This Cursed Land: The Story of LA’s Griffith Park

Written by Brian Pietrus March 13, 2019
The History

The area that is now Griffith Park has a crazy history that dates back thousands of years—long before European settlers ever set foot in the State of California. In just the last few hundred years, Griffith Park has hosted insane family feuds, a series of hasty land transfers, and a grim reputation for being haunted by the many deaths that have unfolded in the hills. It’s also allegedly been cursed since the mid-1800s.

It may sound wild enough to make a great Hollywood drama, but this is the true story of Griffith Park.

This Land is Sacred

Indigenous habitation of Los Angeles goes back 7,000 years. The region was sacred to the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe. They lived in the hills of what is now Griffith Park, along with the surrounding neighborhoods. Today, historians have documented nearly 3,000 archaeological sites around Los Angeles that were significant to the Tribe.

In 1776, a band of Spanish explorers and soldiers pushed north on an expedition from Mexico to San Francisco. In January of that year, they camped in Griffith Park.

The Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe showed these explorers where to find potable water and were subsequently enslaved to build the San Fernando Mission in what would eventually become the City of Los Angeles.

The Land May Also Be Cursed

Remember that expedition that camped in Griffith Park? In 1787, one of the soldiers who camped there eleven years earlier returned to build a home. His name was Jose Vicente Feliz, and the Spanish government granted Feliz over 6,000 acres of land—land that had previously belonged to the Tongva. This parcel of land was turned into ranch land for Feliz’s family, and he called the land Rancho Feliz. Though the name translates to “Happy Ranch,” it was in fact named after Jose Feliz. The neighborhood adjacent to Griffith Park is still called Los Feliz.

Jose Feliz’s son, Don Antonio Feliz, inherited the ranch in 1816 and lived there with his niece Petranilla. Legend has it that when Don Antonio was on his deathbed in 1863, he was tricked into signing over the Rancho Feliz land to a local politician named Antonio Coronel. After she learned of what happened, Petranilla cursed Coronel and the land that he’d stolen. She’s believed to have said,

“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 not 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."

Coronel was apparently shook by the curse; he ended up giving his share of the land to his lawyer, who died of a gunshot wound shortly thereafter.

The property was then sold to a man named Leon Baldwin, who worked hard on the land but found that his cattle grew sick in the fields and his crops were struck with blight (the curse?). Frustrated and running out of money, Baldwin sold the land to the man who would become the park’s namesake, Griffith J. Griffith.

But the park’s saga was far from over.

The Park’s Namesake Was a Madman

When Griffith J. Griffith bought the land, he had hoped to continue using it as ranchland and began raising ostriches. However, Griffith shut down the farm just four years later.

In 1896, he donated Rancho Feliz (which was outside the city limits at that time) to the City of Los Angeles. He insisted that the park be kept wild to give future Angelinos a place to escape the city and enjoy the wilderness.

If you’re thinking that he sounds like a philanthropist, you’re about to be sorely disappointed.

Ever the wealthy socialite, Griffith tried to present himself as a sober, upstanding citizen. But in 1903, a paranoid Griffith angrily interrogated his wife Christina while they were on vacation. He then forced his wife to her knees and tried to murder her. Christina ducked at the last moment, losing an eye but saving her life. She jumped out a window and received lifesaving aid down below.

The truth about Griffith J. Griffith’s drinking then emerged. By some accounts, he drank upwards of half a gallon of whiskey every day.

His lawyer claimed that Griffith was a good man who’d been overcome by “alcoholic insanity,” and, remarkably, that defense worked in court. Even after Christina testified against her husband and displayed her wounds, the judge showed the affluent Griffith mercy and sentenced him to two years in San Quentin plus $5,000 in fines.

Following his prison sentence, Griffith tried to donate money to the city for an observatory to be built in the park. But after Griffith’s murder attempt, the city (understandably) wanted to distance itself from the violent socialite. After Griffith died, he left money to the city in his will for the construction of the observatory. A lengthy court proceeding followed, and the city eventually built Griffith Observatory in 1933. It is still free and open to the public.

The Park’s Grim History Never Stopped

There is a very dark side of Hollywood; for every star whose career takes off, countless unseen actors and actresses toil in obscurity. Some people leave Hollywood; others struggle to find work or change careers entirely. Others go down a much darker path.

Peggy Entwistle was a successful stage performer who came to LA with dreams of becoming a film actress. She was only cast in one movie, but her lone scene was cut from the film before its release. Back before fencing surrounded the Hollywood sign—which, at the time, read “Hollywoodland” —an intoxicated Peggy Entwistle stumbled into Griffith Park late one night in 1932. She climbed a ladder up the back of the “H” on the sign and leapt to her death. A hiker found her body, along with a suicide note, the next day.

Unfortunately, Peggy Entwistle wasn’t the only person whose tragic end unfolded in Griffith Park.

In 2016, hikers found a human skull partially buried on a trail near the Hollywood sign. There was no body found. Investigators determined that the skull had been in the park for at least a year, possibly as long as a decade.

In January 2019, park rangers found human remains wrapped in a blanket or sleeping bag and hidden in some brush in Griffith Park.

Many hikers and park visitors swear they’ve encountered the ghosts of those who have died in the park late at night.

Whether it’s all part of Petranilla Feliz’s curse or just a long series of unfortunate events, the park remains a place of mystery. But if you go there for a hike or a visit to the observatory, odds are you’ll never see Griffith Park the same way again.