An evening at Villa Montezuma; Coda

Something between a viper and vampire.

Jesse Shepard
  • Jesse Shepard

(The second in a two-part series. Part one was published March 18.)

It’s after midnight, February 15, 1888. The last of the guests are finally leaving Jesse Shepard’s musicale at the Villa Montezuma. One- and two-horse carriages clop in the darkness. Behind them, the music room’s a multicolored sunburst: light from dozens of candles blazes like a furnace through stained-glass windows.

There goes Clara Foltz. California’s first woman lawyer had a “splendid time,” she says, but now faces an uncertain future. A month ago, she became the 235th real estate broker in San Diego. The other 234 were men. But the economic bubble had already burst. She will go on a national tour praising San Diego’s virtues with little success.

There’s Jennie Cowles, one of the few unaffected by the upcoming depression. They will name a mountain after her late husband George A. Cowles (who pronounced his name “coals,” not “cowels”). He will leave her his two ranches in El Cajon. In 1890 she will marry Milton Santee, a real estate developer. The town site growing around the north ranch will become Santee.

A light’s still on at Matthew Sherman’s house down the way. He built the original mansion on what became Sherman Heights. In 1887, to inaugurate the city’s first full-time mail delivery, he was hired to paint numbers on all the houses. The bubble burst on January 1, 1888. Now, over 3000 partially built structures no longer need an address. By June the population will drop from 35,000 to around 16,000.

Last guests to leave: William and John High. Rumors and slurs will hound the brothers from now on.

Jesse Shepard came to San Diego for the first time in 1876. He performed in the ruins of the old mission as part of an international tour. During his stay he became friends with fellow spiritualists Ebenezer W. Hulburd and Justin Robinson. Hulburd ran Searchlight Bower, a retreat in Descanso. Many prominent San Diegans were regulars at the oak-shaded glen, William and John High among them.

The brothers owned 300 acres near Alpine, and thousands more between Alpine and Ramona. William was vice president of Consolidated National Bank. According to T. S. Van Dyke, he “contributed liberally to all public movements, and although of retiring disposition [is] one of San Diego’s most progressive and substantial citizens.”

The High brothers brought Shepard to San Diego. They raised a majority of the funds and purchased lots 11 and 12, block 42, on Sherman’s Addition for the villa. Since Shepard was part of an attempt to elevate the growing city’s cultural status, the brothers only paid $1 for the two lots. They purchased others nearby — at $430 apiece — convinced that the villa would increase their value.

A persistent rumor alleged that the High brothers paid between $50,000 and $80,000, that the investment left them broke, and that Shepard hoodwinked the “simple country men” from the start.

William, the rumor alleged, was particularly vulnerable to suggestion. So, Shepard made contact with William’s deceased wife in a seance. She asked him to design and furnish a memorial in her honor. The High brothers, and some others, paid for the project. When they ran out of money, Shepard skipped town.

The rumor sharpened in 1913. William High’s nephew Sam told the San Diego Union: “I remember Jesse Shepard…and a fine fraud he was. If my old uncles had never met Jesse Shepard they would have died about half a million dollars richer, and I’d have been a bit better off myself,” since the brothers died “in a state of poverty.”

After William passed away, Sam asked John: “‘What ever got into you and Uncle William to give that house and all that money to Shepard?’ ‘Sam,’ he said, ‘it was hypnotism and nothing else. That man had us so hypnotized, we could have done anything under heaven he told us to do.’”

Sam High railed against Shepard’s ethics but not his musical skills. Invited to a musicale, Sam expected pseudo-mystical bells and whistles. Instead, he had one of the “most wonderful experiences” of his life. Shepard “was a peculiar genius,” Sam said. “I never understood how he worked it, and I guess no one else did either.”

Sam’s allegations may have had an ulterior motive. When he got married in 1890, William gave the newlyweds a town lot. That same year, William married Annie McDonald Smith. When William died in 1894, he willed everything to Annie and her three children.

Property records dispute some of Sam’s claims. The villa cost around $19,000 to build and another $7000 for the stained glass. And the brothers didn’t die in “tragic poverty.” They lost money during the depression but retained most of their East County lands.

A letter William wrote to the Union two months after the Valentine’s Day concert casts a different light: “Rumors circulated by gossips and busybodies” that the villa is “a spiritual temple” are “dead wrong,” says William. “Seances are not held in Mr. Shepard’s house. The subject of Spiritualism is not touched upon by the numerous visitors who call there.”

William debunked the rumor that he didn’t like Shepard performing outside the villa. “I do not presume to sit in judgment of Mr. Shepard’s actions, and have no control over him…. There are those who would make it appear that we are living under a tyranny of the Russian Czar instead of enjoying the benefits and freedom of American citizens.”

The statement reads as if William High had control over Shepard — even Czar-like — but was losing it.

Shepard had more sides than a quartz crystal. To some he showed the light, to others, refractions, and others, shadows. After he and his personal secretary Lawrence Tonner left San Diego in 1890, he never wrote about his time at the villa. Tonner only wrote a few sentences. Their silence, writes Shepard’s biographer Harold P. Simonson, “suggests that more went on than either person wanted known and that has been assumed since.”

The Jesse Shepard who came to San Diego was not the one the city expected. In June 1887, three months before he moved in, Shepard wrote his cousin, General Benjamin Grierson: “My home will be done in two weeks, and I shall dedicate it by giving several classical concerts in the music room. However, I shall let music take second place in the future, as I wish to do a great deal more of magazine and book work.”

In effect, before he moved in to the villa, the 41-year-old Shepard was shedding a skin. Though his patrons wanted a musician, with the allure of mystical trappings, he’d sworn off what he called “phenomenal spiritualism.”

By 1888, influenced by the rise of scientific methods, séances couldn’t just channel spirits. They had to show proof: tables had to rap; Ouija boards had to squirm; ghosts must leave ectoplasmic residue.

An extreme aesthete, Shepard abhorred materialism. But his “Palace of the Arts” had become a shrine for things. Watching the greed-frenzy down the hill in the fall of 1887 must have set him off as well — as did the growing demand for pseudo-scientific proof at séances. Though he may have resorted to sonic gimmicks in his musicales, by Valentine’s Day he no longer believed in them. And his former antics may have tracked him down.

Shepard had given musical séances in Europe and Russia. According to legend, the first time he channeled Hector Berlioz, the composer complained that the piano was tuned too low. After about ten minutes of “spirits tinkering with the piano” — the lid still shut — the instrument re-tuned itself. After Berlioz/Shepard played a marriage procession, the piano resumed its original intonation.

Though Shepard claimed he couldn’t read a score, according to Mrs. Mabelle Oakley, who attended several musicales in Paris, “he could play any opera selected by an audience without music.” And though he claimed only to know English and French, in a trance he could sing in German, Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Chaldaic, Arabic, and Russian.

Shepard discovered Spiritualism in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1871. He later claimed he performed for the czar. In 1874, Shepard met Madame Blavatsky, the famous Theosophist (“her eyes,” he wrote in Anecdotes and Episodes, “suggested something hidden and forbidden, something between a viper and vampire”). When he bragged that he headlined at Salle Koch in St. Petersburg, Blavatsky fumed. The name may have sounded exotic to a stranger, but she knew it was just a “low, lager beer saloon and dance hall frequented by dissipated characters of both sexes.”

When he boasted that Russian spirits improvised songs through him, Blavatsky recognized common folk tunes. He “paid a music master 32 rubles to teach him to sing them in a dark trance,” she said. And his “pretense of having played before the Czar” was “absolutely false.” She warned her followers that to praise the “trance pianist” would “injure Spiritualism.”

Shepard denounced “phenomenal spiritualism” in essays he wrote for San Diego’s literary magazine The Golden Era. On April 18, 1888, the San Diego Sun published Hudson Tuttle’s counterattack. The internationally recognized spiritualist asked: “Are you, Mr. Shepard, a humbug? Have you been sailing all these years under a false flag, allowing Spiritualists to believe you were the ‘most wonderful musical medium on earth,’ or were you really such?”

It must be “pleasant to repose in gilded halls,” Tuttle continued, “in the shaded light of stained glass windows and breathe the atmosphere tempered with perfume, but few can indulge therein. After the ‘Grand Egyptian March’ goes from the echoing halls of Villa Montezuma, where to mention the name of money is profanation, the thousands of toilers in the spiritual vineyard must go at the hard work of the breadwinner.”

Shepard denounced spiritual quackery as “humbug.” Readers of the Sun unclear about the matter may have concluded that Shepard was the psychic trickster.

During the real estate boom, Villa Montezuma became an icon of hope. Distinguished visitors toured the sculpted rooms and heard the famous music. For San Diegans, in the midst of shaping their own fortunes, the “palace” on the hill must have symbolized a dream fulfilled.

“Every American is a squatter at heart,” writes W.W. Robinson in Land in California. “Who does not want to get something for nothing?” For his gifts alone, Shepard earned a mansion with all the Victorian trimmings. But now, as thousands fled San Diego — leaving with nothing from nothing — the symbol on the hill lost luster. If Shepard was a “humbug,” the art glass windows in full, beacon-like glow must have looked like a waste of candles.

Shepard had called himself a “world famous mystic, seer, inspirational musician, and authority of prophecies, visions, and cosmic consciousness.”

“No one in his sane mind could be expected to subscribe to such stupendous claims,” writes Nandor Fodor, “and it appears that Shepard himself began to realize their enormity. As the years passed, he only sat for his friends and in the strictest confidence.”

How Shepard felt during this time he never said. It may have been the “moral pandemonium” he wrote about in a Golden Era piece, where turmoil envelops the soul like a whirlpool. He refused to address the rumor that one of his servants committed suicide. Nor did he acknowledge the morning when there was a knock on the door, Tonner answered and found an infant lying in a basket. The world was closing in.

Shepard’s life shadows that of French novelist, Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose deeply pessimistic Against the Grain (1884) tells the story of des Esseintes (“of the saints”). A “hyper-aesthetic idealist,” des Esseintes abhors middle-class society and “the incessant deluge of human foolishness.” So he builds himself a dream house and tries to shut out all human contact. Des Esseintes amuses himself with inventing perfumes, growing poisonous flowers, and setting gemstones on the shell of a tortoise. Throughout the novel, as he seeks perfection in minutiae, des Esseintes has a dreaded sense of something missing.

“After such a book,” a reviewer wrote, “it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross.” Huysmans converted to Roman Catholicism.

Shepard and Huysmans were born in 1848 (Huysmans in February, Shepard in September). Both were aesthetes gravely disillusioned with the world, and both failed to create a sanctuary to “grope into cool, delicious darkness.” Like Huysmans, on May 15, 1888, Shepard was baptized Roman Catholic at St. Vibiana’s Cathedral in Los Angeles.

Most likely feeling pressures from all sides — including life-threatening whispers about his allegedly “decadent” relationship with his companion — Shepard and Tonner left for Paris in September 1888, “to arrange for the publication of his Essays and Pen-Pensees.” They returned a year later. But facing foreclosure and most likely a severe loss of status, they left San Diego for good in the summer of 1890. Though Shepard had a residence at Villa Montezuma for almost three years, he and Tonner occupied it for a little over a year.

In 1890, Shepard shed his old skin completely: Benjamin Henry Jesse Francis Shepard became Francis Grierson. “Grierson” was his mother’s maiden name.

Tonner changed his, too. He became “L. W. Lund.” In 1891, “Grierson” begged his friend, the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, not to “tell the world at large” that the new writer Francis Grierson was in reality “the celebrated Jesse Francis Shepard.”

Shepard didn’t say why, but Maeterlinck must have known, since he promised to keep the secret.

[For purposes of clarity, I will continue to call them Shepard and Tonner].

After leaving San Diego, Shepard sought “self-imposed isolation.” He wrote ten books and gave private concerts to make ends meet. (Carl Sandburg called Shepard’s Valley of Shadows, about hardscrabble life on the Illinois prairie, a “minor classic.”) As Shepard and Tonner traveled the world, they became progressively poorer and more out of touch with the times.

As the Villa Montezuma does today, in the 20th Century Shepard stood out like a crumbling Victorian relic. Van Wyck Brooks (in Scenes and Portraits): “There was a touch of the charlatan in him, but there was a curious innocence too in this tall man with his worn old tweeds… the moustache was evidently dyed, and he rouged his cheeks, and that he wore a wig was apparent from the white hairs that straggled out over his ears… he was solitary, poor, and all but forgotten.”

After Shepard died, Brooks wrote Tonner, Shepard’s companion for four decades: “It must be a great gratification to you to realize all that you did for him in loving devotion and unwearful kindness for so many years.”

Shepard and Tonner settled in Los Angeles in 1920. Shepard published his final book, Psycho-Phone Messages (82 pages about contacts he’d made with the dead, most of whom decry the Jazz Age and decline of spiritualism). To pay the rent, the self-effacing Tonner worked in a tailor shop and gave French lessons. As times became more desperate, they sold priceless souvenirs for food. On Sunday, May 22, 1927, Shepard had to pawn his most prized possession: a gold watch given to him by King Edward VII.

The next Sunday evening, 30 friends gave him a benefit dinner. Among them, novelist Leetha Hofeller described the 79-year-old Shepard as “tall, straight remarkably profound and at the same time delightfully simple.”

After the meal, Tonner wrote, Shepard played “a number of his marvelous instantaneous compositions on the piano.” Then he announced his final number, “an Oriental expression, Egyptian in character.”

At the end of “Grand March of the Egyptians,” Shepard remained perfectly still, head tilted forward, tapered fingers arched over the keys.

“He often did that,” writes Tonner, “but it lasted too long and I went up to him — he was gone! There had not been the slightest warning. He had seemed in usual health… and he had been smiling and laughing with the company even a few moments before he passed away.”

Quotations:

  1. Charles Spratley: “From mystic to philosopher to poet and pauper, Francis Grierson lived a life so full that it took two names and two personalities to encompass them.”
  2. Keith Stern: “Perhaps in response to San Diego locals’ disapproval of the couple’s lifestyle, he and Tonner moved to Paris.”
  3. Harold P. Simonson: “Certainly nothing is accomplished by dismissing [Shepard] as a hoax which, in fact, he was not. Except for his questionable dealings in San Diego with the High brothers, his career has been one of genuine achievement in music and literature.”

Sources:

Brooks, Van Wyck, Scenes and Portraits (New York, 1954).

Crane, Clare, “The Villa Montezuma as a Product of Its Time,” Journal of San Diego History (Spring-Summer, 1987, vol. 33, no;s 2 & 3).

Fodor, Nander, “Who Was the Real Francis Grierson?” Between Two Worlds (New York, 1964).

Huysmans, J.K. Against the Grain (A Rebours) (English translation, New York, 1931).

Oakley, Mabelle Jessie, Letter to the Editor, Voice of the People, September 1957. Jesse Shepard Collections, 1868-1927, San Diego Historical Society.

Simonson, Harold P., Francis Grierson (New Haven, 1966); “Francis Grierson – A Biographical Sketch and Bibliography,” Journal of Illinois State Historical Society (Summer, 1961).

Smith, Walter Gifford, The Story of San Diego (San Diego, 1892).

Spratley, Charles, “The Life and Death of Francis Grierson,” La Prensa San Diego.

Stern, Keith, Queers in History: The Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Historical Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals (New York, 2009).

Articles in the San Diego Union, San Diego Sun, San Diego Bee, and others.

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