Griffith J Griffiths: Betws twinned with Hollywood

Griffith Jenkin Griffths was born on the 4/1/1850 at Penybryn farm, Bettws to Morgan and Margaret (nee Jenkins) Griffiths. In 1866 when Griffith was 16 he left Wales and took a ship to the U.S.A.,  America was still suffering from the after effects of its bloody Civil War. When Griffith landed in New York he knew no one, but luckily he was befriended by an elderly couple. This unamed pair owned a smallholding and took the young man in and in exchange for his help around the farm. They gave him board and lodge and also made sure he attended the local school.

When Griffith left school he was able to enrol in a College in New Hampshire, The Fowler Institute, to study journalism. He was in his early 20’s when he graduated. Griffith was living in the town of Fair View, Vermont when he decided to take up American citizenship, and in 1877 he went before a judge and swore allegiance to the United States of America, with two local men Richard Lewis and H.G.Woods as his sponsors.

Griffith travelled west and got a job as a mining correspondent on The Alta California newspaper in San Francisco. His job was to report on the outputs of the various Western Sierra gold and silver mines. He also developed a far more lucrative sideline, which was preparing confidential information for several of the wealthiest mine owners. It was while preparing these reports he realised there was money to be made, and by using his own money and this ‘insider information’ Griffith began to amass a considerable fortune of his own.

By 1882 he had left his job and moved to Los Angeles, where he bought a huge stretch of land, (4,210 acres) called Rancho de los Feliz, originally this was part of a land grant from the King of Spain given as a reward to loyal subjects. But this area had gained a reputation as being ‘cursed’, owing to several of the previous owners dying in strange circumstances. Griffith bought the land for $8,000 from the estate of a man shot to death by bandits. At first Griffith rented out part of this land to another man Frank Burkett, for an Ostrich farm. Ostrich feathers were very fashionable accessories to wealthy ladies hats at this time. But one night a terrific lightning storm stampeded the birds, and they died of shock or injuries. Griffith had to foreclose on Burkett’s failing business. Burkett swore revenge and went looking for Griffiths with a gun. Frank Burkett caught up with him outside a local cemetery and shot him. Luckily for Griffiths, Burkett had loaded his shotgun with birdshot by mistake and Griffiths was only wounded. Burkett thought he had in fact killed Griffiths and was filled with remorse, went home and shot himself through the head with a revolver.

Griffith recovered from his wounds and went on to make even more money by selling the water rights to Rancho de Los Feliz to the growing city of Los Angeles for $50,000. more than recuperating his original investment. It was around this time that he started to court the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Los Angelino hotel owner. Griffith was smitten, so much so that he bought the bank next door to the hotel just so he could see her every day. He paid a local poet to write a love poem (in Griffith’s name) to the girl and had it published in the local paper so that she would see it.

In January 1887, Griffith J Griffiths married Christina Mesmer. The newlyweds honeymooned in Europe. While in Europe it is not known if Griffith ever brought his wife to Bettws to see his humble beginnings. Griffith and Christina Griffiths were married for 16 years and had a son Vandell Maury Griffiths in 1888.

On the couple’s return from honeymoon Griffith threw himself into making even more money. He was always a keen philanthropist but contemporaries who knew him said that he was an arrogant man, who strutted about like a peacock, full of his own importance. A story goes that a young entepreneur asked him for his help with an introduction to the rich and famous of Los Angeles. Griffith said, “Son, meet me at the corner of Main St at noon tomorrow”. The following day at midday Griffiths arrived and took the youngster’s arm and started to stroll down the street!. When the lad asked when the introductions would start,  Griffiths replied “My boy just to be seen walking down this street with Griffith J Griffths are all the introductions you will need in this city!” Even though Griffiths was disliked for his ‘pushiness’ he was regarded as one of the most astute business men of his time. Whatever his busines ‘friends’ thought about him privately he was always at the fore when it came to supporting charity events. On his 50th birthday at a banquet held in his honour Griffith was presented with the very first pineapple grown in California.

In 1896 Griffith donated the city authorites of Los Angeles 3,015 acres of Rancho de Los Feliz as a “public park for the people of the city that had given him so much”. This park was to be known as Griffith Park and it is still known as that today. By 1903 Griffiths was showing signs of being ill he had frequent bouts of paranoia, this was apparently brought on by alcoholism. In public he would attend rallies aginst the ‘evils of drink’ but he was secretly drinking two bottles of whisky a day. At one delusional stage  he was convincd that he was going to be poisoned by an assassin. He would insist on swapping dinner plates with his wife when out dining. Christina thought that he was just overworked and arranged a relaxing summer holiday for them both at the nearby resort of Santa Monica.

The couple were to stay at the Arcadia hotel in the Presidential suite, room 104-5. All went well until the last day when Christina was supervising the packing, Griffith was downstairs in the bar drinking Absinthe cocktails. He was fixated on the thought that Christina and the Pope were going to have him killed. Finishing his drink Griffiths went up to his suite and called his wife to him. She walked into the room and noticed Griffths was carrying a bible/prayer book. He asked her to kneel and pray with him. This she did, but opened her eyes to see that Griffiths was pointing a revolver directly at her head! Griffiths fired at point blank range. Christina had just enough time to move her head, but was seriously wounded. She staggered to her feet and jumped out of a nearby window falling two storeys until she hit an awning and literally bounced onto a balcony, and still conscious managed to scramble through an open window and raise the alarm. (She would later lose an eye and be disfigured for the rest of her life) She hovered between life and death for several weeks.

Griffiths was immediately arrested, when questioned at first said that his wife had in fact accidentally shot herself, and then jumped out of the window in panic. He was sent for trial for attempted murder. The lawyers for Griffiths defence were reputedly the finest money could buy. They set about building a defence of temporary insanity brought on by alcoholic poisoning. When Christina Griffiths came to court to give evidence, she was dressed in a long thick veil to hide the scars. When her lawyers asked if she could show the jury the extent of her injuries they were visibly shocked. She was cross examined by her husbands counsel and she did agree that “Griffith, had up until this incident been a kind and attentive husband”. when asked why she thought her husband had attacked her she replied that she”thought he must have gone crazy”. It was this simple statement upon which Griffths lawyers based the whole case.

After two days of deliberation the jury came back with guilty verdict and Griffith J Griffiths was sentenced to two years imprisonment in San Quentin Penetentiary. This relatively light sentence had the proviso that he also have treatment for his alcoholism. Griffiths served his full sentence without parole or any special treatment. (He must have been the richest man in the gaol) He asked to be put to work sewing mailbags as a further punishment. When he was freed he publicly campaigned for prisoners rights and reform.

Although Griffith felt that he had fully paid his debt to society, this was not going to be easy as the business people of Los Angeles were very unforgiving toward him at first, and also they were very supportive of his injured wife’s family. This attitude often showed itself in petty actions such as the renaming of a local landmark from Griffith peak to Mount Hollywood. In 1912 Griffiths offered to donate $100,000 to the city for an Observatory to be built for the people. The offer was turned down as they feared it would be seen as a bribe to gain favour. A year later in1913 when Griffith again offered to donate $50,000 to build a Greek style amphitheatre in Griffith park, and even started to clear the land himself. He was taken to court by the Civic Council to have him stopped. Griffith Griffiths still did not give up, he set up trust funds so that these projects could go ahead after his death. An observatory and the amphitheatre were built in the park in the 1930s along with a Hall of Science, the Los Angeles Zoo.and a National Centre for the American West and four Municipal golf courses. I suppose today the most recognisable structure in the park would be the giant Hollywood sign. Walt Disney originally wanted Disneyland sited at the park and had interim plans drawn up. There were enough funds left over to put up a life size bronze statue of Griffith J Griffths, this still stands today at the corner of Griffith park drive and Los Feliz Boulevard.

Griffith J Griffiths died on the 6th of July 1919. He was buried at the Hollywood memorial park (since renamed Hollywood Forever.) His grave is marked with a stone obelisk, at the base is a plaque with a simple quotation of Griffiths. ‘Public parks are the safety valves of a great cities and should be made accessible and attractive, where neither, race creed or colour could be excluded”. I personally think that these were fine words and very far sighted opinions for the time.

Gerald Jarvis.

Acknowledgements to:

The Griffith Observatory guide.
Mr Mike Ebutt.
The Los Angeles Times archive.

4 comments Add yours
  1. There are many people still living in the Garw valley who are related to Griffith-myself included.

  2. What lovely reading, I have been to LA / Hollywood on a few occasions seen the observatory ,the huge sign HOLLYWOOD and never realised the connections were so close to my beloved Pontycymer thankyou very interesting read

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