The bizarre history of Griffith J. Griffith, namesake of LA’s most beloved landmarks

Most people know Griffith Park as one of Los Angeles’ most famous landmarks, but nothing about Griffith J. Griffith – the man who donated 3,000 acres to the city to use as a public park in 1896.

And also shot his wife in the face.

griffith j griffith
Undated photo of Griffith J. Griffith (Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)

Born in Wales in 1850, Griffith immigrated to the United States as a teenager with little money. He worked as a reporter and mining advisor in San Francisco before making his fortune in Mexican silver mines and, eventually, Southern California real estate.

In 1882, he moved to Los Angeles and purchased Rancho Los Feliz, about 4,000 acres of land northeast of the city which included the present day Los Feliz, Silverlake and part of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Griffith married Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer, the daughter of a prominent family. According to the Observatory’s website, he enjoyed being referred to as “Colonel” Griffith, though he was never officially commissioned as an officer — nor is it clear that he even served in the military.

The Los Angeles Times reports that while some were impressed with his “man-about-town demeanor,” others thought he was deliberately flashy.

One acquaintance described him as a “midget egomaniac; another as a “roly-poly pompous little fellow” who “had an exaggerated strut like a turkey gobbler.”

After seeing several public parks in Europe, Griffith decided Los Angeles needed a “great park” and donated 3,015 acres land to the city in order to create a public park in his name.

He called it a Christmas present, perhaps as a way to charm the hearts of Angelenos.


“It must be made a place of recreation and rest for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people,” he said. “I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happier, cleaner and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered.”

However, his life apparently took a troubling turn when his drinking got out of hand.

Griffith argued religion with his wife (she was Catholic; he was Protestant) and began suffering paranoid delusions — convinced his wife and the pope were conspiring to poison him, according to the Times.

In 1903, things came to a terrible head when he and his wife were vacationing at a seaside resort in Santa Monica.

Mrs. Griffith was packing a trunk when “Griffith entered the room and pulled his revolver,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “He pointed it at Mrs. Griffith and said, ‘Get your prayer book and kneel down and cover your eyes. I’m going to shoot you, and going to kill you.'”

He aimed and fired. The bullet struck her in the eye but did not kill her, according to KPCC. She managed to jump out the window, bleeding and blinded, and landed next to the window of the couple who owned the hotel — who called the sheriff.

santa monica hotel
Postcard of the Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica, where the shooting took place (Wikipedia Commons)

Griffith was put on trial for attempted murder. His defense attorney argued that Griffith was the victim of “alcoholic insanity” and the jury convicted him of the lesser charge of assault with a deadly weapon, according to KPCC.

He received the maximum sentence — 2 years and a $5,000 fine.

Disfigured and blind in one eye, his wife filed for divorce (as one would hope).

After his prison term at San Quentin, Griffith was determined to do good and restore his image in Los Angeles. He offered the city $100,000 to build an observatory atop Mt. Hollywood in 1912.

The city, however, was reluctant to move forward, according to the Times.

The next year, Griffith also offered the city $50,000 to build a Greek theater, but that project stalled as well.

Ultimately, he set up a trust to fund the two projects after his death. He died in 1919 — and the Greek Theatre was built in 1930 and Griffith Observatory in 1935.



If you visit these places today, it appears his name has been rehabilitated. The name Griffith is now associated with LA’s most beloved landmarks.

And you’d only know the bizarre history by going down a rabbit hole on the Internet.

So the next time you take a selfie at #GriffithPark, #GriffithObservatory or the #GreekTheater — appreciate the view and the hidden history of its namesake, the Colonel.

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