I Am the Night: A Black Dahlia Primer

I Am the Night exposes Dr. George Hodel, who was accused by his own son and granddaughter for being the Black Dahlia murderer.

I Am the Night

I Am the Night tells the story of the characters who surround one of Hollywood’s most famous homicides, and certainly the city of Los Angeles’ longest and most infamous cold case: the Black Dahlia murder. TNT’s new miniseries, directed by Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), gets some facts right, fudges others for dramatic continuity, and smashes a few to pulp. At one point in I Am the Night, investigative reporter Jay Singletary, played by Chris Pine, picks up a graphic compilation of tabloid news on the case to catch up on what’s he’s missed since covering it last. The grotesque unsolved homicide had grown to iconic status.

Actress Elizabeth Short was 22 years old when her body was found in a vacant lot on South Norton Avenue between West 39th Street and Coliseum Street in Los Angeles on the morning of January 15, 1947. Her body was first spotted by a little girl who was out taking a walk with her mother, who thought it was a mannequin. Short was naked and sliced in half at the waist. Each corner of her mouth was cut three inches to make it appear she was wearing a smile. The corpse was further mutilated, drained of blood and scrubbed clean before it was suggestively posed just a few feet from the sidewalk.

The crime scene was already flooded with bystanders, reporters, and photographers before detectives reached the 3800 block after being dispatched to Norton between 39th and Coliseum streets, the address usually listed as the murder site. The area got trampled underfoot, and evidence was compromised.

Further reading: True Detective Season 3 and the West Memphis Three

Ad – content continues below

The body was identified shortly after the FBI got the fingerprints. Elizabeth Short’s fingerprints were on file because she applied for clerical job at the Army’s Camp Cooke commissary in California in January 1943. Short had only one arrest on record. The Santa Barbara police booked her for underage drinking on September 23, 1943, after a complaint filed by a restaurant owner. Short wasn’t charged and the arresting officer helped her get back to Massachusetts. She later headed west again and came to Hollywood.

Werewolf Murder Fades to Black

Short’s murder quickly became a sensation because the police gave clues out to the press in an effort to quickly find a suspect. Initially labeled the “Werewolf Murder” because of the body’s mutilation, the newspapers nicknamed Elizabeth Short the “Black Dahlia” after the 1946 noir detective film The Blue Dahlia, which was written Raymond Chandler. It was his first screenplay, and the film brought Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake together for the third time. The Los Angeles Police Department’s investigation quickly turned up statements saying the aspiring actress usually dressed in black.

Short was born on July 29, 1924, in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, and raised in Medford, Massachusetts. Her father Cleo Short designed and built miniature golf courses until 1929. The Great Depression led him to abandon his empty car near a bridge, doing the same to his wife and five daughters, in a faked suicide. Elizabeth preferred the name Beth and had done some modeling before moving cross-country.

Short was missing for six days before her body turned up. At the time of the death, she was reportedly in mourning over a lover. The press reported she met so many men in the nightclubs it was hard to narrow down one person she was with before she died. The last person confirmed to have seen her was Robert “Red” Manley, a married man with a pregnant wife. Manley dropped her off at Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood on January 9, 1947.

The Investigation

The autopsy, performed by Los Angeles County coroner Dr. Frederick Newbarr on January 16, 1947, found multiple lacerations to the face and head, and “irregular laceration with superficial tissue loss” on Short’s right breast. He also found ligature marks, which are bruises made by a rope or cord like those found in strangulation, on her ankles, wrists, and neck, and noted superficial lacerations on her chest and arms. The autopsy revealed most of the damage was done after Short was dead. There was no sperm present on the body. The coroner’s office ruled the official cause of death as “hemorrhage and shock due to concussion of the brain and lacerations of the face.” Some reports say Short was given a hemicorporectomy, which cuts the body beneath the lumbar spine, where it can be split in half without breaking bone. Law enforcement didn’t know if the body was cut in half to make it easier to move, whether it came from rage, or if it was an attempt to dehumanize the victim.

Ad – content continues below

The case prompted one of the largest investigations in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department. Besides the LAPD, 400 sheriff’s deputies and 250 California State Patrol officers worked on the case after the body was found. 750 investigators were assigned during the initial stages. The cops searched storm drains, abandoned buildings, and the Los Angeles River bed for evidence. City Councilman Lloyd G. Davis posted a $10,000 reward for information leading the killer. This yielded a lot of confessions. Joseph A. Dumais, a 29-year-old soldier stationed in Fort Dix, N.J., confessed in a 50-page statement. The police leveled obstruction of justice charges on some of the confessors.

The LAPD’s Gangster Squad reportedly received a package with Short’s address book, a baggage check and other items. The package came with a letter assembled with words cut out of newspapers reading “Here is Dahlia’s belongings. Letter to follow.” The police also reportedly received a second letter which read, “Here it is. Turning in Wed. Jan. 29 10 am. Had my fun at police. Black Dahlia avenger.”

Unusual Suspects

Before Short’s murder, dancer Georgette Bauerdorf was found dead in Hollywood. She had been raped. Afterwards, newspapers reported on seven more murders they believed could have been killed by the Black Dahlia killer. The seventh victim, Louise Springer, age 28, was found near where Short’s body was found. Springer was strangled to death with a rope. A tree branch was pierced through her body. The killer was profiled as a white man who was comfortable with a knife and blood, like a butcher or slaughterhouse worker. Authorities focused on about 25 suspects.

Read more: The Real Texas Chainsaw Massacre: How Ed Gein Inspired Classic Horror Movies

British author Piu Eatwell’s book Black Dahlia, Red Rose points the finger at former mortician’s assistant Leslie Duane Dillon, a bellhop who was a primary suspect before the Los Angeles Police Department crossed him off the list. Retired Long Beach Police officer Buz Williams told Eatwell his father Richard F. Williams was on the original team investigating the murder along with Con Keller. They were still investigating Dillon when he was dropped as a suspect. The book levels allegations that co-lead investigator Sergeant Finis Brown was bought off by nightclub and theater owner Mark Hansen, who may have been a co-conspirator in Short’s death.

Janice Knowlton’s 1995 book Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer claims George Knowlton killed Short. The author wrote that her father was having an affair with Short. Janice Knowlton wrote that she was ten years old when she witnessed her father beat Elizabeth to death with a claw hammer in the garage Short used as a bedroom, and was forced to help him get rid of the body.

Ad – content continues below

I Am the Night is based on the book One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel, written by George Hodel’s granddaughter Fauna Hodel, played by India Eisley in the series. Dr. Hodel fathered eleven children by five women. George’s son Michael Hodel wrote for fantasy and science fiction magazines and was succeeded as host of the radio show called Hour 25 by Harlan Ellison. George’s son Steve Hodel went on to be an LAPD homicide detective, on the force from 1963 until 1986. When he retired he came across some photos which implicated his father as Short’s killer, and wrote the book Black Dahlia Avenger.

The Case Is Doctored

Dr. George Hodel was raised in Pasadena, California. He had an IQ of 186 and was a musical prodigy, playing solo piano concerts at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium. Hodel attended Caltech until he got the wife of one of his professors pregnant. He became a crime reporter, attended the University of California Berkeley and when to medical school. He became a physician and specialized in venereal disease. He began working for the Los Angeles Board of Health in 1938, and was made Los Angeles County Health Director in the 1940s. He also performed secret abortions.

In 1945, Hodel was suspected of murdering his secretary, Ruth Spaulding, through a drug overdose. Hodel was present when the secretary died, and reportedly burned some of her belongings before he called police. There are some reports saying Spaulding could have been blackmailing the doctor over financial fraud, like billing patients for phantom tests, misdiagnosing them or prescribing unnecessary prescriptions. The Spaulding case was dropped due to lack of evidence. Hodel moved to China to continue his work with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, but returned to California.

The book Black Dahlia Avenger claims Hodel ran a high-end abortion business and was well informed on the scandalous lives the wealthy class and the police in the city lived. Hodel maintained teenaged friendships with Fred Sexton, the sculptor who created the black bird for the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, as well as with its director John Huston, who was also a romantic rival. When Huston divorced from his wife Dorothy, Hodel went after his old flame, married her in 1940 and renamed her Dorero, combining her name with the goddess Eros. Hodel bought a house designed by the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, and threw wild parties.

The Sowden House in Los Feliz was known as “The Jaws House.” It was designed like a Mayan temple and was reportedly described as an evil place where women were tortured for sport and murders happened. That is also where George Hodel was accused of raping his 14-year-old daughter, Tamar, in October 1949. Tamar testified her father got her pregnant. She also said she was “uncomfortably” posed nude by surrealist artist Man Ray, and had to ward off a predatory John Huston. Hodel was acquitted in December 1949. According to some reports, Hodel got off because he paid off the Los Angeles district attorney.

Hodel’s name was mentioned in a formal written report to the Elizabeth Smart Grand Jury as one of five prime suspects in October 1949, while the investigation was still ongoing. An 18-man District Attorney/Los Angeles Police Department Task Force electronically bugged Hodel’s home from February 15 to March 27, 1950. Transcripts the District Attorney’s recordings reveal they caught Hodel referencing illegal abortions, bribery, and possibly incriminating himself in the involvement in the Spaulding and Elizabeth Short deaths.

Ad – content continues below

Further reading: Inside The Many Murders of Serial Killer Ed Edwards

The “George Hodel-Black Dahlia File,” discovered in a Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office vault in 2004, says Hodel was the prime suspect in the Dahlia murder by April 1950. D.A. Lt. Frank Jemison was getting to arrest the doctor when Hodel fled the United States. He lived the Philippines for the next 40 years. Hodel died in 1999 at age 91. Fauna Hodel died at age 66 after battling cancer. She didn’t grow up knowing her grandfather. She met her mother, Tamar Hodel, who gave her up for adoption, in the 1970s. Michelle Phillips, of the band the Mamas and the Papas, credits Tamar as being an early mentor. Tamar passed away in 2015.

The murder of Elizabeth Short inspired such films as L.A. Confidential and True Confessions, which starred Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall. It may also have intimately and subversively informed Roman Polanski’s noir classic Chinatown, which starred John Huston as a powerful man who has an incestuous affair with his daughter, played by Fay Dunaway, in ways more insidious than can be included here.

James Elroy, who wrote the book The Black Dahlia, which Brian De Palma adapted into a feature, endorsed the conclusions of Steve Hodel’s book Black Dahlia Avenger. So did Los Angeles District Attorney Stephen Kay. The Los Angeles police department dismissed Hodel’s claims. No charges were ever filed against Hodel. The Black Dahlia murder remains an unsolved case.

I Am the Night premieres Monday, January 28 on TNT.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.