Solving Crimes Can Be Murder

Armchair detectives from across the city rely on USC Libraries’ archives to get a clue surrounding sensational cases of the past such as the Black Dahlia mystery.
By Dan Knapp
The 1947 murder of actress Elizabeth Short remains one of the most-researched topics in the USC Libraries’ archives.

Her face never graced the silver screen, but for a brief moment in early 1947, Elizabeth Short was the most talked about actress in Hollywood.

The grisly discovery of the aspiring starlet’s body ignited a firestorm of interest from hardboiled detectives and amateur sleuths.

Now remembered as “the case of the Black Dahlia,” Short’s murder remains one of the most-researched topics in the USC Libraries’ archives.

Film scholars, authors, historians and crime investigators from both the university population and the general public frequently visit the USC Libraries to review resource materials and photographs in hopes of better understanding and perhaps solving the nearly 60-year-old case.

Researchers often enlist the help of USC librarian Dace Taube in their efforts. Taube is the curator of the USC Libraries’ Regional History Collection, a repository of more than 2 million images that provide a visual history of Los Angeles and its newsmakers.

At the heart of the collection are more than 1.2 million photographs from the now-defunct Los Angeles Examiner. The images which date from 1925 to 1961 were part of the newspaper’s photo morgue and were given to the university in the 1970s by the Hearst Corp.

The Regional History Collection is just part of the USC Specialized Libraries and Archival Collection. It also contains 23,000 photographs of Southern California, taken between 1860 and 1960 and donated by the California Historical Society, and 500,000 prints and negatives from the private collection of Dick Whittington, who documented the region’s commercial development from 1925 through 1970.

Author Jim Heimann called on Taube for help when he was writing “Sins of the City: The Real Los Angeles Noir.” In it, numerous images from the Examiner’s collection document the criminal misdeeds that have occurred in the City of Angels.

“By allowing me to peruse innumerable files and photographs, Dace provided me with the seed for my book,” Heimann said.

“Without the access and Dace’s assistance, this book and many of my other projects would never have gotten off the ground.”

Taube said that Short’s murder remains at the top of the “most wanted” lists for items researched in the USC Libraries, even though few clues if any exist in the library’s holdings about the perpetrator of the crime.

“What we have in the archives are basically articles and photographs taken after the murder was committed,” Taube said. “Before she died, few people had even heard of Elizabeth Short. Very little is known about Short and what happened to her. But people still clamor to get their hands on anything connected to the case.”

What is known is that Short came to Hollywood to become a star. The 22- year-old with ebony hair and a predilection for dark clothing hence the nickname “Black Dahlia” was last seen alive on Jan. 9, 1947, at downtown Los Angeles’ swanky Biltmore Hotel. Six days later, her corpse was found in a litter-strewn, vacant lot on South Norton Avenue in the Leimert Park section of the city, to the southwest of USC.

As a result of the crime’s notoriety, more than 50 people came forward claiming to be the murderer.

Throughout her years at USC, Taube has heard numerous perspectives on the murder, including one theory from a woman who implicated her own father. Another person suggested that legendary actor/director Orson Welles was involved. Neither of these claims was ever substantiated.

Short’s demise has been captured in books (perhaps most famously in the novels “The Black Dahlia” by James Ellroy and “Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder” by John Gilmore), on television and in films. A Brian De Palma adaptation of Ellroy’s fictionalized book starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Rose McGowan and Mia Kirschner is scheduled to screen in movie theaters this fall.

Short’s untimely death is not the only sordid chapter in the annals of Hollywood history. There are numerous true-crime stories that continue to be researched at USC by authors and historians hoping to unearth some chestnut not yet discovered.

According to Taube, some of the other most popular Hollywood-related research topics include the demise of starlet Virginia Rapp, which effectively ended the film career of comedian Fatty Arbuckle in 1921 even though he was later exonerated of her murder; the mysterious death of actress Thelma Todd in 1935; the unsolved 1922 murder of movie director William Desmond Taylor; and the 1958 stabbing of Johnny Stompanato by Lana Turner’s then 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl.

Heimann said he hopes to utilize the USC Libraries on future projects as well.

“The Regional History Collection will hopefully remain one of the rare California outposts where research is fostered and respected,” he said, “thus encouraging the dissemination of information and knowledge that the University of Southern California is noted for.”