“A Skilled Surgeon Did It” (Murders and Bisections of Suzanne Degnan Lipstick Murder 1946 and Elizabeth Short Black Dahlia Murder 1947 )
June 5, 2021
Los Angeles, California
Despite the massive amount of documentation presented over the past twenty years in my works, I still get the occasional email stating, “Yes, but George Hodel wasn’t a surgeon, he was a Health Department administrator.” Let me see if I can put this myth finally to rest. First, here is confirmation that Chicago (Suzanne Degnan, 1946) and LAPD (Elizabeth Short, 1947 ) were convinced a skilled surgeon bisected both victims.
“A Surgeon Did It”
“The killer had to be an expert…. Not even the average doctor could be so skillful.”
Dr. Jerry Kearns
(During the performance of 1946 autopsy on the body of six-year-old “Chicago Lipstick Murder” victim, Suzanne Degnan autopsy 1946)
“You dont get this kind of training where you can invade a human body unless you’ve had some sort of medical training. Yes, in my opinion, yes it must have been a doctor that bisected the body.”
Dr. Mark Wallack, Chief of Surgery, St. Vincent’s Hospital, NY.
(CBS 48 Hours interview October 2004
“This is a fine piece of surgery.”
Dr. Frederick Newbarr, Chief LA County Coroner -1947 (During the performance of autopsy on the bisected body of victim Elizabeth “Black Dahlia” Short)
From Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius For Murder (Arcade 2003):
We know from LAPD reports, joint tissue studies by Dr. Lemoyne Snyder and LAPD criminalist Ray Pinker, and from the FBI dossier, that all experts were united in the belief that the murder of Elizabeth Short was committed by a skilled surgeon. However, in the past, these statements have been presented as broad generalizations, lacking medical specifics.
In July 2003, professor and surgeon Dr. Michael Keller, after reading my book, and examining crime-scene photographs, contacted me and provided his own far more specific and detailed insights. Here is his professional opinion, to be added to the weight of evidence that a surgeon committed the crime.
24 July, 2003
Steve — From the information in your book, I feel in fact that Ms. Short’s murderer did in fact have medical training and not just knowledge.
1—To remain calm enough to completely transect a human torso with its inevitable spillages of blood, stool, gastrointestinal content and urine would have required (I think) someone who had seen it all before. This person knew where he was going.
2—The photos of the scene and the morgue which I looked up on the Net appear to show a very clean procedure. Surgeons make bold clean incisions thru each layer of tissue with the correct amount of pressure to divide only the tissues they are attending to. The uninitiated—laypersons— usually underestimate the amount of pressure it takes just to divide skin, let alone an intervertebral disc. Their procedures often result in cuts that are serrated at the ends from going over the tissue repeatedly. We derogatorily call these “Staging Laparotomies—going thru the skin in stages.” Additionally, amateurs often skive the incisions. Their cuts go thru skin at an angle to the horizontal plane so that one edge is “feathered” and the other appears peeled.
3—The killer here was educated enough not to attempt going thru the bones of the lumbar spine. He was savvy enough to locate and divide at the disc space. Even at that, it takes tremendous will and a very sharp instrument to divide the spinous ligaments and the thick paravertebral muscles. An amateur would probably have left hack marks on the vertebral bodies as he “casted about” for the interspace.
4—There appeared to be a willful attempt to perform or simulate the performance of a hysterectomy which at that time would have been done through a lower vertical midline as the photos appear to show. That was a medical decision.
5—We have no reason to doubt the police medical examiner as his report precedes the cover-up and actually indicts a medical person.
6—I believe medical knowledge would have been necessary to prolong the torture phase without killing the victim prematurely, but then again Dahmer apparently was able to trephine some of his victims and keep them alive. Still, in all, the Dahlia case seemed as though it may have been a prolonged “dance”—more skill needed.
7—Finally I think a surgeon’s hand would have been required to recontour the body in just such a way that it reproduced Man Ray’s The Minotaur—knowing where and how much to cut. This is less of a point but I feel that there is still credence here. Overall I feel no reason to doubt your case and in fact, taken together, if the killer was not Dr. Hodel then it must certainly have been another such professional.
Besides, as a teacher of students and both surgery and family practice residents, I am aware that their initial attempts at incisions end up as stated in #2 above. It requires about one to two years of steady practice to develop the feel of the scalpel against various tissue. Persons with innate surgical ability are rare. Most of us must repeatedly experience the tactile sensations to develop the right “feel”.
What I have stated is based on 20 years of surgical practice and education of young doctors. In my personal opinion, however, I am comfortable with your assertions and do believe the Dahlia was a professional work.
Sincerely, Michael Keller, M.D
Documentation that George Hodel was a skilled Surgeon:
GHH transcripts showing he received 766 hours of surgical training, 53 operations, and 12 autopsies while at medical school.
Photo of GHH taken at UCSF circa 1935
Photo was taken By GHH at UCSF circa 1935
Job Application where GHH lists his prior employment at “Surgeon CCC logging camp, New Mexico 1936-1937”
Photo GHH at his medical facility in New Mexico, circa 1937
Do remember reading some years ago in one of your books the description, as stated in reason #3, how the bisected body of Elizabeth Short was found in a neighborhood lot. Having had x-rays years ago of a slipped disc, I thought as I read, that only a skilled person could do this, plus leave such a neat crime scene! Was it a doctor? Maybe a butcher? Where did the bisecting take place? How many people were involved? Over the years these questions were answered in your further books. Baudelaire’s description of “lover & executioner” describe perfectly (to me) the extremely frightening soulless mind of the predator! Unfortunately this describes the mind of GHH. What happened to this brilliant, attractive man? Know “The Early Years”, Steve, will sadly provide the much needed answers!😓
Hi Patricia. Yes, it will provide at least more of those pieces, but sadly while we keep getting more and more answers as to the effects, still, wish I had more answers as to the cause. Gives new meaning to Shakespeare’s, “Madness in great ones must be watched.” Would that we could have. Best, Steve
Did you ever get to speak with Ralph Asdel about his suspect, to compare his suspect to your father?
No, Asdel never had a legit suspect. With all the new evidence it is no longer a question of who killed her.
All the facts presented along with LAPD top brass naming him separately prove GHH was the killer.
Did you ever get to speak to Ralph Asdel about his suspect? Or compare him to your father? I was just rewatching a video that mentioned him and reminded me to ask. This post also reminded me to ask another question, do you know if your father had the equipment to take blood since he tested people for venereal diseases and since Elizabeth was found drained of blood, I would assume that he drained it all. It’s gross to think about what might have done with it.
Officer Asdel never had a viable suspect and it was not pursued by LAPD detectives back then. The blood was likely drained in the bathtub or walk-in shower in the Master Bathroom at the Sowden/Franklin House and parts then towel-dried and transported to the vacant lot.