- Journal of SD History
The Man, the Myth, the Homeowner
by DeeDee McKinstry
"[I am] a world famous mystic, seer, inspirational musician, and authority on prophecies, visions, and cosmic consciousness." So proclaimed Benjamin Henry Jesse Francis Shepard, a roving musician and author who took his world by storm. He was born in Berkenhead, England on September 18, 1849, but due to a widespread economic depression that sent 19,000 English settlers to Illinois alone, he grew up in Sangamon County.
The Shepard family felt deeply about politics, and Jesse and his sister got to know personally the political situation of the time when their house was used as a stop in the Underground Railroad. Jesse was also at the last of the Lincoln-Douglass debates in 1858. When Jesse was 11 and the family had moved to St. Louis, he served as a page for General John C. Fremont.
In 1863, Jesse first discovered his musical talents. Although he had no musical training whatsoever, when Jesse was twenty he traveled alone to play piano and sing in cities on the East Coast. Only a few years later he was performing in the salons of the rich and famous in Paris. Unable to read music, Jesse was considered a master of improvisation that according to one avid fan, Mrs. Mabelle Jessie Oakley, Jesse "play[ed] any opera selected by the audience without music." She also noted his "large [hands] and fingers [that were] abnormally long in comparison with other peoples'."
Obviously an expert and dramatic performer, Oakley described Shepard as having "perfect control of his vocal organs" and said that he "sang like a prima donna. He could reach the highest tones like a woman's voice, and his singing was as perfect and beautiful as his playing." In the 1870s Jesse became interested in spiritualism and received his initial instructions in holding séances in St. Petersburg, Russia. A few years later, he traveled to Vermont to meet another spiritualist named Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, to learn more about the paranormal.
Jesse moved to San Diego soon after and developed a business relationship with William and John High, prominent cattlemen in San Diego. Ever the genial swindler, Shepard convinced them to build the fabulous Villa Montezuma for him in 1887. There he held sÃˆances and fantastic performances that included Shepard summoning great composers of the past and having them play through him. Audiences were wowed when Shepard began to play and other, invisible, instruments joined him. Really, more performers played in a hidden room behind the fire place. Non-invitees to his extravagant parties were rudely reminded of the fact when they glanced up Sherman's Addition to see a bright light illuminating Villa Montezuma's enormous stained glass window.
Soon, however, Shepard "became restless and could not be satisfied with such an inactive life "according to Mrs. Oakley, and left San Diego in 1890. He traveled around Europe, giving concerts for artists and royalty. Again, he tired of that and settled in London, changing his name to Francis Grierson, and decided to become an author. He wrote eight books that were moderately successful. He returned to the US at the outbreak of WWI and settled in Los Angeles.
He lived there for the rest of his life with his long-time secretary (and rumored partner) Lawrence Tonner and sank into near destitution. At a benefit dinner in 1927 that was held to raise funds for him, Shepard died at the age of 79 during his last piano performance.
Simonson, Harold P. Francis Grierson. New Haven: College & University Press, 1966.
Oakley, Mabelle Jessie, Letter to Editor, "Voice of the People", Sept. 1957. Jesse Shepard Collections 1868-1927. San Diego Historical Society, San Diego.
The San Diego Historical Society assumes no responsibility for the statements or opinions of the authors. All research for this article was compiled by members of the Teen Advisory Council.