Exhibition explores the life of amateur archaeologist Ralph Glidden

Few individuals connected with the history of Catalina Island lived a life as colorful and as riddled with contradictions and mystery as the archaeologist Ralph Glidden.

He called himself a “doctor,” but there is doubt that he ever graduated from high school.  

He excavated hundreds of the Island’s Native American gravesites and sought respectability as an archaeologist.  

Few individuals connected with the history of Catalina Island lived a life as colorful and as riddled with contradictions and mystery as the archaeologist Ralph Glidden.

He called himself a “doctor,” but there is doubt that he ever graduated from high school.  

He excavated hundreds of the Island’s Native American gravesites and sought respectability as an archaeologist.  

But he was a shameless promoter and shuffled hundreds of tourists through a “museum,” which he planned to crown with a massive 16-foot skull visible to visitors as they sailed into Avalon’s harbor.  He sold vast collections of human remains to prestigious museums, but exhibited remains with irreverence, as if they were a macabre form of decoration.  

Serious scientist or crass, unconscionable grave robber?  

It’s a question that will forever haunt the memory of Ralph Glidden.  And it’s a question that lies at the heart of an exhibition slated to open on May 11th at the Catalina Island Museum: “The Strange and Mysterious Case of Dr. Glidden.”

Little is known of Glidden’s early life.  In 1896, at the age of 16, he moved to Avalon with his parents from Lowell, Massachusetts.  He worked as a carpenter, but in 1915 he began to excavate Native American sites on San Nicolas and San Miguel Islands.  He quickly amassed an impressive collection that the Los Angeles Times suggested “would make any curator in this nation envious.”  

In 1918, just three years after initiating his first dig, he sold his entire collection to the prestigious Heye Foundation of the Museum of the American Indian in New York.

The following year, the chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. purchased Catalina Island, and almost immediately made the Island’s interior off limits to the many amateur collectors who were raiding grave sites and confiscating human remains as souvenirs.  Wrigley wanted to ensure that all archaeological specimens taken from Catalina Island became the property of museums and the subject of serious research.  

In 1919 he granted Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History exclusive rights to all artifacts gathered on the Island.  The Field Museum contracted the Heye Foundation to conduct all digs and agreed to split the objects equally between the two museums.  Ralph Glidden was chosen to conduct all excavations.

Glidden’s work was prolific by any standard.  He is known to have excavated at least 801 gravesites from 105 individual locations from around the Island.  He accumulated unquestionably the largest collections ever assembled of human remains and artifacts related to the native peoples of Catalina Island.  By 1920 he had gone from working as a carpenter to dining with one of America’s wealthiest men, George Gustav Heye.  

A shrewd promoter, he hired a journalist formerly of the L.A. Examiner and Los Angeles Times, Alma Overholt, as his personal publicist.  Glidden now called himself “Professor Glidden,” and, with Overholt’s help, transformed himself into what the Boston Globe called “the famous archaeologist Ralph Glidden.”

In 1922 the Heye Foundation suddenly reduced its funding to Glidden.  In April of 1924, the foundation informed Glidden that their research into the Channel Islands was now finished and cut his funding entirely.  Glidden’s excavation plans were decimated, and he was now desperate for money.  His only source for real income was a “museum” that he had established two years earlier on a hillside overlooking Avalon’s harbor.  The museum was little more than a large canvas tent, but all of the bombast that he once used to create his new identity, now focused on the museum.  

The Catalina Museum of Island Indians was, according to Glidden, “unlike anything else anywhere in this country.” He based its interior on a mortuary chapel on the Island of Malta, which had walls decorated with motifs formed from the bones of monks.  Photographs of Glidden’s museum reveal his total disregard for the sanctity of human remains, an unfortunate attitude pervasive at the time.  

Utilizing skeletal remains as a macabre form of decoration, the unsettling interior of his museum was a popular stop for hundreds of tourists.  Shelves displayed rows of human skulls.  Femur bones were used as supports, while windows were decorated with an assortment of smaller human bones, including those from fingers and feet.  Glidden himself was often photographed with visitors, as he no doubt captivated them with tales of his many digs and unprecedented discoveries.  

But the museum struggled financially, and Glidden found it difficult to sustain his work.   Then, in 1923, Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamen’s ancient tomb in Egypt captivated the world’s attention.  Archaeological exploration into ancient civilizations was now popular, and Glidden pounced on the obsession.  During the next several years, he spun fantastic tales of his research on Santa Catalina: he had found evidence of a race of giants on the Island; he discovered evidence of “white Indians;” he found the fabled lost Temple of the Sun God that was bigger in scope than Stonehenge.  

In his most widely reported discovery, he announced that he had uncovered a magnificent and beautifully decorated funerary urn.  This much was true.  But then he went on to recall that inside the soapstone urn he found the skeleton of a young girl—a princess, perhaps—clutching the urn’s rim.  

Encircling the vessel was a circle made up of the skeletons of sixty-four children, and beneath it all was the remains of a giant man, killed apparently by a spear wound to his side.  

The sensational nature of Glidden’s stories proved irresistible.  Articles were published in The New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the L.A. Examiner.  By the early 1930s he had received modest funding to continue his research. Publications such as Popular Science and The American Weekly continued to publish his claims, the majority of which were simply too incredible to believe.  His reputation was now almost fully ruined.  He was nearly bankrupt.  He sold large portions of his collection and tenaciously clung to the rest.  He now claimed that he alone had uncovered a “secret history” of Catalina Island, which he refused to divulge until someone paid him for his collection.  His asking price was steep.  He required an annual annuity for life, funding for five expeditions, and the necessary financing for various planned publications that included a large monograph chronicling all of his excavations.  For 30 years he shopped the collection. In 1962 he finally sold it—for $5,000.  The purchaser, Philip Knight Wrigley, donated the entire collection to the Catalina Island Museum later that year.  

Ralph Glidden died in 1968.  

After his death, it was discovered that Glidden’s History of Catalina Island Indians contained less than 10 pages of text.  Over the following decades the documents that he had compiled, which must have included financial ledgers, letters, diaries, journals, field notes, newspaper clippings and photographs, were rumored to exist but supposedly lost.  But in March of 2012, many of these documents—which must have been part of the collection when Wrigley purchased it—were discovered in an unlabeled box in the archive of the Catalina Island Museum.  

The discovery is of incalculable value and provides the foundation for the museum’s upcoming exhibition based on Glidden’s life and work.  The discovery itself was newsworthy, and its announcement was published on the front page of the Los Angeles Times.  It no doubt would have made Dr. Ralph Glidden very proud.  “The Strange and Mysterious Case of Dr. Glidden” will be exhibited from May 11 through Sept. 29, 2013 and can only be viewed at the Catalina Island Museum.