Anyone who is shocked by today’s high interest rates, and longs nostalgically for “the good old days,” must be thinking of some time other than San Diego in the 1880s, when construction funds were auctioned off at rates of more than 30% and the interest rates on mortgaged property were between 12% and 24% per annum. San Diego’s great land boom years, 1886-88, “were the most gaudy, wicked and exciting in San Diego’s history.”1
The boom was sparked by advertising campaigns of the western railroads, with their millions of acres of land to dispose of, and the need to build up passenger and freight traffic on their lines. Lured by the prospect of an easy life in the world’s healthiest climate, or by the promised opportunities for instant wealth in ranching or in land speculation, tens of thousands of people flooded into Southern California after the completion of transcontinental railroad links to San Diego and Los Angeles in 1885. The Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific railroads engaged in a fantastic rate war that saw the price of a ticket from Missouri to California drop from $125 in 1885 to $1 in March, 1887; from mid-1886 to mid-1887, more than 41,000 people came to San Diego.2
Although interest rates were high, construction prices were remarkably low, and the San Diego Building and Loan Association advised its prospective members to build homes and then rent them to the evergrowing population. For example, the Building and Loan Association advertised: “A member borrows $1,000—at 23% getting $770, which will build a house to rent for $15-$20 per month . . . costing the member for dues $5 per month, for interest $8.35 per month . . . and at the end of eight or ten years he will have it paid for.”3 By late 1887, the San Diego Building and Loan Association was auctioning off money at 33% and 34%.4
Following the land speculators, money lenders, and prospective new residents came the architects and the building contractors. Reid Brothers, architects, were retained by Babcock and Story to design the Coronado Hotel. Although it did not open until January, 1888, the prospect of this elegant resort hotel helped mightily to swell land sales in Coronado: on November 13, 1886, 6,000 persons attended a land auction there, and some of the lots were resold the same day a twice the original price.<sup5
One of the busiest architectural firms in San Diego during the boom years of the Eighties was Comstock and Trotsche.6 They designed many downtown office buildings, the Court House, the Unitarian Church, and three school buildings (Middletown, “B” Steet, and Sherman Heights)—but their most interesting project by far was the house they designed for Jesse Shepard, “the Villa Montezuma,” at 1925 K Street. No other building done by Comstock and Trotsche matched the Villa Montezuma in originality, for assuredly no other client matched Jesse Shepard in imagination and eccentricity.
Who was this multi-faceted genius who graced San Diego’s cultural scene for a brief time in 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 settled in Sangamon County, Illinois in 1849.7 Shepard grew up on the midwestern prairies, a fact which is considered to have influenced the development of his mystical, spiritual qualities. As a boy of ten, 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 wisdom, and sensitively aware of the foreboding atmosphere which preceded the outbreak of the Civil War. He later dealt with these themes in two books: The Valley of Shadows, a fictionalized account of events and attitudes in rural Illinois in the late 1850s; and Lincoln, the Practical Mystic, in which Shepard emphasized Lincoln’s reliance upon intuition and inner spiritual guidance.
During the war, Shepard served for a time as a page on the staff of General John C. Fremont; but in 1863 the family moved to Niagara Falls, and here Shepard first began to play the piano and to sing. The following year, the Shepards were living in Chicago, where Jesse studied the piano and his sister Letitia took elocution lessons; their mother wrote proudly of their progress to her cousin, General Benjamin Henry Grierson.8
By 1869, Shepard, just twenty-one, began the many years of wandering that characterized the remainder of his life, ending only with his death in Los Angeles, in 1927.
He was tall and thin, with abnormally large hands and feet, but despite that, handsome, poetic, and extremely gifted. His 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.9 Yet somehow he found his way into the salons of Paris, where soon his musical improvisations and his singing of operatic selections (in which his tremendous vocal range enabled him to sing all parts, from bass to soprano) charmed his audiences and resulted in a string of invitations to visit, and entertain, various titled patrons in France and Germany, and the Czar of Russia, and later the Prince of Wales in England. 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.”10
In 1871, Shepard went to St. Petersburg, where he played for the Czar. Here, he expanded his already-growing interest in Eastern mysticism, and met General Jourafsky, who instructed him in the art of conducting seances.11 When Shepard returned to the United States in 1874, he visited the celebrated medium, Madame Blavatsky, who was then living in Chittenden, 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. Although some people regarded Theosophy and Spiritualism as quackery, many solid, sober citizens (as well as artists and writers) viewed Spiritualism as a kind of non-denominational religion, emphasizing man’s relationship to the spiritual presence of God.
Jesse Shepard returned to Chicago in 1880, and reputedly gave seances in the home of a prominent medium, Mrs. H. H. Crocker. He claimed to be in touch with ancient Egyptian spirits, with whom he conversed, and put on a remarkable musical performance which included singing “in two voices,” made possible by his great vocal range. Mrs. Rosa Bonheur Crocker considered this one of the most beautiful and impressive performances she had ever witnessed.12
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 Shehpard was down on his luck in later years. Tonner supported him by giving French lessons or by working in a tailoring shop. Yet he was so self-effcing that his name seldom appeared in articles by or about Shepard; and he didn’t even rate a listing in the San Diego City Directory during the years that he and Shepard lived at 1925 K Street.
No one seems to know just exactly why and when Jesse Shepard came to San Diego; but of all those who came in the great boom years of the Eighties, he was one of the very few who did not engage in land speculation. Exhaustive research in the property ownership records in the County Recorder’s Office in San Diego reveals that the only property Shepard ever owned in San Diego consisted of lots 11 and 12, Block 42, Sherman’s Addition—the land on which the Villa Montezuma was built.
L. W. Tonner, in a biographical sketch of Shepard published in 1927, said very little about San Diego and what transpired here, except that
Certain rich townspeople gave the land and some of the money to build the Villa, the idea being to attract attention to the town (which it certainly did) . . . When the boom died out in San Diego in 1889 we had to sell for what we could get. We gave half the proceeds to those who had supplied the money, which they considered quite generous, for it was not thought necessary to return any; and the following year we went to Europe.13
Although Tonner did not identify the “rich townspeople” who financed the building of the Villa, the principal man involved was William E. High, a wealthy rancher and land owner. Shepard was evidently in San Diego by January 26, 1887, for on that date William High transferred to him lot 12, Block 41, Sherman’s Addition, for $1.00.14 But Shepard apparently didn’t like that location; so in March, he transferred it back to High and received instead lots 11 and 12, Block 42, Sherman’s Addition, from Watson Parrish for $1.00. At the same time, William High bought lot 10 in the same Block from Parrish for $300, plus a mortgage of $1,000 to be paid the following year.15 It would thus appear that High was really paying for all three lots, having 11 and 12 put in Shepard’s name, and retaining 10 for himself, for $1,300—or about $430 each.
On February 19, 1887 (even before the deed to the property had been filed), the San Diego Sun announced that “Jesse Shepard, formerly of Paris, France, will build a ten thousand dollar cottage on the corner of Nineteenth and K Streets. Messers Comstock and Trotsche, architects, are preparing the plans.”16 And on March 15, 1887, a building permit was issued. Indications are that the house was completed in June, 1887, but that Shepard was out of town until August. In the meantime, Colonel and Mrs. Tom Fitch leased the Villa for the summer.17 Fitch was probably one of the other “rich townspeople” who helped finance the Villa as a means of attracting attention to San Diego. A colorful and versatile character, he was at various times an attorney, editor, financier, and land promoter. Known as the “silver-tongued orator,” he gave spell-binding performances, speaking on a variety of subjects from religion and politics to the virtues of San Diego’s climate and investment possibilities.
Shepard was in San Francisco in August, and the Union reported that “Jesse Shepard, the renowned musician of this city, sang in the French Catholic Cathedral in [San Francisco], by invitation, last Sunday. His remarkable singing created a sensation.”18 After his return to San Diego in September, Shepard completed the decoration of the Villa, and then gave his first large entertainment, to which the Young Men’s Institute (a Catholic group) was invited. “One of the guests remarked that royalty could be no more grand in the reception tendered, while the music was something which defied description.”19
In October, Shepard again entertained at a musical evening, the guests including Col. and Mrs. Tom Fitch, Judge Clarke, Bryant Howard (president of Consolidated National Bank), William High and his brother, John.20 In December, Shepard held several afternoon receptions for distinguished San Diegans and visitors.21 Then he gave a celebrated public performance at Father Antonio Ubach’s little Catholic Church on Christmas Day, rendering “Ave Maria” in such a way as to move the audience to tears. One of those present wrote:
. . . this voice was indeed a fragment of celestial harmony. It has been my good fortune to hear Mr. Shepard in other cities in Europe and America . . . It is indeed magnanimous of him to forget all the honors and distinctions of the world, and from the organ loft of this unpretentious church pour forth an invocation in song for humanity.22
On New Year’s Eve, Shepard gave one of his most noteworthy receptions. Each room of the house was decorated with a different kind of flower that harmonized with the room’s decor: there were orange blossoms, roses, lilies, holly, and ferns. After the guests had enjoyed refreshments, Shepard played and sang selections from the operas of Meyerbeer, Wagner, Mozart, and Verdi; and he concluded the performance with a composition of his own, the Grand Egyptian March. This was apparently an impressionistic composition, in which Shepard simulated the sounds of marching armies, trumpets, drums, tambourines, battle clashes and cannon booms.23 It was a real tour de force which never failed to impress the audience; and Shepard performed it often.
In addition to putting on musical entertainments, Shepard embarked on the literary career that became the main outlet for his creativity for the remainder of his life. In June, 1887, Shepard’s first essay, “The Abbe Roux,” was published in The Golden Era. It is significant that Shepard chose as the subject of his first published essay this French Catholic priest, whose book, entitled Meditations, had made a deep impression upon Shepard. The Abbe was, according to Shepard, “a humble parish priest, living a life of isolation;” but he had “studied his own heart,” that is, he had developed the wisdom expressed in his book through intuition. Shepard himself believed that his musical and literary talents were the result of a form of intuition, of allowing a higher power to flow through him. What he wrote of Abbe Roux is no doubt what he thought of himself: “Joseph Roux is before everything a man of meditation and thought, whose whole life may be likened to an Aeolian harp fixed in the turret of a deserted castle, so finely strung that the faintest breeze awakens a pensive and responsive tone.”24
Shepard’s other essays printed in The Golden Era during the next year dealt with persons and places that had impressed him in his European travels, and with his ideas about literature and philosophy. He was unalterably 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 and naturalism of Emile Zola and his followers. “People seemed intoxicated,” wrote Shepard, “with the alcoholic fumes of L’Assommoir and the impossible scenes of Nana. Zola was the god in literature…25
In the fall of 1888, Shepard went to France to arrange for the publication of a collection of his essays. Titled Pensees et Essais, it was published in Paris in the spring of 1889. It contained one of Shepard’s most famous essays, “La Revolte Idealiste,” which expressed Shepard’s critique of realism and materialism in literature and life, and called for a revolt of Idealists, that is, those to whom things of the spirit were more important than machines, militarism, and materialism. As a result of the publication of Pensees et Essais, Shepard was deluged with letters from members of the French Academy, and from leading writers in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere on the Continent.26
Flattered and encouraged by this reception of his ideas, Shepard decided to move permanently to Europe and to pursue a literary career. He returned to San Diego in August, 1889, after an absence of nearly a year, and began to make arrangements for his departure. In December, 1889, Shepard announced that 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, he also completed the sale of the Villa Montezuma and all its furnishings to David D. Dare, Vice President of the California National Bank. As the San Diego Sun remarked, in commenting upon the sale, the Villa “is the most ornately finished and artistically furnished house in the city, and is itself a museum.”27
And then Jesse Shepard departed in high style. His farewell concert, described as a benefit performance given at the Unitarian Church, was crowded with music lovers. Popular local poets, vocalists, and a string quartette also participated in the program. As the evening drew to a close, wrote one awed witness, “Mr. Shepard’s [own] prose poem on Wagner’s music was recited by Mrs. Beane, a delicate and unexpected compliment to that gentleman, who closed the performance with the Grand Egyptian March.”28
Was Jesse Shepard a fraud and a charlatan who tricked William High and others into building him a house and maintaining him in style? That claim was first publicly made in 1913 by Sam High, a nephew of William and John High, in a newspaper interview headlined, “Weird House of Ghosts, This; Built by Spiritualist as Home for Spooks.” The caption under the accompanying photographs states that they are views of “Villa Montezuma, Built as Temple of Occultism by Slick Trickster.”29 The article, written in a dramatic style, describes the Villa as a “Temple of Art and Occultism [which] for years brought ill luck to all who bought it.” Contained in the article are several colorful but inaccurate statements referring to the High brothers as “the simplest of men, who raised fruit and vegetables and peddled them on the streets.” They are said to have fallen under Shepard’s spell and to have mortgaged their property in order to raise the sum required to build the house “which is estimated at anywhere from $50,000 to $80,000.” This expenditure is supposed to have “ruined the two brothers, both of them dying in a state of tragic poverty.30 The reporter quotes Sam High as saying:
Yes, I remember Jesse Shepard. I remember him well, and a fine fraud he was. If my old uncles had never met Jesse Shepard they would have died about a half million dollars richer than they did and I’d have been a bit better off myself today . . .
Sad as it was in one way, I can’t help laughing . . . to think of Shepard with his secretary and his servants, rolling in luxury, and the two poor old uncles, who were putting up for it, driving by in their little wagon, peddling their vegetables from door to door. In 1889 . . . when Shepard saw that the game could not last much longer, he sold the house, or rather traded it, for one in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and disappeared. I remember sometime afterward Shepard sent a deed to the Cheyenne property to Uncle John. The old man was mighty pleased for a while, particularly when he found out it was worth about $10,000. But all his pleasure disappeared when he learned that Shepard had already mortgaged it for $12,000.31
The picture of William and John High as simple little fruit peddlars is, to say the least, highly inaccurate. From information assembled from the files of the San Diego Union and the San Diego Sun between 1886 and 1890, from a biographical sketch of William High in T. S. Van Dyke’s The City and County of San Diego (published 1888), and from extensive research in the property title and mortgage records of the County Recorder’s Office, a very different picture emerges.
The High brothers were indeed in the fruit business: they owned at least 3,000 acres of land in the Cuyamaca-Alpine region where they raised fruit, vegetables, feed, and cattle. William High, hardly what one would call a simple peddlar, was a wealthy and respected citizen of San Diego; he served on the Cemetery Commission, was the first president of the Horticultural Society, a stockholder in the San Diego Bank, and then vice-president and one of the directors of the Consolidated National Bank. He was among those who contributed land (160 acres) to the Santa Fe promotional scheme to encourage the building of the California Southern Railroad to San Diego; and he also had a financial interest in the San Diego and Cuyamaca Railroad. According to Van Dyke, “Mr. High has contributed liberally to all public movements, and although of a retiring disposition, he is in reality one of San Diego’s most progressive and substantial citizens.”32
Property records show that William and John High owned not only thousands of acres of back-country land, but many blocks and individual lots scattered throughout the growing urban area of San Diego. They carried on large-scale buying and selling operations all during the time that Jesse Shepard was in San Diego, and for several years after that.
William High bought several lots in Sherman’s Addition in Block 42 (where the Villa Montezuma was built) and in adjacent Blocks, for prices ranging from $300 to $2,000 each.33 He evidently expected these lots to rise in value as a result of the presence of the Villa; and in fact, he sold two lots to David D. Dare at the same time that Shepard sold the Villa to Dare, and on these lots William High realized a 12½% profit.34
We have no way of knowing whether the High brothers (or others) paid for all of the building of the Villa, and for Shepard’s support while he lived in San Diego. But even if Shepard had no money when he came to San Diego (rather unlikely, considering that he had just completed a successful concert tour), he might have been able to support himself, at least partially, from the proceeds of his writing. He wrote six essays for The Golden Era, for which he presumably was paid; and he may well have received an advance from the French firm that published his book in 1889. Shepard borrowed $4,000 on the security of his property, probably to finance his trip to Europe, in the Fall of 1888.35
The High brothers did owe money on mortgages contracted during the period when Shepard was in San Diego, but in most instances the mortgages were on land that they were buying; i.e., this was simply a method of financing more of their own property acquisition. Furthermore, they were owed money on mortgages by several individuals, most of whom were in the process of buying property from them. To say that they were bankrupted by building the Villa Montezuma, that the expenditure ruined them, and that they died in tragic poverty as a result of this episode is absolutely untrue. Undoubtedly they lost some money on their total real estate ventures in the early 1890s, as did everyone else when the land boom collapsed; but they were by no means ruined. Property records indicate that up to the time of William High’s death in 1894, he and his brother still owned most of their back-country acreage, and that they were selling it in ten-acre parcels. They were also selling town lots for considerably more than they had paid for them in the 1870s when they had begun buying property.36
It is also untrue that the Villa Montezuma cost them (or anyone) between $50,000 and $80,000 to build. A detailed list of buildings under construction or recently completed in San Diego was printed in The Golden Era in April 1887, and included the following entry: “Jesse Shepard residence, 20th and K, Comstock and Trotsche architects, Cheney and Leonard, builders, $19,000.”37 Contemporary news items generally stated that it cost $25,000; it was sold by Shepard to David Dare, complete with furnishings, for $25,000; and it was purchased at a Sheriff’s sale in 1893 for less than $19,000.38
Sam High also claims that Shepard cheated his uncle by giving him a deed to a piece of property in Cheyenne, Wyoming, that was valueless because Shepard had mortgaged it for $12,000. This is untrue. Property and mortgage records from Cheyenne relating to lots 1 and 2, Block 292, Laramie County Abstracts, show that when Shepard sold Dare the Villa Montezuma for $25,000, Dare also sold Shepard a residence in Cheyenne known as “Castle Dare” for $25,000. There was, however, a mortgage on Castle Dare of $10,000 held by the California Mortgage Loan and Trust Co. This is clearly noted on the property record, and apparently Shepard and Dare made a trade, with Dare giving Shepard about $10,000 in cash, which Shepard needed to pay off debts and go to Europe. Since Castle Dare, an imposing stone Victorian Gothic home still standing in Cheyenne, had been sold for $30,000 in 1886, it is not unreasonable to assume that it was worth $25-30,000 in 1889, when the exchange was made. Therefore, when Shepard gave the property to William High (not John, as stated in Sam High’s interview), a transaction which was recorded in March, 1891, he was presumably giving him a deed to a piece of property worth perhaps $25,000, less the $10,000 mortgage against it—that is to say, worth about $15,000. Shepard himself, contrary to Sam High’s statement, never placed a mortgage on it himself.39
William High only held the Cheyenne property for eight months before transferring it (for a recorded $1.00 fee) to E. J. Swayne. Mr. Swayne, interestingly enough, was the general manager of the California Mortgage Loan and Trust Co., which held the mortgage on Castle Dare. To complete the picture, one should know that David Dare and John W. Collins, both formerly of Cheyenne, were officers of both the California Mortgage Loan and Trust Co., and of the California National Bank. In the fall of 1891, Dare turned over a considerable amount of property to be held in trust by Swayne; then Dare went to Europe, just before the Bank Examiners began looking into his affairs.40 Dare never returned to San Diego, and his partner, John W. Collins, shot himself to death rather than face the Bank Examiners, who discovered that the two men had systematically looted the California National Bank, causing its failure late in 1891.41 If anyone cheated William High in connection with the Cheyenne property, it was probably D. D. Dare.
The real source of Sam High’s bitterness towards Jesse Shepard, which resulted in the newspaper interviews in which he called Shepard a fraud who had bankrupted his uncles, was probably displaced resentment towards his uncle William. Sam could logically have expected to inherit all or most of his childless, sixty-year-old uncle’s property. William High was the proprietor of the Fifth Avenue Livery Stables, at which Sam worked; and William liked him well enough to make him a gift of a town lot when Sam married Nellie Hayden, January 15, 1890. However, the wedding bells rang again at the end of the year—this time, for William High himself, who married a 37 year old Scottish widow named Annie McDonald Smith.42 Property records do not show that Sam received any more gifts of property from his uncle William; Annie got it all.43
Despite Sam High’s statements to the press in 1913, his uncle was not a poor little old fruit peddlar who died in “tragic poverty.” On the contrary, the San Diego Union noted his passing with the following comments:
Mr. High was an old resident of this city, having come here in 1869. He was well-to-do and owned considerable real estate, including the fine ranch near Alpine, upon which he passed much of his time. About three years ago, Mr. High married Mrs. A. Smith, and with their children resided when in the city at 1243 3rd St.44
The other principle support for the contention that Shepard was a charlatan who bankrupted the High brothers is a memoir written by Mrs. Vine Bowers Hill, the daughter of W. W. Bowers and niece of Alonzo Horton. Mrs. Hill’s memoir was written in 1950, and is in the files of the San Diego Historical Society. The events that she describes had taken place sixty years earlier, when she was a small child, and much of what she reports is hearsay.
Her story is generally like that of Sam High, the main differences being that she contends that the High brothers had already been bankrupted once before by some local Spiritualists, and then were cleaned out again by Shepard; and she also contends that Shepard gave seances in the Villa in order to make money. Excerpts from her memoir follow:
[Jesse Shepard] had an interesting personality and appearance—tall, slender, dark, artistic-looking; and he was an artist—not a great one, but an artist, never-the-less… He played brilliantly—chiefly his own brilliant compositions—How accurately, I wouldn’t know; but Mother, who understood music, said he played well . . .
His music gave him an entree he might otherwise have lacked, and he was invited everywhere, and usually played to the delight of his audiences. But for him, music was the medium to pave the way for his real purpose-easy money. And the way to that end was Spiritualism. He knew all the tricks. Mother went to a seance he gave, and she said he played continuously all through the demonstration.45
Her statement that the local Spiritualists, E. W. Hulburd and Justin Robinson, had previously tricked the High brothers into giving them all their land and cash is not borne out by the property and mortgage records: there was no transfer of property from either John or William High to Hulburd and Robinson; and the only mortgage involved was a comparatively small one. Hulburd and Robinson borrowed $1,350 from William High, on the security of several pieces of property, in 1885 at 1% per month interest; the mortgage was paid off in 1890. As already noted, the High brothers were by no means bankrupt, or even close to it (at least, in terms of real property) at any time before, during, or after Shepard’s stay in San Diego.
Mrs. Hill’s contention that Shepard gave seances for money is flatly contradicted by T. S. Van Dyke in his volume The City and County of San Diego. The Villa is identified as
…the home of the world-famed pianist and vocalist, Jesse Shepard, whose wonderful performances have thrilled the music-loving of two continents . . .
Villa Montezuma is exclusively a private residence consecrated to music, art and literature. Mr. Shepard gives no concerts or other entertainments in his home, but he gives receptions and musicales from time to time to his friends and those specially invited, for which no charges are made.46
Several other pieces of information bear out the fact that Shepard seems to have undergone some kind of spiritual transformation while he was in San Diego, which led to his repudiation of “phenomenal” Spiritualism, his joining the Roman Catholic Church, and his beginning his career as an author.47
First of all, we have the evidence of Shepard’s essays in The Golden Era to indicate his deep commitment to “religious” Spiritualism, intuition, and the philosophy of Idealism. Furthermore, the term “Spiritualist” did not then carry the negative connotations that it does today. The San Diego newspapers in the 1880s printed frequent, non-derogatory news items about the well-attended church services and activities of the First Society of Spiritualists, whose members included such pillars of the community as Mrs. Fidelia Shepard [sic; no relation to Jesse Shepard], the widow of Alonzo Horton’s assistant; and the wife of the San Diego County Sheriff, Mrs. E. W. Bushyhead.
Secondly, before Shepard had gone to France in the fall of 1888 to arrange for the publication of his first book, he had given certain evidences of the spiritual transformation previously alluded to. He had evidently made some public repudiation of “phenomenal” Spiritualism in the spring of 1888, for the San Diego Sun published excerpts from an article by Hudson Tuttle which originally appeared in the Religio-Philosophical Journal. In this article, Tuttle criticized Shepard for
[taking] special pains to belittle and degrade Spiritualism . . . Mr. Shepard has always been understood to be an advocate of Spiritualism. He has been for many years before the public as a medium . . . [But now he attacks] phenomenal spiritualism . . . on which depends the grandest philosophy ever presented. If your own wonderful development [Tuttle rhetorically asked Shepard] is the result of inspiration, why cannot other mediums depend on the same? . . . It is pleasant to repose in gilded halls, in the shaded light of stained [glass] windows . . . but few can indulge therein . . . After the “Grand Egyptian March” goes up 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 . . .48
Thirdly, William High himself came to Shepard’s defense in a letter to the Editor of the Sun, from which the following statements are quoted:
My attention has been called to certain rumors, circulated by gossips and busybodies, to the effect that Villa Montezuma was built as a kind of “spiritual temple” for the accommodation of spiritualists, and for the holding of spiritual seances. Villa Montezuma was intended for a private home, belongs to Jesse Shepard, and is therefore exclusively a private residence. Seances are not held in Mr. Shepard’s house. The subject of spiritism [sic] is not touched upon by the numerous visitors who call there …49
Fourthly, Shepard’s religious conversion was apparently well under way, for on May 15, 1888, he was baptised at Saint Vibiana’s Cathedral in Los Angeles, and became a member of the Roman Catholic Church.50
The Villa Montezuma, at 1925 K Street, is without doubt the most interesting and imaginatively designed Victorian house still standing in San Diego. Built in 1887 for the worldfamed musician, Jesse Shepard, its exterior today is somewhat deteriorated and weathered, but is still in basically good condition. The magnificent main floor of the interior is remarkably well preserved: the ceilings, redwood walls, art glass windows, and tilefaced fireplaces are very nearly as they were in 1887. There have been no structural changes on the main floor, save for the addition of another door to the outside; and the arrangement of the rooms precisely follows the description that was printed in the San Diego Union of September 25, 1887. The house was designed, following the ideas of Jesse Shepard, by the architectural firm of Comstock and Trotsche; the art glass was specially made to Shepard’s designs by John Mallon of San Francisco; the fabrics, furniture, and other interior decor were all selected and arranged by Jesse Shepard.51
At the present time, the house is in the hands of a court-appointed guardian for the owner, Mrs. Carl Yaeger. It is in constant danger of further deterioration, or of vandalism. The San Diego History Center, the San Diego Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and the Save Our Heritage Organization have joined forces in an effort to raise the funds necessary to purchase and preserve this truly fascinating and irreplaceable link with San Diego’s past—in particular, with the gaudy and extravagant boom years of the 1880s.
Built on a gently sloping hill, the Villa Montezuma is basically two stories high, with a partial basement containing a kitchen and store rooms; and one room on the third story, which is in reality the upper portion of a tower rising from the ground jutting out from the south side of the house. This tower room, which is surmounted by a Moorish roof, was Shepard’s study.
The main entry to the house is on K street (i.e., the north side). Once inside, one is immediately struck with the richness of the dark, polished redwood walls, the silvery Lincrusta Walton (a linoleum-like material) ceilings, and the warmth of the sunlight diffused through the numerous art glass windows, which are placed not only on the exterior walls, but are used as transoms over several interior doorways as well. To the left of the entry hall is a reception room, illuminated by a beautiful art glass window depicting grapes and flowers. This was called the Pink Room when Shepard lived here, for the ceiling and upper part of the walls were painted pink, fabrics used in furniture and drapery had pink tones, and even the candles (the only source of illumination, originally) were pink. The floor in this room, and elsewhere throughout the house, is of polished hardwood. When Shepard lived in the house, all the floors were liberally covered with Turkish or Persian rugs, in colors which harmonized with furniture and draperies.52
To the left of the reception room is the Music Room, which occupies the entire east side of the house. At the northeast corner of that room is an octagonal projection, a kind of small conservatory, with a tile floor on which originally stood exotic plants. Four art glass windows, in which the four seasons are represented by characteristic flowers, decorate that area. On the long east wall of the Music Room is a huge, magnificent art glass window, depicting the Greek poetess Sappho, attended by two cupids; in separate panels, on either side, are representations of Milton’s “Il Penserosa” and “L’Allegra.” At the north end of the room, rather high on the wall, are circular windows containing portrait heads of Beethoven and Mozart in art glass and in similar style and position on the south wall are portraits in art glass of Rubens and Raphael. Beneath the latter are two full-length portrait windows, which are allegorical representations of the Orient and the Occident. The face of the figure representing the Orient is said to be a portrait of Jesse Shepard himself, characteristically associating himself with the mysticism of the Orient rather than with the materialism of the Occident. The ceiling of the Music Room is covered with Lincrusta Walton in silver-gray, with an elaborate redwood-strip pattern laid over it. In describing this room, the San Diego Union reporter of 1887 became lyrical:
Reluctantly, the eye leaves the marvelous figures constituting the [art glass] windows and looks about to observe the next surprise. Art, pure and simple, is found in everything . . .There are no pictures in the Music Room, save those in the art windows, but the hard finished redwood walls are relieved by eight ebony panels in laid with bas-relief figures of ivory and mother of pearl that are hung at intervals . . . In addition to the six heavy Persian rugs that cover the waxed floor an immense Polar bear skin is in its center. Opposite Sappho’s portrait is the mantel. It is of medieval design, and is built of imported English tiles, heavily glazed, and porcelain bricks. The design of the mantel is purely original. It represents the roof of a tower of one of the old German castles like those found along the Rhine, and extends halfway up to the ceiling. Small black walnut shingles of odd shapes cover it from top to bottom save at one place, where a portico [platform] also of walnut is placed. This bears a bronze bust of Diana, who seems to look down from the height as if charmed by the beautiful surroundings.53
On the south side of the house, centrally located between the Music Room and the Red Room (to be described later), is the Drawing Room. This room contains a corner fireplace and a stunning eighteen-footwide bay window, whose upper sashes contain life-size art-glass portrait heads of Shakespeare, Goethe, and C’orneille—the great poets of England, Germany. and France. These, and the other portrait heads mentioned before, are remarkable for the delicacy with which the features and flesh tones are rendered. All faces are etched and painted on single pieces of glass, although the remainder of full-length portraits or surrounding decoration is made of brighter-colored leaded glass, interspersed with numerous bevel-edged “jewel” pieces.
West of the Drawing Room, and also on the south side of the house, is what was called the Red Room. This was Jesse Shepard’s own bedroom; the walls of Lincrusta Walton used to have a reddish cast, and the bed cover and pillow shams decorated with art needlework were also in red, as were the candles. All that remains now of the original decor, however, is the tiled fireplace, topped with beveled glass mirror, and the wall covering with its fleur-de-lis design, now faded and somewhat green in color.
At the southwest corner of the house was the Gold Room, again named for the color tint of walls, ceiling, and drapery. This was Shepard’s library, in which he kept his books on art, music and literature, many of them handsomely-bound gift copies. Cathedral glass transoms are at the top of each window, giving a wonderful color and warmth to the room as the sun shines through them.
Between the Gold Room and the Blue Room (i.e., on the west side of the house) is a stairwell leading down to the kitchen. Even here, Shepard placed an art glass window—a portrait of Saint Cecilia playing the organ, a companion piece to the portrait of Sappho on the east side of the house.
The northwest corner of the house was occupied by the Blue Room, which accommodated Shepard’s faithful secretary and companion, Lawrence Waldemar Tonner. A corner fireplace, with bevel-edged mirror above, is all that remains of its former splendor, when the furniture, drapes, candles, and bedcover were all in pale blue or other harmonizing colors.
Between the Blue Room and the entry hall (we have now come full circle and are back at the north side of the house) is the Dining Room, with Lincrusta Walton ceiling, redwood walls, handsome tiled fireplace, and two art glass windows in which Summer and Autumn are allegorically depicted as young girls gathering flowers. The shelving above the fireplace, according to the original description, held delicate Chinese and Japanese porcelain.
From the Entry Hall, one mounts a graceful staircase to the second floor. At present, this is in very poor condition; but when Jesse Shepard occupied the house, it was a veritable museum and art gallery. Here were displayed etchings, paintings, portraits, sculpture, letters, and other memorabilia given to Shepard by European rulers, literary and artistic acquaintances, and titled partons during the 1870s and 80s when he toured Europe and made a name for himself as a uniquely talented vocalist, pianist, and composer.
A narrow staircase leads up from the second floor to the tower room on the top floor of the house. This room has an unobstructed view in all four directions, sweeping around San Diego to Point Loma, San Diego bay, and south to Mexico. This was Shepard’s “sanctum sanctorum,” furnished with a desk and a revolving chair, so that he could enjoy the view from any side while he wrote. In this room, or at any rate in this remarkable house, Jesse Shepard began his professional writing career.
When Jesse Shepard finally left San Diego in December, 1889, he was in many ways a new man; music had taken second place in his life, and he had adopted a pen name for use in the publication of his literary works. He was no longer Jesse Shepard, musician; but Francis Grierson, author.54
He went to Europe and there pursued a literary career until shortly before the outbreak of World War One, when he returned to the United States. Toward the end of his long life, Shepard settled in Los Angeles; and, although he seems never to have returned to San Diego, he often visited the Mission Inn at Riverside, where he sometimes played the piano for the other guests. Shepard’s view of his musical performance is beautifully described by Harold Simonson:
To Grierson [i.e., Shepard], interested in psychical phenomena, music was the medium to supra-conscious experience. An intransigent foe of positivism, relativism and determinism—of all “isms” denying the power of the invisible and the reality of absolute spirit—Grierson, by means of musical seances, sought to lead others to transcendental perception.55
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 and colorful character. His legacy to San Diego, the elegant, eclectic Victorian Villa Montezuma, must be preserved.
1. Richard Pourade, The Glory Years, (San Diego, 1964), 193.
2. Ibid., 177.
3. San Diego Sun, April 1, 1886.
4. Ibid., September 27, 1887; November 1, 1887.
5. Pourade, op. cit., 175.
6. The Golden Era, (September, 1889), 464.
7. All the information about Jesse Shepard’s life before he came to San Diego, and after he left, is drawn from the excellent biography by Harold P. Simonson, Francis Grierson (New York, 1965).
8. Ibid., 24.
9. Simonson, Op. cit., passim.
10. Ibid., 27.
11. Ibid., 30.
12. San Diego Sun, April 18, 1888.
13. Simonson, op. cit., 35.
14. Grant Deed Records, San Diego County Recorder’s Office. The $1.00 consideration is frequently used when the property being transferred is a gift; or when some other, more complex transaction accompanies the transfer of the property. In other cases, the actual sale price is listed.
15. Grant Deed Records, San Diego County Recorder’s Office.
16. San Diego Sun, February 19, 1887.
17. San Diego Union, June 12, 1887.
18. Ibid., August 20, 1887.
19. Ibid., September 25, 1887.
20. Ibid., October 2, 1887.
21. Ibid., December 25, 1887.
22. Ibid., December 27, 1887.
23. Ibid., January 1, 1888.
24. Francis Grierson (Jesse Shepard), Celtic Temperament (New York, 1903), 151.
25. Ibid., 13.
26. Ibid., 14-15.
27. San Diego Sun, December 17, 1889.
28. Ibid., December 17, 1889.
29. San Diego Union, July 20, 1913 (section 2, page 1).
32. T. S. Van Dyke, The City and County of San Diego (San Diego, Leberthon and Taylor, 1888), 122.
33. Grant Deed Records, San Diego County Recorder’s Office.
35. Mortgage Records, San Diego County Recorder’s Office, October 9, 1888.
36. Grant Deed Records, San Diego County Recorder’s Office.
37. The Golden Era (April, 1887), 252.
38. Grant Deed Records, September 13, 1893.
39. Title Abstracts, Laramie County, Wyoming.
40. Grant Deed Records, San Diego County Recorder’s Office.
41. Pourade, op. cit., 225.
42. Marriage Records, San Diego County Recorder’s Office.
43. Grant Deed Records, 1890-94, San Diego County Recorder’s Office.
44. San Diego Union (March 24, 1894), 5. Annie married twice more: Joseph Smith, in 1901, who died later the same year; and Lafayette Brakeman, in 1906. She evidently left San Diego in 1913, for her name disappears then from the City Directory.
45. Vine Bowers Hill Manuscript, “Recollections of Jesse Shepard” (San Diego History Center), 2.
46. T. S. Van Dyke, The City and County of San Diego (San Diego, 1888), 218.
47. “Phenomenal” Spiritualism included aspects such as table-rapping, materializations, etc., not associated with “religious” Spiritualism. Certainly, Shepard never abandoned his belief in the possibility of receiving inspiration or direction from God by means of intuition.
48. San Diego Sun, April 18, 1888. (Emphasis added)
49. Ibid., April 13, 1888.
50. Copy of baptismal certificate, St. Vibiane’s Cathedral.
51. All information about the original decoration of the house is drawn from the San Diego Union article, September 25, 1887.
54. Francis was one of Shepard’s several middle names; Grierson was his mother’s maiden name.
55. Harold Simonson, “Zona Gale and Francis Grierson,” Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly XLI (March, 1959), 13.
San Diego County Recorder’s Office: Grantee and Grantor books, 1876-1894; Mortgagee and Mortgagor Records, 1885-1894; Marriage and Death records.
San Diego City Directories, 1886-1913.
San Diego Sun, microfilm, 1887-1890; San Diego Public Library.
San Diego Union, microfilm, 1887-1894, San Diego Public Library.
Baker, Naomi, “Villa Montezuma, San Diego Mystery Mansion,” San Diego Tribune-Sun, October 22, 1948.
Graham, Frank, “Old Villa Holds Legends,” San Diego Evening Tribune, September 5, 1957.
Scarr, Lew, “City’s `Most Beautiful House’ Saved,” San Diego Union, March 9, 1969.
“Weird House of Ghosts,” San Diego Union, July 20, 1913.
Other Printed Sources
Grierson, Francis. The Celtic Temperament. New York, 1903.
Grierson, Francis. The Valley of Shadows. New York, 1909; reissued 1948.
MacPhail, Elizabeth. The Story of New San Diego. San Diego, 1969.
Pourade, Richard. The Glory Years. San Diego, 1964.
Simonson, Harold. Francis Grierson. New York, 1965.
Simonson, Harold, “Francis Grierson in San Diego: An Episode in Charlatanry,” American Quarterly XII (Summer, 1960), 198-204.
Simonson, Harold, “Zona Gale and Francis Grierson,” Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly XLI (March, 1959), 11-16.
Van Dyke, T. S. The City and County of San Diego. San Diego, 1888.
Wagner, Harr, ed. The Golden Era, 1887-1889.
Hensley, Herbert. Memoirs. San Diego History Center.
Hill, Vine Bowers. Recollections of Jesse Shepard. San Diego History Center.
Oakley, Mabelle Jessie. Recollections of Jesse Shepard. San Diego History Center.
Clare Crane has lived in the San Diego area since 1946. She is a graduate of San Diego State College and holds an M.A. degree in History from UCLA where she was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. Mrs. Crane has taught at San Diego State College, Mesa College, and United States International University. She is presently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at San Diego. Mrs. Crane is a very active member of the Historic Site Board of San Diego.