Did L.A.’s Top Crime Reporter of the 1930s and ‘40s Crack the Black Dahlia Case?

Agness “Aggie” Underwood may have taken the killer’s identity to her grave

Crime 5 Comments

It has been nearly 30 years since reporter Agness “Aggie” Underwood passed away. I regret never having met her, because we would have had a lot in common. According to one of her grandsons, Aggie was an avid reader of mystery novels (as I am), and she collected perfume (I collect vintage cosmetics ephemera). 

Aside from those mutual loves, I‘m sure that Aggie would have agreed with me that there is nothing like a killer crime mystery.

In 1939, John B.T. Campbell, managing editor of the Herald-Express, wrote this about her: “Favorite occupation is following a good murder. Favorite story, a good murder. Favorite photograph, a good murder. Favorite fate for all editors, good murder. Help!”

Aggie hadn’t always wanted to be a reporter; in 1926, she was a young wife and mother living in Los Angeles with her husband, her two small children, and her sister. The family was on a tight budget, so to save money Aggie often wore her sister’s hand-me-down silk stockings. There came a time when she longed for a new pair of her own and she asked her husband for enough money to buy them. There was no room in their budget for luxuries and her husband told her so, but Aggie was stubborn. She said if he wouldn’t give her the money she needed, she would earn it herself.

In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie said that she didn’t really want a job, and that she had no idea where to look for one. Fate intervened in the form of a telephone call from a friend, Evelyn Connors. The Los Angeles Record, Evelyn’s employer, needed someone to temporarily fill the position of switchboard operator. Aggie jumped at the chance, those silk stockings finally within her grasp.

The Record was located at 612 Wall Street near the Pacific Electric station at Sixth and Main. Aggie could see and hear the streetcars as they rumbled past the building, adding an industrial sound track to what she described as the “weird wonderland” of men in shirt sleeves pounding away on old typewriters. She grew to enjoy the ambient hum that was occasionally punctuated by the shouts of reporters as they called out numbers for her to dial. It didn’t take long for Aggie to realize that she loved the newspaper business and wanted to become a reporter.

By 1930 Aggie had worked her way up from switchboard operator to reporter. The fast pace of the newsroom kept her on her toes, and she appreciated the opportunity to learn every aspect of the business. As her reputation grew, she came to the attention of William Randolph Hearst, who owned the Herald-Express. He would offer her a job a few times before she would finally accept.

Aggie went to work for Hearst in January, 1935. It was a decision that changed her life. Over the years she covered vicious murders, political shenanigans, and general mayhem with equanimity. Aggie once hid a wanted murderess in her home while her daughter’s Girl Scout troop met, in order to keep the criminal—and her story—away from other reporters. She interviewed movie stars, politicians, and bad girls locked-up in the Lincoln Heights Jail. She also attended the 1936 autopsy of actress Thelma Todd without fainting.

The last story Aggie reported was L.A.’s most infamous murder, the January 1947 slaying of Elizabeth Short, aka “The Black Dahlia.” Aggie was one of the Herald’s best crime reporters, yet she was promoted to city editor smack in the middle of covering the Dahlia case. Dahlia conspiracy theorists sometimes point to the timing of Aggie’s promotion as proof that she was close to discovering the identity of Short’s slayer.

But what if she wasn’t just close? Many years after the Dahlia case went cold, Aggie told her grandsons that she knew who had murdered Elizabeth Short. When asked for the name of the killer, all she would say was “he’s dead and it doesn’t matter anymore.” 

Joan Renner is a writer, lecturer, and social historian with an expert knowledge of Los Angeles-based murders, corruption, and scandals. A version of this story originally appeared on her Web site, Deranged L.A. Crimes

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    1. Joan Renner

      August 24, 2013 at 3:09 am

      I couldn’t agree more, Kat. It makes me crazy.

  1. Jstick

    August 9, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    The Black Dahlia murder was conclusively solved in 2003 with the publication of Black Dahlia Avenger by former LAPD detective Steve Hodel. His thoroughly researched follow-up book, Black Dahlia Avenger II, sealed the deal. When his father, George Hodel, M.D. died Steve found his first clue among his effects, a photo of Elizabeth Short, leading him on a long investigation to prove that his father was the murderer. Case closed.

    1. Joan Renner

      August 24, 2013 at 3:18 am

      Steve Hodel has admitted that the photo he found is not that of Elizabeth Short, even though he believed it to be when he first discovered it. Elizabeth Short’s family has stated unequivocally that the woman in the photo is not Beth. However, of the people who have written books purporting to solve the murder Hodel at least he has credentials as an investigator. I respectfully disagree with your conclusion; but that’s part of what makes the case so intriguing — people have arrived at different solutions based on their individual interpretation of the evidence and clues.

  2. Rick Lanning

    September 3, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    I attended Aggie Underwood’s retirement party in 1967 after being hired as a reporter by Don Goodenow, managing editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. My editor was Tom Caton. Tom was a fire-breathing city editor who rarely was without a cigar in his mouth. Aggie taught him how to run a newsroom, and Caton learned it well. The party was held at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. I remember the food and drinking were incredible. Some of those attending were Walter Winchell, rewrite reporter Walt Egger, Joe Groner who was Caton’s assistant, Goodenow, Bill Fahr — he and I later covered the Charles Manson murders — a cute newly hired features writer named Myrna Oliver — and quite a few more. If anybody knows how I can get a hand on Aggie Underwood’s autobiography NEWSPAPERWOMAN, please send me an email. it’s [email protected]. Thanks. Cordially, Rick Lanning