Crime in Culture: Podcasts about the Black Dahlia


There are some people who become much more than who they were as a phsyical living, breathing, person. Instead they appear to grow into something bigger, and symbolise something greater than who they ever were in life. One example of such is King Arthur. Originally a pagan war lord of the Britons, he has morphed over centuries, to a christian King or High King, who has been used as a symbol to unite people and lend legitimacy to others.

Arthur like many legends over a thousand years old has collected so many layers that the seed from which it has grown is obscured, lost to history. It is this gap in our knowledge that partly allows Arthur to morph in the way it has over time, and be used again and again for other people’s purposes. As humans we are often fascinated by what is not there. What is absent, and it is the mysterious, the unknowable that draws people to it again and again, in the hope that perhpase we can find something that makes sense of the mysterious, and feel a little bit more in control of the world.

This appears to be the case with the Black Dahlia, real name is Elizabeth Short, more well known for her death than for her life. Found bisected, mutilated and tortured in a Los Angele’s Park in 1947. Beside the glamour and glitz of the Holywood golden age Short’s murder was brutal, and a media circus grew up quickly with multiple theories ranging from the likely to the bizzare. The murder of Elizabeth Short, for all the attention it has recieved has remained unsolved, and through time has itself become a vessel to express the needs of others.

The most famous theory surround the murder of Elizabeth Short is that it was committed by Dr George Hodel. Hodel was considered as a suspect at the time, along with four other possible prime suspects, but he came to prominent attention when his son Steven Hoddel a retiered LA Detective published a book outlining the reasons he thought his father was the murderer. There followed a podcast by his nieces, and a TV series, I Am The Night, starting Chris Pine.

The Hodel theory is certainly arresting, it is unusual for people to accuse their own family members of such a grusome act, and that in itself is enough to peak most people’s interest. However as Root of Evil, the Hodel nieces podcasts unfolds it is possible to see a genuine case. George Hodel, an arrogant genius with an overbearing mother, a qualified doctor is what appears to be a truely terribly human being. He practiced as a back street abortionist using the abortions he performed to tie powerful men to him, he repeatedly raped his own daughter, possibly fathering his own grandchild, and was also suspected of being complicit in several deaths of other young women, including his secretary.

Root of Evil gradually lays all the facts before you, so that with each new episode of the podcast you feel more and more sure of Hodel’s guilt. When faced with someone as monumentally horrific as George Hodel, it feels very easy to believe that he was a man capable of anything. That is until you listen to Audible’s Solving the Black Dahlia in which Doug Laux, a man who tells you he used to be in the CIA as often as he can, tries to solve the case.

Laux starts off meeting with Steve Hodel, and like many others is convinced of his case. That is until he also meets with Larry Harnisch, who appears to have some beef with Hodel, and blows holes in many of the theories around his father. Despite the grandiose title Laux does not appear to really solve anything. Rather he goes from one theorist to another, not consulting many sources, and conducting no resaerch of his own. In the end Harnisch tells us who he believes killed Elizabeth Short, with a totally unncessary “I’ll only tell you if you’re not recording,” scene, which he does but then immediately tells us on the record also. The revelation is underwhelming, with mainly circumstantial evidence which does not fully make sense. Concluding this podcast you have to acknowledge that Elizabeth Short’s murder has not, as the title promised, been solved, but Laux has got to tell everyone who listens that he used to be in the CIA.

All of this brings me to the only Black Dahlia podcast which so far as done the case any justice. Holywood and Crime’s Black Dahlia Serial Killers. At first it feels a little hackney’ed putting serial killer in the title, and it feels as though it has been done just to drum up purient interest. However as the epsiodes unfold it seems as though there really is something to the theory that the Black Dahlia was not a one off, especially given that people who commit crime tend to on the whole escilate in ferocity, not start at the ultimate point, which is one of the problem with Harnisch’s theory.

Black Dahlia Serial Killers also does more justice to the victims in this story. It is a well understood that true crime for some time had a tendance to focus on those who committed the most gruseom and violent crimes, which on the whole does tend more towards men. There has been somewhat a rebalancing, focusing instead on the victims, particularily with the democratisation of true crime through podcasting, and the works of authors like Hallie Rubenhold, as discussed in our episode on The Black Out Ripper. However this rebalancing hasn’t yet become wholesale, and in the case of Elizabeth Short she has often been reduced to a teenage drunk (which teenager hasn’t got into trouble?) and a young woman too interested in the company of men (immediately arrest all of us who are not nuns!). There is absolutley nothing Short could have done in her years however that would in any way make her deserving of the torture and brutality that was inflicted on her either before or after death. Serial Killers, goes some way to rebalancing this, by focusing on the lives of all the women who were found murdered in Los Angela’s in the war years.

In looking at the lives of these women, like The Black Out Ripper, we can establish a sort of social history, a snap shot of what life was like for the ordinary women of Los Angel’s. And like The Black Out Ripper it is hard to divorce the murders from the wider violence going on in the international stage. The way that war changes the way people behave, maybe they take more risks, maybe they feel protected by their uniform, maybe they are emboldened by how easily they can slip into a crowd, get on a ship, and sail away? Most crimes tend to be crimes of opportunity and what can give more opportunity than the chaos, confusion, heightened emotions and transient nature of populations during a time of war?

However it’s likely that the criminal aftershocks of war carry on for much longer than we may realise. Many wonder why the golden age of serial killers, which is suggested to be the 1970s and 80s, although some believe it may reach to 2000, happened at that specific time. One theory, about something that admitedly is so complex it probably has multiple start points, is that the generation killing in that time had often been brought up by parent and grandparents who had been through the greatest global wars in the history of humanity. Could it be that such great violence and disruption, that what I suspect will be the untreated trauma, PTSD and resulting mental health problems, help create a generation where there was more predisposure to violence as less taboo in society. Or, on the otherhand it could just be that more global reporting makes us more aware of things that previously we would never have heard of. It is probably best left to the experts in sociology, pshycology and criminology to unfurl.

Given the in depth research, and multiple experts who Black Dahlia Serial Killers brings in, it is by far the best podcast if you really want a thoughtful look at a murder that is begining to verge on the mythic. Elizabeth Short like King Arthur becomes a vehicle for what others want her to be, and what they see in this murder says very little about Elizabeth Short, and much more about their own needs.

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