Twenty-six miles off the coast of Los Angeles, Catalina Island has been a weekend playground for Hollywood’s glitterati and ordinary folk alike for over 100 years. 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. But the Tongva left behind copious archeological evidence of their culture which was exploited by scientists in their pursuit of historical documentation of the island. But more problematic were the fortune-hunting grave robbers and none was more well known than the notorious “Dr.” Ralph Glidden, a self-proclaimed archeologist who used Tongva bones and other burial excavations in a bizarre museum attraction from 1922 to 1950.
The infamous Glidden called himself a doctor despite the fact that no record exists of his having attained even a high school education, let alone a doctorate degree. Born into a working class family in Massachusetts in 1880, the family had moved to Catalina in 1896 when Ralph was 16. He’d become a carpenter but by 1915 he’d met a treasure hunter and turned his attention to digging up ancient burials in the Channel Islands, at a time when no laws existed to prohibit it. By 1818 he’d amassed a collection big and impressive enough to be purchased by George Gustav Heye.
For a handful of years Glidden enjoyed a life of notoriety and celebrity, fueled not only by his frenzied enthusiasm for grave-robbing but also engineered by a shrewd sense of public relations. He had the support of not one but two well known Los Angeles journalists, Anna Overholt and Ernest Windle. Through them he reemerged as “Dr. Glidden,” “Professor Glidden” and “the famous archeologist Ralph Glidden,” as the Boston Globe called him.
“He seems very egotistical and to like the attention,” said Dr. Wendy Teeter, Curator of Archaeology at UCLA’s Fowler Museum.
“Although he talked of writing a history of the island, nothing was even written by him. Overholt and Windle wrote about him and his findings,” she added. “In 1915 a fire destroyed the home of Blanche Trask, a botanist/academic on the island who may have had the largest collection of prehistoric items on the island,” leaving a vacuum that Glidden would fill with the bounty of his burial-plundering.
“He sold what he could to anyone but kept the most spectacular items for himself,” Teeter said.
In 1919 when the chewing gum mogul William Wrigley purchased Catalina he immediately closed its interior to the hordes of treasure hunters that plagued the island. The Heye funding was reduced in 1922 and by 1924 it was cut off completely.
“I think many of his supporters eventually became disenchanted by what Glidden was doing and were trying to distance themselves from him,” Dr. Teeter contends.
With the cash cow effectively dead, Glidden’s only remaining hope for income was to build a museum to display the burials and artifacts he’d looted. Calling it the Catalina Museum of Island Indians, Glidden used bones profusely incorporated into the architecture of the building for decoration. Skull-filled shelves were bracketed by arm and leg bones, hand and foot bones lined window frames and vertebrae and shoulder bones hung from ceiling rafters in a display of ruthless disrespect for American Indians so pervasive at the time.
“It turned out that not all of the bones were even Tongva; Glidden had purchased remains of people that were Incan, Caucasian, African and Egyptian, passing them off as Indian,” said Teeter.
The Catalina Island Museum recently opened a new exhibit titled “The Strange and Mysterious Case of Dr. Glidden” after uncovering a cache of Glidden’s long lost journals, photographs and newspaper clippings in 2012. According to Executive Director Michael De Marsche, the objective of the exhibit is similar to exhibits dedicated to the German Holocaust; “You go to the Holocaust Museum to learn about the atrocities so they are never repeated again,” De Marsche said in an interview with CBS in Los Angeles.
When asked about her thoughts on the exhibit, Dr. Teeter was hesitant but affirmative: “It’s a hard subject matter. The exhibit is intentionally overwhelming and claustrophobic. When local Tongva/Gabrielino people saw it, it put them in a bad place; it was so hard for them they had to walk out,” she said.
Teeter pointed out that even though laws like NAGPRA theoretically prevent Glidden-esque looting of Native American burials, with the popularity of treasure hunting televisions shows like Spike TV’s “American Diggers” and National Geographic’s “Treasure Seekers” it still happens.
“On one reality show, someone authenticates and appraises a Native American skull with a spear point embedded in it. Even though you can’t sell something like this because of the laws, it’s being glorified and will sit in a box in a closet somewhere,” she lamented.