforcement’s attention when his secretary died under strange circumstances in 1945, Hodel was, by 1950, the LAPD’s prime suspect, thank to his surgical skills and possible involvement in a variety of sex-abuse crimes. A wiretap amplified those suspicions, revealing bombshells about illegal abortions, police payoffs, and the following quote:
“Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They can’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead. They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her. Maybe I did kill my secretary.”
Steve later came to believe his dad was not only responsible for the Black Dahlia’s death, but was also the Lipstick Killer and the Zodiac Killer (a malevolent trifecta!). Regardless, he was never charged, in part because, on the supposed eve of his arrest, he fled the country for Asia, where he stayed until his own death in 1990. Despite advancing the hypothesis that Hodel had something to do with the case, I Am the Night does little more than throw additional gas on the speculative fire. More than seven decades later, no definitive conclusion has yet to materialize about who took Short’s life—a mystery whose raft of questions, and dearth of answers, continues to make it prime fodder for big- and small-screen thrillers.