Catalina Island is about twenty-six miles off the coast of Los Angeles. For the Gabrielino/Tongva people (who called the island Pimu) it was home for at least 9,000 years until the arrival of the Spanish in 1542; their imported diseases and forced relocations had by the 1830s all but erased the Tongva presence.
The Tongva (Gabrielino) are an Indigenous people of California from the Los Angeles Basin and the Southern Channel Islands, an area covering approximately 4,000 square miles. This chain of islands has become home to a variety of lifeforms, including 2,000 plant and animal species, with 145 unique to the islands. Ralph Glidden, a self-taught archaeologist who moved to Catalina Island with his parents as a boy, uncovered ancient burial sites in the early part of the 20th century.
The infamous Glidden called himself a doctor despite no record of his having attained even a high school education, let alone a doctorate. Born into a working-class family in Massachusetts in 1881, the family moved to Catalina in 1896 when Ralph was 15.
Avalon Beach on Santa Catalina Island, circa 1903
Regardless of how he got started, Glidden did unearth human bones, along with artifacts like bowls and tools, while digging up ancient burial sites of the native Tongva Indians. Some say he dug up as many as 800 such sites. There were no laws at the time to prevent Glidden’s destructive activity, so people didn’t really question what he was doing.
People did not have the same view of human remains that we do now. It was not uncommon for people to collect and trade bones, like we might do with baseball cardsAn archeologist from the Fowler Museum at UCLA
In the early days of Glidden’s digging, an organization on the East Coast called the Heye Foundation was amassing a collection of Indian artifacts from around the country. They hired him to do some excavation, despite the fact that he had absolutely no knowledge of archeological practices or procedures.
Glidden hired a publicist and his stories gained some traction. They appeared in various publications like Popular Science, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe—giving a false sense of validation to his work. About the same time that Glidden was beginning to garner a bit of recognition, a legitimate British archeologist and Egyptologist named Howard Carter became a worldwide celebrity for discovering the intact tomb of King Tut in 1922.
The museum was modeled after an image he saw of a chapel in Malta. This chapel was made by the monks using the bones of the other monks. When opening his museum, Glidden said he wanted to have something North America had never seen before.Gail Fornasiere, director of marketing and public relations at the Catalina Island Museum
The wave of publicity, the start of an Egyptian craze, and Carter’s newfound fame annoyed Glidden. He needed to find a way to up his game and get back on people’s radar. So not to be outdone, he started making up outrageous tales. Seemingly out of nowhere, Glidden made his grandest claim of all: that there had once been an ancient race of extremely tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed “giants” living on Catalina Island. He promoted the idea that he had found skeletons of these giants, ranging from 7 feet to 9 feet tall. It’s important to note that there has never been any scientific evidence to substantiate this claim; neither the giant bones nor pictures of the bones exist. Chicago chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. purchased Catalina in 1919.
He was interested in preserving the history of the island and putting a stop to all unauthorized digging. Glidden was allowed to continue because of his contract, but about five years later he lost his funding from the Heye Foundation. It’s generally believed that he fabricated the “giants” story and other tall tales to create interest and make money.
It was then he came up with the idea of opening a “museum” to display the artifacts and skeletons he had looted. Glidden hoped that by charging admission, he could earn enough income to continue his work.
Named the Catalina Museum of Island Indians, the makeshift museum overlooking Avalon’s harbor was often described as bizarre and macabre. Glidden’s creation was definitely something no one in the area had seen before. He incorporated bones he’d found into the architecture of his structure, using them for both support and decoration. Skull-filled shelves were held up by arm and leg bones serving as brackets.
Window frames were adorned with toe and finger bones—the whole scene exhibiting a complete disregard for American Indians and their culture. Shortly after Glidden’s death in 1968, Philip K. Wrigley, the son of William Jr, bought Glidden’s entire collection for $5,000 and donated it to the Catalina Island Museum. Today the museum houses the artifacts, journals, photos, and scrapbooks of newspaper clippings that Glidden saved. Six years ago the museum held an exhibition titled “The Strange and Mysterious Case of Dr. Glidden.”
In addition to the artifacts, the museum was also in possession of human remains. A federal grant enabled the Catalina Island Museum to work with UCLA to repatriate the remains back to the island. There was a ceremony in 2016 to mark the occasion when the remains were reburied in an undisclosed location.
- Howard Carter (May 9, 1874 – March 2, 1939) was a British archaeologist and Egyptologist who discovered the intact tomb of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun in November 1922, the best-preserved pharaonic tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings. [Back]
- William Mills Wrigley Jr. (September 30, 1861 – January 26, 1932) was an American chewing gum industrialist. He was the founder of the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company in 1891. [Back]