The gruesome 1947 murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, THE BLACK DAHLIA, which inspired countless books and films, remains unsolved. Yet, Short’s killer, many believe, may have been the Cleveland Torso Killer, a notorious maniac, who hacked victims apart with all the finesse of a butcher.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1924, Elizabeth Short took the hard-traveled road to Hollywood to achieve fame as a movie star only to find sudden, brutal death.
On January 15, 1947, her nude body was discovered cut in half and severely mutilated in a vacant lot near Leimert Park in Los Angeles.
The killer not only cleaved the body in twain and mutilated the corpse, but Short had also been drained entirely of blood and the remains scrubbed clean. Short’s face had also been slashed from the corners of her mouth to her ears, creating a chilling effect known as the “Glasgow Smile”- resembling The Joker.
“It was pretty gruesome,” Detective Brian Carr of the Los Angeles Police Department said. “I just can’t imagine someone doing that to another human being.”
Dubbed “The Black Dahlia” by the press, the case made headlines for weeks as every aspect of Short’s brief life was examined by LAPD detectives and the media.
The closest thing they had to a clue was that Short had been working as a waitress before meeting her untimely end. A round-up of the café’s habitues yielded nothing.
The exhaustive homicide investigation went nowhere. As per usual in a high profile murder case, there were several confessions by kooks and a plethora of sketchy witnesses looking to get their names bold-faced in the tabloids.
The Elizabeth Short murder remains one of the most bizarre cold cases in history, fueling a true crime cottage industry of novels and films that purport to solve the crime.
Yet, The Black Dahlia may have been a victim of an infamous serial killer who terrorized America’s heartland: The Cleveland Torso Murderer.
Also known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, The Cleveland Torso Murderer was an unidentified serial killer who butchered and dismembered a minimum of 12 known victims during the 1930s. His body count is suspected to be as high as 20.
One of the killer’s first victims to bob to the surface was the infamous “Lady of the Lake”.
In 1934, a woman’s torso, washed up on the seamy shores of Lake Eerie outside Cleveland. The victim’s rotting flesh was reddish in appearance and textured like leather, indicating chemicals had been applied to the body after death. It wasn’t until a year later that cops linked the woman’s disfigured corpse to a series of new killings.
The Torso Killer’s victims were primarily from the lower class of society – drifters and homeless women – who had fallen on hard times during the ravages of the Depression-era. Many were the so-called “working poor” who lived in shanty towns.
As the bodies piled up, The Torso Murderer always chopped the heads from his victims’ bodies, often cleaving the torsos in half. Several of the male victims were castrated and others were cleaned with a chemical solvent. The victims’ remains were inevitably found months or years after they had been mercilessly butchered. Identification by police was often impossible as the victims’ heads were rarely found. Often it was truly “a hank of hair, a piece of bone…”
Leading the investigation was Eliot Ness, of THE UNTOUCHABLES fame, who was then Public Safety Director of Cleveland, which granted him power over the police and fire departments.
Ness ordered the burning and demolition of one of the shanty towns, Kingsbury Road, where the Torso Killer claimed many a victim. And like a sad sack Son of Sam, the killer is believed to have taunted Ness by depositing the corpses of two victims in full view of Ness’s city hall office.
A suspect, Frank Dolezal, a brick layer, who was linked to one of the female victims, was subsequently arrested for the murderers. He confessed to one murder but denied committing the others. Before his trial began, Dolezal was found dead, hanging in his jail cell. A later investigation into the Dolezal case later cleared him. So if Dolezal wasn’t the Cleveland Torso Murderer – who was?!
Another key suspect, Dr. Francis E. Sweeney, was a doctor who had performed amputations during World War One. Despite failing two polygraph exams conducted by Ness, the top cop realized he had little chance of conviction as the alcoholic, mentally unstable Sweeney was related to one of Ness’ political opponents. Creepy postcards reportedly sent by Sweeney tormented Ness and his family for decades. Sweeney later committed himself to a mental hospital, dying there in 1964.
Another popular theory was that the Cleveland Torso Murders may have been committed by several people – one, the original killer (who may have been either of the two key suspects) and one or more copycats. The one thing all the murder cases had in common was that all the victims were decapitated and dismembered.
Initially, LAPD investigators probing the Elizabeth Short murder conducted a reexamination of the Cleveland Torso Murderer case files. While the similarities were uncanny, the link to the Dahlia case proved inconclusive at first.
In 1980, a former Cleveland Torso murder suspect, Jack Anderson Wilson, was under investigation by renowned LAPD homicide detective “Jigsaw” John P. St. John.
St. John claimed he was close to proving Wilson had not only been the Cleveland Torso Murderer but had also butchered, Elizabeth Short – the Black Dahlia. Before St. John could arrest him, the suspect died in a fire in 1982.
As to who actually killed The Black Dahlia and why – we may never know for sure.