LOS ANGELES, CA — On the morning of January 15, 1947, the mangled, tortured, and chopped-in-two corpse of Elizabeth Short, 22, turned up in a vacant lot in Los Angeles.
Instantly, the unspeakable fate that befell Short and the sexually desecrated, purposefully arranged condition of her remains horrified and captivated the public, as the case quickly came be known by the victim’s nickname: the Black Dahlia.
More than 70 years later, the Black Dahlia continues to enthrall true crime devotees, both with the nightmarish details of how Short suffered and the frustrating fact that the killer or killers have never been identified, let alone brought to justice.
Through the decades, then, scores of books, websites, documentaries, dramatic films, TV specials, and other media undertakings have been devoted to the case. Still, the Black Dahlia remains one of history’s definitive unsolved mysteries.
Naturally, with so much attention focused on the material, numerous theories have arisen. Some seem credible, others dwell on the fringes of conspiracy. One of the most bizarre examples of the latter is that Hollywood legend Orson Welles did it!
In terms of high-profile accusations, the Welles claim is not unprecedented. Other celebrities have been linked to the Black Dahlia in the past. Among them:
• Woody Guthrie
The folksinger and left-wing activist came up on detectives’ radar after he got busted for sending graphically erotic letters to a woman in Northern California who reportedly did not want to receive them and turned them over to the police. The L.A. County D.A. tried to connect Guthrie to the Dahlia, but he was cleared in short order. Guthrie did get busted for sending prohibited material through the mail, though.
• Bugsy Siegel
The LAPD took an official long, hard look at notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel after the Dahlia murder, eager to bust him for anything that might lock him up for good. Still, the investigation led nowhere, and its been surmised that rival mobster Jack Dragna tipped off the cops hoping to frame Siegel for the crime.
• Man Ray
Dr. George Hodel, a Los Angeles physician, has long been one of the most talked-about suspects in the Black Dahlia case. Retired LAPD Detective Steve Hodel, the doctor’s own son, believes his father committed the atrocity — and that his dad did it to emulate to creative works by Man Ray, the master surrealist.
The doctor and the artist were friends, and Steve says his father attempted to outdo all previous surrealist works by killing the model.
However, since Man Ray himself fled Hollywood for Paris shortly after Elizabeth Short died, entirely unsubstantiated rumors have suggested that perhaps he, too, was involved.
Still, in recent times, no other celebrity suspect has generated more outrageous discussion regarding the Black Dahlia than Orson Welles.
In her 1999 memoir Childhood Stories: The Hidden Story of the Black Dahlia, author Mary Pacios points her finger directly at Welles — the Hollywood wunderkind who reinvented cinema in his own image with Citizen Kane (1939) and then spent decades careening downward in fits and starts.
Pacios grew up with Elizabeth Short in Boston and said she came forward with her theory after James Ellroy’s best-selling 1987 novel inspired by the murder, The Black Dahlia, confused the public regarding the “facts” as she understood them.
Specifically, Pacio contends that Welles suffered from mental illness and was prone to explosive violence. To back her claim, Pacios cites a 1937 stage production of Julius Caesar in which Welles accidentally stabbed costar Joseph Holland. She also accuses the actor and filmmaker of having “paid off” a rape victim to stay silent.
In terms of evidence connecting Welles to Elizabeth Short’s death, Pacios points to the following:
• Orson Welles was a highly skilled magician who performed for the troops during World War II. A highlight of his act was sawing a woman in half.
• Welles was intimately familiar with the area where Short’s body was discovered.
• Virginia Short told Pacios that Elizabeth had written her a letter stating she was going to audition for Orson Welles.
• Both Short and Welles frequented Brittingham’s restaurant. Since she was an aspiring actress, it’s likely they would have met there.
• On January 24, 1947, Welles applied for a passport. That very same day, someone claiming to be the killer mailed out a packet to Los Angeles newspapers.
• After that, Welles stayed in Europe for 10 months, refusing to come back and finish editing his movie adaptation of Macbeth, in spite of Republic Studios insistence that he return.
• For the “house of mirrors” sequence of his film noir masterpiece The Lady From Shanghai (1947), Welles allegedly created mannequins three months before the murder that he marked up with lacerations almost identical to those inflicted on Elizabeth Short.
• The woman who first came across Elizabeth Short’s remains initially thought the corpse was a discarded department-store mannequin.
• Pacios believes Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn destroyed the footage of the mannequins to cover up potential evidence.
Orson Welles, it must be noted, was never investigated, let alone named as a suspect in the murder of Elizabeth Short. In addition, the connections made by Mario Pacios had never resulted in any serious new investigations into the possibility of Welles even being aware of Short.
Still, conspiracy theories have a way of taking on lives of their own and someone, somewhere may well be working right now to prove that the man who created what’s still hailed as Hollywood’s greatest motion picture also perpetrated Hollywood’s most infamous homicide.