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Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Griffith J. Griffith: The Man Behind LA's Griffith Observatory Was An Absolute Monster


Constructing the central dome at Griffith Observatory. Source: (truthdig.com/articles/rare-photos-reveal-griffith-observatory-under-construction)
Nestled in the Hollywood Hills sits a famous icon visited and adored by millions. It's not the Hollywood sign but Griffith Observatory. Every night, Angelenos and tourists crowd the observation deck to see the glittering lights of Los Angeles. Many visit, but few know about the troubled man responsible for it all: Griffith Jenkins Griffith. Although he donated the land and money for the park, no plaques or portraits mention that he was a murderous, alcoholic monster.
In 1896, Griffith J. Griffith gifted 3,015 acres of his land to the city of Los Angeles. Hiking wasn't exactly a popular pastime in 1896, when Los Angeles looked much like a farm town, but still, it was a large swath of land. While it seemed generous, Griffith simply tossed away property that wouldn't earn him a buck. A man who made his fortune in oil, he made several attempts at monetizing the area. He even put an ostrich farm on a spot near the Los Angeles River. At the time, ostrich feathers fetched $5 a piece for women's fashion, so he brought 34 of the gangly birds onsite. To supplement the feather business, Griffith turned his birds into a sort of zoo. Visitors came to see the ostriches, but what they really loved to do was feed the hapless birds whole oranges and watch them slide down their long, fleshy necks. Apparently, the orange-tossing business wasn't sustainable, and the whole operation shut down in 1889.
Griffith’s Ostriches before the crowds arrive to gawk. Source: (lamag.com/citythinkblog/citydig-the-ostriches-of-griffith-park)
After Griffith shut down his awkward ostrich farm, he promptly moved on to attempting to murder his wife, Mary Agnes Christina "Tina" Mesmer. In 1903, while on vacation in Santa Monica with his wife and son, Griffith waltzed into their hotel room and announced to his wife that he was going to kill her. While holding a revolver, Griffith declared "Get your prayer book and kneel down and cover your eyes. I'm going to shoot you." He added "... and going to kill you" to avoid any confusion.
What caused Griffith's murderous rage? How could a man bring himself to execute his own wife on vacation? The answer lies in a healthy dose of alcoholism and paranoia. Griffith J. Griffith thought his wife was trying to poison him and steal his money. Furthermore, he believed that Tina took direct orders from not a charming Hollywood celebrity, not a rival oil baron, but the Pope. Apparently, the root of this absolutely unhinged conspiracy theory rested in their separate religions: Griffith was Protestant, and his wife, Tina, was Catholic. That's it. Griffith possessed no evidence of foul play, but he did possess a rotten brain from years of alcohol abuse.
Pope Pius X clearly not stealing money from Griffith J. Griffith. Source: (catholicsaintmedals.com)
Once Griffith pulled the trigger, things got even weirder. Griffith shot Tina at point-blank range in the eye, which fortunately did not kill her. After taking a bullet straight to the face, Tina leaped out of the third-story window. In another incredible stroke of luck, she only fell one story down, landing on the hotel's awning. Then, like a soldier fighting through the trenches, she crawled to safety with a fractured shoulder through broken glass into the window of a nearby hotel room.
Meanwhile, after shooting his wife in the face, Griffith decided it was time for a drink. At first, he apparently agreed to surrender himself to the local authorities, but he thought better of it and hit the bar. A local deputy then engaged in arguably the lowest-speed chase of all time. They followed his drunken trail for 10 miles before apprehending Griffith. Apparently, Griffith thought nothing of a 10-mile pub crawl after failing to kill his wife, making him both a terrible murderer and a major bachelor party buzzkill.
Guests riding the amusement rail car at The Hotel Arcadia in Santa Monica. Source: (la.curbed.com)
When the case went to trial, Griffith's connections and massive wealth paid off big. At first, he wanted to defend himself to feed his twisted ego, but his well-paid lawyer came up with a genius scheme and pled "alcoholic insanity." As a result, they successfully brought the charges down from attempted murder to assault with a deadly weapon. This landmark case was one of the first occasions when the court acknowledged alcoholism as a mental illness rather than a personal failing. The ruling resulted in a victory for mental health advocacy but an awful failure of justice for Tina. Griffith served a short two-year prison sentence, arguably a slap on the wrist.
By 1904, Griffith had served his time, sobered up, and in typical Hollywood fashion, started rebuilding his name and reputation. His big idea involved an observatory smack dab in the middle of the park already named after him, and to no one's surprise, he also wanted the observatory plastered with his name and image. Griffith Observatory would educate the public rather than serve the scientific community, since nearby Mt. Wilson Observatory already ran as a research facility in a better location for stargazing. His desire for public access to science seemed noble, even if Griffith also wanted thousands of visitors to remember his name among the stars rather than his wife's permanently disfigured face. In 1912, he offered $100,000 to the city to fund the project.
The City of Los Angeles initially hesitated to take a payout from a well-known attempted murderer. (Sorry, "assaulter with a deadly weapon.") To sweeten the deal, Griffith added a separate lump sum of $50,000 to fund the Greek Theatre, a live entertainment venue just down the hill from his giant PR campaign in disguise. Still, the city side-stepped taking any real action on his offer, likely because he shot his wife in the face and the optics were less than ideal for all parties.
Color Postcard for the Griffith Observatory. Source: (kcet.org)
A mean and selfish but not stupid man, Griffith knew that eventually, the city would acquiesce. Since nobody can turn down money from a dead guy, Griffith left the city a lump sum in his will when he died in 1919. The city finally got around to building the Greek Theatre in 1930, sustained the deadliest firefighter disaster in the history of the US in 1933, and opened Griffith Observatory to the public in 1935. Naturally, they did not display any information that remarked on Griffith's heinous deeds.


And what became of Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer? Tina filed for divorce while Griffith was in prison and testified to her husband's cruelty, getting custody of their son as well. The divorce proceedings took less than five minutes, a record in Los Angeles County. As a daughter of the wealthy, land-owning Verdugo family, Tina didn't exactly wither away, but she never remarried. She may have preferred the adage "living well is the best revenge" because Tina lived to the ripe old age of 84, passing in 1948 and outliving her ex by 29 years.

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