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The Black Dahlia Files – Book Review

BlackdDhliafFles by: Wolfe, Donald H.

Publisher: ReganBooks (HapperCollinsPublishers)

Copyright:  2005, ISBN:  [0060582499]

Cover: Richard Ljoenes

Type: Hardcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes. March 21,2006

Summary:  Highly Recommended. This crime book captures the atmosphere and feel of the times.                             

Who killed Elizabeth Short, aka, The Black Dahlia? Her mutilated and severed body was discovered in a vacant lot in Los Angeles on 15 January 1947. There have been two recent popular books purportedly solving the mystery of her death. The BLACK DAHLIA AVENGER (see TG review 5 May 2003), by Steve Hodel had portents of being a definitive work. Hodel after all was a former Los Angeles cop. Unfortunately, Hodel blamed the death of Elizabeth Short on his father. Nothing in his work supported the contention. Since publications, plenty of holes have been shot through his assertion and even some of the “facts” he reported.


Prior to Hodel there was Janice Knowlton’s “DADDY WAS THE BLACK DAHLIA KILLER” (Pocket Books, 1995) which again blamed the author’s father for Short’s death. Not having read this “daddy-did-it” book, it is impossible to comment on the particulars. However, others have. Like Hodel’s book, Knowlton’s work has suffered under close scrutiny.

Donald Wolfe points out that the Hodel and Knowlton books (as well as John Gilmore’s SEVERED: THE TRUE STORY OF THE BLACK DAHLIA MURDER, and Mary Pacios’ CHILDHOOD SHADOWS: THE HIDDEN STORY OF THE BLACK DAHLIA MURDER) were written before Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley established an archive of “historic twentieth century crime investigations”. The Black Dahlia investigation was included in the archive along with a list of all the suspects compiled by the police at the time. Many of the “inventions” previous authors used in examining the Short murder are exposed as inventions. What was not included in the Black Dahlia archive was an autopsy report. It has never been released to the public. The report apparently no longer exists. That autopsy report just might go a long way in solving a mystery within the mystery surrounding Short’s murder. Without it, speculation reigns.

And now we have THE BLACK DAHLIA FILES by Donald H. Wolfe.

From the get-go, Wolfe’s book shares one exotic characteristic with the other two popular books on this subject: he had personal, first-hand information about the circumstances surrounding the killing of Elizabeth Short. It is the six degrees of separation thing–he knew somebody who knew somebody. While the relationship is not central to his “solution” of the crime and he does weave it into the story in a credible manner, it is still an oddity. Why do the people who write about Elizabeth Short have a personal stake in the sequence of events leading to her death? It is a question with an answer. Maybe it is a question with multiple answers, but it is for another time.

Whatever the final consensus regarding Wolfe’s “solution” to the Black Dahlia murder, he can not be denied accolades for his writing and for bringing an era alive. His fleeting descriptions of Los Angeles in the 1940s is like a film noir, evoking memories of scenes from movies of the same era. But the scenes here are alive with people with competing interests. Specifically, newspaper vendors and reporters, doctors, police and mobsters.

The CBS program 48 HOURS is based on the premise that if a murder is not solved within forty-eight hours, the chances of it ever being solved are reduced geometrically. There is an obverse corollary that is also valid: within the first hours or days of a murder investigation, the murderer will have been included in the list of possible perpetrators. One step beyond that is the six-degrees of separation scenario–someone on the list of suspects knows or had contact with the actual perpetrator. Any examination of a cold-cold case like the Short investigation must stick close to the facts of the case as produced by the police to be a credible examination. Wolfe’s THE BLACK DAHLIA FILES manages to do this.
Wolfe also relies upon the fact that the police exerted considerable effort to hide certain aspects of the crime as revealed in the archive put together by the Los Angeles District Attorney in 2002. The police, or specifically, Capt. Jack Donahoe of the LAPD Gangster Squad, also disseminated misleading information. This misleading information was to color examinations of the case for the next fifty years. (According to Larry Harnisch [see his website at http://www.lmharnisch.com], the folklore that Elizabeth Short had infantile sex organs is attributed to a non-existent detective named Herman Willis. Wolfe cites Capt. Donahoe as the source of the remarks as well as others. Elizabeth Short was not a lesbian, nor a prostitute, nor did she have infantile sex organs).

The common feature mentioned in all the Black Dahlia books is that a doctor or someone trained in surgical procedure participated in the murder. There was an abortion ring operating in Los Angeles at the time. Various authors on the Black Dahlia case feature one or more of the doctors. Wolfe takes us one step farther into the criminal activity and exposes possible cover-ups by the police in protecting the ring. Making one more step and Wolfe is deep into the machinations of the Los Angeles organized crime scene of the 1940s.

Everything Wolfe writes about the sequence of events leading up to the murder of Elizabeth Short and the fall-out from that murder make a tremendous amount of sense. As is often the case when police corruption overshadows a crime, the all important “dots” connecting one event to another are easily missed. The only recourse is to look at the police corruption. Wolfe does this throughout the book. By relying on 1949-1950 Grand Jury material as well as subsequent revelations exposing organized crime activity and influence of Mafia boss Jack Dragna, Wolfe draws a very convincing arrow pointing to six men who could have committed the Black Dahlia murder, four of whom may have actually been involved in her murder and mutilation.

If we accept Wolfe’s examination and conclusion, we must also accept his rationale that there were two motives responsible for the murder. First, Elizabeth Short was made pregnant by a man who wanted her and her pregnancy to go away. The man either solicited the aide or was offered the aide of the men who actually killed her. One of the men involved in the killing was “insane”, which explains the horrible mutilation inflicted on Short’s body.

What Wolfe’s examination of the murder lacks is proof that it was committed by the men he names. Circumstantially, there are some weak spots as well. The most sensitive of those weak spots is the presumed cover-up by the police. If Elizabeth Short was murdered to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy, or was murdered during a botched abortion attempt, it is reasonable to assume that the few but powerful police officers on the mob’s payroll would make efforts to derail the investigation. However, given the number of people involved in the actual murder and the subsequent police cover-up, it is hard to accept that all remained silent about the murder. Wolfe relates that in 1987, Eddie Cannizzaro, the former driver and bodyguard for Los Angeles mob boss Jack Dragna, made a death bed confession that it was he who killed Bugsy Siegel in 1947-six months after Short was found murdered. There are no credible death bed confessions concerning the Short killing. Perhaps, for the mob, killing and mutilating a woman does not rank up there with killing a Mafia Capo, the rational being why confess to something so mundane.

Overall, Donald Wolfe’s THE BLACK DAHLIA FILES is much more credible than Steve Hodel’s The BLACK DAHLIA AVENGER . It is recommended for its nuance of time and place. The documentation–the support provided for his conclusion about why and who murdered Elizabeth Short–merges nicely into the mosaic of facts as he cites them. Is this the last word on the Black Dahlia murder

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