Sunday, January 20, 2019

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

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, ..