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The Black Dahlia -- Another Good Story Ruined

January 5, 2011 |  1:34 am

dropcap_T_1910he anniversary of Elizabeth Short’s killing is Jan. 15, so I thought I would try to anticipate the annual rehash of fiction and mistakes with a post commenting on potential sources on the 1947 case. 

People often ask me which book I recommend to learn about the crime. My answer is always the same: None.

All of the books are terrible and if you read them, you will only have to “unlearn” everything that’s wrong. Understand that I’m not just talking about the usual suspects (“Severed,” “Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer,” “Black Dahlia Avenger” and “The Black Dahlia Files”) but also books that touch on the case, like Jack Webb’s “The Badge,” James Richardson’s “For the Life of Me” and Agness Underwood’s “Newspaperwoman.”

People should especially avoid Will Fowler’s “Reporters” and Kevin Starr’s dreadful account in “Embattled Dreams,” which draws heavily on Fowler’s book, but confuses Fowler with his father, Gene!  

To be fair, “For the Life of Me” and “Newspaperwoman” have some value, but their accuracy is mixed and without knowing where Richardson and Underwood go wrong, it’s best not to read them.

I used to recommend “Farewell, My Black Dahlia,” by Tod/Todd Faulkner, which appeared in The Times on March 28, 1971, but I have decided that its errors outweigh any value it might have. For one thing, whoever wrote the introduction to the story gave Short the middle name “Ann,” an error that has gone viral in the ensuing decades and even made its way onto the label of her FBI file. In fact, she had no middle name, regardless of what you may read anywhere else.

Well, then, what about her FBI file? It is online and readily accessibly, but it’s extremely problematic. The file is heavily censored and because the FBI had no jurisdiction in the case, there is nothing in the way of original crime reports. A great deal of the file consists of wire service stories clipped from various East Coast papers. It is interesting (to a research drudge, anyway) to see how the “buro” played the Los Angeles newspapers against one another, but most people aren’t going to care about such “inside baseball” details.

How about “Childhood Shadows?”Mary Pacios is a friend and I like her. But I can’t recommend her book.

”Exquisite Corpse?” There are some books that aren’t allowed in my house. That’s one of them, along with William T. Rasmussen’s “Corroborating Evidence.”  For years, “Severed” had to stay in the garage, but I spent so much time having to debunk the book that I finally brought it inside.

The websites? Ignore them all, especially the WikiPedia article. I won’t dwell on my experience with WikiPedia, as it deserves its own post, but as far as I’m concerned WikiPedia is sinkhole of rumors and misinformation run by crackpots, factoid zealots and coding tweakers. Over the years, various “trolls” have adopted WikiPedia’s page on the Dahlia case and fought off all attempts to restore sanity. I’ll refrain from recommending my own website because it’s out of date and I want to remain above-board and avoid accusations of advocating my own research.

So what do I recommend?

I always suggest the same thing. Anyone truly interested in the case and not a collection of mistakes  and fiction should read the first few months of the Los Angeles newspaper stories, from Jan. 15, 1947, up to about March. The newspaper coverage isn’t perfect, but there are fewer errors than in any other resource.

I would recommend reading the Examiner, then the Herald-Express, The Times and the Daily News, in that order. I wouldn’t bother with any of the small suburban papers in Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Pasadena, etc. 

The Times is online via ProQuest and via The Times' website. The others are in the microfilm collection of the Los Angeles Public Library. Perhaps a bit inaccessible, but anyone who is truly interested in the factual account should be prepared to do some pick and shovel work. I was told some years ago that the January 1947 microfilm of the Examiner is pretty battered and that part of the film is missing. With luck it’s been replaced by now.

And by the way, I always mark the anniversary of Elizabeth Short’s death with a donation to Heading Home, an agency that works with abused women and the homeless in her hometown of Medford, Mass. 

“Black Dahlia Avenger” on the Daily Mirror