Stampeding Ostriches and a Homicidal Pope

In the middle of Los Angeles, at 4,210 acres, Griffith Park is the second largest park in California and one of the nation's largest urban parks.  Here you will find the Griffith Observatory (pictured below), the Greek Theatre, the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, the Autry Museum of the American West, the Travel Town train museum, two golf courses, a merry-go-round, hiking and horse trails, the haunted Hollywood Sign, assorted and sundry ghosts, and, of course, the old 1863 curse.

Griffith Park sits on land — one of the first land grants made in California — given to Jose Vicente Feliz, a corporal, by Spanish military Governor Pedro Fages in 1795 for his service since 1787 as area military commissioner acting as chief public official (precursor to the Spanish alcalde:  mayor and judge) of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles of the Commandancy General of the Provincias Internas in the Castilian (Spanish) Viceroyalty of New Spain during the Spanish colonial period of Los Angeles prior to the Mexican colonial era of the Alta California territory after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 and the admission of California to statehood in the United States in 1850.  The grant was confirmed in 1843 by Mexican Governor Manuel Micheltorena.  With the cession of California to the United States following the Mexican-American War, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo provided that all the original Spanish land grants would be honored.

The land comprising modern-day Griffith Park, called Rancho Los Feliz, was eventually inherited by Don Antonio Feliz, a bachelor, who lived there with his sister and housekeeper Soledad, and his blind niece Petranilla.  After Don Antonio contracted smallpox, 19 year-old Petranilla was sent away to protect her from this deadly and contagious disease while Soledad stayed.  On his deathbed, Don Antonio was visited by an influential acquaintance, Don Antonio Coronel, and a lawyer, Don Innocante, who drew up a will leaving the land to Don Coronel.

Now it starts to get weird.

As the story goes, a stick was attached to the back of Don Antonio Feliz's head to help him nod in agreement to the new will.  Coronel was willed the rancho. Soledad got some furniture.  Petranilla got nothing.

A judge upheld the will's legality.  Petranilla was NOT happy!  She unleashed this curse:

Your falsity shall be your ruin!  The substance of the Feliz family shall be your curse!

The lawyer that assisted you in your infamy, and the judge, shall fall beneath the same curse!  The one shall die an untimely death, the other in blood and violence!  You, señor, shall know misery in your age and although you die rich, your substance shall go to vile persons!  A blight shall fall upon the face of this terrestrial paradise, the cattle shall no longer fatten but sicken on its pastures, the fields shall no longer respond to the toil of the tiller, the grand oaks shall wither and die!

The wrath of heaven and the vengeance of hell shall fall upon this place.

Then she dropped dead.

The lawyer, Don Innocante, was shot and killed as was the judge.  Don Coronel's family slowly died off, plagued by misfortune and disease.  When Coronel died, he left the land to his much younger wife, who promptly remarried; she and her new husband quarreled over the inheritance and in the ensuing divorce lawyers would consume most of it.

The land eventually became Leon "Lucky" Baldwin's, whose lucky streak ended as soon as he started a ranch and dairy on the property; the cattle on the land died, fires destroyed grain, grasshoppers devoured crops, and anything that could go wrong did; after he went bankrupt and was forced to sell the land to pay the mortgage, Baldwin was gunned down by an outlaw (or Mexican bandits depending on who you believe).

It would eventually end up with Thomas Bell, a financier from San Francisco, though he didn't hold the land long before selling it to Colonel Griffith Jenkins Griffith in 1882.  Bell would live into his eighties before falling over a banister in his mansion — or being pushed by his mistress depending on which story you are reading.

A huge storm in March 1884 destroyed the oaks and brush — ranch hands saw Don Antonio Feliz riding the flooding rain; Griffith ordered the dead oaks cut and sold for lumber.

Workers claimed a ghost calling itself Antonio Feliz sometimes appeared at a promontory known as Bee Rock.  Ostriches, which were being raised on the rancho by Frank Burkett at Griffith's request in an attempt to lure residents to the area, inexplicably stampeded at night; Griffith was so freaked-out he would foreclose on the ostrich farm which was failing, causing Burkett to vow vengeance.  Burkett ended up shooting Griffith with a shot gun outside Old Calvary Cemetery, now Cathedral High School on North Broadway; Burkett used bird shot instead of buck shot, which was the only reason Griffith survived — though Burkett thought he had succeeded in killing Griffith and would commit suicide with a revolver to his head shortly thereafter. 

Spooked, Griffith would only visit the property at midday and would eventually donate the land to the city as a park in an attempt to appease the ghost, who was seen the night that city officials gathered at the old Feliz adobe to celebrate the city's acceptance of Griffith's gift.

At midnight, a gaunt figure with a fleshless face appeared at the head of the oak banquet table and announced:

Señores, I am Antonio Feliz, come to invite you to dine with me in hell.  In your great honor I have brought an escort of sub-demons.

The ghost then chased the assembled officials on horseback as they fled the party in fear.

Shortly thereafter, Griffith, a devout Protestant, came to the conclusion that his Catholic wife, Christina Mesmer, and the pope, Pope Pius X (right), were conspiring to poison him and steal all of his money.  At dinner, Griffith would often switch his plate with hers when she wasn’t looking, thus ensuring that the “poisoned” food was in front of her instead of him.  Out of an abundance of caution, he shot his wife in the face while they stayed at the Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica; although she survived, having to throw herself out the window, land on an awning, and crawl to safety through yet another window, she was disfigured and blind in one eye afterward.

Griffith was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to two years in San Quentin State Prison; he was released from prison on December 3, 1906.  In a December 1912 attempt to rehabilitate his prison-tarnished image, Griffith offered a second gift to Los Angeles in the form of an outdoor theater and a hall of science to be built at his expense on the land he had previously donated which had come to be known as Griffith Park. The offer was accepted by the City Council, but members of the Parks Commission objected on principle to the idea of accepting a municipal gift from an ex-convict, initiating a successful court action to block the acceptance of the donation.

Griffith put the offer in a trust in his will.  After he died on July 6, 1919, the bulk of his $1.5 million dollar estate was bequeathed to the city for the building of the Greek Theatre (completed in 1929 — the year my father, a proud native Angeleno like myself, was born on the westside of Los Angeles) and Griffith Observatory (completed in 1935).  He is buried in what is now called the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.

In the century since Griffith's death, a 1933 fire at Griffith Park left 29 people dead and 150 injured; this is the single deadliest fire in the history of the city of Los Angeles.

Additionally, the park is haunted by several ghosts:  Don Antonio Feliz has been seen riding the park's trails on horseback and laughing maniacally on top of large rocks overlooking the park, his niece, Dona Petranilla, appears occasionally in an old adobe used for the park headquarters and has been seen riding a white horse around midnight, and an additional mounted ghost spotted riding in the park is believed to be the spirit of Griffith J. Griffith as the dress-style of the rider does not match that of a Spanish don.  Ghost Girl has been seen throughout the park and seems to be looking for help — many believe she was abandoned there and eventually died from exposure and now is wandering the park looking for the parents who left her behind.

And, of course, the ghost of Peg Entwistle, a suicide victim, can be found lurking around the Hollywood Sign — from which she leapt to her death.

Calvary Cemetery was, during its time, the primary cemetery in Los Angeles, following the Plaza Churchyard. In the early 1900s, not too long after Burkett's attempted revenge-murder of Griffith there and subsequent suicide, the occupants of the cemetery were exhumed and relocated to New Calvary Cemetery east of the Los Angeles river.  In its place, the corner of North Broadway and Bishops Road, Cathedral High School was built; strange disturbances have occurred there ever since.  Students and faculty report grave shaped holes appearing outside after heavy rains, spooks wandering the halls, restless spirits disturbing the living, and old coffin parts appearing occasionally!

Lastly, after filming two major scenes of the iconic film Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 at the Griffith Observatory, James Dean died prematurely in a violent car crash on a California highway.  He is immortalized with this bust (pictured above) overlooking the famed Hollywood sign and mountainous terrain of Griffith Park.

The last (or just the latest?) victim of Dona Petranilla's curse?

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