Feb 10, 2022

Who Was Colonel Griffith J. Griffith?

OK, here is your history trivia question of the day: who was Colonel Griffith Jenkins Griffith?

I can tell you that this man with identical first and last names was once an impoverished 14-year-old Welsh immigrant who made good in his adopted country. When he arrived in New York City, he had no money, no family, and no education. Years later, as a multi-millionaire when a dollar was still worth a dollar, he donated 3,015 acres of prime real estate to the City of Los Angeles. He also spent several years in jail and probably was one of the wealthiest inmates of the time, if not THE wealthiest. His prison sentence was for attempted murder of his wife. Colonel Griffith J. Griffith believed that she was in league with the Pope to poison him and steal his money.

Oh yes, there is no record of his ever being promoted to the rank of colonel, even though he always used the title. Evidence suggests the only military title he ever held was Major of rifle practice with the California National Guard.

“Colonel” Griffith J. Griffith’s name is almost unknown today although the land he donated to Los Angeles still bears his name: Griffith Park. He previously had established an ostrich farm on the property when ostrich feathers were popular in ladies’ hats. Griffith Park now contains the world-famous Hollywood sign. He also donated money for the park’s Greek Theater and for the Griffith Observatory. Why would such a wealthy benefactor be ignored by history?

It seems that the Colonel was disagreeable, if not a downright scoundrel. He collected many more enemies than friends. The fact that he was convicted for attempted murder also gave good reason for his name to be dropped from polite conversation.

Griffith J. Griffith arrived penniless in New York in 1866 and, a few years later, became a reporter, covering mines for a San Francisco newspaper. He also engaged in a lucrative side business, preparing confidential mining reports for the nation’s richest men. His early knowledge of secrets not known by other investors gave him an edge long before the creation of “insider trading” laws. He invested his profits into other mining operations, sometimes losing money, but more often turning large profits.

By 1882, Griffith J. Griffith was rich. He obviously loved the role of millionaire. While short of stature, he wore the longest of long cream-colored overcoats in an age when overcoats usually came to the heels. The agate buttons on the coats were huge; each button probably cost the equivalent of a workingman’s weekly wage of the time. He also carried a gold-headed cane.

One acquaintance described him as “a midget egomaniac.” Another wrote that the colonel “was a roly-poly, pompous little fellow” who “had an exaggerated strut like a turkey gobbler.”

It is claimed (although not proven) that Walt Disney modeled the image of comic book character Scrooge McDuck on Colonel Griffith’s normal appearance.

Colonel Griffith J. Griffith also married well. Christina Mesmer was rich. In fact, her father probably had more money than the “Colonel.” She was also dignified and respected.  According to the Los Angeles Times, it was a match made in society heaven:

“The bride has been educated in a superior manner, as befits the owner of so vast an estate. Her singing and playing are exceptionally fine, and her taste for flowers is remarkable (as is well illustrated in her mother’s garden). She can speak four languages, while the happy bridegroom can converse in three, including Welsh.”

They remained married for 16 years, but things went sour in the last year. Griffith started acting in a strange manner. He compulsively bit his nails, his manicurist said. And he was a sneak drinker, his lawyer said, privately putting away two quarts of whiskey a day while publicly donating money to the temperance movement.

While the couple was on vacation in 1913, Griffith entered their hotel room with a prayer book in one hand and a revolver in the other. He handed the prayer book to his wife, then shot her. At least, he tried to shoot her. Christina Griffith apparently jerked her head to one side as a reaction. That movement saved her life. She then jumped out a window, landed on an awning below, and crawled to safety through another window. The experience left her disfigured and blind in one eye.

The trial was almost an open-and-shut case, despite Griffith’s high-powered defense team. An ex-governor of California headed the prosecution team. Griffith was found guilty but given a light sentence of only two years in jail.

Once in San Quentin and denied access to alcohol, Griffith’s personality seemed to change once again. He turned down easy prison jobs and volunteered to make burlap sacks in the prison’s jute mill, one of the least desirable work assignments available. When he was eligible for parole, he refused to apply. He served his full sentence.

When released from prison, Griffith was still a multi-millionaire but was hated by most everyone. Many people feared that he was crazy.

In 1912 he offered the city of Los Angeles $100,000 to build a popular observatory atop Mt. Hollywood. The mountain formerly had been known as Mount Griffith, but the city had re-named it when he was in prison. One prominent citizen wrote a letter about the proposed gift to the editor of a local newspaper, which published it on the front page. The letter stated, in part, “On behalf of the rising generation of girls and boys, we protest against the acceptance of this bribe . . . This community is neither so poor nor so lost to sense of public decency that it can afford to accept this money.”

The city council refused the money.

Colonel Griffith J. Griffith then created a trust fund to create the Greek Theater and the Griffith Observatory. The city did not accept the money until some years after his death.

Colonel Griffith J. Griffith died rich, but unloved, on July 6, 1919. He is interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles in the north end of Section 7, a.k.a. “The Griffith Lawn”. While standing at the side of his obelisk and looking north, one can see the Griffith Observatory.

Although Griffith Park is well-known and visited by millions, few people today recognize the name of the park’s benefactor.

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