What an amazing life Jesse Shepard had. Born in England in 1848, he moved to Illinois, USA, with his parents Joseph and Emily when he was only six months old. At age 10 he witnessed the last Lincoln-Douglass debate, and Abraham Lincoln had a deep impact on him. At age 13 he was a page to General John C. Fremont. By age 21 the America-raised Jesse was back in Europe, ready to make a name for himself in the salons of Paris.

He was a tall, handsome, gifted man who early on showed great talent at the piano, great sensitivity as it related to “the beyond,” and a great desire to see the world. He had an exceptional singing voice with an extensive range. Jesse studied Spiritualism and believed that the musical greats who had passed over could communicate with him through music. Jesse was not a classical pianist who performed an evening of Beethoven or Mozart at the piano. He was a musical mystic who claimed to let the greats use him as a conduit to perform.

From about 1867 until 1887 Jesse toured the world, staying at the estates of his patrons, experiencing beautiful homes while meeting the great artists, writers, thinkers, and leaders of the day.  French novelist Alexander Dumas was one of those impressed by Jesse, saying “with your gifts, you will find all doors open before you.” 

In 1871 Jesse was in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he performed at the piano for the Czar and studied Spiritualism and learned how to conduct seances. (Spiritualism was considered almost a type of nondenominational religion, when practiced by those who respected the sensitive and did not try to take advantage of those who lost loved ones and hoped for some communication from the beyond.) In Russia Jesse’s portrait was painted by artist Mattieu Geslin. It shows the 23-year-old Jesse, handsome, romantic, and mystical, with curly dark hair and mustache.

At age 26, in 1874, Jesse returned to America and visited Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, at her home in Vermont. (The two came to dislike each other immensely!) In 1876 Jesse first visited California and sang at many of the old missions, including the one in ruins in San Diego. (How interesting if he was sensitive enough to predict he’d return to a future boom town San Diego!)

In 1880 Jesse was living in Chicago as a base of operations, giving performances and supposedly conducting seances. He was not of the fraudulent, “table-rapping” type of devotees of Spiritualism, which preyed upon those who lost loved ones. Later, in 1887, Jesse would convert to Catholicism and repudiate Spiritualism, after the con artists took over and no true sensitive could stand by in support of trickery and fraud.

In 1885 Jesse met Lawrence W. Tonner, who became Jesse’s secretary and companion until the end of Jesse’s life. Tonner supposedly spoke all the major European languages.  Tonner’s help allowed Jesse’s talent to evolve and blossom. Was Jesse gay?  It’s possible, but Jesse was a private person regarding his personal life. Unlike other writers, he never alluded to the nature of his relationship with Tonner in his writing. (Homosexuality was illegal and not openly discussed then. Also, in our modern times we don’t understand how privacy was respected and valued then.) We honor the more than 40-year relationship and devotion between Jesse and Tonner, who were together until Jesse’s passing in 1927.

Jesse Shepard met the High Brothers of San Diego (William and John) through their connections to Spiritualism. The High Brothers had purchased a portion of Sherman’s Addition from Matthew Sherman in downtown San Diego and wanted to attract real estate sales. They invited the famous Jesse Shepard to move to San Diego and funded a “Palace of the Arts” for him. This “blank check” was hard to refuse. Jesse hired the leading architectural firm of N.A. Comstock and Carl Trotsche to design a magnificent home on the heights, with impressive stained glass windows. The builders were Cheney and Leonard. The cost was $19,000 for the house, and about $7,000 for the stained glass.  The Villa was ready for occupancy by July 1887, and it was indeed a showplace. He named it the Villa Montezuma. (While one interpretation is that Jesse named it so because San Diego is close to Mexico, another interpretation is that this house was a second reason to settle down in the USA. When the Shepards first left England, they came to America on a migrant ship called “The Montezuma.”) The house was given to him by the High Brothers.

In writing to his cousin General Benjamin Grierson, Jesse noted that while he would dedicate the house by giving several concerts in the Music Room, “I shall let music take second place in the future, as I wish to do a great deal of magazine and book work.”

Jesse wouldn’t feel alone in San Diego, since a large colony of musicians, artists, and poets had also made its way to southern California during this land boom. Many wrote for the Golden Era magazine, a publication to which Jesse would contribute. He hated the “new realism” of Emile Zola and the portrayal of the world as ugly, harsh, and “scientific” and instead proposed to believe in faith, mystery and romance.

A new San Diego friend was the Catholic priest, Father Antonio Ubach. Jesse officially declared to the San Diego Union that Spiritualism and seances were never discussed at the Villa. This was the start of a new life, with a focus on a new career - writing. As for religion, Jesse first published article in the Golden Era magazine was on the teachings of Father Joseph Roux of France. Jesse performed a several Catholic churches and cathedrals in California, and at the Villa he installed a large, very beautiful stained glass window of Saint Cecelia. Everyone of the era would recognize Saint Cecelia as the Patron Saint of Musicians, seated at the organ with lilies on her lap. This was indeed the home of a musician, with serious interest in Catholicism, who was going through changes in his life.

Jesse and Tonner lived in the Villa Montezuma from July 1887 until fall of 1888, when they went to Paris for Jesse’s first book to be published. Never one to have much money, Jesse took out a mortgage on the Villa to finance the trip to France. While he and Tonner were gone, Jesse’s parents Emily and Joseph and his sister Letitia lived at the Villa.  Back in San Diego in August 1889, the San Diego boom had gone bust and there were no opportunities for musical performances, writing for magazines, or earning money in any way. By December 17, 1889, the Villa and all the furnishings were sold to David D. Dare. The magnificent Villa Montezuma, where Jesse had his hand in designing every detail, was only in his ownership for two and a half years. Jesse gave a farewell performance in a local church. He and Tonner left the Villa Montezuma and San Diego forever.

Next, the “Francis Grierson” years.


A History of pianist, Spiritualist

Jesse Shepard

Books by 
Francis Grierson (Jesse Shepard)

Jesse Shepard wrote metaphysical essays and books under the name Francis Grierson. His only “novel” was a fictionalization of his boyhood growing up on the Illinois prairie, “The Valley of Shadows.” This work is his most famous, and has always been in print.

Modern Mysticism and Other Essays

The Celtic Temperament and Other Essays

The Valley of Shadows: Recollections of the Lincoln Country, 1858-63

Parisian Portraits

La Vie and Les Hommes

The Humour of the Underman

The Invincible Alliance

Illusions and Realities of the War

Abraham Lincoln: The Practical Mystic

Psycho-Phone Messages

Books by 
Francis D. Grierson (NOT the Villa’s Jesse Shepard)

Similar name, but a different middle name and an entirely difference person.

Francis Durham Grierson  was a British writer of mystery novels 
(13 “Andrew Ash” novels, 9 “George Muir” novels, and 13 “Sims and Professor Wells” novels, among others). This is NOT Jesse Shepard.
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