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Happy 120th Griffith Park, but your founder was a jerk

by Robert Petersen | Off-Ramp®

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Griffith J. Griffith, in an undated photo LAPL/Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Griffith Park, one of LA’s most beloved spots, turns 120 on Dec. 16. Too bad its namesake was an alcoholic, murderous misanthrope who thought the pope was plotting against him.

Here's the story, from Robert Petersen, who hosts and produces the podcast The Hidden History of Los Angeles.

 
Pope Pius X in his garden, NOT planning to poison Griffith J. Griffith
Pope Pius X in his garden, NOT planning to poison Griffith J. Griffith Giuseppe Felici

Griffith J. Griffith was born poor in Wales in 1850. He migrated to the U.S. and moved to San Francisco where he made a fortune in mining. He moved to Los Angeles in 1881 and bought Rancho Los Feliz – a tract that included present day Los Feliz, Silverlake, and part of the Santa Monica Mountains.  He married the daughter of a prominent family and started referring to himself as a colonel.

He was an odd man, condescending, long-winded, and unpopular. They said of him, "He's a midget egomaniac, a roly-poly pompous little fellow.”

Unable to charm his way into the hearts of Angelenos, he then tried to use his wealth. In 1896, Griffith gave the city of LA the biggest Christmas gift it had ever received. He donated more than 3,000 acres of Rancho Los Feliz to the city for use as a public park. This became Griffith Park.

The bronze statue of Griffith J. Griffith in LA's Griffith Park
The bronze statue of Griffith J. Griffith in LA's Griffith Park Minnaert/Wikipedia Commons

But soon Griffith started drinking – as much as 2 quarts of whiskey every day – and arguing religion with his wife. Tina was staunchly Catholic. Griffith was Protestant. And he came to believe that his wife was conspiring with the Pope to poison him and steal his money.

And then in 1903, things came to a head.

Griffith and his wife, Tina, were vacationing with their 15-year-old son at the presidential suite of the Arcadia Hotel - a seaside resort in Santa Monica. 

Historic postcard of Arcadia Hotel, Santa Monica
Historic postcard of Arcadia Hotel, Santa Monica Wikipedia Commons

During their stay, Griffith kept insisting on changing plates and coffee cups with Tina — to stave off any attempt by the Pope, or his wife, to poison him. Then on the last day of their vacation, Griffith entered their bedroom with Tina’s prayer book in one hand — and a revolver in the other.

According to a 1904 article in the Los Angeles Times, He ordered Tina to get on her knees and said: “Remember I am a dead shot.”

He handed Tina her prayer book and ordered her to swear her truthfulness.

Tina described it to the Times:

“He told me to take my prayer book and get down on my knees; that he had some questions to ask me. I begged him to please put the pistol away. Oh, I begged him to please put it away. I saw that I was in the hands of a desperate man, so I asked him if I might have time to pray. He said I might, so I knelt and raised my eyes and prayed.”

Griffith then pulled out a card with a list of questions on it. The Colonel asked the questions as he held the pistol over his wife kneeling before him:

Griffith: “Did you ever know of Briswalter being poisoned in your house?”

Tina: "No, he was not poisoned; he died of blood poisoning brought on from a sore foot. He —"

Griffith: “That will do. Have you been implicated with or do you know of anyone having given me poison?”

Tina: “Why, Papa, you know I never harmed a hair of your head.”

Griffith: “Have you ever been untrue to me?”

Tina: “Papa, you know I never have.”

Griffith took aim with the pistol and started pull the trigger. But just as he pulled the trigger, Tina jerked her head to one side and the bullet struck her in the eye but did not kill her. Bleeding and blinded, Tina jumped out the window and landed on a wooden piazza roof one floor below. She landed next to the window of the couple who owned the hotel and they pulled her to safety. They also called the sheriff.

Los Angeles Herald, March 11, 1904
Los Angeles Herald, March 11, 1904

Griffith was put on trial for attempted murder. His defense attorney argued that Griffith was the victim of “alcoholic insanity” and the jury convicted Griffith of the lesser charge of assault with a deadly weapon and he was sentenced to the maximum sentence possible — 2 years and a $5,000 fine.

His wife filed for divorce and a judge granted her request in less than 5 minutes, arguably the fastest divorce in L.A. history.

After a two-year prison term at San Quentin, Griffith returned a sober and somewhat more humble man, intent to mend his broken reputation. But most Angelenos didn’t want to have anything to do with him.

Before his death, Griffith attempted to rehabilitate his image once again by giving to the city – this time money to build a public observatory and theater in Griffith Park. Some in the city wanted to turn down the money, not wanting to accept anything from a social pariah. But ultimately, the money went to the city after Griffith’s death by way of a trust. The Colonel died in 1919. The Greek Theatre was completed in 1929. The Griffith Observatory was completed in 1935.

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles. Nov. 2, 2006
Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles. Nov. 2, 2006 Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Griffith Park, Griffith Observatory, the Greek Theater — all of these L.A. landmarks owe their existence to the Colonel.

And through these gifts to the city, his name has been rehabilitated. Today, the name Griffith is associated with some of the most beloved landmarks of our city. And the near murder of his wife is long forgotten.

Griffith Park, Griffith Observatory, and the Greek Theater, more places where you can find the hidden history of L.A.

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