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Ghost stories from Los Feliz

From Manson family murders to the Sowden House, few neighborhoods in Los Angeles have a more ghoulish history

Los Feliz isn’t just bustling, friendly Vermont, charming Spanish-stucco homes, and the wonders of Griffith Park. The popular Los Angeles neighborhood, just to the east of the Hollywood sign, has also been the stomping ground of specters and spirits and evil Manson family killers.

Few neighborhoods in Los Angeles have a more ghoulish history, and all it all started with a cheating scandal in the 1830s. Join us as we recount some of the most ghastly tales Los Feliz has to offer.

Murder on the Rancho

The modern story of Los Feliz starts in the 1790s. Jose Vicente Feliz, a soldier and government official who had once served as the de facto mayor or “little father” of the new pueblo of Los Angeles, was granted 6,677 acres of ranch land outside of the pueblo. Called “Rancho Los Feliz,” or the “happy farm,” it prospered due to its “inexhaustible supplies of lumber, water and game.”

After Jose Vicente’s death, his heirs continued to operate and live on the rancho. It was an important gathering place for rural neighbors and those traveling to Los Angeles and played a crucial role in local events, including an annual Christmas pageant. This tranquil, communal way of life was shattered in 1836, by a murder that rocked the pueblo to its core.

Domingo Feliz, part-owner of the Rancho, had married a much younger, vivacious woman named Maria del Rosario Villa. Bored by her husband, Maria began an affair with Gervacio Alispaz, a suave, disreputable vaquero. She ran away from the comforts of Rancho Los Feliz to live with her lover, causing a scandal in tight-knit, very Catholic Los Angeles.

According to Mike Eberts, author of Griffith Park: A Centennial History, two years later, Domingo ran into his estranged wife and her paramour at a fiesta at the Mission San Gabriel. He took the opportunity to have Maria arrested and brought back to Rancho Los Feliz. Maria quickly escaped back to Los Angeles and went to plead her case to the mayor. He encouraged her to be a dutiful wife, and Maria seemed to change her tune, agreeing to go back home with her husband. Domingo put her on his horse and the two rode off together.

Home of Anastasio Feliz, originally built in 1855 on Rancho Los Feliz, it was situated on the east side of the rancho near the river. The adobe was remodeled in 1925; in 1936 William H. Johnson, the superintendent of the golf courses, occupied i
Home of Anastasio Feliz, built in 1855 on Rancho Los Feliz, it was situated on the east side of the rancho near the river.

As the couple was approaching home, tragedy struck. Though accounts vary, most agree that Gervacio appeared from the tall oaks on the edge of the Rancho. Gervacio attacked, pulling Domingo from the horse. As Maria cried for him to stab her husband, he did just that. After Domingo was dead, the lovers rolled him into a ravine and covered him with fallen leaves.

Domingo’s body was found within two days, and Maria and Gervacio were quickly arrested. The murder caused an uproar in the small pueblo of Los Angeles. A citizen’s commission, called the Junta Defensora, was formed to exact quick, brutal justice. They sent an extraordinary petition to city officials, which read in part:

… we demand of you that you execute or deliver to us for immediate execution the assassin Gervacio Alispaz, and the unfaithful Maria del Rosario Villa, his accomplice … nature trembles at the sight of these venomous reptiles and the soil turns barren in its refusal to support their detestable existence. Let the infernal pair perish! It is the will of the people. We will not lay down our arms until our petition is granted and the murderers are executed.

Unsatisfied with the official response, the Junta Defensora took matters into their own hands. The lovers were forcibly removed from their cells, killed by firing squad, and dumped in front of the city jail. The Junta disbanded days later. “And so ended,” one historian wrote, “the only instance in the seventy-five years of Spanish and Mexican rule in California, of the people, by popular tribunal, taking the administration of justice out of the hands of the legally constituted authorities.”

‘The Curse’

Life at Rancho Los Feliz went on. During the 1860s, much of the Rancho was owned by Don Antonio Feliz, a bachelor who lived a quiet life in the ranch’s main adobe. “He was considered a very rich man as the ranch then was well watered by the river and was productive,” columnist Lee Shippey recounted. “He had no children, but a niece named Petranilla had been reared like a daughter and was the apple of his eye.”

In 1863, Don Antonio contracted a fatal case of smallpox. According to Los Angeles pioneer and noted fabulist Major Horace Bell, author of the quasi-history On The Old West Coast, this illness would set into action a curse that grips Los Feliz and Griffith Park to this day.

Griffith J. Griffith.

According to Bell, Petranilla was sent to Los Angeles to escape the smallpox outbreak. While she was gone, vultures, in the form of Antonio’s good friend Antonio Coronel and a lawyer named Don Inoccante, visited the dying man at his adobe. They manipulated him into changing his will, leaving the Rancho not to the clever and strong-willed Petranilla, but to Coronel.

Don Antonio died soon after. When Petranilla discovered that she had been cut out of her beloved uncle’s will, she unleashed a curse on Coronel, Don Innocante, and the land her family had owned for generations. “Your falsity shall be your ruin! The substance of the Feliz family shall be your curse! The lawyer that assisted you in your infamy, and the judge, shall fall beneath the same curse,” she began. She continued:

The one shall die an untimely death and the other in blood and violence. A blight shall fall on this terrestrial paradise. The cattle shall sicken, the fields shall no longer respond to the tiller. I see a great flood spreading destruction. I see the grand oaks wither in the tongues of flames. The wrath of heaven and the vengeance of hell shall fall upon this place.

It is said the curse went into effect almost immediately. Bell claims Don Innocante was soon killed, and that others involved in the swindle, including Coronel, met financial and physical misfortune. The cursed land was quickly sold to a man named Leon Baldwin, who found the once fertile Rancho overrun by grasshoppers who ate all the crops, causing all the cattle to die. Baldwin was later killed by an outlaw. The Rancho was then sold to a man named Thomas Bell, who would soon unload it on its most famous owner, and current ghost—Griffith J. Griffith.

Ghosts of Griffith Park

Welshman Griffith J. Griffith was a self-made millionaire and a bombastic self-promoter whom Horace Bell contemptuously referred to as “The Prince of Wales.” After buying the old Rancho for a steal, he set about turning it into a profitable farm. But soon after its purchase a great flood wiped out the crops and sent waves of water rushing through the canyons. Legend has it that workers saw both Don Antonio and Petranilla’s ghosts riding on the waves, laughing at the Rancho’s misfortune.

According to Bell, workers on the ranch, terrified of the curse, refused to be on the property after nightfall. Griffith himself would not spend the night on the ranch. Stuck with land on which nothing would grow and no one would go, Griffith decided in 1896 to donate the land to the city for use as a public park. At a banquet held to celebrate the gift, city officials and Griffith gathered in the old Feliz adobe, drinking and partying.

At the stroke of midnight, they were visited by an uninvited guest—the ghost of Don Antonio Feliz. “Senores, I am Antonio Feliz, come to invite you to dine with me in hell,” he announced to the stunned revelers. “In your great honor, I have brought an escort of subdemons.”

Los Feliz, photographed in 1937.

“The lights suddenly went out and the guests went out as suddenly,” Los Angeles Times columnist Lee Shippey wrote. “They kept right on going until safe at home.”

In 1903, the curse was blamed when a temporarily insane Griffith, convinced his wife was conspiring against him, shot her in the face at the Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica (she lived).

Today, the disgraced Griffith is said to haunt the park, along with Don Antonio and Petranilla. She has been seen at the Feliz Adobe at Crystal Springs staring out the window at night, riding a white horse, and in the face of Bee Rock above the old zoo.

Numerous other ghosts have been reported in the park. It is said strange animal noises can be heard near the old zoo at midnight. There is the ghost of the tragic Peg Entwistle—the actress who jumped to her death from the Hollywood sign in 1932. She is said to roam beneath the landmark, her signature gardenia perfume trailing behind her.

Actress Peg Entwistle jumped to her death from the Hollywood sign in 1932.

The curse is said to have been the cause of a devastating fire that killed 29 untrained firefighters in Mineral Wells Canyon in 1933. There is the supposedly haunted picnic table, where it is rumored that two lovers were crushed by a falling tree branch mid-hookup in 1976, and the ghost of a man (perhaps Walt Disney) who climbs the steps around the merry-go-round.

And what of the curse said to be the cause of it all? It’s probably total bull, the exaggerations of Horace Bell’s overactive imagination. “In Horace Bell’s fanciful account, Petranilla died on the spot of grief after delivering her curse,” Cecilia Rasmussen of the LA Times points out. “But according to historians, she lived to the age of 92, and [Antonio Coronel] did not really cheat Feliz out of his land, but purchased it later for $1 an acre.”

Sowden House

Does the probably bogus curse still damn the modern-day neighborhood of Los Feliz? The brutal murders purported to have taken place there may lead one to believe it does.

Built in 1926 for John and Ruth Sowden, the Mayan-Revival Sowden House on Franklin Avenue has gained prominence not only for its unique architectural design by Lloyd Wright, but for its alleged ties to the infamous Black Dahlia. During the 1940s, the home was occupied by Dr. George Hodel, his ex-wife Doro, and their children. While Hodel hosted decadent, depraved parties for friends such as Man Ray and John Huston, his son Steve recalls the home as a child’s dark wonderland:

Once through the gate, you turned immediately to your right and continued up a dark passageway, then made another right turn to the front door. It was like entering a cave with secret stone tunnels, within which only the initiated could feel comfortable… Growing up in that house, my brothers and I saw it as a place of magic that we were convinced could easily have greeted the uninvited with pits of fire, poison darts, deadly snakes, or even a giant sword-bearing turbaned bodyguard at the door.

The Sowden House.

But for Steve’s sister, Tamar, the home was a nightmare place where she was raped and sexually abused by her father and his friends. When George was questioned about her claims, he stated he had been "delving into the mystery of love and the universe" at the Sowden House, and that the acts of which he was accused were "unclear, like a dream.”

George’s son Steve, a retired Los Angeles Police Department cop, now believes that his father was a prolific serial killer. He believes his father killed Elizabeth Short—the Black Dahlia—in the basement of the home, and that cadaver dogs have indicated the presence of human remains.

We do know the Sowden House was bugged by the suspicious LAPD when George lived there, because he was recorded saying: “Supposin' I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn't prove it now. They can't talk to my secretary anymore, because she's dead.”

Whatever the truth, dark things did happen in the Sowden House, now a popular filming and events location. In the late ’70s, an elderly homeless woman knocked on the back door. She chatted with the owner, indicating intimate knowledge of the home during George Hodel’s time. “This,” she said, “is a house of evil.”

The Los Feliz ‘Murder House

While the evil events at Sowden House are shrouded in mystery and rumor, there is no doubt as to what happened at 2475 Glendower Place on the evening of December 6, 1959. It’s what happened to the Spanish Colonial Revival mansion in the following decades that continues to baffle.

On that December night, Dr. Harold Perelson, a typically mild-mannered cardiologist, killed his sleeping wife, Lillian, with a hammer. He then went into the room of his 18-year-old-daughter Judye and began to beat her with a hammer as well. Judye’s screams of “Don’t kill me!” awoke her 11-year-old sister, Debbie, who ran to the hall to see what was wrong. Her father appeared, telling her “go back to bed, this is a nightmare.” According to the LA Times:

Judye fled to the home of Marshall Ross … who went to the Perelson home, there to meet Dr. Perelson in a state of agitation. Ross told him to lie down. When the police arrived, Dr. Perelson was dead [of an overdose] beside his wife’s bed in the master bedroom.

On the bed-stand next to the bodies was a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy opened to the Canto 1, reading: "Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost . . .

The Perelson children never returned to the home. Legend has it that another family lived in the mansion briefly, fleeing on the anniversary of Lillian’s death, leaving their Christmas presents unopened on a kitchen table. In 1960, the estate was bought by Emily and Julian Enriquez.

Bafflingly, the family never moved in or fixed it up, using it only as a place to store things and a place for their cats. This led to strange rumors of the untouched murder house. It drew constant trespassers and became an unsightly headache for neighbors. In 1994, Rudy Enriquez, who had inherited the house in 1994, told the LA Times: “The only spooky thing there is me. Tell people to say their prayers every morning and evening and they'll be OK.”

Rudy died in 2015. The home was bought by attorney Lisa Bloom and her husband for $2.280 million in 2016. It is being renovated now, and one hopes, exorcized of any ghosts that reside therein.

The LaBianca House

We end our ghastly Los Feliz tour with its most famous murder. On the evening of August 10, 1969, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca were at their Spanish-style mansion at 3301 Waverly Drive, which had been owned by Leno’s family since 1940. The Sharon Tate murders the night before had gripped Los Angeles in a vice of fear.

Aeria view of the home of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, photographed in 1969.

The killers were about to strike again. On the order of Charles Manson, Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten burst into the house, which had been selected solely because it was posh.

“[Tex] told Pat and I to go into the kitchen and get knives, and we took Mrs. LaBianca into the bedroom and put a pillowcase over her head,” Van Houten recalled. “I wrapped the lamp cord around her head to hold the pillowcase on her head. I went to hold her down.”

Rosemary was then stabbed 14 times. According to the LA Times, the crime scene was nightmarish:

Mrs. LaBianca’s body, clad in a peignoir and bathrobe, was found on the floor of the master bedroom... A pillowcase was pulled over her head and tied loosely with an electric cord from a lamp. The body of her 44-year-old husband, the owner of four Los Angeles supermarkets, was discovered on the floor beside the living room couch. He was wearing pajamas and his head had also been covered by a pillowcase held in place by a knotted lamp cord. He had been stabbed 12 times. A carving fork was stuck in his abdomen, a kitchen knife in his throat and the word “war” had been cut on his abdomen.

The LaBianca heirs eventually sold the cursed home. It is now a private residence, deceptively lovely and light, much like the neighborhood it lives in.

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