Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, July 3, 2008


Page 15



Maimed Wife Secures Divorce From Assailant/Husband




Widespread supposition was that Christina Griffith—shot by her husband at close range with a pistol, necessitating the surgical removal of an eye—would relent in her efforts to effectuate a criminal prosecution of her attacker-spouse for assault with intent to commit murder.

This was 1903. A wife’s place was loftier than that of servants…but not by much. Newspaper articles of the day refer to the husband as “Col. Griffith J. Griffith” while, most often, identifying his spouse merely as “Mrs. Griffith.”

The ancient Roman legal maxim “Uxor non est sui juris sed sub potestate viri” (a wife is not her own mistress but is subject to the power of her husband) retained much vitality.

Christina Griffith could not, in those days, have sued her husband for her personal injuries. As a 1909 California Supreme Court decision recites the law, borrowed from England, “an action cannot be maintained by one spouse against the other for a battery committed during the continuance of the marriage relation.” That was not to change until a state high court decision on Nov. 9, 1962 updated the law.

Divorce, though permitted by statute, was rare in 1903…and was all the more exceptional among Catholics, such as Mary Agnes Christina Griffith, given that it was not countenanced by the church.

The divorce petition was drafted by her lawyer, Isidor Dockweiler, and filed late in the afternoon on Sept. 8, 1903, five days after the shooting. The petition alleges that the husband, Griffith J. Griffith (the entrepreneur who donated the land known as “Griffith Park”) “has treated the plaintiff in a cruel and inhuman manner” and “has inflicted upon plaintiff grievous bodily injury and grievous mental suffering.”

The petition seeks alimony, child custody, and a judgment that “the bonds of dissolved.”

Newspapers on Sept. 29 contain reports that the husband had offered his wife a $35,000 cash settlement, conditioned on her refusing to testify against him.

Was she, in fact, tempted by the prospect of a settlement, though with that proviso? It was suspected that she was. On Oct. 21, it became known that the husband’s preliminary hearing, scheduled for the next morning, might be continued based on the wife’s unavailability...for the third time. A Los Angeles Times reporter asked Dockweiler whether it were true that she was never going to testify. This is the lawyer’s response, as it appears in the next morning’s issue:

“There is no such intention that I know of. Oh, no, there’s nothing of that kind. I have heard that they are making bets that she will not attempt to send him to State’s prison, but I don’t think there is any intention of dropping the prosecution. Why, as I understand it she will be compelled to give her testimony.”

Under common law, a wife was absolutely barred from testifying against her husband. That was statutorily abrogated in California in 1872, with Penal Code §1322 permitting testimony against a spouse “in cases of criminal violence upon one by the other,” and Code of Civil Procedure §1881 containing a like provision. (There was otherwise an incapacity to testify against a spouse; since 1967, there has been, by contrast, a privilege not to testify.)

A monetary settlement—for the flat sum of $62,500, plus medical expenses—was reached on Oct 23, with Dockweiler and the husband’s lawyer, Charles Silent, doing the negotiating. (Using the Consumer Price Index, $62,5000 would be roughly $1.5 million in today’s dollars.) The Times’ news account the next morning contains this speculation:

“The preliminary examination of Col. Griffith on a charge of assault to murder is set for November 2, and although it is strenuously asserted by both sides that this settlement will have no effect upon the criminal case, it is not probable now that Col. Griffith will ever be convicted on that charge.”

On Nov. 2, she did testify. The woman was subjected to vigorous cross examination, fainting as she left the witness stand. Griffith was bound over for trial.

She again fainted in departing from the witness stand after testifying at her husband’s trial on Feb. 17, 1904.

The Nov. 5, 1904 edition of the Los Angeles Examiner tells of the divorce hearing:

Mrs. Griffith, pale and somewhat nervous,... stated that her husband shot her while she was upon her knees and after she was allowed to pray.

“Did you have any quarrel?”

“No, sir, not one word.

Judge [Matthew T.] Allen then interrupted and inquired more closely concerning the act of shooting itself.

“It was deliberate,” said Mrs. Griffith emphatically. “He made me get down on my knees. I asked to pray.”

Judge Allen: “He then fired?”

Mrs. Griffith: “Yes, sir.”

Judge Allen: “Divorce granted.”

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