A moment in time: Beth Short in the 1940 census

On April 10, 1940–seventy-two years ago today–a man named Edmund M. Hart walked the streets of Medford, Massachusetts in the county of Middlesex, knocking on doors and making inquiries about the people who lived behind them. He was the designated U.S. Census enumerator, and the personal information he gathered has just this month been placed online.

On Salem Street, at number 115, Hart recorded the particulars of three separate households.

The owner of the property (valued at $5000) was Myer Winer, aged 59. A widower, he lived with his sons Samuel (21) and Allen (19), his daughter Dorothy (29) and her husband Eli Reingold (30). The young people were all born in Massachusetts, Myer Winer in Russia. He was a tailor in a retail clothing store, earning $700 for the previous year (for only 18 weeks work).  Son-in-law Eli Reingold was employed as a clerk in a wholesale tea company, earning $1200 for the previous year (52 weeks). His wife, a stenographer for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, earned the same wage for her 52 weeks of work. Although the census did not ask, we know from other sources that theirs was a Jewish family. 

Paying $35 in monthly rent was Edwin F. Jones, 58, and his wife Minnie, 56. He was from Maine, she from Massachusetts, and both had been living in the same house for at least five years. Jones was a newspaper printer, with wages of $2350 for the previous year (47 weeks work). 

Beth Short 1940 census (detail)

It is the third and final family which draws our attention, for reasons having nothing to do with their quiet life in Medford, Mass. The head of the household is Phoebe Short, 39, native of Maine. She tells Mr. Hart that her family of six has been living in this place for at least five years, and pays $28 rent–$7 less than Mr. and Mrs. Jones, perhaps a reflection of Myer Winer’s charity. Although unemployed, she has an unspecified income of more than $50, not from wages. This is, we assume, money provided to her by her estranged husband Cleo.

Living with Phoebe are five unmarried daughters. Virginia M. (19), is the only one seeking work outside the home, claiming 34 weeks unemployment through the end of March 1940. Her occupation is given as New Worker, meaning she had left school but had not yet secured any position. The other Short sisters are all in school: Dorothea (17), Elizabeth (15), Elenora (14) and Muriel J. (11). 

medford high school pc

Although history records that Phoebe Short’s husband Cleo was still living, she identifies herself to the census as a widow. Maybe at this time, Phoebe really thought her husband was dead. Maybe she claimed to be a widow instead of admitting to a stranger that she had been abandoned. We do not know if the story she told Edmund Hart was the same one that she told her landlord and her daughters. The bare facts of the census record cannot reveal the nuances of any family’s tragedy.

Phoebe’s pretty daughter Elizabeth (15) is frozen in time by the census keeper’s ink. She is still safe with the women who know and love her, still free to walk out the front door on a balmy day and turn west on the Salem Road, which is will not for some years be bisected by I-93, a highway which seems to have obliterated 115 Salem Street. Half a mile from her home, past the movie theater and the city hall, is the old Salem Street Burying Ground, a neglected cemetery dating to the late 17th century. Maybe she wandered there, among the winged skull markers and crumbling walls, and thought about her own mortality and imagined the joys her life would contain before the grave.  

winged skull

She’s still a couple of years away from her ill-considered escape from the limited opportunities available to a poor, fatherless girl in the Boston suburbs. When she runs, she will go to California, to be reunited with Cleo Short. Their relationship will quickly fracture, and she will become a vagabond, moving often and forming short-lived, intimate relationships with strangers. She will travel from California to Florida, to Chicago, then west again. She will lie to her mother, and she will not look for work. She will sink into depressive obsession over a promising relationship cut off when the man dies in a plane crash. She’ll make some foolish choices, and some stupid ones. 

And at 22, they will find her body cut into two pieces, naked and brutalized, in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. She will find posthumous fame as the beautiful victim of one of the most heinous unsolved crimes in American history. They will call her The Black Dahlia, leer over the terrible photographs, and they’ll never stop talking about her. 

But for this moment, she is still frozen in time. The census taker knocks on the door, and wants to know: who is the head of this household? What are the names of the children, and their ages? 

Elizabeth Short is 15 years old, and it is springtime. The possibilities are limitless. And we are far away, and remembering a girl we never knew. 

Thank you, Joe Cianciarulo, for the detective work.

Medford, 1880

Downtown Los Angeles, 1946: Beth Short’s last walk

Here’s another amazing discovery from the good folks at the Internet Archive. This May 1946 night time process shot through Downtown Los Angeles was filmed by Columbia for the Rita Hayworth vehicle Down to Earth. In the picture, the actress portrays the ancient Greek Muse Terpsichore, who visits 20th century America to torment the Broadway producer who dares put on a show portraying the muses as man-crazy sluts, and Terpsichore herself as “just an ordinary dame.” Sacrilege! 

It’s a fitting theme for us here at 1947project. For while perturbed Terpsichore was no human female, we think she’d sympathize with the posthumous plight of Beth Short, Black Dahlia murder victim, brutalized before death by unknown assailants, and ever after subject to vile, false rumors. (No, she wasn’t a prostitute. Our offshoot Esotouric offers a bus tour explaining who she really was.) 

Now thanks to Down to Earth, we have this gorgeous footage of the heart of Beth Short’s post-war city, a bright, populated and thriving Downtown that is as lost to us as the cultures of the Inca or the Toltec. Click “play” and enter a place that positively thrums with energy. Marvel at the neon lights, the late-night coffee houses, the fur shops, the airline offices, the swimsuit-clad manikins, the drug stores, the theaters of Broadway (some open all night), the street life. Gasp at Clifton’s Pacific Seas (demolished 1960, now a parking lot) and Clifton’s Brookdale (still with us, but indefinitely closed for renovations), boggle at Alexander & Oviatt’s bright-lit windows packed with the hautest of gentleman’s couture, and laugh when you spy unmistakeable evidence of just how huge a star Miss Rita Hayworth was in the spring of 1946.

Beth Short spent the last half of 1946 living in Los Angeles, bouncing from cheap hotel to friends’ couch and back again. Her social life centered on the nightspots of Hollywood and Downtown. This process footage contains a near-exact recreation of her final steps on the night she vanished: south along Olive Street away from the Biltmore Hotel, then left on Eighth Street, where we are rewarded with two astonishingly rare views of the Crown Grill, the last place she was seen alive. 

Knowing what we do, the stylized crown above the bar’s entrance looks an awful lot like a death’s head, doesn’t it?

Screen grab, 1946 "Down To Earth" process shot

As a time travel portal, this clip rates among the finest. Blow it up big on your screen, sit back with a cup of something soothing, and be transported.

The Black Dahlia and the News of the World

After 168 years of publication, today’s edition of the News of the World is that scandal-plagued English tabloid’s last.

The collapse of a major newspaper is fascinating to watch unfold, but any suggestion that this is an unprecedented media scandal the likes of which has never before been seen is, simply, balderdash. Take away the trapping of modern media tools, and the situation in the News of the World newsroom is revealed to have been nearly identical to what was happening in 1947 Los Angeles, during the investigation of the murder of Elizabeth Short, AKA The Black Dahlia.

The News of the World folded, not because it lacked readers, but in a desperate effort by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to deflect political fallout from an escalating newsroom phone hacking scandal that included interfering in the investigation of the murders of children and spying on the families of dead soldiers and victims of terrorism.

Top British politicians appear to have had knowledge of these crimes and to have been intimately involved with some perpetrators. Further, editors have confessed to paying large sums to the Metropolitan Police for scoops on celebrities and crime victims. The scandal is an evolving thing, with fresh revelations coming by the hour.

Popular opinion holds that the entire working staff of the paper has been sacrificed to save the skin of former editor, current News Corporation chief executive, Rebekah Wade, an intimate of Murdoch and of Prime Minister David Cameron. Meanwhile, the entire affair is subject to passionate commentary by rival journalists, stalked celebrities and the scandalized public via Twitter and other social media.

But how does this relate to the Black Dahlia and 1940s yellow journalism?

For Rupert Murdoch, powerful and much-despised king of the yellow media, read William Randolph Hearst, whose Examiner was the best capitalized paper in post-war Los Angeles, and whose reporters did much more to further the Black Dahlia murder investigation than anyone else, including the detectives of the LAPD. For ruthless Murdoch editors Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade, read Hearst’s top execs James Richardson and Aggie Underwood.

For the Metropolitan Police, implicated in the current privileged-information-for-cash scandal, read the Los Angeles Police Department, who were so deep in Hearst’s pocket that they didn’t balk when Examiner city editor James Richardson invited detectives to join reporters in the newsroom for the opening of murder victim Elizabeth Short’s missing luggage, which a reporter had located at the downtown Greyhound station and illegally purchased from the bag check desk. The evidence inside was promptly photographed for publication in the paper, and only then was handed off to detectives.

For Milly Dowler’s long-suffering parents, newly victimized by the news that their kidnapped daughter was not alive and deleting her own mobile phone messages in 2002, but rather her phone was being checked by News of the World hacks, read Phoebe Short, Elizabeth’s mother, tricked into telling a telephoning reporter all about her 22-year-old daughter with the ruse that Elizabeth had won a beauty contest. Only when she had nothing left to say did the reporter confess that in truth her daughter had been found naked and hacked in two in a vacant lot.

In both instances, 1947 Los Angeles and 2011 London, the motivation was the same: to sell newspapers, and advertising, by appealing to the most base instincts of the general public. Then as now, people are fascinated by stories of sex and violence, and willing to pay for the publication that gives them seemingly factual information they can’t get elsewhere. Reporters have always been able to justify their intrusions by laying their work on the altar of Truth. And unscrupulous publishers have always been willing to pay whatever it takes to hack into private lives of public people, to feed the information hunger.

As the dust settles in England over this latest manifestation of a very old story, the real question is why gossip is so powerful a thing, alluring enough to make fortunes and bring down empires. Why are we so interested in other peoples’ private lives?

To Do: Prune Your Roses in Memory of Beth Short

Gentle reader,

Today is a terrible day in Los Angeles history, the 61st anniversary of the morning when Elizabeth Short, soon to be infamous as the Black Dahlia, was discovered dead and cut in two in a vacant lot in Leimert Park. Each January 15, our friend and Dahlia-ologist Larry Harnisch likes to prune his roses and think of Beth. Richard already pruned our roses this morning, and as they come back to lovely life we will remember this little lost girl. She would have been 83 years old, had she lived.

On Sunday, the Esotouric bus rolled south from Vroman’s Bookstore with a full bus of charming people for the debut of Richard’s new manifestation of our flagship tour THE REAL BLACK DAHLIA. We were seen off by the delightful Queen Mickie, taking a break from her Doodah Parade preparations to christen the bus with champagne… bubblebath! Then we headed downtown, to explore the psychology and deep mysteries of Beth Short’s last hours, visiting the places she frequented, examining the characters who touched her, in life and in death and coming to some understanding of who this strange girl was and what brought her to Los Angeles and her early death.

See photos from this tour here:
https://blackdahliavromans1-13-08.notlong.com/

And see Queen Mickie in the Doodah Parade next Sunday:
https://www.pasadenadoodahparade.info/

This Saturday, 1/19, we offer my personal favorite of our true crime tours, BLOOD AND DUMPLINGS, a criminal and gastronomical excursion into the deeply bizarre criminal and cultural history of the San Gabriel Valley. Meet lions and nazis and hypodermic-jabbing lesbians, religious zealots obsessed with pyramid power, a lesser-known Manson Family victim, James Ellroy’s iconic murdered mother Geneva, Phil Spector and his hillside castle, deadly trailer parks and actual sea monsters, who will keep you company as you gobble down a dumpling feast from 101 Noodle Express, one of Jonathan Gold’s top LA restaurants. Join us do, and reserve your spot today by emailing me or buying online at https://www.esotouric.com/bnd-1-19-08

As always, we offer 15% off for KCRW members, and a $30 discount when you purchase a 4-tour Season Pass, which can be applied retroactively for folks who have ridden a recent tour. Email for more info or visit the website to reserve your spot on the unpredictable floating LA think tank that is the Esotouric bus.  

yrs,
Kim

Upcoming Esotouric bus tour schedule (new tours starred):
Sat Jan 19- Blood & Dumplings San Gabriel Valley Crime Bus Tour
San Jan 26- Weird West Adams Crime Bus Tour
Sat Feb 2- Where the Action Was Hollywood Rock and Roll Tour
*Sat Feb 16- Wild Wild West Side Crime Bus Tour
*Sat Feb 23- Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles: The Many Downtowns
*Sat Mar 1- Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles: Route 66 (on Banham’s birthday weekend)
*Sat Mar 8- Raymond Chandler’s Bay City (West Los Angeles Chandler tour)
Sun Mar 9- Haunts of a Dirty Old Man: Charles Bukowski’s Los Angeles (on the anniversary of his death)
Sat Mar 15- Vroman’s Bookstore presents Pasadena Confidential

Of scarves and buds

September 14, 1927

The ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel is being readied for the annual Southern California Dahlia Society exhibition, which is last year drew 7000 people. There’s just something about the Biltmore that attracts Dahlias, and Dahlia lovers.

In Nice, France, San Francisco girl Isadora Duncan — that free spirit danseuse whose corsetless physique and offbeat theories of health, movement and social mores made her at once the darling and the shame of thousands  — perished in a grisly accident when her long scarf became entangled in the wheel of an open automobile. Duncan was pulled into the road, and died instantly of a broken neck. She was 50.

The fateful scarf was a gift of Mary Desti, Duncan’s dear friend and the mother of director Preston Sturges, who would go on to invent many a fascinating, madcap female in his motion pictures.

In Medford, Mass., Elizabeth Short, who will be remembered as the Dahlia of the Biltmore long after the flower show is forgotten, is three.

The Ballroom Blitz downtown swap debuts on Beth Short’s birthday 7/29

Gentle reader,

I’m writing to pull your sleeve to a wonderful event organized by Nico Bella, co-host of our upcoming Charles Bukowski tour and collaborator on many Esotouric projects. It’s the Ballroom Blitz, an indie swap meet and art fair in the exquisite Palm Court at the Alexandria Hotel on Sunday, 7/29… which just happens to be Elizabeth Short’s birthday. Hard to believe the Black Dahlia would only be 83 had she lived. Anyhoo, Richard and I will have a table of gewgaws, and I’ll be DJing a set, so let’s hope that nutty bubblegum music doesn’t bring the Tiffany ceiling down. It’s free and promises to be a ball, and we hope to see you there.

yrs, etc.,
Kim

 
Bargain Hunters of Los Angeles…

Fleur De Lethal Productions
in co-operation with
The Alexandria
is delighted to announce the launch of
"The Ballroom Blitz"
an indie swap meet and art mart in the historic
Palm Court Ballroom of The Alexandria

We will have DJs (including Teenacide Records mogul Jim Freek, Scram and 1947project’s Kim Cooper, Greg Belson and Andy Cobb of The Hogwash Jump Joint @ Bordello, Jason 71 – Downtown Luminary & member of the band Eskimohunter, DJ Alexander Lawrence – Music is My Boyfriend @ Bar 107 & Safari Sams, Disc Jockey Full of Bourbon – Raindogs and Bluebirds ) spinning under the Tiffany glass ceiling and our in-building bar Charlie O’s will open at 12pm, providing deluxe Bloody Mary’s and Mimosas to limber up your shopping tendencies!

There will also be raffles every hour for gift certificates, goods and goodies from swap-o-riffic vendors and
downtown businesses. Raffle tickets will sell for $1 with all
proceeds going to support The National Night Out on August 7th
 
The Ballroom Blitz launches
On Beth Short’s birthday
Sunday July 29th
The Alexandria (in The Palm Court off the main lobby)
501. S. Spring, Los Angeles, CA 90013

Doors open @ Noon and we will be
shoppin’, swappin’, sippin’ and rockin’ til 7pm!

For more information on The Ballroom Blitz or to book a table (just $10) please contact event organizer Nico Bella
213.325.0907 or via email royalpain@fleurdelethal.com

The Real Black Dahlia on the BBC’s Pods and Blogs show

Tim Coyne of The Hollywood Podcast rode along on The Real Black Dahlia crime bus tour and prepared a cool little piece for BBC 5’s Pods and Blogs program (or programme, if you will) explaining Beth Short and our fascination with 1947 LA and the odd characters in her orbit to a nation that doesn’t know the case.

Here’s a link to the MP3 of Tim’s interview with Nathan and me. 

You Are There: The Esotouric Press Preview

Nathan Marsak

Last month, we previewed four of Esotouric’s bus adventures for members of the press. Photographer Summer Scotland was aboard, and snapped some striking shots of the city and our hosts as we oozed across town to our rendezvous with Tai Kim’s Bacon-Caramel gelato. Imagine you were there, or thrill to recall that you were, right here. Thanks, Summer!  

AP feature: Crime tours take passengers through LA’s criminal past

by Jacob Adelman for the Associated Press (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Kelly at Marlowe's Office Building

Above: Kelly Kuvo, the Blonde Dahlia  

LOS ANGELES — A dismembered wannabe starlet. A girl buried under her family’s home. A rattlesnake used as a weapon.

The scenes of those crimes are stops on a series of Southern California bus tours that eschew the usual stars’ homes and theme parks to offer passengers a peak at the region’s dark side.

"They’re aimed at the history geek sort of people," said Kelly Kuvo, who wears a black veil and other vintage accouterments during the trips she leads for tour company Esotouric.

The company’s "crime bus" tours plumb the grisly, blood-soaked pasts of now quiet Southern California neighborhoods and nondescript strip malls.

Similar trips elsewhere take passengers deep into cities’ gory pasts, including Washington’s "Bad Olde Days" chronicling crime in the nation’s capital and "Sinister London" that follows the steps of Jack the Ripper.

"When people die in a place, it does change that place forever," said Esotouric guide and co-founder Kim Cooper. "Just because the people wandering around the neighborhood may not be aware of it, it doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea for people who are interested in history to revive those memories."

John G. Cawelti, who writes about the seductiveness of violent crime tales in his book "Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture," said the tours play into people’s fears of death and catastrophe.

"We live in an age where the worst kinds of things can happen to anybody," Cawelti said. "Walk down the street and something blows up and all of a sudden you lost your life or lost a leg. The fact that somebody else went through this becomes a surrogate – a magical way of charming away the fear of the possibility."

Esotouric’s most popular tour explores 1947 Los Angeles by zeroing in on the murder of Elizabeth Short – a.k.a. "Black Dahlia" – who came to Hollywood in search of fame but wound up the victim of an infamous unsolved murder.

One stop is a ground-floor storefront on a desolate downtown street that now boasts a sign reading, "Club Galaxy – 100 Beautiful Girls."

In 1947, when it was a bistro called "The Crown Grill," it was the last place Short was seen before her dismembered body was discovered miles away in a south Los Angeles neighborhood.

"She was friendly with the bartenders and with some of the waitresses, so people recognized her and remembered her," Cooper said. "The problem of course is that everybody at the Crown Grill immediately became suspects."

Passengers are also introduced to lesser known crimes from the same year, such as the attempted carjacking in Hollywood of an 18-year-old movie theater cashier named Ginevra Knight, who shot her assailant dead.

"It’s the criminal history of 1947 L.A. and how women felt going out at night in the hysteria of an unsolved murder," Cooper said.

The "Blood and Dumplings" tour through San Gabriel Valley suburbs, meanwhile, passes the home where a young bride-to-be was buried in 1969 by her uncle after he shot her to death in a jealous rage at the end of their affair.

It also cruises by an intersection where a man named Raymond James bought a rattlesnake he let bite his wife in 1935 so he could cash in on her insurance policy. When she didn’t die, he had an accomplice finish the job by drowning her in their fish pond.

Esotouric grew out of a Web log Cooper started in 2005, when she set out to retell a true-crime tale from each day of 1947. She and her collaborators soon started offering tours of those scenes and the sites of other crimes.

A tour that revisits the life and literature of Raymond Chandler, whose fictional characters inhabit the region’s underworld, was added to the menu of crime junkets when the company was started earlier this year.

Tour participant Bob Nickum, 59, a school district business manager, said seeing the sites of past crimes made him look at familiar places in a new way.

"It’s just very interesting to drive around the area and to see things I may have passed by many times and maybe not known what happened there," said Nickum, who, like most passengers, lives in Southern California.

"It makes things a little more interesting – vivid – to know about something that intense that took place in a calm, peaceful neighborhood," he said.

 

Nathan Heather and Kelly

Nathan Marsak, chess shark Heather and Kelly at the Hotel Barclay

In-Cred-I-Ble


A large (20×30) reproduction of Elizabeth Short’s mug shot has appeared on EBay at a starting price of $250, or $400 under “buy it nowâ€Â in an auction by mermaidfx. The word “rareâ€Â is ridiculously common on EBay, surpassed only by “MIBâ€Â and “L@@K.â€Â This is not a rare image, but is widely copied. And folks, the asking price is absurd.

Lmharnisch.com
Lmharnisch.blogspot.com

E-mail: lmharnisch (AT) gmail.com