History Stories

It is one of the oldest cold cases in Los Angeles, and the most sensational murder in a notoriously dark period of the city’s history. On January 15, 1947, a local resident found the mutilated body of a young woman in a vacant lot on South Norton Avenue, near L.A.’s Leimert Park. The victim was 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, a native of Medford, Massachusetts, who wanted to be a movie actress. Newspapers covering the case dubbed her “the Black Dahlia,” and the moniker became far more widely known than Short’s own name. Despite a lengthy investigation, during which hundreds of officers interviewed anyone they could find who had even the most minimal contact with Short, the Los Angeles Police Department never arrested anyone for her murder, and eventually the case went cold.

The mystery of Short’s murder lived on in popular culture thanks to James Ellroy’s noir novel “The Black Dahlia,” later made into a movie. Ellroy had been only 10 years old when his own mother was murdered outside of Los Angeles in 1958, 11 years after Short’s murder; that case also remains unsolved. Over the years, numerous theories have arisen as to who killed the Black Dahlia, along with dozens of (presumably false) confessions. In 1991, a woman named Janice Knowlton came forward claiming that her late father, George Knowlton, had killed Short and two other women. A subsequent excavation of his property found no remains or weapons, only a knife, some farm tools and jewelry. More outlandishly, a childhood friend of Short’s wrote a book in 2000 pinning the crime on the celebrated actor-director Orson Welles.

In recent years, Steve Hodel, a retired LAPD detective, grew suspicious after finding pictures of a woman he believed to be Short among the possessions of his late father, Dr. George Hill Hodel, who died in 1999. He came to believe that his father used his medical expertise to kill and mutilate Short and other victims before fleeing to Asia in 1950. In the ‘40s, the Hodel family had been living in a house designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. Designed in a distinctive Mayan block style, the building—known as Sowden House, is now considered a Hollywood landmark. The younger Hodel’s search of the property in 2012 turned up soil samples that later tested positive for decomposed human remains. Though the LAPD investigated George Hodel as one of more than 20 viable suspects in the Black Dahlia case—including seven doctors—they are not prepared to say decisively that he was her killer.

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