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Friday, March 19, 2010

HOLLYWOOD ON TRIAL, TAKE ONE

I would call it a dress rehearsal for the O.J. Simpston and Phil Spector cases. On the afternoon of Thursday, September 3, 1903, Mr. Griffith Jenkins Griffith walked into his wife’s bedroom in the Presidential Suit of the Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica, California and locked the door behind him. Christina Griffith, who was writing last minute thank-you notes had no reason to feel threatened. The couple had just spent a pleasant sea-side holiday and she was expecting to take a stroll along the boardwalk with her husband of 16 years. She must have been perplexed when he handed her a bible. But when he pulled a revolver from his coat pocket and ordered her to her knees, in that terrifying instant, Christina must have realized that he meant to murder her.
As poor Christina cowered trembling on the floor,  Griffith (above) calmly asked if she had ever been unfaithful to him. Christina sobbed in terror, “Oh, Papa, you know I have always been true to you.” Griffth was convinced that the Pope in Rome, working through his Catholic wife, wanted to have him murdered. Christina tried to reason with her husband but the only sounds she could force from her throat were horrified sobs. She felt the cold steel of the barrel press hard against her temple. She flinched. And as she did, Griffith pulled the trigger. The bullet exploded into her left eye, blowing her eyeball apart. She screamed in terror and agony, and impulsively threw herself out the nearest window.
She tumbled helplessly down two stories, landing on the hotel veranda’s sunshade, breaking her leg. Fear drove her to crawl through an open second story window into an empty room. She pressed a towel into the bloody cavity in her head, and only then did she scream for help. Two men responded. By chance the first to arrive was the hotel’s manager, Mr. Wright. The second was her husband, the murderous Mr. Griffith. Christina screamed, “He shot me! He’s crazy!” Griffith calmly assured the manager that Christina had accidently shot herself. But the manager insisted upon calling the sheriff.
In a couple of hours the 100,000 residents of the young metropolis of Los Angeles were electrified to hear newsboys on every street corner shouting that one of the town's most prominent citizens, the man who just seven years earlier had donated 4,000 acres for a city park, a generous supporter of the temperance league and a well respected and well connected businessman, was so “crazy drunk” that he had tried to murder his wife in broad daylight.
Over night the 51 year old Griffith became the most hated man in Los Angeles. On Tuesday September 8th. Griffith was unanimously removed from the city Parks Commission and the Los Angeles Times suggested that “Griffith Park” was “handicapped so signally by its name” that it should be returned to its donor. The park’s highest peak, Mt. Griffith, became Mt. Hollywood. People now remembered Griffith as “…a roly-poly, pompous little fellow”, a “midget egomaniac” and a “vain little Napoleon” who wore heel length coats and carried a gold headed walking cane.
He was also the man who had held the city’s access to drinking water from the L.A. River hostage for a $50,000 payment. The land he had used in this maneuver was the very same Rancho Los Feliz that he later donated to the city as Griffith Park, for which he was awarded a significant tax deduction. And Griffith’s behavior after the shooting did little to quell the public’s outrage. Released on bail he repeated his allegation that Christina had shot herself, and then assured the public that his social position would protect him. When Christina, now called "the society wife who refused to die", filed for divorce the “Colonel” contested the custody of their son, which made Griffith appear not just crazy but cruel. His lawyers did their best to repair the damage, leaking to the Los Angele Examiner that “Mrs. Griffith…believed her husband was insane and she thought he should be locked up, but she was averse to a swearing of a felony complaint against him....” Christina did not take the hint.
By this time Christina's family, as wealthy and powerful as Griffith, had hired a team of lawyers, including Henry Gage, a former governor, and Isadore Dockweiler, a powerful trial lawyer. They immediately went on the offensive. The victim, now blind in one eye and forever disfigured, submitted to a deposition under oath, saying, “…. her husband was sober on the night of the shooting… (and) had not been drinking during the day…” In other words, they were not going to accept a diminished capacity defense.
Now beginning to panic, Griffith’s lawyers sought a change of venue. That was quickly denied.  Just five days before the trial was scheduled to begin Griffith hired a young new lawyer named Earl Rogers (above). He immediately filed for a delay, and the prosecution prepared arguments to smack Rogers down. But on the first day of the trial, the day after Valentine's Day, Monday, February 15th., 1904, Rogers caught the prosecutors off stride by suddenly withdrawing his motion. The trial games had begun.
The L.A. Times described the jockeying in the court room amongst the mob of lawyers. “Rogers would ask a question; the District Attorney would object; retort to the D. A. would follow from (defense lawyer) Maj. Jones; slap back at Jones from Dockweiler; dig at Dockweiler from (defense lawyer) McKinley; swat at McKinley from Mr. Gage; crack at Gage from Luther Brown (yet another defense lawyer) .” Meanwhile, on the witness stand, there were battling psychiatrists and battling bartenders.
Griffith’s doctors said he was insane and his bartenders swore that he drank two quarts of whiskey a day. Griffith, it seemed, was a man of many paranoia. A devout Methodist, Griffin had often lectured his club on the conspiracies of the Catholic Church. Combined with his ego, these beliefs convinced the “Colonel” that through his devoutly Catholic wife, the Pope was seeking to assassinate him. Restaurant waitresses testified of his habit of suddenly exchanging dinner plates with his wife. When asked, he explained "...you never knew when a meal might be poisoned". A local doctor testified that many years before Griffith had come to him with a bottle of wine and said he thought it was poisoned. Asked what he did with the wine the doctor blandly replied, “I drank it.”
There were so many lawyers in the courtroom that it was barely noticed when the defense called another as a witness. A member of the county Republican Committee, Oscar Lawler, described a lunch at which Griffith promised not to run for mayor, because, he said, no one else would stand a chance. Griffin even expected the Democrats to stand aside for him. Lawler thought Griffith was joking and suggested that Griffith should run for President. Griffith replied seriously, “I think so myself.” Lawler testified that from that moment on, he believed Griffith to be insane.
It turned out, so did the jury. After two days of deliberations, on March 3rd., 1904, they rejected the charge of attempted murder, and instead found Griffith guilty of assault with a deadly weapon, a misdemeanor. The frustrated judge then sentenced Griffith to the maximum allowed, just two years in prison. The public was outraged all over again.
Earl Rogers became famous, and was the inspiration for Erle Stanley Gardner’s character, Perry Mason. Such talent in the courtroom did require some moral compromises. After hearing himself declared not guilty one client rushed to shake Roger’s hand, but the lawyer responded, “Get away from me, you slimy pimp. You know you’re guilty as hell!” And perhaps Rogers understood Griffith’s alcoholic paranoia so well because he himself was an alcoholic. Rogers died in 1922 “broke and alone in a Los Angeles boarding house" of liver failure at the age of 52. His daughter, famous L.A. newswoman in her own right, Adela Rogers St. John, wrote his biography, “Final Verdict”, which was published in 1962.

Griffith served his time in San Quentin State Prison. Once denied access to alcohol, his insanity evaporated. He turned down a job in the prison library, and instead made burlap sacks. Released in late 1906 he returned to Los Angles, living quietly. The only subject he lectured on now was prison reform. In 1912 he offered the city $100,000 to build an observatory, saying, “Ambition must have broad spaces and mighty distances.” A prominent citizen responded that, “This community is neither so poor nor so lost to a sense of public decency that it can afford to accept this money.” The next year Griffith sweetened the offer with $50,000 to build an outdoor Greek theatre. The city even protested his planning for the project. So Griffith put both bequests in his will.
Griffith J. Griffith died of liver disease on July 6, 1919. His bequests were carried through and overseen by his son, Van, - as was the erecting of a statue of his father near the park’s main entrance. Today the observatory and the Greek theatre are highlights of Griffith Park, the jewel of Los Angeles.
Today it is impossible to imagine Los Angeles without Griffith's Park.
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