The media played a huge role in the popularity of the case. In Los Angeles, and especially in Hollywood, getting the most sellable photos and headlines was imperative for a newspaper to survive and to make it to the top of the “heap”, so to speak. Los Angeles was a prime example of the lengths editors and publishers would go to sell the most copies. In fact, Wayne Sutton, a man who worked for the Herald newspaper, contacted Phoebe Short after Short’s murder and lied to the woman, telling her that her daughter had recently won a beauty contest in order to get more information about Short. Finally, Sutton admitted the ruse but Phoebe refused to believe it. It wasn’t until local Medford police attended Phoebe’s house that she realized what the reporter had told her was true. Such was the evil length newspaper reporters would go to in order to snare a good story.
Short was murdered in an era when the more graphic a photo, the more copies of the newspaper were sold. By contrast, today there’s a standard where only specific events warrant the publishing of corpses. Although the general public would probably appreciate seeing the gory details (I base that supposition on the popularity of such violent and idiotic television programs as Gerry Springer), mainstream newspapers disallow it. It is permissible to publish the photo of a dead person whose identity is sought by police. In Short’s case, her mouth had to be sewn shut and her photo retouched in order to publish it, not so much for decency’s sake, as to make it more viable that a member of the public would recognize her in life. (Hence the odd criss-cross markings on the top left of her mouth in the photograph, although in actuality, they would have been on the right).
Authors have also kept the Short case very much alive (pun). One such book has a free PDF download being Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia, by John Gilmore. Gilmore is a novelist, non-fiction author, musician and a former actor. He studied at the Actors Studio in New York City, learning Method Acting from Lee and Paula Strasberg, the same trainers who taught Marilyn Monroe and several other notable actors. I don’t agree with all of Gilmore’s opinions and speculations ,but his book makes for a worthwhile read. The other issue I take with Gilmore is his ability to somehow reiterate complete (and supposedly true) conversations among people from 65 years ago.
Although Gilmore never had an actual relationship with Short, he claims to have met her as a child. “She was my light in this shadow world,” he wrote in his book, whatever the heck that means. He stated quite proudly that he was able to glean information out of dying LAPD officers because “you catch them with their pants down.” How lovely. Crime reporter Aggie Underwood stated “nobody in town is going to print any pictures of this one.” That’s not to say that people like Underwood and others from the press wouldn’t try to sell their photographs of the severed Short.
Gilmore wrote accurately about Detective Harry Hansen’s perspective of the crime scene. Hansen has stated in interviews what Gilmore wrote in his book that “a murder scene had its own special kind of life for the detective ,its own signature…. the spot where she was found was a “sacred setting.” This is common thinking and practice among police officers today however it may not have been during the 1940s. I wouldn’t know that information. Police apparently reached the conclusion that the killer didn’t use a knife with a serrated edge due to the smooth cutting. Eventually police would officially state a butcher knife and a razor had been used to sever and torture poor Short. It was suggested that the corpse had been kept on ice because her fingerprints appeared to be shrunken. It was also surmised that Short had been killed quite a while before she was brought to the vacant lot at North Avenue. That along with the puffiness of her face made identification difficult.
At first when there was no identification of the murder victim, Short was called “Girl” by the press. After her identity was located from fingerprints the FBI found when Short worked at Camp Cooke years before, she was nicknamed the Black Dahlia. The press of course revealed her true identity as Elizabeth Short but seldom did the headlines ever state her real name. She wasn’t Elizabeth Short, the person. She was the girl who was tortured and slain. She was the Black Dahlia, a name almost as foreboding as the murder itself. They might as well have called her Funeral Lily. It was this name that kept the story in the spotlight for decades. There were other heinous murders of beautiful young women in Hollywood and across America but this story has endured where many others have faded as surely as the paper they were once printed on.