Sunday, January 20, 2019


THE CURSE OF GRIFFITH PARK
By Colleen Adair Fliedner


Griffith Park’s history is something straight out of a Hollywood movie, complete with tragedies, murders, a ghost, and a curse.  The story began when the land, which would later include Griffith Park, was granted to Jose Vicente Feliz, one of the Spanish soldiers who escorted the 44 original settlers from Mexico to establish the pueblo of Los Angeles in 1781. 

Years later, Jose Vicente Feliz’ descendent, Antonio, lived in the Rancho’s hacienda with his sister, housekeeper, and niece, Petranilla.  Life was good for the Feliz family:  the cattle had grown fat on the wild grasses that grew in the pastures, and the fertile land had produced abundant crops.  Everything changed in 1863.  A smallpox epidemic swept through Los Angeles, and Antonio Feliz contracted the disease.  He was near death when his lawyer and a friend came to see him at the Rancho.  The legitimate heirs to the Feliz land later claimed that the pair tied a stick on the back of Antonio’s neck, using it to make the barely conscientious man nod his agreement to the terms of a new will.  Not surprising was that the two beneficiaries named in the revised will were the lawyer and the friend, and that the Feliz family was excluded.  Petranilla, Feliz’s beloved 19-year-old niece, placed a curse on the two men, their descendants, and the land. Some accounts say that the lovely Petranilla committed suicide as a result of the fiasco.

Curse or coincidence, from that point on bad luck followed everyone who subsequently owned Rancho Los Feliz.  There were deaths, murders, fires, droughts, floods, and crop failures. To make matters worse, the ghost of Antonio Feliz was spotted at various places on the grounds for years.

Finally, in 1882 a newcomer named Griffith J. Griffith purchased the Rancho.  At first, Griffith seems to have escaped Petranilla’s curse.  He made a fortune by selling off pieces of the land for development, especially during 1886 and 1887, when Southern California real estate boomed.

It was around this time that Griffith set his sights on Christina Mesmer, daughter of a rich and socially prominent local family.  According to his contemporaries, Griffith was a pompous man, who carried a gold-topped cane and had an annoying, patronizing snicker.  On the other hand, he was handsome, wealthy, and charismatic.  Christina agreed to marry Griffith and moved to the Rancho. 

Although the marriage lasted 16 years, it was an unhappy union.  There were numerous failed business ventures, and Griffith soon became as notorious for his alcoholism as he was for his arrogance.

In 1896 Griffith gifted 3,015 acres to the city for use as a park.  People speculated why the “fat little millionaire” would make such a generous donation.  Some said it to get out of paying taxes, while others believed it was because Griffith had been a victim of Petranilla’s curse and hoped to placate the angry Feliz spirits.

According to Horace Bell, a famous newspaper reporter who covered the story, the ghost made frequent appearances at the old Rancho, including the night when city officials gathered to accept the land from Griffith.  Bell wrote that the ghost materialized at the head of the banquet table and invited the men to dine with him “in Hell.”  (Not surprising was that Bell was noted for sensationalizing his articles to sell more newspapers!)

If Griffith had made this generous bequest to the people of Los Angeles to appease the old Spanish don and end the famous curse, his efforts failed.  Not only did his drinking worsen, Griffith became delusional, ranting that his wife was in collusion with the Pope to kill him for his money.  Suspicious that she had poisoned his food, he switched their plates and glasses when she turned her back.  Pacing nervously, biting his fingernails to their quicks, Griffith’s hallucinations   had become frightening. Of course, there was no poison, but the sad story didn’t end there.

In 1903, the situation went from bad to disastrous.  Desperate to help her husband, Christina rented the Presidential Suite at a fancy hotel in Santa Monica.  Perhaps the cool ocean breezes and soothing sound of the waves would help his deteriorating mental state. Obviously, it didn’t work.  Entering the room one day, he carried two items:  a revolver and a prayer book.  Handing his wife the prayer book, he ordered her to her knees and told her to prepare to meet her maker. She begged for her life, but he had no pity. As he took aim between her eyes, she jerked to one side.  The bullet missed its mark, going through her eye. Griffith was about to take another shot when Christina managed to scramble to her feet and jump out the open window.  Luckily, she landed on an awning.  Though she was badly injured, Christina survived.

The resulting trial was beyond sensational.  In spite of the fact that Griffith was guilty, he only received a two-year sentence in San Quentin, because his attorney came up with a new defense, which he called “alcoholic insanity.”

When he left prison, Griffith moved back to Rancho Los Feliz.  If the odd man was disliked before he shot his wife, he was now hated by local residents.  Alone and penitent, Griffith decided to give the city fathers $100,000 to build an observatory atop Mt. Hollywood (the name was changed from Mt. Griffith when he was imprisoned).  They turned down the offer.  In 1913, Griffith offered $50,000 to build a Greek-themed theater on his land.  And, again, his money was refused.  No one wanted to have anything to do with Griffith J. Griffith.  Still, he was determined to find a way to bequeath a portion of his fortune to Los Angeles so that the observatory and Greek Theater could be built.  Upon his death in 1919, Griffith’s wish came true. 

Thanks to Griffith, we now have beautiful Griffith Park, which includes the L. A. Zoo, Greek Theater and the fabulous observatory overlooking the sprawling city.  Griffith certainly succeeded in clearing his name with future generations of Angelinos.  Few people know the park’s curious past or the strange story of the man who made it possible.  The ghost of Antonio Feliz seems to have found peace, and Petranilla’s wrath has been apparently been appeased.

Built in 1830, the Feliz adobe house still stands and is currently used as the Park’s headquarters.

Thursday, January 10, 2019



GERMAN SPIES IN NEW YORK CITY
In 1915 while the First World War raged in Europe, Americans, and especially New Yorkers, faced their own “silent war” at home.  Angry with America’s so-called promise of “neutrality” and overt trade deals with England and France, the German government set up a spy ring headquartered in Manhattan.  Their espionage and terrorist networks had tentacles reaching all the way to the German Ambassador in Washington D.C.  German operatives planted explosives on American and British ships enroute from New York to England, France, and Russia successfully sinking hundreds of cargo vessels.  They plotted to blow up trains, bridges, factories, and even the U.S. Capitol Building.  There were attempted assassinations of powerful Americans, including J.P. Morgan, Jr.  They even used germ warfare to kill much-needed horses and mules waiting to be shipped to the warfront in France.
Based on these and other true events, my novel, IN THE SHADOW OF WAR, tells the story of how Americans, and especially residents of New York City, faced the constant threat of terrorism.  Through my characters’ eyes, the story shows the human toll experienced by people on both sides of the war.  In their heads and hearts, the
characters wrestle with their own feelings about whether the United States should join its Allies and send American men to fight in what was considered a European war.  Ironically, the majority of Americans were of German descent at that time! 
Although America was supposedly a neutral country, J. P. Morgan facilitated a $500 million loan (approximately $ 625 billion in today’s dollars) to bail out the nearly bankrupt British and French governments.  American businesses also benefited from selling materials and products to the Allied nations who were need of supplies and weapons.  The German government protested that the United States had clearly sided with England, France, Italy, Russia and Japan, and that they and their affiliated nations (Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) had been rebuked.  Blatant evidence of this was the growing number of German ships, including passenger liners, that had been seized by the American military.  By 1915, an estimated 80 German-owned vessels were moored along the Hudson River. Although their German crews and passengers weren’t arrested, they weren’t allowed to return to the Fatherland.  Imperial Germany protested that this favoritism shown by the U. S. was tantamount to an act of war; that they should be receiving the same treatment as were England, France, and Russia. Kaiser Wilhelm and his generals felt justified doing anything necessary to level the playing field.   
The German espionage network was efficient and effective. Bombs, chemical warfare, spy networks, the attempted assassination of J. P. Morgan, the bombing of the U.S. Capitol; and sinking the palatial passenger ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania, all woven into the book’s plot, weren’t enough for President Wilson to declare war on Germany.  That didn’t happen until 1917 following the Kaiser’s policy change which had allowed passenger liners to travel safely through the English Channel.  All ships, regardless of whether they were cargo ships, military vessels, or ocean liners, could and would be sunk.
Meanwhile, the Germans continued their undercover spying throughout the war.  Many were captured and jailed.  Most surprising was that they were simply released after the war was over, including Lothar Witzke, who set off a huge explosion on a military base on California’s Mare Island, killing an entire family whose home was completely destroyed.  He was also involved in the huge explosion at Black Tom island in New Jersey killing 7 and destroying much more, including damage to the Statue of Liberty.
 Photo citation: ( ca. 1916 )  Broadway from Bowling Green, New York City. Photograph from the Library of Congress, ..


Thursday, November 16, 2017

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017


ARMISTICE DAY VS. VETERANS’ DAY
Did you know that November 11th was originally called Armistice Day?  After the end of World War 1 in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson chose that date because it was when the Germans finally surrendered. 
President Wilson had been reluctant to involve the nation in a war that didn’t directly involve America.  That all changed, however, when German U-boats (submarines) attacked American ships and had spy networks that detonated bombs and incendiary devices on American soil.  The final blow came when a letter to the Mexican president was intercepted and taken to President Wilson.  The letter’s contents were shocking: the German government offered to assist Mexico invade America to take back the border states of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Within days, Wilson declared war on the “Central Powers” (Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies) in April of 1917, four years after the war had begun.  By the time the Germans surrendered on November 11, 1918, the war had claimed over 18 million lives, with an additional 23 million wounded (including civilians). 
Versailles ~Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

The official peace agreement, The Treaty of Versailles, wasn’t signed until June, 1919, after months of meetings, arguments, and negotiations between the representatives of the conquering nations regarding how Germany and the Central Powers should be punished. 
An interesting fact is that representatives from the Central Powers – most importantly, the Germans – weren’t included in the actual peace negotiations in France. When the dust settled, the Germans were fined what amounted to a half-trillion dollars (in today’s currency), a monumental debt that wasn’t paid off until 2010.  The war devastated Germany economically.  The people were mpoverished,  starving, and humiliated. Germany was seriously in debt, not to mention that they had lost millions of young men.  In addition, they had lost face by their defeat. 
The Germans were forced to sign the Armicist agreement.  Germany was humiliated, their economy ruined, and millions of their young men were dead.  Kaiser Wilhelm, grandson of Queen Victoria, had been at the helm during the war and had been forced to resign his position as unquestioned leader of the German Empire. 

All of these factors contributed directly to Adolph Hitler’s rise to power.  He had been a foot soldier who had been injured in a mustard gas attack by the British.  His anger at the countries which had defeated Germany grew. He used the devastating reparations the Germans would pay for generations to ignite the fuse of hatred that would lead to World War II less than twenty years later. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

HALLOWEEN IN THE HUDSON VALLEY 

Fall comes to New York’s Hudson Valley in October, just in time for area’s multitude of annual Halloween events.  The town of Sleepy Hollow, immortalized in Washington Irving’s classic tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, welcomes thousands of visitors for all-things-Halloween during the entire month. 
Years ago, I wrote an article for AAA Home & Away Magazine about the awesome Halloween events held in the beautiful towns skirting the Hudson River, including Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown.  And yet, I had never actually visited these legendary towns in the autumn, when the trees morph into variations of orange, crimson, and gold.  When the air is crisp and the brisk wind nudges fallen leaves into the streets and walkways.
Lyndhurst  Mansion
Several of these towns have Halloween parades, with costumed residents, floats, and bands.  In Sleepy Hollow, Horseman’s Hollow is the biggest event, a lengthy, spread-out maze of dark and scary walk-through buildings filled with monsters, ghosts, and ghouls.  They loosely represent the story of the Headless Horseman…who actually makes his appearance on his steed as you leave the Hollow.
Just south of  Sleepy Hollow is Lyndhurst Mansion, a Gothic Mansion once used as the setting for the Dark Shadows television series and several creepy movies.  Open for tours, the house’s beautiful interior is converted to a more Halloweenish, haunted d├ęcor at night, when costumed actors occupy the hallways, frightening the stream of guests who dare enter the realm of the unliving.
The little burg of Sleepy Hollow has assorted events, including readings of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (what else?), tours of author Washington Irving’s house, haunted hayrides, and lantern-led tours of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
By far, the most fantastic Halloween event, the Great Jack O'Lanter Blaze, takes place about 30 minutes north of Sleepy Hollow at the Van Courtlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.  Some 10,000 pumpkins are carved and arranged into exhibits unlike anything you’ve ever seen.  Follow the pumpkin-rimmed paths to see an over-sized pumpkin clock; life-sized dinosaurs; circus animals and a small train; a sea serpent; an enormous cake made from layers of elaborately carved pumpkins; ghosts, singing skeletons, and a giant spider web and super-sized arachnid, and much more…all made from myriads of the orange orbs.  Volunteers scour the exhibits daily to make sure none of the pumpkins need to be replaced, a full-time job throughout the month.
Whether you live on the East Coast, or plan to visit during leaf-peeking season, don’t miss spending a few days in the gorgeous Hudson Valley.  Visit www.hudsonvalley.org for more information.  Tickets are available online.



Friday, June 9, 2017


SOPHIE CHOTEK:  THE SHUNNED DUCHESS

While Sophie Chotek’s youth was one of privilege, palaces, servants and dances, her later years were filled with rejection and frustration.  Born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1868, Sophie was the daughter of the Count of Hohenberg, which was a small area near what is now the German/Czech border. Sophie’s high-ranking status gave her access to meeting royalty, including Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the royal prince and heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

It’s believed the Archduke met Sophie at a ball in Prague in 1894. Franz was smitten by Sophie’s beauty, and the couple fell in love.  Theirs was a clandestine courtship, and it was kept secret for good reason. When their engagement was finally announced, the news created a huge scandal.  Although Sophie’s family tree included nobility that could be traced back to the 18th century, her blood wasn’t “royal enough,” simply because none of her ancestors had been of “dynastic status.” In other words, there were no kings in her bloodline. The Archduke’s uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, ruler of Austria, King of Hungary and Bohemia, intervened, forbidding the couple to marry.

Infuriated by his uncle’s proclamation against Sophie, Archduke Franz was determined to spend his life with the woman he loved.  On July 1, 1900, after suffering humiliation and denouncement by her husband’s family and the members of the Imperial Court, Sophie married Franz. Very few of the nobles attended the ceremony, including Franz Ferdinand’s own brothers.

Shortly before the wedding took place, Sophie had to sign legal documents acknowledging that she would never be Empress or hold a high-ranking title. She eventually received the lower-level title of Duchess of Hohenberg, despite the fact that one day, when the aging Emperor Franz Joseph died, her husband would become the new Emperor.  

Throughout their fourteen-year marriage, the couple continued to be shunned by most of the royal courts of Europe. We can only imagine how she felt about being prohibited from accompanying her husband on official trips, riding with him in the Imperial carriage, or standing beside him at most functions.  As if it wasn’t enough to punish the Duchess for lacking the appropriate royal blood, none of the couple’s three children or their descendants would ever be allowed to acquire any royal titles.

Ironically, it was the United Kingdom’s King George V and Queen Mary who finally welcomed the Archduke and Duchess Sophie at Windsor Castle in November of 1913.  Were the British King and Queen reaching out to the future rulers of Germany’s biggest allies (the multitude of smaller countries that once made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire) at a time when so many European royals had rudely rejected Franz and Sophie?

THE END OF THE LOVE STORY

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was disliked immensely by his uncle, the Emperor. Not only did he marry Sophie, going against the Emperor’s direct orders, his nephew, Franz, had very different political ideals.  The Archduke was reformist who planned to ease the tensions between countries included in the realm. There was so much political unrest in Europe by 1912, the entire area of today’s Balkan region was like a powder keg just waiting to be ignited.

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was invited to Sarajevo, the provincial capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Normally, Sophie’s lower rank would prevent her from accompanying her husband on any official visit.  However, the Archduke insisted that Sophie be allowed to attend the dedication of the new museum with him.  The couple rode together through the streets of Sarajevo in an open-topped touring car unaware of the impending danger.  Minutes later a man in the crowd threw a grenade at the Archduke’s automobile. Spotting the explosive device hurling in their direction, their driver sped up the vehicle. The grenade landed under the official car behind them and blew up, seriously injuring a number of people. 

Believing the danger had passed, Franz and Sophie were driven to City Hall for an official reception.  When Franz insisted he wanted to visit the wounded in the hospital, he was warned that it was still quite risky, as no one knew how many men were involved in the plot to assassinate him.  Still, the Archduke wanted to go, though he told Sophie that she should remain at City Hall.  Duchess Sophie refused to stay behind, arguing that if her husband was going to expose himself in public again, she would be at his side.

That was a fatal mistake.  On their way to Sarajevo Hospital, a teenager, a radical Serbian named Gavrilo Princip, stepped towards the Imperial automobile, aimed his gun and fired twice at close range.  Sophie was shot in the stomach, and Franz was struck in the neck.  Reportedly, Franz begged his dying wife to live for their children’s sake.  Sadly, they were both dead within the hour.

UNIMAGINABLE CONSEQUENCES

For decades, the political climate in this part of Europe had been shaky.  War was inevitable, and the assassination of the Archduke and Sophie was likely the catalyst to the events that would trigger World War I, resulting in the deaths of more than 17 million people.

In one final insult to Duchess Sophie, her earthly remains weren’t allowed to be entombed in the Imperial crypt.  Aware of this situation before his death, Archduke Franz Ferdinand had left instructions that he be interred beside his beloved wife at Artstetten Castle northwest of Vienna.  Because she could never be considered his equal in life and in death, Sophie was placed on a bier 18” lower than the Archduke’s. 

I found it terribly disturbing that Sophie is rarely mentioned in books about World War I.  That’s why I decided to write this Blog article focusing on Sophie, rather than her famous husband. For the most part, Duchess Sophie has been forgotten…until now.

 

 

 

 
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