Saturday, March 04, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Foxy Grandpa

I’m blogging in real time as I read Donald H. Wolfe’s “The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles.”

We’re at the part of the story, being told in flashback, where Elizabeth Short has been identified, her mother has learned about the murder from the Examiner, and now there’s bruising competition among the newspapers to find out everything about the murder victim. I’m guessing the yarn of Bevo Means and the Black Dahlia nickname should be next or at least soon.

Page 43

Wolfe is getting into Will Fowler’s biography. I’ll take a rain check on the old foxy grandpa. Like his cartoon counterpart, Will loved nothing better than to pull one over on his gullible nephews. “Tell us about the Black Dahlia case, will you, Foxy Grandpa?” “Oh sure, kids, come on in and I’ll give you the whole story about me and the Black Dahlia.” And then he’d chuckle.

(Sigh. Note to ReganBooks’ proofreaders: Coast Guard should be capitalized. Did I mention this is a $30 book?)

Hm. Next a history of Manchester Boddy’s Daily News, originally known as the Illustrated Daily News.

Oh man, Wolfe is wading into the history of newspapers in Los Angeles. This is why the “Laura” structure (anonymous, butchered body is found and her life is told in flashbacks) is terrible for telling history. The murder story comes to a complete halt for three pages of non-thrilling background on the nuts and bolts of Los Angeles journalism.

I know if I slowed down and read this section I would find mistakes because this book is a bonanza of errors. But in the interest of time I’ll only point out the worst clinkers and come back later if it’s pertinent.

Page 46

I am going to stop up here, though, for one of the worst errors:

“When the Black Dahlia case broke, the editors at the Times would have preferred to keep the hideous murder story on the back pages, however, they were compelled to put the story on the front page for a period of time to compete with the sensational Hearst coverage. Primarily printing Donahoe’s handouts, the Times had few investigative reporters working the case, and much of what appeared in the morning Times was simply a rehash of what had appeared in Heart’s Evening Herald Express or the previous day’s Examiner.”

As anybody with access to the paper knows, the Los Angeles Times never put the Black Dahlia case on Page 1 except for the day when it looked as if Cpl. Joseph Dumais was the killer. The rest of the stories appeared on the first inside page or somewhere near the front because The Times considered itself a family paper. There’s no excuse for getting this wrong. The Times, while certainly behind the Examiner in covering the Black Dahlia case, scored its share of scoops and covered the case to the best of its ability.

The idea of “Donahoe’s handouts” is particularly amusing. The LAPD in the 1940s had no public information officer issuing press releases. Reporters talked directly to the police officers involved in an investigation. This only changed in the 1950s.

What’s the source for this nonsense? Will?

Not the end notes again, Holmes!

You know it, Watson.

Oh, we’re going to hang this on David Halberstam’s “The Powers That Be,” yet another in our five-foot shelf of secondary sources.

To the bookshelf, Watson. Halberstam, Pages 94-122. I hope this doesn’t turn out to be about JonBenet Ramsey, like Wolfe’s citation of “The Cases That Haunt Us.” Nope it’s the whole chapter about the Los Angeles Times. Don’t recall Halberstam writing about the Black Dahlia case, though. (Man, Halberstam’s portrait of Times political editor Kyle Palmer is devastating. Absolutely damning). Nope, not a word on the Black Dahlia case. Nothing about The Times being forced to put the Dahlia on Page 1 to compete with Hearst. This is just Wolfe throwing in nonsense for no apparent purpose.

But don’t take my word for it. As readers of the 1947project know (Happy Foot to crime buddies Kim Cooper and Nathan Marsak. You rock!) the Los Angeles Times is available online through Proquest from the 1880s to 1985. This service is available free through the Los Angeles Public Library (you need a library card to sign on).

Well worth it. There’s a reason historians love libraries!

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Phoning It In

I’m blogging in real time as I read Donald H. Wolfe’s “The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles.” So far we have seen very little of “The Mob” and nothing at all of “The Mogul.” There has been a murder but Los Angeles has yet to be transfixed.

This is tediously slow work and all I can say is that what I’m doing is absolutely the worst way to read a book; most shouldn’t be read at the molecular level, but “Mogul” demands nothing less. In fact, as I looked down Page 42, I saw an incredible whopper. It’s stupefying that someone could run all the Black Dahlia books through a blender, toss in some outright fabrication and come up with such a mishmash covered with a veneer of “research,” but Wolfe has done it.

Page 42

So far, Wolfe is using what has become the “paint by numbers” story structure in the Black Dahlia case: the anonymous, butchered body is found and the tale of discovery is told in flashbacks. This is the “Laura” format, a great framework for fiction that’s lousy for history because in reality the investigation wasn’t linear but was a sprawling mess.

We have reached the point in the story where the Examiner is extracting information from Phoebe Short by telling her that her daughter Elizabeth has won a beauty contest, then revealing that her daughter has been killed. This episode survives as one of the most outrageous and cruelest moments in journalism. Let’s see how Wolfe handles it.

Wolfe attributes this section to the standard sources: Will Fowler’s “Reporters,” Jim Richardson’s “For the Life of Me,” and a 2003 interview with Will, who by that time was fairly far gone as far as I know and died the next year.

Some of these errors are so trivial I was going to let them slide, but I changed my mind. Although one mistake by itself is insignificant, when taken together, the preponderance of errors presents a poisonous atmosphere of indifference to the truth, the facts and reflects a rather stunning lack of skepticism and the willingness to repeat—unchallenged—what is obviously impossible. This, folks, is bad work.

First, Wolfe says Phoebe Short was told that her daughter won a beauty contest in Santa Barbara. Of course by then, everybody knew better than that. Phoebe knew she was in San Diego and Richardson knew that Elizabeth Short had been arrested in Santa Barbara in 1943 and shipped home. And why would a Los Angeles paper be calling about a beauty contest in Santa Barbara? Wolfe is just picking up the extraneous, fabricated details from Will’s account in “Reporters,” Page 79.

Richardson’s version, written in 1954, is slightly different. He says Wain Sutton came up with the idea of the story about the beauty contest, “For the Life of Me,” Page 299. And Richardson certainly doesn’t give a location. That’s one of Will’s foxy grandpa embellishments.

But there’s a worse mistake. Wolfe says Phoebe told the Examiner that Elizabeth was returning to Los Angeles with a man named Red.

Now that’s totally wrong. Phoebe actually told the Examiner that her last note from her daughter was sent from San Diego. So let’s see if we can backtrack this gaffe to “Reporters.” Nope, Will says Phoebe read a letter to Sutton that Elizabeth had written from San Diego. “This information made way for another scoop: The disclosure that Elizabeth had left San Diego with a man known only as ‘Red.’ ”

Compare that with “Mogul.”

“Phoebe told Sutton that many men found Betty to be attractive and commented on a letter she had only recently received from her daughter, dated January 8, 1947: ‘It had been written while visiting friends in San Diego,’ she said, and indicated that she was returning to Los Angeles ‘with a gentleman, Betty referred to as ‘Red.’

In reality, Phoebe Short knew nothing about Red. The letter, as quoted in the Examiner on Jan. 17, 1947, said:

“Dear Mother, I’m in San Diego now. I’m living with a girlfriend, Vera French, and I’m working at the naval hospital. I’m feeling fine.”

Where on earth does Donald H. Wolfe get this nonsense of Phoebe Short knowing about Red Manley? Beats me. This is totally fabricated. For what purpose, I can’t imagine. But it’s completely false.

Page 43

Ah. Wolfe is going to repeat Will’s old tale about the Examiner flying Phoebe Short out to Los Angeles and getting a place for her to stay. None of that’s true, since she stayed with her oldest daughter, Virginia, in Berkeley.
Being in my first year of research on the Dahlia case and still placing trust in Will, I might have fallen for that one myself. I liked the man, he was charming and funny, but he lied his head off to me. I don’t think it was malicious, but Will loved to tell tall tales.

And Wolfe says Phoebe flew out for the inquest, which was scheduled for Jan. 22. In fact, the inquest couldn’t be scheduled until someone (ultimately her) identified the body, so this is all totally wrong. It’s amazing how someone can take the facts and garble them so completely.

Before we knock off for the day, what’s the important lesson here?

Will told a vivid story about Sutton’s conversation with Phoebe Short. But to the best of my knowledge, Will wasn’t there and didn’t witness the incident; he only heard about it through newsroom lore. Richardson’s autobiography isn’t perfect, but he at least he was a participant.

In other words, for a conscientious researcher, secondary sources are the root of all evil—well, at least a lot of misinformation.

I just ran across another headache. Remember that Wolfe says Examiner artist Howard Burke went to the morgue to do a sketch of Jane Doe? And that Will says Burke worked from Felix Paegel’s photographs, not the body? (Surely you remember this tedious detail, no?) Well, I just noticed that Richardson says he sent a staff artist to the morgue, “For the Life of Me,” Page 297. Either way, nobody recorded the reaction of Capt. Jack Donahoe, whom Wolfe describes as furious.

Some days, slogging through this book is like digging coal.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Tick, Tick, Tick

Page 39

We’re blogging Donald H. Wolfe’s “The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles.” Yesterday, one sentence. Today, let’s try to double that, eh?

“The Examiner headline story of Friday, January 17, included the Santa Barbara police photos and an interview with Santa Barbara policewoman, Mary H. Unkefer. Juvenile Officer Unkefer had been called into the 1943 case when Elizabeth Short was arrested for drunk and disorderly and was identified as a minor.”

Hm. I’d really like to move more quickly, but writing such as this doesn’t lend itself to light treatment.

I simply don’t know what Wolfe means when he says “the Examiner headline story” because all newspaper stories have headlines. In fact, as shown on Page 30 of Wolfe’s book, the Elizabeth Short story took a banner headline, about an 8-72-2 all caps with a 4-42-2 ital and a 2-30-2 with the story set at two-column. I won’t bother to decrypt that for the non-pros. Anybody who understands that knows exactly what I’m talking about. Note the eight-column layout, unlike today’s six-column pages.

The Examiner ran one of the Santa Barbara police mug shots—singular.

And no, she wasn’t arrested for drunk and disorderly. It was for being a minor in possession of alcohol. Nothing more.

Further, Unkefer was more correctly a jail matron. Note that Wolfe describes her as a police officer and a juvenile officer, as if he’s not sure exactly what she did.

Page 40

Wolfe goes on to state, without the least factual basis, that Elizabeth Short’s neighbors complained about wild parties.

Uh-oh. Now this is wrong:

“It was obvious to the arresting officers that the soldiers were staying there over the weekend with the girls and that a good deal of drinking was going on.”

This statement is attributed to absolutely no one and is untrue. Nothing like this was ever published in any of the original newspaper stories and is nothing but a pointless and gratuitous smear for the sake of smearing. Real historians don’t do this.

Notice what Wolfe does:

“Miss Green claimed that one of the soldiers found in her bedroom was her husband,” Officer Unkefer recalled. “But we later learned her husband was a soldier overseas.”

Actual quote from the Examiner:

“She was living in a court with a Vera Green,” Miss Unefer [note Wolfe has fixed the spelling—lrh] also said. “There were four soldiers from Camp Cooke in their cottage when they were arrested. Miss Green said one of them was her husband, but we later learned her husband was a soldier overseas.”

Nothing about the bedroom. That’s another gratuitous smear, just for the sake of smearing. This is poor work, folks.

Page 41

A brief and apparently superfluous detour into the use of henna and speculation on how recently Elizabeth Short hennaed her hair before she was killed.

Oh this is cute: “It was also observed that bleach had been applied to her eyebrows.”

Quick, let’s check that…. Wolfe’s thrown it in so causally, but it’s not true. And of course he says: “IT” was also observed. By whom?

Not the end notes again, Holmes!

Absolutely, my dear Watson.



Unattributed. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.

Now for the record, this nonsense about the bleached eyebrows doesn’t turn up until well after the body was found. And it appeared in the Daily News, along with some other nonsense about the killer trying to change Elizabeth Short’s appearance. Eventually all of this grew into the wholly absurd—but incredibly popular—myth that the killer gave Elizabeth Short some sort of postmortem makeover: washed and set her hair, did her eyebrows, etc.

Oh this is just nuts.

“When Will Fowler returned to the Examiner city room with copies of the Santa Barbara photos and arrest record, Richardson assigned rewrite man Wayne Sutton to locate Elizabeth Short’s mother.”

There are a couple things wrong with this, besides the obvious mistake that Will probably didn’t even go to Santa Barbara. In order for this story to work, Will has to drive up to Santa Barbara, do a bunch of reporting, drive back to Los Angeles and talk to Richardson, who only then has Sutton call Elizabeth Short’s mother.

Total time, four or five hours, given a minimum three hours round trip (probably more before the freeways), plus allegedly finding Unkefer, plus allegedly getting the stuff from the police, (copies of her arrest record? This is in the days before Kinko’s. Imagine the time it would take for a Photostat or a picture to be developed). That would be half a news cycle or more. Any paper that operated like that would be absolutely clobbered by the competition and rightly so.

Did I mention Sutton’s name is spelled “Wain”? Almost everybody gets that wrong. Even Will. Oops.

Time for my walk.

Ps. I can’t imagine anybody finds this all that interesting, but my traffic statistics indicate otherwise. I guess there are some real research buffs out there.

Shout out to:

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Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton (

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Wreck of the Old 97

Uh-Oh. All I had to do was read the opening line in this section of Donald H. Wolfe’s “The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles” to know…

This is not going to be pretty.

“When the Los Angeles Examiner identified the victim as Elizabeth Short, editor [City Editor—lrh] Jim Richardson sent Will Fowler to Santa Barbara to find out more about her 1943 arrest.”

First of all, what amazes me is how Wolfe has reduced the vast cast of characters in the Black Dahlia case to a handful of people. So far the Los Angeles Police Department consists of the head of homicide, Capt. Jack Donahoe, and the two lead investigators, Detectives Harry Hansen and Finis Brown. The newspapers consist of one city editor (Jim Richardson) and two reporters: Aggie Underwood for the Herald and Will Fowler of the Examiner.

This is like performing Verdi’s “Aida” with a cast of five.

Although Will told me lots of stories—some of them possibly true—about his involvement in the Black Dahlia case, the trip to Santa Barbara wasn’t one of them.

Let’s see what Will says. Quick, Watson, to “Reporters,” Page 77.

What’s this? Will says Elizabeth Short’s autopsy was performed on the afternoon of Jan.15, the day the body was found. But the inquest transcript says that it was performed the next day. As if I needed more proof that “Reporters” is problematic.

Hm. “Reporters” certainly says Will went to Santa Barbara. (“Reporters,” Page 78).

Let’s check with Richardson and see what he says. Interestingly enough, Richardson’s book “For the Life of Me” makes no mention of Will Fowler whatsoever. Curious, eh? Not once.

What’s this?

“She had worked in the PX at Camp Cook [Cooke] about 160 miles north of Los Angeles and as soon as we got the word we sent Sid Hughes racing up there. He prowled the camp records and came up with a lot of stuff and the name of the girl’s mother, Mrs. Phoebe May [Mae] Short, of Medford, Massachusetts.” (“For the Life of Me,” Page 299)

Sid Hughes? Guess who never appears in Wolfe’s book. Yep. Sid Hughes.

Let’s go back to “Reporters.” Does Will mention Hughes in regard to the Black Dahlia? Not in the least. In fact, whenever I talked to Will about the case, he would put on a furious act about Hughes, saying that “his career was in the crapper by then,” and that Hughes was never at the crime scene, despite accounts by Richardson and Underwood, and crime scene pictures to the contrary.

To Wolfe’s end notes. Hm. “Mogul” cites “the Los Angeles Daily Examiner.” Lousy proofreading again by ReganBooks. Did I mention this is a $30 book?

Was Will even in Santa Barbara? His usual repertoire of Dahlia stories included showing up at the coroner’s office and trying to get a fingerprint by using lampblack and a matchbook cover; getting pictures of Red Manley from Manley’s wife, Harriette; covering Manley’s arrest in Eagle Rock; and being present when police opened Elizabeth Short’s suitcases. I don’t recall anything about Santa Barbara.

There is one more place we can check. The transcript of my Oct. 10, 1996, interview with Will, which I did at his apartment in Sherman Oaks. Hard to believe that was nearly 10 years ago.

Guess what: Zero about Santa Barbara.

For the uninitiated, Sid Hughes was an extremely colorful reporter in the 1930s to the 1950s, ending his career at the Mirror. At one time, he was considered the Examiner’s top-notch writer and it was clear from his comments that Will was fairly jealous of Hughes. Will was certainly guilty of minimizing Hughes’ role in the Dahlia case.

In memoriam, Sidney Hughes, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1958 at the age of 50.

Gosh a whole day on one sentence. Well, I did warn you that this is tedious work.

Shot out to:

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, A Rain Check

After spending so much time on Elizabeth Short’s autopsy, Wolfe is heading into autobiographical material. Given all the nonsense surrounding our last foray into the Wolfe household (remember “Uncle Vern” who used to house-sit for neighbor Bugsy Siegel, except Siegel moved in three years after the Wolfes moved out?) I may take a rain check and come back if this proves to be significant regarding the Black Dahlia case.

Page 36

Wolfe is going to talk about his stepfather, studio executive Jeffrey Bernerd, who died in 1950, although we don’t seem to get that little factual bonbon.

Lots of mob stuff regarding the role of organized crime in the studios.

Page 37

Hm. Joseph P. Kennedy founding Monogram Pictures. Now isn’t this interesting. Wolfe spends an entire page on Kennedy and doesn’t once mention Kennedy’s close associate Bernard Baruch, one of the most powerful financiers of the 20th century. Did I mention that Baruch is Wolfe’s great-uncle? Now why do you suppose he’s left out of this book? I just checked the index and sure enough, there’s no citation for Baruch.

Page 38

More about Kennedy and Wolfe’s stepfather Jeffrey Bernerd. And not a word about good old Great-Uncle Bernard.

I don’t know where any of this is going and it would be a life’s work to check everything here. It doesn’t appear to be at all related to the Black Dahlia case.

But let’s check a random fact and see how Wolfe is doing. He says his stepfather took Alfred Hitchcock out of the cutting rooms and made him at a director.

“It was at Gaumont British Studios that Jeff [Bernerd] was executive producer of such cinema classics as ‘The Lady Vanishes,’ ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘Pastor Hall.’ ”

Quick, Watson, to imdb!

Looks like Bernerd’s producing credit somehow got left off “The Lady Vanishes.”

And “The 39 Steps.”

You want to make any bets before I check “Pastor Hall”?

Guess what.

No producing credit for Jeffrey Bernerd.

You’re surprised, right?

Sooooo. Let’s see if Jeffrey Bernerd is in Truffaut’s book on Hitchcock. Any bets before I check?

Oh my. Poor Jeffrey Bernerd, forced to make Gale Storm pictures and snubbed by Francois Truffaut. I suppose it’s some oversight that Hitchcock never mentioned him, eh?

Page 39

Wolfe concludes this section by saying the streets of Los Angeles were “mob infested” in the postwar era. Organized crime certainly flourished into the 1950s, when, for example, Jack Dragna died in his sleep (in pink pajamas) in a hotel on Sunset Boulevard. And the assassination of Jack “The Enforcer” Whalen in 1959.

Sun’s out. Time for a walk.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Collecting Our Thoughts

The two-minute executive summary:

In analyzing Donald H. Wolfe’s “The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles,” we have spent the last week on the identification of Elizabeth Short and her autopsy, finding fiction, literary fraud, a studious disinterest in the facts and an annoying inability to distinguish between city and county agencies.

In addition, research in original newspapers has revealed that despite the claims of living near Bugsy Siegel when he was killed in 1947, Wolfe apparently lived elsewhere as his mother sold the house in question in 1944.

And most important, Wolfe makes statements about the autopsy which not only contradict the facts, but contradict his supposed sources. Specifically, Wolfe attributes a statement to former FBI profiler John Douglas that is actually the precise opposite of what Douglas says. If I were Douglas, I would be none too happy about having my work misrepresented in this manner.

On a minor note, three bloggers have posted reviews of Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” from an advance screening in Sherman Oaks, all of them absolute pans. A sample comment: “There is so much wrong with this film that I don't even know where to start!”

Let’s try to finish up this chapter today.

Page 33

“Mogul” states that Elizabeth Short’s autopsy has been lost.

“Yet in the 1970s, duplicate copies of all autopsy reports in Los Angeles were put on microfiche; the inevitable question arises—What secret is contained in the autopsy report that officialdom still does not want the public to know after a lapse of more than half a century?

Well, for me the inevitable question is: When did it disappear? The autopsy could have been swiped by a souvenir hunter (although I imagine it would have shown up on ebay by now) or simply discarded. Unfortunately, many public agencies regard their documents as something less than a priceless repository for historians. I don’t believe it’s any secret that before Hynda Rudd took over, the city of Los Angeles’ archives were a mess. Although Hynda has since retired, the city archives remain a tremendous resource on life in Los Angeles.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the Los Angeles County material, which is a very mixed bag, as reflected by the district attorney’s collection of historic material, a terrific resource, although it is haphazard and incomplete.

“An alleged copy of the autopsy report was printed for the first time in Janice Knowlton’s book, ‘Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer’ (Pocket Books, NY, 1995). But this too was suspect and proved not to be the official autopsy report. It was based on a handwritten copy by an ex-officer of the Sheriff’s Department who led Knowlton to believe it was copied word for word from the original. But it was a word for word deception that once again hid the dark secret that the authorities did not want the public to know—a secret known at the time only by Capt. Jack Donahoe, Medical Examiner Dr. Newbarr, Finis Brown, Harry Hansen and the killer or killers.”

Hm. Note the “killer or killers,” taken from the same page of “Cop Talk 101” as “the male suspect exited the vehicle and fled on foot westbound.” Based on the absolutely false claims earlier about two styles of knife work in the killing, I’d say Wolfe is setting us up for some sort of dual murder.

And it’s time to drag in Janice Knowlton. The poor woman was so crazy; absolutely detached from reality. She would call my answering machine and leave long, angry, rambling messages every time a story appeared anywhere about the Black Dahlia case. It was easy to make fun of her while she was alive, but since she committed suicide I’ve only felt pity for her.

Like the coroner’s “Death in Paradise,” “Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer” is one of those books I don’t even let in the house. But I do have a photocopy of the section on Elizabeth Short’s autopsy and it’s clear Wolfe isn’t being entirely accurate here.

Luckily, amazon’s search engine will help us out. Hm. Janice Knowlton (and Michael Newton) say they got access to five autopsies on unsolved cases. Let’s see if we can figure out which ones:

First of all, they requested the Gertrude Landon autopsy and were told it was missing (Page 118). (An LAPD case).

Ditto Mary Tate (Page 208). (An LAPD case).

Perhaps they got the autopsy of Laura Trelstad (Page 212), although they don’t say definitively (Page 360). (Long Beach Police Department).

Maybe Geneva Ellroy (Page 277). Ah. They got the Geneva Ellroy autopsy (Page 360). Interesting. Of course, it’s not an LAPD case, but a sheriff’s case.

Maybe Helene Jerome (Page 279).

Well, I just used up my allotment of amazon searches for the day, so this not necessarily burning question will have to wait.

I’ll spare you the word for word textual comparison on the different versions of the autopsy in the interest of time. What I’m doing here is a beach book compared to that.

How accurate is “Daddy’s” version of the autopsy? The base of reference has to be the sworn testimony included in the transcript of the inquest, which Wolfe publishes, Pages 327-338, in a cleaned-up version. (What? It’s been cleaned up? Yep. It’s been photoshopped. If you know where to look, you can see the vestiges of little circles drawn around many of the line numbers. Case in point, Page 336, line 7).

The important note is that as Dr. Frederick Newbarr read his report into the public record, he was interrupted by Deputy Coroner Edwin Lenox, who told him to hurry things along and simply state why Elizabeth Short died. As a result, the inquest transcript is incomplete—sworn testimony, taken under oath, but incomplete.

There’s also a version of the autopsy in the LAPD summary on the case contained in the district attorney’s files. I wonder why Wolfe hasn’t referred to it. Hm. I hope we find out later. If not, that’s a huge omission.

Compared to the inquest transcript, the “Daddy” version makes some copying errors and the are some sections that appear nowhere else. Is it accurate? It’s impossible to say. But it is equally impossible to say that it was a malicious deception. We have to treat it as an unverified (and so far, unverifiable) copy and as such give it less credence than the two official sources: The inquest transcript and the LAPD summary.

Is the autopsy in “Daddy” a “word for word deception?” Frankly, if there’s anything guilty of that, it’s “Mogul,” given the book’s dismal record in distorting the facts and fabricating misinformation.

Let’s push ahead and finish the chapter.

Wolfe says Jim Richardson (again, he was the city editor, not the editor) asked Donahoe for a copy of the autopsy.

Oh no, Will Fowler in action! Here’s a laugh from beyond the grave:

“Fowler disclosed that Richardson was informed by Donahoe that the killer had inserted an earlobe as well as the tattooed flesh cut from the victim’s leg into her vagina.”

Of course, Elizabeth Short had no earlobes and her ears weren’t pierced. Will used to make up things about her earlobes all the time. A foxy grandpa to the end.

I could quibble more, but let’s pack it in for the day.

Oh by the way, in case you thought I forgot, “Daddy” wasn’t the first book to publish Elizabeth Short’s autopsy. That achievement belongs to “Severed,” (1994) Pages 121-124. Now why do you suppose Wolfe doesn’t tell us that? Could it have something to do with the autopsy information being attributed to the fictional Detective Herman Willis?

I wonder.

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Missing Man Formation

Our story so far: I am blogging—in real time—as I read Donald H. Wolfe’s “The Black Dahlia Files.” It’s been slow going and this is an especially tedious part because I’m examining Wolfe’s treatment of Elizabeth Short’s autopsy. I’m not through and I’ve turned up some outright literary fraud, so it’s prudent to be particularly careful.

Page 33

Let’s pick up where we left off yesterday:

“Yet there is not another cold-case homicide on record in Los Angeles in which the autopsy report has not been made available to the public.”

This statement makes it sound as if autopsy reports are on file at the public library or some reading room, where the curious can simply browse at will.

Let’s take a famous cold case. How about the murder of Geneva Ellroy in 1958? I have an autographed copy of James Ellroy’s “My Dark Places” that deals with his mother’s death, so let’s see. (Bonus fact, James signed every copy of this book in a brilliant publicity stunt—if you call a scrawled “JE” an autograph—so it’s nothing for an ebay dealer to say he has one. What would be rare is to have one that isn’t autographed).

Unfortunately, the curse of having too many books is that you know you own it but don’t know exactly where it is. Luckily, thanks to Google’s search engine on, we can delve through the text. (Which is preferable anyway, since “Dark Places” isn’t indexed). Did James get a copy of his mother’s autopsy? Indeed he did. Ah. But did he get it from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office?


He got it because it was in the sheriff’s reports. For the record, retired Sheriff’s Detective Bill Stoner, a wonderful man who worked with James on “My Dark Places,” told me he was extremely unhappy that the polygraph keys were disclosed in the book, even though the murder was decades old at that point. Note particularly that the Ellroy case was a sheriff’s investigation, not the LAPD. Had Geneva Ellroy been killed in the city of Los Angeles instead of El Monte, I doubt very much if James would have gotten access to his mother’s files.

How about closer to home? If the Los Angeles County coroner routinely hands out autopsy reports like the fliers for landscaping and tree trimming hung on the front doors on every home in Los Angeles, I have to assume Wolfe is going to give us the Bugsy Siegel autopsy.

Well, gosh, I broke my vow of not reading ahead to thumb through the section on the Bugsy Siegel murder.

Guess what.

No Siegel autopsy.

(I hope you’re not surprised by that. I’m certainly not). For the record, even the coroner’s own book, “Death in Paradise,” was written based on newspaper clippings rather than official reports and has no bibliography. For the Elizabeth Short autopsy, writers Tony Blanche and Brad Schreiber used newspapers and—incredibly, “Severed,” which is, as I’m fairly sure I’ve said, 25% mistakes and 50% fiction.

What’s this? A search inside “Death in Paradise” doesn’t have a single reference to Dr. Frederick Newbarr, the chief autopsy surgeon in the 1940s. Hm. Well there is a reason I don’t even own this stinker. There are some books I won’t even let in the house and this is one of them.

But here’s a bigger mystery about Wolfe’s book.

Where’s my old pal, Detective Herman Willis? We haven’t gotten to him yet, and we’re nearly done with Elizabeth Short’s autopsy.

For the uninformed, Detective Herman Willis is John Gilmore’s leading source in “Severed” for the Black Dahlia autopsy. It is Herman Willis who provides lots of gruesome details about the coroner’s office, with descriptions of bodies stacked like cordwood. And it is Herman Willis, who in “Severed” provides the key details on Elizabeth Short’s purported “infantile genitalia.”

So where’s Herman Willis in Wolfe’s book? Missing. And why would that be?

As I have pointed out many times, Detective Herman Willis doesn’t exist. The name Herman Willis does not appear in the Los Angeles Times in any relation to the Los Angeles Police Department, he doesn’t appear in phone books or city directories of the period, he doesn’t appear in the ranks of police officers, nor in the directories of deceased or retired officers.

And no retired Los Angeles police officer has ever heard of him.

Years ago, I issued a challenge on this key source of “Severed’s” claims about Elizabeth Short’s purported “infantile genitalia”: What was his serial number? When did he graduate from the Police Academy? When did he make detective?

No attempt has ever been made to answer those questions. Instead, John Gilmore says he changed the man’s name.

Real journalists don’t do this except in rare occasions and they certainly never offer a false name without telling readers that it’s fictitious. Of course the threshold is far lower for a “true” crime book published by Zanja Press and picked up by Amok—if, indeed, these publishers can be said to have any threshold whatsoever.

Of course, the district attorney’s files list everyone who actually attended the autopsy of Elizabeth Short and all people are accounted for without any extra detectives. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Did I mention that “Severed” is 25% mistakes and 50% fiction? Did I mention that John Gilmore wrote a book jacket blurb calling the Wolfe book “destined to become a true-crime a classic” but has since dismissed it as “crap”?


Shout out to:

Kddi Corp. (

Hurry back!

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