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Bones flesh out an island's history

Files of man who dug up Indian skeletons could change views of early Catalina life

April 02, 2012|Louis Sahagun
  • Wendy Teeter, curator of archaeology at UCLA's Fowler Museum, flips through a notebook kept by the mysterious Ralph Glidden, a relentless collector and explorer who excavated hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of Native American burial sites on Santa Catalina and other Channel Islands in the 1920s and ’30s. Glidden’s penchant for making extraordinary claims generated headlines and expanded his markets for relics and remains.
Wendy Teeter, curator of archaeology at UCLA's Fowler Museum, flips… (Christina House, For The…)

The curator of the Catalina Island Museum opened the door to a musty backroom a few weeks ago hoping to find material for an upcoming exhibit on the World War II era. Closing the door behind him, he trudged down a narrow aisle lined with storage boxes and bins filled with gray photocopies of old letters, civic records, celebrity kitsch -- and dust.

"No luck," curator John Boraggina muttered.

But as he made his way to a back corner, he noticed another row of boxes. He carried the largest to a table, blew off the dust and lifted the lid.

Inside were leather-bound journals and yellowing photographs showing freshly unearthed skeletons lying on their backs or sides, or curled as if in sleep. Many were surrounded by grinding stones, pots and beadwork.

Several photos showed a man in soiled clothes standing tall with spade in hand beside chaotic jumbles of bones. Boraggina recognized him: Ralph Glidden.

The images, Boraggina soon realized, came from a time 90 years ago that many on Santa Catalina Island had forgotten -- or tried to forget. The photos were of the work of a pseudo-scientist -- some say a huckster -- who made a living unearthing Native American artifacts and human remains for sale and trade. Glidden had ruined much of Catalina's Native American cultural heritage, but in the process he also made discoveries thought lost in the passage of time.

Boraggina closed the big box and called the museum's executive director, Michael De Marsche. "Michael, hurry over. I discovered something amazing," he said. "I found Glidden's archives."

Minutes later, De Marsche was taking stock of enough historical photographs and handwritten documents to fill a gallery in the 60-year-old museum.

In the weeks since, the contents of the boxes have grown in importance. Researchers and scholars of California history --especially at UCLA's Fowler Museum, where some 200 of Glidden's skeletons are housed -- say the discovery will probably change the understanding of early life here and could eventually ease the anger of Native Americans outraged by the grave-robbing of the last century.

It is not often that a small-town curator unearths modern-day clues to a prehistoric past -- but scientists believe that's what happened here

March 2.

Catalina -- a 76-square-mile land mass about 26 miles from the mainland -- was the home of Tongva Indians who buried their dead on the island for millennia.

Digging up those graves was Glidden's business. The relentless collector and explorer excavated hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of burial sites on Catalina and other Channel Islands in the 1920s and '30s. Glidden's penchant for making extraordinary claims generated headlines and expanded his markets for relics and remains.

In 1928, for instance, he discovered a massive soapstone urn on Catalina that he said contained the skeleton of a young "royal princess" crouched in an upright position with her fingers clenched over the rim. The urn, he told reporters at the time, was surrounded by the skeletons of 64 children buried in tiers four deep, "with each little head touching one another."

About 5 feet below the children, Glidden said, was the skeleton of a man, 7 feet 8 inches tall, with a spear blade embedded in his left side. Glidden claimed it was evidence of a prehistoric race of giant fair-skinned, blue-eyed Native Americans.

No photographs of his unearthing of those remains are in the discovered boxes. But a 138-pound urn was a major attraction at Glidden's "Catalina Museum of Island Indians."

The museum, on a hill overlooking Avalon Harbor, was literally built of bones.

Newspaper articles from that era by publicist Alma Overholt describe it as a "unique and weirdly spectacular institution" with windows edged in toe, ankle, wrist and finger bones, and shoulder-blade cornices. Leg and arm bones served as brackets for shelves lined with skulls. Ceiling panels were decorated with vertebra and rosettes of shoulder blades.

Jeanne Hill, 89, a lifelong Avalon resident and historian, recalled how she hiked up the hill in the 1930s and paid Glidden 35 cents to look inside. "It was scary, very scary," Hill said. "Bones piled up all over the place. One skull had a light on in it."

"Years later, I came to doubt a lot of things about Ralph Glidden," Hill continued. "Once, I found some receipts showing that he'd bought skeletons from a curio shop on Broadway in Los Angeles. There also used to be a fake archaeological dig site on the north end of the island that was assumed to have been Ralph's work.

"Was a he a phony?" she asked rhetorically. "Well, it has been said."

Professional archaeologist and historian Robert Wlodarski agrees -- to a point.

"Glidden tried to maximize profits any way he could," Wlodarski said. "He also wanted to be a great scientist."

Born in Massachusetts in 1881, Glidden was 15 when he moved with his family to the island.

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