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Issue: Issue Winter 2007/2008

The Good Bad and Ugly


   

At the corner of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive stands a larger-than-life bronze statue of Colonel Griffith Jenkins Griffith, donor and of Griffith Park, Griffith Observatory and the Greek Theatre. A multi-millionaire philanthropist, Griffith belonged to the best of clubs of his time. But he was also convicted for disfiguring and attempting to murder his socially prominent wife. His trial was the sensational trial of the early 20th Century.

      Never a loveable, humble man even before his crime, his personality unlike his stature, was larger than life. Charitably described as “peculiar,” he was a “vain little Napoleon.” He reputedly refused an offer to run for mayor believing the U.S. Presidency was in his future. Even his “Colonel” status was dubious, with scholars concluding his title was more a figment of his personality than any military service. Born in 1850, Griffith left his modest home in Wales for the United States at 16. He amassed a major fortune through mining and real estate speculations and in 1882, acquired 4,071 acres of Rancho Los Feliz, part of the original Spanish land grant for an amount variously estimatedfrom $8,000 to $50,000 which he promptly recovered by selling the land’s water rights to the City for $50,000. Griffith’s donation of 3,015 to Los Angeles on December 24, 1896,formed Griffith Park. Many would attribute Griffith’s donation not to any philanthropic impulse, but rather to his desire to avoid crushing property taxes on hilly, inhospitable, infertile land.

While living at the fashionable United States Hotel downtown, Griffith began courting the hotel owner’s daughter, Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer, known to her friends as Tina. Tina was worth well in excess of one million dollars when she married Griffith in 1887. They departed on a European wedding tour touted “as the most extensive ever contemplated by any bridal party from Los Angeles.” But things soon turned sour for the couple as the eccentric Griffith took to drink and Tina retreated to pious devotion. Six years later, on September 3,

1903, the couple was preparing to return home from a weekend holiday at the Arcadia Hotel on the Santa Monica beach. While Tina was packing, Griffith approached her, brandishing a revolver and demanding she confess her infidelities. Though she tearfully denied that she had ever been unfaithful to him, Griffith shot her in the face anyway. Terrified and bloody, she flung herself out the hotel room window where an awning broke her two-story fall. Although she eventually recovered, she lost her left eye and was permanently disfigured. While Tina hovered between life and death, Griffith told incredulous reporters that Tina had accidentally shot herself and then inexplicably plunged out the hotel window. He boasted that his social prominence would insulate him from prosecution. But Griffith was arrested after Tina told the district attorney what really happened. Mrs. Griffith’s prominent family became his ardent foes and rosecution engaged a blue-ribbon team of

private attorneys, including Henry T. Gage, former California governor, and Isadore Dockweiler, a leading trial lawyer.  A mere four days before the trial was to begin, Griffith retained Earl Rogers, perhaps the most celebrated trial attorney of his time.  The prospect of defending this overweight pariah did not particularly appeal to Rogers, but his interest was piqued by the contradictions of Griffith’s tee-totaling reputation with rumors that he was a closet alcoholic whose crime could be “laid to the cup.”

Inspired by Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Rogers set about establishing a defense based on an argument that Griffith was not sane, but rather acting under the delusion of “alcholoic insanity.” At that time defenses based on psychiatrists and other “expert” testimony were largely unheard of in criminal trials in 1903. Rogers rationalized that it would be a relief to Mrs. Griffith who had survived the point blank shooting, to know that her husband shot her in the grips of an “insanity.” The trial began on February 16, 1904 and when the disfigured and veiled Mrs. Griffith took the stand, she told the pathetic story of how her husband had ordered her to kneel and pray before pulling the trigger before her terrorized escape out the hotel window. To conclude her testimony, she was asked to lift her veil revealing the massive disfigurement to her once beautiful face.

Inspired by Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Rogers set about establishing a defense based on an argument that Griffith was not sane, but rather acting under the delusion of “alcholoic insanity.”

 

Rogers began his skillful cross-examination of the wounded Tina extracting acknowledgement that her husband had previously been kind and solicitious. She admitted he frequently falsely accused her of  infidelities when he had been drinking and that she told the hotel manager that her husband had shot her and “must be crazy.” The prosecution put on a parade of witnesses testifying that Griffith was not insane and drunkenness was not the equivalent of insanity.

Rogers introduced experts who countered that being drunk was some kind of disease or disorder that suspended responsibility for crime. After heated arguments, the prosecution closed its case arguing that the alcoholic insanity theory was the height of insanity itself.

The jury was out for two days before finding Griffith guilty sentencing him to two years in the penitentiary with medical attention for his alcoholic insanity. Most people were appalled that Griffith got such a light sentence. Indeed, he spent less than a year in San Quentin and returned to be a model citizen campaigning for jail reform.

Editors Note: After a success career in private practice,

attorney Cheryl Johnson is now with California Attorney

General’s office. She also serves as the president of the

Barnsdall Art Park Foundation. A longer version of this

article first appeared in the Los Feliz Observer

Fall/Winter 2002