We thought we’d give you a better reason for the shivers, one that might keep you warmer: a column about that gem of the Los Angeles park system, Griffith Park, and its supposed ghosts. Now we knew about the park mostly because of its recently and beautifully renovated Griffith Observatory, which really serves as more of a fab planetarium these days (the bigger telescopes in the area are at nearby Mt. Wilson – and even that has limited use nowadays – and the Palomar Observatory on Mt. Palomar, which is halfway to San Diego and east a bit toward the desert); but ghosts, too? Who knew?!
Griffith Park happens to be right next to the neighborhood known as Los Feliz (literally, the Felizes), named for the family patriarch who got the original 1787 Spanish land grant, José Vicente Feliz, who was commissioner of the Los Angeles Pueblo. In fact, the main entrances to the park are along its southern edge, just north of Los Feliz Boulevard. But long before either the street or the neighborhood existed, there actually was a Feliz family that had a large estate and hacienda in that very same area. And that’s where we’ll start with our spooky history of Griffith Park.
[You can see a custom Google map marked with park highlights here.]
The Ghost of Doña Petranilla
Once upon a time, when Spain still claimed most of California, the prosperous Feliz family settled north of the Mission Santa Maria de los Angeles. In a later generation, the family had a daughter named Petranilla (pronounced pet-ruh-NEE-ya) whose uncle, wealthy land baron Don Antonio Feliz, owned a large rancho and hacienda, which she was expected to inherit. The Rancho Los Feliz consisted of 6,647 acres. This was located in the area of the current Griffith Park. Don Antonio died while the U.S. Civil War was still raging, during the smallpox epidemic of 1863 – at which time Doña Petranilla and her family discovered to their dismay that the entire estate had been left to someone else.
It seems that on his death bed, Uncle Antonio had mysteriously bequeathed the estate to one Don Antonio Francisco Coronel, an attorney who was a justice of the peace (the equivalent of mayor under the Spanish), the first L.A. County Assessor (1850-1856), mayor of Los Angeles under the Americans starting in 1853, and California state treasurer (1867–1871). This is a guy who clearly knew his way around politics, contracts and property law and, evidently, how to finesse a land grab from under the noses of the heirs of Doña Maria Ygnacia Verdugo de Feliz, daughter-in-law of patriarch José Vicente Feliz. The dastardly Coronel had reportedly somehow strong-armed the dying Don Antonio into leaving him the land and the Feliz family heirs high and dry. Mr. Coronel visited Don Antonio in the company of another lawyer, Don Innocante, as poor Don Antonio was dying of smallpox and between them, they managed to cheat Doña Petranilla and the other Felizes out of the land. Some versions of the tale have it that a local judge confirmed the will, but Don Innocante was soon shot and killed and the judge apparently also met an untimely end. According to the legend of the curse (you knew there was going to be one, right?), the incensed Petranilla cast a curse in 1863, at which time she was a lass of anywhere between 17 and 22 years of age.
Doña Petranilla would have had good cause to be angry. No matter how aristocratic her family, as a woman without a dowry during that era, she would have had great difficulty either marrying or surviving on her own (without her own money, she would have been dependent on other relatives for her survival – relatives who likewise might have been impoverished by the loss of the estate). Since the last-minute interloper Coronel was not related, Doña Petranilla probably wasn’t the only family member upset by this sudden development; and since she didn’t marry Mr. Coronel, either, he must have either been one repulsive dude or already spoken for (as a matter of fact, Coronel married Mariana Williamson in 1873, 10 years after Don Antonio died). In any case, the very pissed off Doña Petranilla placed a curse upon the land, so that no one would ever profit from what she saw as her family’s stolen heritage. It must have worked, because most of that rancho ended up as the park and nearby land some three decades later instead of as an industrial or commercial property or a movie sound stage.
Please note: Don and Doña are titles of honor, not names. Literally, Uncle Antonio was The Don (seriously). Doña (DOHN-ya) was Petranilla’s honorific or title, indicating she was from a family of aristocrats (the fact that they owned a rancho and hacienda is a pretty good indicator). If she was the daughter of Don Antonio Feliz’s brother and unmarried, her surname would likewise have been Feliz, until she married and changed it. If, on the other hand, she was the daughter of Don Antonio’s married sister, her surname would have been different from birth, though she still would have been a Feliz family member.And here we come to the spooky part. Doña Petranilla died circa 1896 or 1897, at which time she would have been at most 56 years old. By then, the Feliz land had passed out of the nasty Coronel’s hands. First, Coronel sold the entire rancho to businessman James Lick, who was at the time the richest man in California; he died in 1876 (the Lick Observatory near San Jose, which he financed, is named for him). At that point, Rancho Los Feliz remained part of the Lick estate; in 1882, 4,000 acres of the rancho was purchased by Col. Griffith J. Griffith (wow, truly unimaginative parents, eh?), who purchased it to run an ostrich farm, which eventually failed. He bequeathed most of his own $1.5 million estate to the city to build both the Greek Theatre and the Griffith Observatory.
In 1891, Griffith survived a shooting after a business rival got him with a shotgun outside of a cemetery. Supposedly fearing the curse would catch up with him, Griffith began giving away large parcels of the land to the city of Los Angeles. In 1896, Griffith and his wife donated 3,015 acres — almost half of the original rancho — to the city for the creation of the public park that bears his name. In 1912, he designated another 100 acres that are now in the northeast corner of the park to be the Griffith Park Aerodrome; now, the former aerodrome land includes the Los Angeles Zoo parking lot, the Autry National Center of the American West, soccer fields, and an interchange between the Ventura and Golden State Freeways.
Still, the curse persisted – and Doña Petranilla’s ghost supposedly returns even to this day. Legend has it that she appears as a young woman in a white dress; sometimes her specter is also seen riding a white horse. At midnight, the filmy figure retreats to the Los Feliz Adobe, aka Paco Feliz Adobe, an old adobe house built in the 1830s by the Feliz heirs and the remaining rancho structure in the park, which now serves as the Crystal Springs Ranger Headquarters. There, the lady’s spirit watches “from the adobe’s windows on dark and rainy nights,” according to the website Weird California.
For the record, in his book Griffith Park: A Centennial History, Mike Eberts claims that the curse of the Felizes “is untrue, … but if it is not literal truth, its decades of affectionate retelling … make it genuine folklore. And so it is in that vein [that] the curse is recounted here.” Eberts likewise doesn’t take a position on some of the alleged hauntings.
However, in The Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Los Angeles, author Jeff Dwyer writes that after the lady Petranilla was robbed of the land, the former Feliz estate was plagued by “droughts, fires, and other disasters … A violent storm swept across the L.A. basin, stripping away the vegetation from the rancho and killing much of the livestock. During the storm, several people saw the ghost of Doña Petranilla drifting about, renewing her curse.” Whoa. This suggests that the lady died after Col. Griffith acquired the estate but before he gave the land to the city (which must mean earlier in 1896; but we’re getting ahead of the story.
So what happened to the rest of the family, you ask? Did they become the Lost Felizes? Not quite, and that brings us to our next ghost story.
The Ghost of Don Antonio Feliz (and, possibly, Col. Griffith)
Yes, the dead Uncle Antonio – he who had supposedly been hoodwinked into giving away Doña Petranilla’s inheritance – didn’t quite vanish when he died. In fact, he reportedly reappeared right about the time she died (as Petranilla died in either 1896 or 1897, she theoretically could have still been alive at the time of the handover and might even have attended this particular event – but not if the sightings of her ghost during the storm are correct; in that case, she would have been dead by the time the city got the land). Was it coincidence that her uncle should reappear just then?? We think it more likely that this particular event itself might have triggered the Don’s appearance.
Someone who was alive back then, California folklorist, soldier, businessman, writer and publisher Maj. Horace Bell, wrote of an 1896 event wherein the very late Don Antonio Feliz appeared at a party at his old adobe (we assume that refers to the family’s former hacienda on the estate, but we could be wrong; perhaps the adobe consisted of outbuildings for ranch hands or tenants). The occasion was a celebration of the transfer of the former Feliz estate from subsequent owner Col. Griffith to the city (thus the park and its name). Needless to say, Don Antonio’s gaunt apparition and its “fleshless face” caught the attention of the previously cheerful guests. Talk about killing the mood.
The Don’s ghost allegedly took a seat at the party and issued this invitation to the attendees: “I come to invite you to dine with me in hell. In your great honor, I have brought an escort of sub-demons.” The lights then went out and “a cacophony of gongs and cymbals filled the room.” The terrified guests split in a hurry, with no report as to whether or when the demons – make that ‘sub-demons’ – might have arrived. (Is a ‘sub-demon’ worse than your average demon, or not quite as bad, or just lower down in the pecking order?? Beats us.) Don Antonio Feliz’s ghost is reportedly still seen on horseback, near what’s known as Bee Rock by the old zoo. The current Los Angeles Zoo is in the northeast corner of the park, near the Autry Center.
Journalist Michael Imlay points out, however, that Maj. Bell was a “colorful frontier author with a penchant for ‘embellishment,’” which means he could have fudged a bit about the incident. Maybe about the entire incident. Or perhaps he was merely relating a story that was popular at the time (in which case, by then already legend). We’ll probably never know. Still, you’d think that a guy who was snookered on his deathbed into leaving his wealth to a stranger instead of family might be annoyed enough to hang around and give the devious survivor what for. One wants to think that the crafty Coronel suffered at least some karmic payback.
Col. Griffith, incidentally, descended into alcoholic madness, paranoia and prison (he notoriously shot his wife in 1903 and served two years for the crime, though she survived the ordeal but lost an eye). A casualty of the alleged curse? Maybe: he, too, has reportedly been spotted on horseback, checking on the land that still bears his name. And yet, no word on the crass Coronel (perhaps he was dispatched directly to hell upon his death, thus no need for a suffering ghost; one can only hope).
Spooks galore: the peek-a-boo sightings
More recent sightings report both male and female figures in the park, but one of the two is more reticent: she only shows up after you snap a photo. The website Creepy L.A. tells the following story:
Luis Alvarado, the Honorary Mayor of Griffith Park, reportedly encountered a ghost on two occasions by the merry-go-round. One night, while checking to help ensure all visitors had left the park at the sunset closing time, Alvarado watched as a man descended a staircase in the vicinity, only to disappear when hitting the last step. Alvarado looked around to see if perhaps the man had disappeared behind a tree but could find no trace. A few nights later, Alvarado was spooked when the scene repeated itself.
We at Spooky Things online spoke with Mr. Alvarado, who was generous with his time and recollections. He confirms that the story is true and that he’s seen the male apparition more than once. Alvarado said he’s seen it going up and down the stairs near Parking Lot #2, at the very end in the northeast corner. Whenever he’s seen the ghost on the stairs, the spirit proceeds into an empty field and just disappears – right before his eyes! Alvarado said he’s been only 50 to 75 feet from the apparition, which is relatively close. The merry-go-round is in the eastern side of the park.
Alvarado also said he’s heard from reputable sources about other alleged ghost sightings near the famous Griffith Park Observatory and near a museum in the park. The observatory, of course, has been a location for several films, the most famous being Rebel Without A Cause, which starred the late James Dean. No word on whether any of the sightings were of Dean, who died behind the wheel in a car crash.
Alvarado, who leads nature hikes in the park, left us with this last tale: a couple hiking in the park took a photo there. When they looked at it later, in the background was a lady in a veil who wasn’t there when they snapped the shot. When another person whom Alvarado knows took a photo there at a different time, the same woman suddenly showed up in that photo, too, out of nowhere.
Imagine: a ghost photo bomber. Doña Petranilla, ’zat you? (Give us a sign, girlfriend! We’re with ya.)
Plummeting Peg, or the Hollywood sign suicide
As you may or may not know, Griffith Park is shaped more or less like a fat, backwards capital L, with the observatory in the short axis of that L and west of the bulk of the park. North of the observatory and the land immediately surrounding it is the (in)famous Forest Lawn cemetery, aka Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where many celebrities are buried or interred (should be plenty of ghosts there, you think?). Just west of that near Barham Boulevard and CA Route 134 are the Warner Brothers Studios. Hollywood is right next door to Griffith Park in a different direction, south and west of that short axis where the observatory sits above an attractive subdivision off Los Feliz Boulevard. What all that means is that although our last story didn’t happen in the park itself or in Los Feliz, it did happen in the immediate area.
The Hollywood sign, which stands on Mt. Lee near the border between the park and the town and is actually inside Griffith Park, originally read ‘Hollywoodland’ because that’s what the subdivision below it was named. Well, not only was the sign shortened during the film studios’ golden age but at least one life was as well – that of Welsh-born actress Peg Entwistle (who, BTW, was former stepmother to veteran actor and Family Affair star Brian Keith; she had divorced his father in 1929 after two years of marriage). Most of her role in the 1932 film Thirteen Women had been cut out, and her acting career was failing at the time.In 1932, the unhappy Ms. Entwistle got drunk, went for a walk, and jumped to her death from the H in the sign. She was living nearby at her uncle’s home at the time on Beachwood Drive, near Griffith Park’s Bronson Canyon, which might explain why she jumped from that particular spot (i.e., it was convenient). According to reports since then, witnesses say that after dark, they have seen the figure of a young woman jumping from the H but vanishing before hitting the ground. Other reputed sightings have Entwistle in period clothes, wandering the park’s trails as well as walking up the path between the sign and her former residence on Beachwood, as if doomed to repeat her last climb there.
And that’s it for now. Happy spooky Griffith Park trails (and tales) to yo-o-o-ou, ’til we meeeet aaaa-gain (sorry, no apologies to the late Roy Rogers and Dale Evans for that one). Until next time!
Your spooky historians,
Michael and Marie
Featured image (at top) photo credit: Griffith Observatory (L) at dusk overlooking south end of Griffith Park and downtown Los Angeles (Photo courtesy of David Iliff via Wikimedia Commons; license CC-BY-SA 3.0)