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.

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