As anyone who has ever jogged there after dark can tell you, L.A.’s Griffith Park can be a pretty eerie place. But did you know that the park actually exists because of a curse?
The story begins during the Mexican era when the land that eventually became the park was part of the Rancho Los Feliz. Don Antonio Feliz inherited the property and lived on it with his blind niece Dona Petranilla. When Antonio died in 1863 the land was swindled away by a neighbor and his crooked lawyer, leaving the girl with nothing. Petranilla was said to place a curse on the chiselers as well as on the land, which she punctuated by promptly dropping dead.
If the stories are to be believed, everyone connected with the con met untimely ends and the land passed down to “Lucky” Baldwin, whose luck quickly ran out, when the ranch and dairy he started on the property went bankrupt and he was shot to death by bandits. A few years later the property passed into the hands of Col. Griffith Jenkins Griffith.
Griffith J. Griffith, a man with the same first and last names to go along with a dubious military rank, was born in Wales in 1850 and emigrated to the U.S. around the end of the Civil War. Six years later he became a publisher in San Francisco and within a short time was the mining correspondent for the newspaper Alta California. He was able to glean enough knowledge about mining to become an expert at discovering gold and silver. He netted a large fortune which he and his wife Christina used to purchase the former rancho.
Griffith created an ostrich farm on the site, which was run by a man named Frank Burkett. Sometime around 1884, there was a lightning storm which severely damaged the property, but what really frayed the ranch hands’ nerves that night was the appearance of the ghost of Don Antonio Feliz on horseback. Griffith soon closed down the farm, which enraged Burkett enough for him to shoot Griffith down before turning the gun on himself. Griffith survived, but the curse wasn’t quite through with him yet.
Griffith, trying to rid himself of the haunted property, donated it to the city of Los Angeles in 1896. After this, he became increasingly paranoid, believing that his Catholic wife was conspiring with the Pope to poison him. In 1903, while staying in Santa Monica, he shot her in the eye. She too survived, but Griffith ended up spending two years in San Quentin after pleading insanity.
After he was released from prison, the city spurned his gift-giving. It was only following his death in 1919 that the city accepted a $1.5 million fund from his estate to build the Griffith Park Observatory and the Greek Theater.
So, the next time you are out jogging past dark along the park’s equestrian trails, make sure the horse and rider ahead of you are real, and that it’s not Don Antonio out looking for some swindlers.
(FYI – Marc Wanamaker and I started work this week on an Arcadia Publishing book entitled Images of America: Griffith Park. Look for it in 2011.)