We all know one version of the gruesome story: July 15 1947, Mrs. Betty (irony)Bersinger was walking her 3-year-old daughter near a busy intersection in southwest Los Angeles, when she saw what she thought to be a broken store mannequin lying on a lot almost on the sidewalk. Walking closer, Mrs. Bersinger stared at the object for several seconds until the shock of what she was seeing wore off and she could think rationally. What she saw was so horrible it was almost impossible to believe she was really seeing it. But it was there. There was no denying it. And she herself had found it. She couldn’t bear to look at the poor, tortured torso of the young woman lying in the grass anymore. She pushed the stroller as quickly as she could, banging on the door of the nearest house.
“It has to be attended to!”she blurted to the confused woman who opened the door. The woman stepped aside to let Mrs. Bersinger enter the house and grab the phone. When she was connected to the police station she blurted “there are flies all around it and someone better do something!” She hung up and within several minutes two police cruisers pulled up to the field, exactly where Mrs. Bersinger said the corpse could be found. It was a gruesome sight. The corpse was of a young, white, 22-year-old woman, brunette, blue eyes, her entire torso severed in two halves; the top half with her chest, arms, neck and head intact were lying in a helpless position. The arms were up over her head and the upper torso wasn’t aligned with the hips and legs. The lower half of the body was arranged in an obscene pose: legs spread wide, no cover, the final degradation of a woman who had suffered terribly for several days.
Kyle J. Wood, author of the biography Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia, recorded an interview with Mrs. Bersinger, the facts were slightly different. When Bersinger and her child walked by Short, she wasn’t alarmed by the corpse. She believed Short was a store mannequin but went and reported it to police, believing it should be investigated. She wasn’t hysterical or in shock. “It looked like a mannequin that had been cut in half…that doesn’t seem right to me…maybe it’ll scare the kids so I better call somebody to at least have a look and see what it is. But the thought of a dead person did not enter my mind…it was so white…The further I walked away from it the more I thought ‘it just doesn’t make sense’…I said ‘somebody ought to check it out.’ And they said fine they would and that was the end.” It was the end for Bersinger perhaps, but just the beginning of the Black Dahlia story.
The first officer on the scene radioed for help. Several more cruisers arrived At murder sites they are known to crack jokes about the corpse and have a good laugh. Not at this scene. The age of the young woman and the nature of her murder was so devastating there simply was nothing to joke about. All of the officers present looked grim, some scribbling on note ads, another snapping photographs, two men inspecting both pieces of the torso. It is rumoured that originally Short’s body had been placed to make it appear that she was giving herself oral sex but police moved her body out of respect before the press could take photos. My understanding, however is the press arrived first, so they would have taken pictures of Short in her original pose. Who knows all the facts in this case?
There was no identification anywhere near the girl. An office was sent off several metres to look for her purse in trash cans and alleyways. No luck. The body was severed into two pieces. Deep gouges, probably knife wounds were in the upper chest and thighs. One breast, the right breast, was almost completely severed. No internal organs remain inside the chest cavity. There was no blood inside the upper torso. There were wounds to the side and front of the girl’s head, indicating multiple blows. This could possibly have killed her in spite of the other injuries. She wore what is known as a Glasgow smile, a street name for a terrible torture: two small cuts are made at the corners of the mouth. Then the victim is beaten until the cuts rip from the mouth up to the ears. She had a wound on one knee that looked as though it was made by a knife. There was a deep stab wound in the genital area. The genitals were untouched. The killer had washed the body before disposing of it.
The intestines were tucked neatly under the buttocks. Also in the lower half of the torso no blood remained, as the killer had completely drained the body, probably by somehow securing it upside down. The same was true of the upper torso. If the body had been hung from meat hooks rather than, say, rope, (although ligature marks were found around the ankles, wrists and neck), there would have been gouges in the wrists and above the ankles or at the feet. The police didn’t reveal it if this was the case, which meant it would be the kind of detail only the killer would know. And 50 disturbed men came forward to claim they were responsible for the Black Dahlia murder, as it would become known. None of the confessions were true. They were dysfunctional people seeking a macabre “15 minutes of fame.”
The girl’s arms were bent upward over her head. Her legs were spread-eagled in an obscenely suggestive pose. Even in death the killer left his victim no dignity. Later the autopsy would prove that the girl had died of exsanguination (blood loss), whether from the head wound, the damage to the mouth, or being severed at the waist, the coroner couldn’t say. It might have been all three. One thing was certain: the girl had been tortured for two days while she was conscious. Near the body, detectives found a cement sack which contained droplets of watery blood.
After several minutes of investigation, someone got a blanket from a trunk in a police car and covered the corpse, no so much out of modesty (she was dead anyway) but to prevent any passersby from experiencing a horror they wouldn’t soon forget. It was bad enough to find a corpse, but one so brutalized would give even the sturdiest person a year’s worth of nightmares.
It’s easy to cite facts about a case, even a horrid one. But picture Short when she first realized she’d walked into the trap of a monster and wasn’t getting out alive. She must have pleaded with him, offered him any money, her body, anything she had for him to let her go. Alas, her body was precisely what he wanted but not for reasons she suspected. Consider her state of mind, the horror, the grief, the screams of agony and unbearable fear, all the while hoping against hope that someone by the smallest chance might arrive to save her from this nightmare. Instead, whenever she heard those horrible footsteps approaching her after the killer took a break (to sleep? to eat? to wait for her to regain consciousness?), always she knew they were his. She quickly grew to recognize the sound and along with it the pounding of her own blood in her ears as her heart raced frantically.
Pleading and shrieking did no good, in fact it seemed to enrage and delight him even more. Yet there was little else poor Short could do, except now, pray for God to take her and end this unbearable torture. What had she done that was so bad she deserved to be in the hands of this unspeakable madman? These are also the facts of the Black Dahlia case, except they have never been written in a police or coroner’s report. Death wasn’t the monster that tormented Short. Death was a friend; the rescuer who finally arrived to save her, but perhaps not in the way she’d hoped. Death is not the enemy, nor is it painful. It is the process of dying and suffering, in other words, living, that is painful. Death itself is nothingness. Sweet release. And sweet relief from all that plagues us.
The coroner’s report didn’t state how long the body had lain in the field. It didn’t state whether rigor mortis had set in. The body could have lain there anywhere from 2 to 8 hours or more. It could have taken 8 or more hours for Mrs. Bersinger to have found her and for the world to have found her as well. Whatever the number of hours that had passed since the killer left Short beside the lot and Bersinger had found the “broken mannequin”, it was far too late to save her.