Many beautiful, young women were murdered in Los Angeles during the 1940s. Very few are remembered by the public, even though some were slaughtered and mutilated after death. During the late 1940s, America experienced a general panic over the threat of monstrous killers and sex offenders. Social nightmares from the late 1940s were reflected in popular culture, in horror publications like Tales From the Crypt,
It was actually 1950 when Crypt got its start as a gruesome comic series, in 1972 it was a feature film starring Joan Collins, and finally it became a television series in the 1990s. By the early 1940s WWII raged in history, and Korea began its inner conflict. The late forties in America were a dark period. The media revealed an America alarmed at threats which are remarkably similar to modern times , including serial killers and child molesters, maniacs and monsters, psychopaths and “fiends”. These horrors declined somewhat during the war years, but the number of serial killer cases spiked from 1946 onward. This suggests to me that at least some of these killers were former servicemen. Is it possible that this is why these murders were so vulgar and involved such extreme savagery? The cases of the 1940s involved extreme killers who claimed numerous victims, and who demonstrated a variety of insane behaviors.
Why it is that out of all the victims of such savagery it is Short who persists in the public memory is a mystery. Perhaps her efforts to become a movie star intrigued people. It may be that the body being severed at the waist and drained of blood fascinated people. It could also be her fictionalized reputation as a loose girl who “sponged” off of men. The press dubbed her The Black Dahlia and this too could have kept Short in the public eye. Other young women were also murdered horribly, yet no one knows of them today. Surely they aren’t lesser persons than Short. Perhaps the media’s crazed reaction to Short’s murder and the grim label it gave her, made her case more visible than many others. Some of these other murders were solved, and, like Short’s, many remain unsolved to this day. Yet it was Short who became an icon of savage murder in the 1940s for all of these glamorous (and not so glamorous) young women and not just her own murder. As an ode to these forgotten, unfortunate victims, here is a short (pun) list.
Leila Adele (Dorothy) Welsh – Welsh was an heiress and a beautiful young woman who looked strikingly like short. Police documents reveal that she was mistakenly named Dorothy Welsh. At that time there was a woman named Dorothy Welsh living in the area, so this may account for the error. Welsh was murdered in her own home while her mother and brother slept down the hall without hearing anything that alarmed them. I have blogged about Welsh and won’t repeat the information here. Her murder was never solved.
Georgette Bauerdorf – She and Short knew each other casually when Short attended the Hollywood Canteen and Bauerdorf volunteered there as a junior hostess. I have blogged about Bauerdorf.
Jeanne French – A young woman who was discovered murdered after being beaten and stomped upon, in a ditch. I have blogged about French.
Jean Spangler – a movie actress who also looked like Short. She is listed as a missing person. Technically her body was never found and police didn’t define her as a murder victim for that reason. I have blogged about Spangler.
Helen Brown – On July 16, 1942 Mrs. Helen Brown was beaten to death in her apartment. Mrs. Brown was a 20-year-old expectant mother. Following the murder, the killer went to the kitchen and cooked himself breakfast. A chemist’s report showed Mrs. Brown’s blood was not the same type as that found in the kitchen. A blood stained hammer was found in the apartment. Mrs. Brown had defended herself with the hammer and injured her attacker.
Hallie Latham – The Lady of the Lake – In this case, the woman was killed in 1937 but her body wasn’t discovered until 1940. This slaying was especially macabre because of the condition of the body. The woman’s face was unrecognizable, but her body had not
decomposed. The flesh had turned into a soap-like substance that could be scooped away like putty. The murdered woman became known as the “Lady of the Lake.” It was a fitting appellation for a mystery woman who had emerged from Lake Crescent, in Olympic National Park, WA, a cold, deep lake that had a reputation for never giving up its dead. Clearly this was why the killer had dumped his victim’s body into the lake. In this case, the lake had been quite accommodating, since giving her up meant solving the case and identifying the victim.
Hallie Latham and Montgomery (Monty) Illingworth were married after Latham had divorced two husbands. The two had a volatile marriage. Five months into their marriage, the couple got into a pre-dawn fight that was so fierce the police were called to break it up. Hallie showed up for work at a Port Angeles restaurant with bruises on her face and arms. Sometimes she had black eyes. Yet like many victims of domestic violence, Hallie stayed. Then in 1937, Hallie disappeared. After the night and morning of December 21-22, no one saw Hallie again. Monty told friends that his wife had run off with another man. Monty moved to California with a woman he was seeing romantically in Port Angeles before Hallie’s disappearance.
On July 6, 1940, almost three years after Hallie disappeared,
two fishermen spotted the body of a woman floating on the surface of Lake Crescent. An autopsy showed that the woman met a violent death. Her neck was bruised and discolored, and her chest showed evidence of extensive hemorrhage. She had been beaten and strangled. Though there was little with which to make an identification, the body had an upper dental plate. It proved to be the clue that led to her killer.
Monty was brought back to Port Angeles and put on trial for Hallie’s murder. Monty’s defense was that the dead woman wasn’t Hallie, and he swore she was still alive when he last saw her. Hallie’s friends identified clothes worn by the dead woman as belonging to Hallie. It took the jurors four hours to reach a verdict and they found Monty guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Incredibly, Monty served only nine years in prison and was paroled in 1951. How it was that this pathological man didn’t serve even a decade for Hallie’s murder is beyond me. He died on November 5, 1974, in Los Alamitos, California.
Bella in the Witch Elm – This was a 1941 case of an unidentified woman who was murdered and stuffed into an elm tree. This is a Worcestershire, England murder, rather than American. It also occurred during WWII, a factor some of these murders have in common. The unidentified woman was asphyxiated with a piece of taffeta that had been stuffed into her mouth (quite like Bauerdorf). She had been in the tree for 18 months and was “still warm” when she was placed there, as rigor mortis would have made it impossible to dispose of a body in that manner. Beginning in 1944 graffiti stating Who put Bella in the Witch elm began to appear on various monuments and walls around Worcestershire.
Martha Virginia James – This beautiful, young woman was murdered in 1943 who was riding a train between Seattle and San Diego. She gave a bloodcurdling scream as her throat was slashed and she fell out of a sleep bunker. It was decided that the killer remained aboard the train. The investigation hit several snags until a woman in Klamath Falls reported she also had been accosted on the West Coast Limited 12 days earlier by a man with a butcher knife. Authorities turned their attention to the train’s kitchen crew — the only ones on board who had ready access to butcher and sharp cutting knives.
Police contacted the railroad company and learned that a 20-year-old-cook named Robert Folkes had been on the West Coast Limited the night Martha James was murdered. When brought in for questioning, Folkes remained unflustered by all the questioning. He denied ever being in the sleeping car the night of the murder. But authorities laid a trap for Folkes and he stumbled into it head first. They photographed Folkes and sent it to Klamath Falls for identification by another woman Folkes had tried to kill. Then they told Folkes the woman in the Klamath Falls incident identified him as the man who attacked her. Folkes confessed to murdering Martha James. Folkes later was executed in Salem for his crimes. The crime was called the most famous train murder in US history. Pehaps but no one knows of it today.
Caroline Manton – Another woman who met with a watery grave and was also killed by her husband. Horace Manton claimed his wife had left him to be with her brother. To back this up he showed them letters he said had been written by his wife since she left. In all the letters a spelling mistake was evident. It was in the word ‘Hampstead’ which in all cases had been written as ‘Hamstead‘. The police asked him for a sample of his handwriting and they noticed that he misspelt this word. When the police searched the house they found it had been so thoroughly cleaned that they could only locate a single fingerprint belonging to Caroline Manton.
Satisfied that they had got the right man they arrested and charged Manton with the murder of his wife. Realizing that there was no way out he confessed to killing Caroline but accidentally. They quarrelled and he had hit her with a stool. In a panic, he wheeled her body to the river on his bicycle and dumped it into the water. He appeared for trial at Bedford Assizes and was found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he died in prison three years later in 1947, the same year as the Black Dahlia murder.
Mrs. Louise Springer – The Green Twig Murder
At approximately 9:15 p.m. on the evening of June 13, 1949, Laurence Springer, drove his new Studebaker convertible to pick-up his wife. Louise Springer met him in the parking-lot on Crenshaw Blvd, near Santa Barbara where she worked as
a beautician. As she entered the car, Louise noticed she had left her eye-glasses inside the beauty parlor. Her husband offered to get them for her and also purchased a newspaper and cigarettes at an adjacent drugstore. He was gone less than ten minutes. Upon his return, both his car and Louise were gone. The husband immediately contacted LAPD who referred him to University Division Police Station, where the desk officer advised Mr. Springer, “They could not take a formal Missing Person Report, for 24-hours.”
Frustrated, Mr. Springer returned to his Hollywood home to be with their three-year-old son. Three days later, Laurence Springer’s suspicions were confirmed. Louise Springer’s body was found in the back seat of the car, which the suspect had parked on a quiet residential street just an hour after the abduction and murder. It was three blocks away from Short’s vacant lot Springer’s body was discovered. Springer had been sodomized with a tree limb (ouch) then strangled to death. She was left in the vehicle. Detective Harry Hansen, who had been assigned to Short’s case, suspected the two murders were related. Both crimes could have been committed by the same man, he told the press. I suspect Hansen suggested this theory due tot he location of both bodies and the violence of the acts. However I don’t see any further connection, considering how torturous Short’s had been. Springer had suffered a sodomy, a terrible crime, but Short was severed in half, and had many other atrocities committed against her. Eyewitnesses were found who could only state that the man appeared to have black, curly hair. He waited in the car for approximately one hour before leaving it and walking away.
The crime lab was able to state that Springer had not been slugged before she was garroted. What appeared to be bruises on Springer’s head were actually post-mortem tissue changes and the result of the dead woman’s body resting face down for three days in the backseat of the car before being discovered. She had been murdered in the car, at the parking lot, as she listened to the radio. Claud R. Cox, also a suspect (and a psychopath) in the Short murder, was questioned about Springer’s murder, but was eventually cleared.
Police suspected Mrs. Springer may have known her killer prior to the murder. Louise had apparently offered no resistance, nor had she cried out and her new manicure was still pristine. Prior to the murder a male called Springer’s work about 5 – 6 times a day asking for her, then hung up. In a creepy echo of the Green Twig Murder, decades later a little 6-year-old girl named Lilly Tomlinson would be murdered and violated with a branch that was shoved so violently into her little body that it reached all the way up to her collarbone.
Mrs. Virgie Lee Griffin and Mrs. Lillian Johnson
On November 15, 1944 two women’s mutilated bodies were discovered at separate downtown Los Angeles hotels. The first victim was twenty-five year old Mrs. Virgie Lee Griffin of 1934 W. 70th Street. Virgie’s body was stuffed in a clothes closet in the Barclay Hotel at 103 W. Fourth Street. Near her remains lay a large butcher knife and a razor (the exact tools used to torture and kill Short). An examination suggested that Mrs. Griffin had been murdered about 8 a.m. Det. Lts. Harry Hansen (in 1947 he would be one of the lead detectives on the Black Dahlia case), R.F. McGarry, and Stewart Jones were assigned to the case. Some of the cops had to attend another scene when a woman was found dead and mutilated at a hotel just blocks away. That woman was Mrs. Lillian Johnson.
The second victim, thirty-eight year old Mrs. Lillian Johnson of 114 W. 14th Place was discovered just after 3:30 p.m. Both women had been hacked to pieces. Lillian’s breasts and vagina had been dissected. Patrolman H.E. Donlan decided to check out the bars. He walked over to a bar at 326 S. Hill Street, just a few doors from Lillian Johnson’s body. He noticed that one of the patrons, who fit the suspect’s description, was sitting with a glass of wine and he was chatting up a woman. In the man’s hand was a book of matches from the Barclay Hotel. Donlan walked over to the man snapped a pair of handcuffs on the man’s wrists. His name was Otto Stephen Wilson. At first Wilson denied having anything to do with the murders, but eventually he collapsed and confessed. It had been a successful day for the police. The first murder had been discovered at 2 p.m., the second at 3:30 pm. The suspect was in custody by 5:30 p.m., and by 7:30 p.m. he confessed.
Emily Frances Armstrong was murdered on April 14, 1949. Her murder remains unsolved. Of all the women in this blog she is the only senior citizen (60). She was beaten to death and was found at her place of employment, a dry cleaner’s shop on St John’s Wood High Street in London . A postmortem examination also showed that her skull had been shattered by at least 22 blows from a blunt object, later believed to be a claw hammer. While authorities pursued several theories, they failed to find a suspect. Witnesses reported a “suspicious man” around 30 years old and between 5’5″ or 5’6″, however, police were unable to identify the individual. A murderer who had escaped from Broadmoor Hospital was also considered before witnesses failed to identify him in a police line-up. Police eventually concluded that Armstrong’s murderer had either been a transient or “a man who had fled to Ireland.” Pah. Those Irish.
Evelyn McHale – The Most Beautiful Suicide. It’s been stated that Elizabeth Short is an enigma and that it’s difficult to piece together segments of her life when so little was known about her. Well, McHale has her beat. McHale wasn’t a murder victim but her story is so unique I decided to list it anyway. Inn 1940, McHale was a beautiful 23-year-old woman. She was born in Berkeley, California, on September 20, 1923, the 6th of 7 children born to Vincent and Helen McHale. In 1930, the family moved to Washington D.C. for Vincent’s job, but within a few years, Helen moved out of the house for unknown reasons. After McHale graduated from high school, she joined the Women’s Army Corps, and was stationed in Jefferson, Missouri. It was reported by friends that when she left the Corps, she burned her uniform. Uh-oh. Already our Miss McHale is sounding a bit off.
McHale moved to Baldwin, New York where she lived with her brother and his wife. She met a former Airman by the name of Barry Rhodes, The two were soon engaged, but a shadow seemed to hang over McHale. In the Spring of 1946, she served as a bridesmaid in Barry’s brother’s wedding. After the ceremony, she ripped off her dress, declaring, “I never want to see this again,” and burned it like she had done with her A.W.C. uniform. Clearly our poor little Evelyn suffered from some sort of mental illness but no one recognized the signs. That’s not unusual for a family without a history of mental illness.
On April 30, 1947, McHale took the train from New York to Easton to visit Barry for his 24th birthday. All seemed well between the couple, and the next day, Barry kissed his fiance goodbye as she boarded the 7:00 AM train to Penn Station. “When I kissed her goodbye, she was happy and as normal as any girl about to be married.,” he later stated. What was running through McHale’s mind that morning, no one will ever know. It’s possible McHale herself didn’t understand her own thoughts. Upon arriving in Manhattan, she left Penn Station and walked across the street to the Governor Clinton Hotel at 31st Street and 7th Avenue. She obtained a room, and set about writing a note. It read:
“I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me.
My fiance asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody. He is much better off without me. Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.”
McHale’s note didn’t explain what she meant by “her mother’s tendencies.” Perhaps she referred to her mother’s abandonment that clearly caused McHale so much pain that she never got over it. However there was more to this suicide than that. McHale could simply have broken off her engagement to Rhodes. She certainly didn’t need to kill herself and therein lies the rub. At any rate, this enigmatic woman folded her cryptic note, and tucked it into her small purse along with a few dollars, her make-up, and some family photos. McHale took the time to doll herself and at 10:30 AM, she walked to the Empire State Building, and purchased a ticket to its famous 86th-floor observatory. She slipped off her coat and placed it along with her pocketbook on the floor against the railing. And she jumped. At 10:40 AM, the day’s serenity was interrupted by a terrific crash that sounded like an “explosion.”
Lying on her back, clutching a strand of pearls at her neck, Evelyn looked to be resting peacefully. A young photography student by the name of Robert C. Wiles happened to be across the street at the time of her demise. Stunned by her beauty even in death, he snapped a photo of her just 4 minutes after her crash. This guy needed as much mental health assistance as McHale. Almost overnight, McHale became a pop culture icon, that is, a symbol of tragic beauty. Years later, artist Andy Warhol made a silk screen painting of the dead McHale for his Death and Disaster series, and called it “The Most Beautiful Suicide.”
In Wiles’ photo, McHale looks for all the world as if she’s resting, or napping, rather than lying dead amid shattered glass and twisted steel. Everything about her pose, her gently crossed ankles; suggests she may perhaps be thinking of her plans for later in the day, or daydreaming of her beau. It’s one of the most beautiful and simultaneously creepiest suicide photographs ever. Life Magazine published McHale as a full-page image in the 12 May 1947 issue and stated: “At the bottom of the Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in grotesque bier, her falling body punched into the top of a car.”
In 1931 when it was built, the Empire State Building’s observation deck drew crowds in immense numbers. In fact, the building’s owners made as much in observation deck ticket sales during its first year as it collected from office rentals in the tower. McHale, sadly, was far from original in her suicide. Many people before her had committed suicide by jumping from the building. People in their darkest moments ascended to its upper decks, climbed over the railing, and threw themselves to the ground. Many ended up landing on the roof of one of the building’s setbacks on their way down. One woman was actually blown back onto the observation deck by a strong gust of wind, and survived. That woman certainly wasn’t McHale.
McHale’s sister, Helen identifed the body. My suspicion is that McHale suffered from clinical depression and it was undiagnosed. It’s possible she was co-morbid (pun) for another illness. Either way, McHale, so far as anyone knows, wasn’t receiving psychiatric care. A shame. That might have prevented the most beautiful suicide from happening. I’m sure Warhol could have found another subject to paint and hopefully a livelier one.
Death is not a moment, but a process. This is why it is possible for a person to die, yet be brought back to life again. Having read through all of these bios consider that after death many bodies continue with activity that is normally reserved for the living: they vocalize (moan, groan, exhale, sigh), they pass wind (seriously), they urinate or pass feces (due to muscle relaxation), their mouths and eyes suddenly open (due to involuntary muscle contraction), they move around (due to gases that are freed from muscle contractions) and even give birth (known as coffin death). Do you think such postmortem activity would frighten the bejesus out of the killer? Let’s hope so. Tit for tat.