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Heather Steeves

Heather Steeves tries to do things that are fun -- and only things that are fun. So far that's included stilt walking, roller derby and cross-country road trips in her Saturn.

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Posted: February 14, 2014

The Black Dahlia lived on Munjoy Hill: An unsolved murder from the vaults

Written by: Heather Steeves

A collage of an AP photo of The Black Dahlia, also known as Elizabeth “Beth” Short, from 1947 ran in the Press Herald at the time. A photo of her childhood home on Montreal Street in Portland (from old city records) and a picture of dahlias.

Our buddies over at the Portland Press Herald just wrote a hell of a story on Maine’s 120 unsolved murders. Writer Scott Dolan says lawmakers are considering creating a squad to re-investigate cold cases. The story is intriguing, so I took a walk down to the Press Herald’s dusty archives, where there is a blue metal filing cabinet of unsolved murders. In one of the mustard-color envelopes of old newspaper clippings I found one murder that squad (if they do make one) won’t solve: The case of The Black Dahlia.

It’s a Los Angeles Police case, and let me set the scene: It was 1947. Beth Short was 22, pretty with dyed black hair, green eyes and a mole on her face. She had lived with her family, but her parents were aggravated because she spent too many nights out on the town. Sick of this, and dreaming of fame, Beth moved to Hollywood and prove to her mother that she could make it on her own as an actress. Beth took on lots of part-time gigs — as a waitress, a movie extra, a nude model — but hadn’t reached her dream by January 1947, when somebody tied her up, tortured her, expertly butchered her into pieces and neatly placed pieces of her washed body on an empty lot in Los Angeles. (Anyone else think this sounds eerily familiar to the Ice Truck Killer in Dexter?)

The case blew up and was one of the top stories of the time. The LA police — hundreds of them — knocked on doors, looked through dental, butchery and surgical supply chains to try to find the instrument she was killed with. Police fingerprinted 300 medical students in the area. Women in LA wrote the FBI saying they were living in terror. It was one of the biggest police investigations in LA ever. The story got new life in 2006 with the film “Black Dahlia” starring Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank.

What most people don’t know is that Beth Short’s family was from Maine. The Black Dahlia — a nickname she got for frequently wearing black dresses and having dahlias in her hair — lived on Munjoy Hill as a kid.Her family lived in Portland before moving to Boston, where Beth was born. They then moved back to Portland, at 66 Montreal St. for a few years around 1927. The building looks much the same today as it did when she lived there. Her mother, Phoebe Short, was born in Maine and Beth’s grandmother Ella Leighton lived in Portland at 30 Sheridan St.

This is a photo of 66 Montreal St. in Portland in the 1920s, around the time The Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, lived there as a kid. She later moved to the Boston area, then Hollywood, where she was tortured and killed. Her murder became infamous. City of Portland archive photo.

Anyway — murder. So, poor Elizabeth “Betty” “Beth” “Black Dahlia” Short, is happy as a clam, according to her friends at the time, in Hollywood. She goes out. She falls in love with an Army pilot whom she writes, and who later dies in a plane crash. An Army officer finds her and gives her the wedding ring her man meant to give her, had he come home. *Wipes tear* She has other boyfriends — as papers at the time were very happy to point out, calling her “man-crazy.”

Then sometime around Jan. 9 she disappeared. She’s found on Jan. 15 neatly cut into clean pieces laying in a vacant lot. Yikes. The medical examiner wrote that she died from shock and hemorrhaging — she was alive when the psycho cut her up. Sixty-seven years later, we still don’t know who killed Beth Short.

How about you, MaineToday readers, can you solve it?

Your suspects:

-First, police thought it was Robert “Red” Manley, who had a date with Beth a week before her body was found. The two stayed at a motel together — something Red’s wife later had to find out about while chatting with him in jail. But his alibi that he had a family matter come up on Jan. 14, 1947 (the day of Beth’s murder), panned out and he was let free.

-Then LA Police arrested a 6-foot-1 “blond amazon” (yes, newspapers were that tactful) of a woman who was bragging in a cafe, “I know who killed Beth Short but I’m afraid to tell.” Nothing seemed to come from that though.

-About a week after the murder, Daniel Voorhees, a “stocky blue-eyed man” in tan pants and a green sport shirt with “his copper curly hair bareheaded” told police, “I can’t stand it any longer. I want to confess to the murder of the Black Dahlia.” Police didn’t seem to believe him and had a psychologist check him out and the report says that exam was inconclusive.

-Lastly (and this is abbreviated list compiled entirely from the Press Herald archives, not the FBI’s list or LA Police’s list of suspects), Corp. Joseph Dumais told police that he had been on a date with Beth, got drunk, blacked out and probably killed her, but couldn’t quite recall (really, dude?). He wouldn’t tell police how he killed her or any details except about a tattoo on her leg (true). Police arrested him, but later let him go too. The Army had records that he was back on-base the day of her murder and a few days before and after. Fellow soldiers remember he was definitely there on Jan. 14 because that day he dressed up in an officer’s uniform, “stuck out like a sore thumb” and was transferred to the military police.

Your clues:

-Soon after talking to the “blond amazon,” Police found Beth’s black suede pump, which had a double heel cap, like she liked, and her purse in a garbage truck.

-A man called the next girl who moved into Beth’s room, a lady the papers described as “the sultry Georgia ‘Toni’ Smith.” The caller told her in a gruff voice, “well, Toni, you are next.” Police were nice enough to give the “pretty girl” a bodyguard.

-Someone anonymously sent police some of Beth’s belongings. They included: an address book, pictures of scantily clad women, a baggage claim check and other papers. Police believed the murderer sent it. They fingerprinted it, but that’s where my paper trail ends.
-A man the FBI interviewed said he made love to Beth several times in a night at a motel, but that she wasn’t passionate and he believed she was likely a lesbian.

-The LA Times reported there were rope marks around her neck, wrists and legs.

-The murderer slit open Beth’s mouth three inches on both sides and hit her over the head.

-Although she never had a steady job, “she somehow always managed to acquire periodic funds for groceries and rent, her many roommates said,” according to the Press Herald at the time.

-FBI files show that although her body was cleaned of blood, her organs were still intact.

-“It is felt that the murder was committed indoors, where water, drainage facilities and perhaps medical equipment was available,” one FBI document says.


So? Think you know who it is? Comment below.

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