Jesse Shepard and the Spark of Genius
by Clare Crane
WHO was this multi-faceted genius who graced San Diego's cultural scene for a brief time during the boom of the 1880s, and left behind him the magnificent Villa Montezuma?
Jesse Shepard was born September 18, 1848, in Birkenhead, England, to Joseph Shepard and Emily Grierson Shepard. The family migrated soon afterward to the United States and by 1849, had settled in Sangamon County, Illinois. During Shepard's early youth on the midwestern prairies, he heard the last of the Lincoln-Douglas debates at Alton, Illinois, in 1858, and he remained always impressed by Lincoln's spiritual strength and the foreboding atmosphere which preceded the Civil War. He later dealt with these themes in two books: The Valley of Shadows and Lincoln, the Practical Mystic, in which Shepard emphasized Lincoln's reliance upon intuition and inner spiritual guidance.
In 1869, Shepard, convinced of his "intuitive" musical talent, left for Europe to seek fame and fortune. His search continued the remainder of his life, ending only with his death in Los Angles, in 1927.
Shepard's autobiographical sketch makes clear that he had superb self-confidence in his charm and talent, for he launched himself on his world travels without funds, letters of introduction, or prior reputation. Yet somehow he found his way into the salons of Paris, where his musical improvisations and singing of operatic selections charmed his audiences and resulted in a string of invitations. As Shepard's popularity grew, he traveled from one country to another, spending weeks, or even months, at the homes and estates of many noted men and women of wealth and influence. Here he developed a nomadic lifestyle, characterized by a dependence on the generous offers of patrons for his support. With little money of his own, Shepard sought to entertain such titled patrons throughout Europe, including the Czar of Russia, and England's Prince of Wales. Alexander Dumas, the great French novelist, was so impressed by Shepard that he told him: "With your gifts, you will find all doors open before you."
In 1871, Shepard went to St. Petersburg, where he played for the Czar. Here, he expanded his already growing interest in Eastern mysticism and received instruction in the art of conducting seances. When Shepard returned to the United States in 1874, he visited the celebrated medium, Madame Blavatsky, in Vermont. She was the founder of Theosophy, a mystical, intuitive philosophy of life that appealed to many artistic and sensitive people in the late nineteenth century.
Jesse Shepard lived in Chicago in 1880, and reputedly gave seances in the home of a prominent medium. He claimed to be in touch with ancient Egyptian spirits, and put on a remarkable musical performance which included singing "in two voices," made possible by his great vocal range.
Shepard's "spiritualism" was limited to his musical performances. He did not claim to materialize spirits from the other world, or to relay messages from departed souls through table-rapping, trumpets or disembodied voices. He sometimes claimed that the spirits of famous composers or pianists performed through him and he considered his musical talents to be the result of intuition rather than study and practice. Shepard's mother did note in a letter, however, that her son took music lessons in his early childhood, so not all his talent was derived from spiritual revelation. In any case, his concerts (which included popular operatic selections interspersed with his own compositions) were usually given in dimly-lighted rooms, and described as "mysterious and entirely unique."
Sometime in 1885, Shepard met Lawrence W. Tonner, a man some fifteen years younger than himself, who became Shepard's devoted secretary and companion for over forty years. When Shepard was down on his luck in later years, Tonner supported him by giving French lessons or by working in a tailoring shop. A self-effacing man, Tonner's name seldom appeared in articles by or about Shepard and he did not even rate a listing in the San Diego City Directory during the years that he and Shepard lived in the Villa Montezuma.
SHEPARD first visited California in 1876, on a musical tour during which he played and sang at several of the old missions. At San Diego, he wrote: "I found the Mission in ruins, with owls roosting over the dilapidated doors. But what a mysterious charm this old ruin cast over that placid region, serene in an atmosphere of transcendental silence."
When Shepard returned to San Diego ten years later, it was no longer a "placid region," but a bustling city. He made San Diego his home for two eventful years, during which he built the remarkable Villa Montezuma and underwent a significant artistic and spiritual transformation.
In 1886, Shepard was deeply involved in spiritualism. Although some people regarded spiritualism as quackery, many solid, sober citizens viewed it as a kind of non-denominational religion, emphasizing man's relationship to the spiritual presence of God. There was a First Spiritualist Society in San Diego whose members included such prominent people as Mrs. Alonzo Horton, wife of the city "Father," and Mrs. Edward Bushyhead, wife of the County Sheriff.
Shepard's first contacts in San Diego were probably with Spiritualists. Just as he had visited the Eddy brother's farm in 1874, in Vermont (where he met Madame Blavatsky), so may Shepard have been drawn to Hulburd's Grove in San Diego County. Here, at a cottage named "Searchlight Bower," (because it was dedicated to the "search for truth") lived Ebenezer Hulburd and his friends, Dr. F.C. Myers and Justin Robinson. They were all Spiritualists, with Robinson acting as the medium, attempting to contact spirits of the dead. William and John High, wealthy ranchers who lived nearby, fell under the spell of the Spiritualist cult.
When the High brothers met Shepard, they were so fascinated by him and his musical performances that they persuaded him to settle in San Diego and offered to finance the construction of the Villa Montezuma, an elegant residence where he could have his own "salons."
The Villa provided an impressive background, indeed, for the lavish receptions that Shepard accorded visiting celebrities, including California Governor Robert Waterman, and Shepard's famous cousin, the Civil War hero, General Benjamin Grierson.
JOINING the group of poets, artists and musicians who formed the nucleus of The Golden Era magazine, was an important part of the artistic and spiritual transformation that Shepard underwent during his short residence in San Diego. Perhaps the constant approbation he received, and the pride of owning such a beautiful home, gave him enough security to sever his ties with Spiritualism. Perhaps it was, so some said, the beneficent influence of Father Antonio Ubach, priest of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps it was the excitement of discovering that he had a new talent — writing — and the possibility of a new career. Perhaps it was a combination of these factors that brought about the change in Shepard's life.
Shepard repudiated Spiritualism sometime in 1887, and was quoted in the San Diego Union as denouncing the "busybodies" who circulated rumors that he gave seances in the Villa. Another article, printed in the Sun, also refuted the notion of seances by stating that the subject of Spiritualism was never mentioned by the many visitors who called at the Villa.
Thus a significant turning point in Shepard's life was marked when he wrote in June, 1887, to 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 of magazine and book work..."
As Shepard moved further from music and from Spiritualism, he was also moving closer to Catholicism. In June, 1887, he sang at St. Joseph's, the Catholic Church presided over by Father Ubach (affectionately referred to as "the last of the padres"). And in the same month, Shepard's first essay was published in The Golden Era. It described the personality and ideas of Abbé Joseph Roux, a French Catholic priest whom Shepard had met abroad, and whose Meditations had recently been published. In August, Shepard traveled to San Francisco, where he had been invited to sing in the French Catholic Cathedral; the San Diego Union noted that "his remarkable singing created a sensation" and that the Young Men's Institute (a Catholic group) gave a reception for him.
Meantime, Shepard embarked on the literary career that became the main outlet for his creativity for the remainder of his life. Symbolic of the change in his life was Shepard's adoption of a literary name: no longer Jesse Shepard, he became "Francis Grierson."
His essays printed in The Golden Era dealt with persons and places that had impressed him in his European travels, and with his ideas about literature and philosophy. He was opposed to the materialistic, scientific view of life, which he felt left no room for faith, mystery, romance and spiritual concerns; and he attacked the kind of literature that he believed was a product of this world view: the new "realism" of Emile Zola and his followers.
In the fall of 1888, Shepard and Tonner went to France to arrange for the publication of a collection of his essays. Titled "Pensées et Essais," it was published in Paris in the spring of 1889. Flattered and encouraged by the popular reponse to this book, Shepard decided to settle in Europe and pursue a literary career.
Part of his decision to leave the United States may have stemmed from financial difficulty. Shepard received little money from the articles he wrote for The Golden Era and never charged for any of his musical performances. He borrowed money against the Villa Montezuma to pay for the trip to France and subsequently risked foreclosure on the property. To add to his growing financial problems, San Diego's boom period abruptly "busted" in 1888, ending the era of rapid growth and sense of prosperity brought about by the arrival of the railroad. The industry people anticipated did not arrive. Real estate prices dropped and thousands left town as quickly as they had come.
SHEPARD returned to San Diego in August, 1889, after a year abroad, and began to make arrangements for his departure. In December, Shepard announced he was leaving San Diego permanently and consented to give a public farewell concert. On December 17, the day on which he gave the concert, Shepard also completed the sale of the Villa Montezuma and all its furnishings to David D. Dare, a fortunate move considering how hard economic times had affected the real estate market.
Jesse Shepard departed San Diego in high style. His farewell concert, held in one of the local churches, was crowded with music lovers. Local poets, vocalists and a string quartette also participated in the program.
Was Shepard a fraud who tricked the High brothers and others into building him a house and maintaining him in luxury? While many people have speculated endlessly over Shepard's real intentions, one thing remains clear — he was a poor businessman who knew little about financial management or how to protect the few assests he had. The nomadic lifestyle Shepard had adopted as a young man, had taken its toll. Shepard was so used to being a pampered guest, he simply failed to realize that he would ever be held accountable for his actions. In all probability, Shepard never dreamed the day might come when the long string of invitations would play out.
Shepard's brief sojourn in San Diego certainly did not add to the over-all prosperity of the High brothers. While they lost money on the Villa, however, there is no evidence to support the notion that Shepard intended to defraud them.
Contemporary news stories show that the Villa Montezuma was built for $19,000 and that it was sold to David D. Dare, in 1889, for $29,000. If there was ever a case for fraud, it was the work of this man, Dare, a high-flying financier who had ruined a bank in Cheyenne, Wyoming, before moving to San Diego during the boom of the 1880s. Dare opened a bank and a cablecar railroad in San Diego and swindled many trusting investors before the bank examiners began investigating his affairs. In addition, Dare was forced to sell the Villa within a month after its purchase, thus beginning the cycle of chronic turn-overs that would be the Villa's fate. Dare fled to Europe in 1890, and never returned.
SHEPARD'S final years served as poignant testimony to his chronic financial difficulties. Now an elderly man, Shepard depended upon his friend, Tonner, for economic support and encouragement. A small band of expatriots also lent support sometimes holding Sunday afternoon salons at which Shepard presided. He was forced to sell all but a few of the treasured possessions he still owned, and shortly before his death, pawned a beloved gold watch given him by Edward VII.
His pride and dignity remained intact, however, for Shepard did not allow his impoverished circumstances to affect either his outward appearance or inner spirit. Leetha Hofeller, a Los Angeles author who knew Shepard and Tonner well during the 1920s, frequently entertaining them at dinner, described Shepard, then in his seventies, as "tall, straight remarkably profound and at the same time delightfully simple."
A benefit dinner given for Shepard on the evening of May 29, 1927, marked his final performance. Appropriately, Shepard's long-time companion and confidante, Lawrence Tonner, described this occasion.
It was Sunday evening... We had a number of people invited for a musical recital at our home — about thirty. A collection was to be taken up. Mr. Grierson had played a number of his marvelous instantaneous compositions on the piano and had given the company a talk on his experiences and impressions of France and Italy.
He turned to the instrument and announced that the next and last piece of the evening would be an Oriental improvisation, Egyptian in character.
The piece was long, and when it seemed to be finished he sat perfectly still as if resting after the ordeal of this tremendous composition. He often did that, but it lasted too long and I went up to him — he was gone!
His head was only slightly bent forward, as usual in playing, and his hands rested on the keys of the last chord he had touched.
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.
Jesse Shepard was dead at 79.
Whether one regards Jesse Shepard as a fraud, an exhibitionist, or as a genuinely gifted artist, San Diego is fortunate to have enjoyed the presence of such a remarkably versatile character. His legacy to San Diego, the elegant Villa Montezuma, flourishes again as a center for art and music, with exhibitions, recitals, poetry readings and receptions held regularly in its beautifully and handsomely furnished rooms. Jesse Shepard should be very pleased.
CLARE CRANE received her B.A. degree from San Diego State University and herM.A. from the University of California at LosAngeles. She obtained a Ph.D. from the University of California at San Diego. Dr. Crane has lived in the San Diego area since 1946. Her research on the Villa Montezuma has benefited the San Diego History Center's restoration of the house greatly. In addition to teaching classes in local history at San Diego State University, Mesa College and United States International University, Dr. Crane remains a very active member of the San Diego "history" community.