Real Detective 1934
Magazine covers for the Real Detective publication for the year 1934.
During the mid-1940’s, post-war L.A. was a bazaar of luxury for the rich and famous, with Hollywood starlets, powerful lawyers and influential artists each enjoying the sordid pleasures on offer in the City of Sin. Scandal, corruption and vice were rampant from the lowest rungs of society to the very top of the political hierarchy. But the City of Angels would also serve as a hedonistic playground for psychopaths, mobsters and elusive serial killers. In this, one of the most famous of cities in the world, murder became commonplace, and the streets of L.A. proved to be a dangerous place for young women.
In November 1944, the bodies of two women were found in separate hotels, brutally slain just several hours apart. The L.A. Ripper had committed unspeakable acts on his victims. The murder of Elizabeth Short in January 1947 was a crime that shocked the nation. Little more than three weeks later, the naked body of a second victim was found discarded on the sidewalk. This victim, Jeanne French, had been horrifically murdered, the killer having stomped her to death. Many suspected that a serial murderer was responsible for this crime, which became known as the Red Lipstick Murder, and many others.
When the mutilated body of Elizabeth Short was found dumped on a vacant lot on the west side of South Norton Avenue, few would have believed such a depraved act could be committed against a young woman. But before long the Los Angeles press had investigated every aspect of the victims life, and she was soon vilified as an “adventuress” who “prowled Hollywood Boulevard”. Newspapers promptly nicknamed her the “Black Dahlia,” a name that had become synonymous with mystery, intrigue and death. Her killer was never caught, but may have carried on his macabre work, taking the lives of several other women.
A Savage and Cruel Death
At around 8:00am, on the morning of February 10, 1947, construction worker H.C. Shelby was making his way to work when he noticed what appeared to be a pile of women’s clothing among some weeds in a field not far from the nearby sidewalk. He decided to investigate further and as he neared this odd sight and lifted a coat with a fur trim, Shelby found the naked body of Jeanne Axford French. She had been brutally beaten and endured a savage death. Her skull had been smashed several times with a blunt metal weapon, most likely a socket wrench, but this wasn’t what struck the fatal blow that killed Jeanne.
After carrying out the vicious bludgeoning, the murderer inflicted further blows by sadistically stomping upon the unconscious victims body until she died. When police examined her body, it was covered with cuts, bruising and other internal wounds that caused Jeanne French to slowly bleed to death. But the marks of her beating were not the only thing the killer on her body. As she lay dying, the killer remove Jeanne’s lipstick from her purse and then wrote a message across her torso. Its read; “Fuck you P.D”. Beneath this, the name “Tex” was also scrawled in red handwriting.
At the time, the message had been misreported by the press, with many believing the words read “B.D”, despite the coroner confirming the contrary. When the letters “B.D” became public knowledge, many familiar with the Black Dahlia case suspected a link, believing the message was a direct reference to the murder of Elizabeth Short. Rumours soon began to circulate that these two murders were committed by the same person. The general consensus, however, is that the message contained the letters “P.D” and was most likely an insult directed towards the L.A. police department.
One possible theory centres on the notion that the letters “P.D” refer to someone’s initials and that “Tex” is short for Texas. But without any further clues found on the victim, it was impossible to confirm any theories put forward by detectives. What evidence they did have was left on the body of the victim, and so police attempted to find out everything they could about 44-year-old Jeanne French, hoping that something from her private life might explain why she ended up beaten to death in a field near an L.A. street.
The Female Aviatrix
Jeanne French was born Jeanne “Nettie” Axford, on October 6, 1902 in Texas to Charles Clayborn Axford and Oma Niar Thompson Randolph. There is very little known about her early life, but records indicate Axford family moved to Oklahoma and that Jeanne had five younger siblings, Charles, Clinton, Roy, Mark and Charloma. Tragically two of her siblings appear to have died at young ages, Charles Axford was just 11 when he passed away in 1915, and Frances was even younger, aged just 6-years-old in 1920. It is known that at 18-years-of-age, she would marry for the first time. David Yandell Wrather, a wealthy oilman named from Amarillo, Texas, became her first husband.
In 1920, the couple welcomed their first, and only child, a son they named David, after his father. Jeanne worked as a nurse at St. Anthony’s Hospital, however, by 1924 the couple’s marriage encountered problems and the pair were soon separated. After the divorce, Jeanne took her 4-year-old son and together the two moved to Los Angeles. It was there, in 1925, that she would meet and marry her second husband, David Thomas. The couple wed on May 3, 1925, but once again the marriage was short lived. She continued to work as a nurse and was soon part of a team of nurses working with a Columbian oil company.
During her time flying with the company, Jeanne became fascinated with the thought of exploring the skies. She soon decided to quit nursing and began to study aviation. After passing her pilots exam she became a member of the Women’s Air Reserve, as well as a member of the International Organization of Women Pilots or the 99 Club as they are also known.
By 1931, she was using the name Jeanne Axford Thomas, and had gained some measure of fame and success as a pilot, even earning the nickname of “The Flying Nurse” in some of the media. It was on October 26, 1931 that she would marry for the third time. Her new husband, Curtis Perry Bower, was also a pilot. This third marriage also failed, and the couple separated after just five weeks of marriage.
Little documentation exists about the next few years of Jeanne French’s life, but it is possible she spent some time travelling and living a socialite lifestyle with her friend, the oil heiress Millicent Rodgers. It has also been reported, albeit with no proof, that she had several small acting roles under the name Jeanne Axford Thomas. In Jacksonville, Onslow County, North Carolina, Jeanne would marry for a fourth time on December 30, 1944, to her last husband, serviceman Frank French.
This marriage also experienced problems, specifically when Jeanne started to turn to drinking frequently, the reason for which is unclear. When intoxicated, Jeanne would often become aggressive and abusive, with her husband Frank bearing the brunt of her drunken behavior. But in this volatile relationship, there was violence on both sides. Two years later, in 1947, the pair would separate.
Although the murder of Elizabeth Short had occurred just three weeks prior, police were not of the opinion that these two murders were committed by the same individual, and believed they were looking for two separate killers. Investigators instead turned their attention to the most obvious suspect, the victim’s estranged husband, Frank French. The couple had a particularly volatile relationship, with violence from both against the other. Shortly before Jeanne’s murder, Frank had been arrested after he had punched Jeanne in the face during one particularly bad argument.
It was also learnt that in the hours before her murder, Jeanne had visited her husband’s apartment. She arrived intoxicated and soon enough, as had become a common occurrence, the couple began arguing on the front porch. The encounter reportedly ended with Jeanne hitting Frank with her purse before leaving still seemingly drunk and angry. Frank was arrested, and although he admitted to Jeanne visiting him at his apartment, he was adamant that was the last time he had seen her.
Officers of the LAPD made French take a lie detector test, under the supervision of officer A.J. Linahan and police chemist Ray Pinker. He passed. Frank also claimed that his landlady would be able to confirm his alibi that he didn’t leave his flat that evening. Jeanne’s 25-year-old son David was also brought in for questioning. Upon leaving the station David encountered his stepfather, and the young man confronted the only suspect in his mothers murder. He said to Frank French, “Well, I’ve told them the truth. If you are guilty, there is a God in heaven who will take care of you”.
Frank looked straight back at David and without any hesitation gave his reply, “I swear to God I didn’t kill her”. Despite the initial belief of detectives, that Jeanne’s murder was a crime of passion committed by a disgruntled ex-husband, they could find no evidence with which to tie her murder to Frank. When questioned, Frank’s landlady did confirm his alibi, stating that she hadn’t seen him leave his flat the evening of the murder. Finally, investigators failed to match the shoe prints found at the murder scene to Frank. The shoe imprints left at the scene of the crime were of a small men’s size 6 or 7 shoe.
The Dark Complexioned Man
LAPD detectives then tried to locate a man who was seen with Jeanne in the hours before her death. Eye-witnesses described the man seen with Jeanne in the Pan American Bar in West Washington Place, as a small man with a dark complexion. The bartender working on the night of the murder said that the pair had left together. As this mystery person was of small stature, and the shoe imprints at the scene were of a small men’s shoe, he was almost likely her killer, and was certainly the last person to see Jeanne French alive . Unfortunately, police were unable to trace the individual in question.
With few leads, detectives next tried to locate the car owned by Jeanne French, which was traced a parking lot. Witnesses said the vehicle had been there since around 3:00am on the morning of the murder. One of the witnesses who came forward, a night watchman, said that the car had been left at the location by an unknown man, and not the victim. Again, this man was never identified or traced. Although the Black Dahlia murder of Elizabeth Short would feature prominently in the press and continue to be actively investigated, it seems the brutal murder of Jeanne French was quickly forgotten and the case of the Red Lipstick Murder soon went cold.
The Grand Jury Investigation
It would be three years before the murder of Jeanne French would garner public attention once more. In 1950, an investigation by the Grand Jury was ordered. A scathing report was published on the standard of investigations into a number of unsolved murders of women throughout the 1940’s in Los Angeles. The murders of Gertrude Landon, Elizabeth Short, Louise Springer, Gladys Kern, Laura Trelstad, Dorothy Montgomery and Jeanne French were all high profile, and gained significant media attention at the time, when many young women were snatched and murdered by unknown killers.
The led to many of these cases being re-opened, including that of Jeanne French. Frank Jemison and Walter Morgan of the District Attorney’s office were assigned the French case, soon enough they discovered a prime suspect. In November 1946, four months before her brutal murder, and while she was still living with her husband Frank, the couple hired a painter named George Whitt to work on their home. Investigators learned that Jeanne and Whitt soon started and affair, with Whitt admitting to going on several dates with Jeanne.
During their investigation into Whitt, Morgan and Jemison found the man’s behaviour to be questionable. They discovered that during the painter had burned some clothing and several pairs of shoes around the time of the murder. When asked why, Whitt reportedly said he did this as he feared he would be suspected of the murder of Jeanne French once police found out about the affair. However, despite looking like a promising suspect, George Whitt was seemingly able to provide a solid alibi and prove he wasn’t the killer. He was soon cleared of any involvement.
Further investigation uncovered another man in Jeanne French’s life. Police found that she had been sharing a post office box with an unknown male while using a name from a previous marriage, Jeanne Thomas. The victim had been receiving letters at the Palms postal station in West Los Angeles, but despite an appeal for the man to come forward, it seems no-one ever did. Investigators also explored another motive behind the murder. The man with the dark complexion see with Jeanne French shortly before her murder is considered the prime suspect, however, he may have been the reason for her violent death.
There had been several instances of racism during the 1940’s in Los Angeles, in particular between white men and members of the Latino community. Just several years before Jeanne French’s murder, the Zoot Suit riots had taken place in the city. One theory explored the idea that the killer or killers had taken offence at the sight of a white woman in the company of a man of dark complexion, and chose to act on their bigoted views. It is possible they confronted French, which may have escalated quickly, leading to the brutal attack. But this theory never gained any serious weight, as the unknown man never came forward with information that might have proved crucial to solving the case.
Dr. George Hodel
One suspect that has been proposed for the murder of Jeanne French, has in the years since 1940’s, become synonymous with sinister rumours and serial murder. The name of this suspect, Dr. George Hodel, was first proposed by his son, Steve Hodel, the author of the book Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius For Murder, in which Hodel points the finger at his own father for the murder of Elizabeth Short. Hodel also believes his father responsible for killing several other women, including Georgette Bauerdorf, Jean Spangler and Jeanne French. It is Hodel’s belief that these murders and others are all connected to his father.
Steve Hodel claims that the murder of French was a message to the police after it was reported in the press that they had arrested a suspect for the murder of Elizabeth Short. In his opinion, Dr. George Hodel, murdered Jeanne French and left the initials “B.D” on her body as a warning to police that it was the same killer. This, of course, ignores the fact that the coroner clearly stated the initials written were “P.D” and not “B.D”, and it was more likely the killer was sending a message directly to police with the words “Fuck You, P.D”.
It was obvious the killer held some type of grudge against law enforcement, however Doctor Hodel’s own problems with the LAPD did not start until 1949, two years after the murders, when he was arrested on suspicion of incest with his own 14-year-old daughter, Tamar Hodel, who claimed her father impregnated her and then forced her to undergo a back-alley abortion. After this, Hodel came to the attention of detectives who were investigating the Black Dahlia murder, and he soon became the prime suspect, based on the belief that a doctor had committed the gruesome crime.
George Hodel has been proposed as the killer of many L.A. women, however there is little proof that he committed the brutal slaying of Jeanne French. As pointed out by other authors, the size 6 or 7 shoe from which imprints were found at the crime scene would not have been left by Hodel, as he worn a larger size. Based on this evidence, it seems unlikely that he was the perpetrator. But Hodel’s son has also proposed his father as a suspect in the infamous San Francisco Zodiac killings, as well as the 1967 Manila Jigsaw Murder. But without clear evidence, Dr. George Hodel remains just a person of interest.
The murder of Jeanne French continues to remain unsolved, much like many of the other murders of women that were committed around the same time. Jeanne lived a relatively interesting life, and the brutal nature of her last moments seem out of place for a woman who, although temperamental in her last relationship, never seemed to keep company with any shady characters who frequented the darker side of Los Angeles. The motive for her death, and the reason for why she was so violently murdered has never been answered. But it is clear that her killer was someone who possessed uncontrollable rage.
The use of lipstick to scrawl the message on her body by the killer would have reminded detectives of a series of murders committed just the year previously. From 1945 to 1946, three victims were murdered during a killing spree in Illinois, in what became known as the Lipstick Murders. A perpetrator, William Heirens, was arrested and imprisoned for these crimes. But in a bizarre element of the case, the Lipstick Killer was being investigated by Elizabeth Short, who would become the victim of the Black Dahlia murder. It is yet another fascinating piece of the L.A. noir puzzle that centres around George Hodel, Elizabeth Short, Jeanne French and many other women who met their deaths on the streets of Sin City.
Magazine covers for the Real Detective publication for the year 1934.
Magazine covers for the Front Page Detective publication for the year 1940.
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