Unlocking History

LA’s Griffith Park, Observatory bear name of early 1900s San Quentin inmate

Photos of an old hotel with sign "Arcadia Bath House" and a picture of dapper man and a woman.
While staying at the Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica in 1903, Col. Griffith J. Griffith, top, shot his wife Tina in the head. Bloodied and dazed, she escaped after jumping out of a hotel window and falling nearly two stories onto an awning. She survived the attack, but lost an eye and was disfigured from her injuries. Photos from Los Angeles Public Library.

Griffith J. Griffith was incarcerated for shooting his wife

In 1910, a former inmate wrote words being echoed today regarding the purpose of the state prison system: “The business of the state should be to see that when a convict is restored to society it shall be under conditions that give him at least a fair chance of becoming a useful member of the community.”

Those words were written by Griffith Jenkins Griffith who served two years at San Quentin for shooting his wife in a booze-fueled fury. When he was paroled in 1906, he immediately set about improving the prison system.

He recounted his time in the state prison in “Crime and Criminals,” published in 1910. Griffith became an outspoken critic of the prison and judicial systems as well as a proponent of offender rehabilitation. After his stint in prison, Griffith became the secretary and treasurer of the Prison Reform League. His prison reform efforts were heavily influenced by the harsh treatment of Civil War veteran J. Wess Moore, a fellow San Quentin inmate. While incarcerated, he abstained from alcohol, claiming he found sobriety. He also donated to groups that advocated for the prohibition of alcohol, such as the Women’s Temperance League. 

Prior to his criminal trial, Col. Griffith was a wealthy citizen who donated a large tract of land to Los Angeles for exclusive use as a park. Today, Griffith Observatory and Griffith Park bear his name, acknowledging his gifts. He also donated funding for the construction of the city’s Greek Theater. The park is one of the largest municipal parks in the country. 

When he was charged with assaulting his wife, Mary Agnes Christina “Tina” Griffith, the crime made headlines and shocked the city’s residents. He was a wealthy businessman and philanthropist while she came from a prominent Los Angeles family. 

Husband gives in to jealousy

The Griffiths were vacationing at the beach in Santa Monica with their teenage son. On their last day, as they prepared to leave, Col. Griffith’s behavior turned sour.

Griffith, armed with a pistol, made his wife kneel in front of him as he placed a gun against her brow. Peppering her with questions regarding her fidelity, he ended up asking her if she had been slipping poison to him. She denied all accusations.

“As we were packing he picked up my prayer book and came to where I was. I noticed that he looked peculiar as he asked me the question: ‘Would you swear on this prayer book the same as you would on a Bible?’ I looked at him and answered: ‘Why, certainly.’ He then said: ‘Get down on your knees and answer these questions.’ He also told me to close my eyes. I then noticed the revolver which he was holding in his right hand and behind him,” she told authorities, according to her statement published in the Los Angeles Herald, Sept. 6, 1903. “His (last) question was: ‘Have you always been faithful to your marriage vows?’ I said: ‘As God is my judge, I have and you know that I have.’ As I answered the last question he shot me.”

Bloodied and dazed, she ran for her life, jumped through the window and landed on the roof below. The fall broke her shoulder. The gunshot claimed her eye and shattered part of her skull. She underwent at least three operations, but survived.

“If the bullet had struck Mrs. Griffith one-sixteenth of an inch below where it did, it would have gone through the eye socket and into the brain. If it had struck one-sixteenth of an Inch higher it would have gone through the frontal bone,” Dr. M.L. Moore told the newspaper.

Col. Griffith was not home when police arrived but after a well-publicized man hunt, Griffith’s attorney arranged for his surrender.

The couple had been married for almost 16 years. After the shooting, she sued for divorce and pressed criminal charges. The case drew the attention of immediate-past California Gov. Henry Gage, who helped represent the wife. During the trial in November 1903, the victim was asked if she recalled anything else her assailant may have said before the shooting.

“He repeated words to the effect that he was a dead shot,” she testified. “I asked him why he had shot me, but I jumped through the window and don’t know if he answered.”

Woman in dress and dark veil over her face while two men and a woman listen.
Mrs. Griffith on the witness stand, 1903, wearing a veil to hide her facial injuries.

Alcohol abuse alleged

Today, CDCR offers help for offenders who battle addiction but at the turn of the last century, there were few options.

During the trial, lawyers asked if this was the first time Griffith accused his wife of infidelity or poisoning. She said the only previous times he’d said such things were when he was under the influence of alcohol. About 10 days before the shooting, she had confronted him about his over-indulgence of liquor.

Bartender William Salter was well-acquainted with Griffith and testified in his trial. The two were also friends.

“(Salter) had been saying that Griffith drank a great deal at the saloon where he worked; that Griffith had an idea he was much like President McKinley in character and talents and was to Los Angeles what McKinley was to the United States,” reported the Los Angeles Times, Feb. 20, 1904.

According to the bartender, Griffith knew right from wrong except “when he was in his cups,” he testified. A former attorney for Griffith testified he believed the man to be “off center.” Dr. H.G. Brainerd testified “Griffith did not know right from wrong when his delusions were concerned.”

Earl Rogers, Griffith’s defense attorney, said his client’s “mind is disordered and diseased. Hard drinking and delusions about his wife and about himself have mentally wrecked him,” reported the San Francisco Examiner, March 2, 1904.

Despite claiming the wife had shot herself during a struggle for the gun, Griffith was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. Up until his sentencing, he was convinced he would not be sent to prison. His defense attorneys battled with their client throughout the trial, often preventing him from making lengthy speeches about the park he donated and his other philanthropic work. He was shocked when he was given the maximum sentence, which at the time was two years.

In March 1904, Judge Smith had harsh words for Griffith when pronouncing sentence.

“Mr. Griffith, the circumstances connected with this assault are very aggravated. The assault was made upon your wife, a woman who, for sixteen years, had been faithful and true and loving and kind and self-sacrificing. At the time of the assault, Mr. Griffith, you caused this woman to kneel; you subjected her upon a prayer book of her church to the most revolting, gross, unmanly and degrading questions that a man could possibly propound to his wife; and while she was thus kneeling you presented a loaded revolver at her face, and while she was begging for mercy and asking for a little time in which to pray you discharged that murderous weapon full in her face, the bullet striking her forehead, splitting, one portion deflecting downward and obliterating the light of one of her eyes — putting out her eye.

“She, in great consternation and frenzy, threw herself out of the window before your face and eyes, falling 10 or 15 feet and breaking her arm. Now these are briefly the circumstances of the assault of which you have been convicted. I don’t know how you can expect but the severest penalty that can be inflicted upon you. Indeed, this court had fully made up its mind when that jury went out that whatever the verdict, if convicted, you would receive the extreme penalty of the law.

“I think a more aggravated assault I have never heard of in the experience of 14 years on this bench. Therefore, in order to carry out the verdict of the Jury, it is ordered, adjudged and decreed by this court that you be confined in the state prison at San Quentin for two years, and that in addition you pay a fine of $5,000,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, March 11, 1904.

The judge also said Griffith should be given “medical aid for his condition of alcoholic insanity.” More appeals followed before he began serving his sentence in 1905.

Describes prison life as it was in 1905

When he was on the way to San Quentin, Griffith was hopeful, as he described in his book.

“Two years, less the credits I certainly should earn, would quickly pass away. I should come out of prison a comparatively young man, with my health, as I devoutly hoped, intact and the world once more before me. My health. That was the main point. I must take care of that. Whatever happened, I must keep my self-control. If possible I must make hosts of friends and I must not fall. I thought it all out in the long vigil of a sleepless night (on his way to prison),” he wrote. “It was in the early morning as we neared San Quentin and much of my customary cheerfulness had returned. The gray walls suddenly jumped into sight and almost before I knew it, the steel-barred gates had swung open, had closed again and liberty had been left behind.”

He described the intake procedures in use at San Quentin as well as the conditions of the cells and work areas.

“I took a firm grip on myself and held it throughout the intensely humiliating formalities that followed – the bath, the shave, the Bertillon examination, the photographing, the assignment of the number by which thenceforth one would be known (21086). Finally I found myself dressed in convict garb, and, with my bedding under my arm, bound for my cell. The door clanged to, and at last I was alone,” he wrote.

According to Griffith, someone at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office told him “certain articles of comfort for wear would be allowed to model prisoners, so, with the consent of the sheriff, I took with me some good underclothes, several pair of socks, handkerchief and a large feather pillow.”

The deputy was mistaken.

Intake at San Quentin

“Turnkey Murphy, upon my arrival at San Quentin, commanded me to turn them all over to him, together with every stitch of clothes on my body. I never saw any of the articles again. He also refused to admit some excellent new books I had brought with me until I had given my promise that, after reading, I would donate them to the (church) library, to be added to their collection of some 2,000 volumes. This was the first I knew of a sectarian library being maintained by the state,” Griffith recalled.

Exhausted, his first night was met with heavy slumber. The next morning, his incarceration truly began.

“My rough undergarments irritated me horribly; the fetid prison air, heavy with the taint of humanity, weighed on my nostrils; the cell, of steel from floor to ceiling, chilled me through and through. But I was at least alone. My thoughts became busy with the future, and presently physical fatigue asserted itself. I threw myself on my bunk and fell into the profoundest sleep. … I woke only once, having been disturbed by the guard on his hourly round,” he wrote. “With the sound of the gong at six o’clock next morning my life as a member of the convict world began.”

Morning routine: empty buckets, eat breakfast, go to work

Indoor plumbing didn’t exist at San Quentin at the time.

“The door of my cell was thrown open and I found myself one of the enormous bucket lines, engaged for some twenty minutes in cleaning corridors and cells. Each man brought out his pail containing the slops of the preceding 24 hours and emptied it into a general receptacle. As there were hundreds of men to each receptacle, and as the latter became clogged from time to time, the process was disgusting. In cold and rainy weather it was attended by much discomfort,” Griffith wrote.

After a quick breakfast, the men were led to the jute mill.

“(In the jute-mill) I was taught, in a few hours, ‘spooling,’ a branch of the grain sack making business. I found myself one of some 800 prisoners, under the direct custody of a dozen guards, in a building 1,000 feet long. The roof was of glass, but grimy with the fluffy soot of the material handled, so that the light was far from good,” he wrote. “I remained more than a year in this mill and put in several months on the machine to which I had been first detailed. After that I was placed in charge of one that turned out spools of three different kinds. As these had to be delivered in various parts of the building, I was compelled to move about a good deal and thus made many new acquaintances, much to my satisfaction.”

Eventually, he became the target of other inmates. They threw items into his work space, some hefty but most he said were simply annoying.

“Prison gossip had concluded that I belonged to the upper world; that I’d had more than my share of the good things in life, and that in my present punishment, fate was getting justly even. For some time I paid no attention to these little courtesies, but one day a shuttle wounded me somewhat severely, drawing blood which trickled down my face and neck,” he recalled.

Griffith, having met with the warden, was offered a few choice posts as a clerk but he politely refused, instead opting to remain in the jute mill. He did ask to be moved from his single cell to the group area.

“With the same desire for gathering information I took steps to procure removal from my cell. I wished to mix with my fellows and take notes, and I was so fortunate as to be placed in room A, where I was one of 48. This removal had another advantage of which I then knew nothing, for my new quarters were immediately above the dungeons in which torture is inflicted.”

The large room held inmates who were generally older with good conduct records while in prison. Some were convicted murderers while most were in for petty crimes. It’s similar to minimum security facilities of today, with shared barracks or bunk houses.

Advocates allowing California newspapers inside prison

“I quickly found that my companions were hungry for news and it soon became an established custom for me to read to them some two hours an evening,” he wrote. “A more interested audience than that which gathered round me, squatted on four-legged stools, I never expect to command.”

At the time, inmates were not allowed to subscribe to any newspapers published in California, so Griffith subscribed to papers published in neighboring states. When the 1906 earthquake leveled San Francisco, several inmates were concerned about family members caught in the disaster. Griffith pleaded with prison management to relax the rules regarding California-published newspapers, at least for a few weeks following the quake, but his request was denied.

Griffith also focused his attention on punishment.

“(The straitjacket use) gave rise to much talk, which grew louder when J. Wess Moore was punished. Moore was serving a life sentence for homicide, having killed a man in a dispute over a mining claim. He always protested that he had acted in self-defense. Anyhow, he had been a model prisoner, and, at the date referred to, was librarian. He was accused of smuggling a letter out of prison by the ‘grapevine’ route and was ordered to be put in the strait-jacket,” Griffith wrote.

“Now it happened that Moore had been a G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) man and a comrade of one of the guards,” Griffith wrote. “The latter talked the matter up during one of his visits to San Francisco, with the result that influence was brought to bear that resulted in Moore’s release from the ‘solitary’ and the forced resignation of (Warden) Tompkins. Moore eventually was paroled and proceeded to work actively for prison reform, being a man of education. Being too outspoken, he has recently been returned to San Quentin for further punishment.”

Griffith soon found himself in a new position where he was allowed a weekly bath. The public bath outside the jute mill is also described.

“After serving nearly a year in the jute mill, I was put in the laundry, being employed in the drying department, where I served the balance of my term. From 40 to 50 of us worked there, and it is generally regarded as more desirable than the mill,” he wrote.

“In the mater of personal cleanliness also there was a great advantage, as the laundry men had a regular bath once a week, whereas such arrangements as were made for the workers in the jute mill were, to say the least, primitive, if not disgraceful. There I have stoop, one of a line of from 200 to 300 naked men, in an open shed in the yard adjoining the mill, waiting my turn to stand under the pipe which furnishes the bath.

“This pipe is some 30 feet in length and is so perforated as to give one a (shower). From 10 to 15 men can stand under it at one time. The state supplies prisoners with a cheap soap manufactured in connection with the laundry but gives neither towels, combs nor brushes of any description. At the public bath it was a common thing to see prisoners drying themselves with barley sacks taken from the mill.”

While incarcerated, Griffith found sobriety. According to many accounts, he enjoyed his work with the men and helping them on their own paths to recovery and education. He was described as a model inmate. When he was released, he advocated for reforms.

Who was Griffith J. Griffith?

Born in South Wales, Jan. 4, 1850, he came to the U.S. in the 1860s. He worked as a reporter for the Alta California, a San Francisco newspaper. Covering the mining industry, he learned all he could about mining in California, Washington, Oregon and Nevada.

“(He became) a mining expert and (was) employed to examine and report on properties owned or controlled by various mining syndicates. As a mining expert, Col. Griffith acquired a small fortune, part of which he invested in 1882 when he came to Los Angeles and, after making a careful survey, purchased the Los Feliz Rancho, which consisted of about 4,000 acres of land,” reported the Los Angeles Time, July 7, 1919. He donated most of that land to the city of Los Angeles in 1896 for use as a public park.

After his release from prison, he attempted to donate funds to the city for use in constructing an observatory and planetarium. Given his new reputation as an ex-convict, the city declined the offer.

Griffith passed away July 6, 1919, at 69 years old, “caused by liver trouble, from which he was said to have suffered for the past six months,” according to the newspaper. He was survived by one son, Van, and three grandchildren. In his will, he left funds for the city to use for constructing the observatory, to be free of charge for use by the public. Using his lawyers and his will, he skirted the city’s efforts to block his vision. To this day, the Griffith Observatory does not charge admission in keeping with the conditions of his will.

Col. Griffith was a colonel in name only, much like Col. Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. “The only military title he’d ever officially held was a ‘major’ of rifle practice with the California National Guard,” according to the Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2011.

After her divorce, Tina Griffith essentially retired and lived with her sister’s family, avoiding any publicity. She passed away in 1948.

Their son, Van M. Griffith, became involved in city matters, serving as a park commissioner in the 1920s and later a police commissioner. He sought to preserve the land donation as it was intended, “for use as a park only.” A gold mining company negotiated with the parks commission when they discovered gold in one of the ravines, hoping to begin operations. Griffith immediately turned it over to the city attorney who claimed the family could sue the city for violating the donation agreement. When a highway was planned to go through the park, Griffith also fought that measure. They eventually negotiated the use of a road already in place. In 1946, Griffith sued the city when they planned to use part of his father’s land donation for a housing development. He passed away in 1974.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

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