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Black Dahlia on Display

March 9, 2010 |  5:13 am

  March 4, 2010, Dahlia Exhibit

One of many mistakes in the Black Dahlia poster from “Behind-the-Scenes: The LAPD Homicide Experience.” Notice that the location is wrong – the body was actually half a block away.

Note: Most of the media’s attention to the LAPD’s “Behind-the-Scenes” homicide exhibit focused on the Kennedy family’s protests over the display of Robert F. Kennedy’s bloody clothes, but the Daily Mirror was more interested in material relating to the 1947 killing of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia.

Because I couldn’t make a quick trip to Las Vegas, I asked my friend Gwen Sharp, who is a partner in the Sociological Images blog, to look at the display, get some photos and write about it. What follows are her observations.

Before Thursday morning I knew nothing about the Black Dahlia case. I’d heard the name and had a vague idea that a woman had come to a bad end in Los Angeles. So when Larry Harnisch asked me if I would go to the LAPD’s “Behind the Scenes” exhibit at the Palms Casino to see what they had on display about the Black Dahlia, I had no idea what I was getting into.

I went Wednesday night only to discover an enormous line snaking through part of the casino lobby, out the door, and around the building. A casino employee let us know it would be about an hour and a half wait, and by that time it was less than two hours to closing time. It was cold and I was bored and it seemed like a lost cause, so I decided to try again the next day.

The exhibit opened at 10 a.m. on Thursday, so I got there at 9:30. There was already a long line, but I was at least inside the building and I came prepared with reading materials. And so I waited a little over an hour to get in. People around me kept calling people they knew to tell them how long the line was and how rapidly it was growing. A couple of times members of the LAPD, in uniform, stopped to chat with people about the exhibit. I asked one officer if we were allowed to take photos and he told me “absolutely!”

The Black Dahlia exhibit was one of the first displays. By this time I’d heard some news stories about the LAPD removing some items related to the Robert Kennedy display after the Kennedy family protested, so I was expecting to perhaps see some physical evidence, maybe a murder weapon, newspaper stories from the time, that type of thing.

Instead, it was a set of photos blown up to poster-size. Some showed Elizabeth Short alive and seemingly happy, posing alone or with friends. But many were crime scene photos: her mutilated, naked body lying on the ground where it was discovered, the body shot from multiple angles, often with groups of men in the background, presumably detectives. There were close-ups of her bruised, battered face, these apparently taken at the morgue. Another photo showed her face somewhat cleaned up, with the stitches used to sew her face and neck back together clearly visible.

I was stunned. They were so graphic and horrifying, and there they were, helpfully illuminated by multiple overhead lights, like a display at the fair. People stopped to look and discuss the case before moving on. I heard one middle-aged man tell his friend, “It’s too bad. She was such a pretty thing.”

A glass case contained the LAPD murder book, open to the report of Elizabeth Short’s murder. At the top it said “Motive—Sadistic.”  Then I looked at the entry on the right-hand page. It was about another murder, a woman who appeared Asian to me. Her body was sprawled out and her naked breasts were visible. A number of people glanced at it while I was there, but seeing that it wasn’t about Elizabeth Short, they quickly moved on.

Watching people look at the different exhibits as though they were getting a peek at a real-life episode of Law & Order was incredibly disturbing. The fact that the “Black Dahlia” was, in fact, a young woman named Elizabeth Short who was horribly, brutally violated, tortured, and murdered, was totally lost. These weren’t stills from a movie; the body in the images wasn’t made of plastic. These were photos documenting how a real, actual human being suffered unimaginably…and they were on display for entertainment value, just one stop on a tour before moving on to see the exhibits about Marilyn Monroe and O.J. Simpson.

And because the LAPD decided to capitalize on the fascination with the Black Dahlia case, another woman's exposed body was on display as well, simply by having the luck to be the next report in the murder book...and nobody was interested. The sensationalistic display of the images of Elizabeth Short made me feel sick; but it was equally horrible that there was a photo of another dead woman there whose death was uninteresting because her murder isn't famous, because she wasn’t a young, white, “pretty young thing.”

As soon as I had the photos for Larry I left. I didn’t look at any other exhibits. From what I hear there were items from the Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson cases; I saw a photo of O.J. Simpson out of the corner of my eye on my way out. I saw some police officers, again in uniform, at the doors, and another pointing a person in the direction of the exhibit she wanted to see.

The LAPD says the exhibit was meant to be respectful, not sensationalistic. Why displaying items from crime scenes, most involving death, would be respectful, is beyond me. The Kennedy family clearly didn’t feel that Robert Kennedy was being honored or respected by allowing the public to look at his bloody shirt. I know that police officers see so many horrible things that at some point they have to stop connecting emotionally to the horror of each case. But the exhibit just made it incredibly clear that all these cases, and the human pain and suffering attached to them, have become gruesome real-crime stories and the people affected by them are characters in the entertainment.

Gwen adds in a footnote: Also, I guess a guy from the LAPD in charge of setting it up said it was originally meant as a private "morale booster" just for other cops. Why on earth would this be a "morale booster"? Why would seeing mangled female bodies make cops feel better? Especially when they didn’t solve the case? Is it just supposed to remind them how important their work is, how unsafe the streets are without them? To me it smacks more of insider story-telling of the Big Ones, the equivalent of guys sitting around reminiscing about their best days on the high school football team.

I'm glad it was free, because I'd be even more horrified if I found out the LAPD was making a ton of money off of it.