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The Life and Death of Francis Grierson

Created: 16 October, 2009
Updated: 13 September, 2023
7 min read

I read the old and yellowed telegram several times over, digesting the words. Looking at the date, May 30, 1927, I think back on the history of Grierson, the pen name of Jesse Shepard—from conducting séances in Russia, dining with the likes of Alexandre Dumas and Oscar Wilde to withering away, shoeless in the streets of Depression era Los Angeles. One of the last American mystics had passed on.

picture-313 As the Halloween season approaches, our minds turn to the macabre and otherworldly. As a historical writer who dabbles in the paranormal, I am often asked for a tale of a local haunt or ghostly encounter. I may sometimes write or talk about the famous Whaley house or a haunted hotel, but sometimes I find myself turning away from the common chain-rattler and moving onto something more poetic and sad. I often visit the Villa Montezuma in Sherman Heights to see how the restoration of the house is coming and to visit memories of a time gone by. Working for the San Diego Historical Society I had special access to this mysterious abode. Coined the Palace of the Arts by its original owner, its tales of paranormal activity are well known—from EVP recordings of piano music in an empty house to manifestations of a man in a gray suit. But the paranormal phenomena of the Villa pales to the history of the fascinating man for which the home was built.

 Benjamin Henry Jesse Francis Shepard was born in Birkenhead, England on September 18, 1848. Within a year his family moved to Sagamon County in Illinois and young Jesse, as he was called, grew up on the brink of the Civil War. He was there in Alton, Illinois for the last of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and Shepard would later write about Lincoln and refer to him as a mystic. He became the page boy for General John C. Fremont and later moved to St Louis and the Niagara Falls area working on his musical studies and mastering the piano. In 1869 he left home and traveled throughout Europe and studied the occult under the tutelage of Madame Helena Blavatsky, the “Mother of Theosophy”, and others. Most likely he made ends meet by playing the piano and it is here that he picked up his iconic style of concert séances, a gift that would open doors for him throughout the world. In these unusual sittings, he would claim to channel the spirits of famous composers and that it was them playing into all hours of the night.

 In the mid 1880s, Shepard made his way to Vermont where he became acquainted with the High Brothers. These two men fell under the spell of Shepard and lured him to the booming town of San Diego with the ultimate gift, the Villa Montezuma. Shepard allegedly designed the house himself, which is easy to believe looking at its unusual style of design. Beautiful dark woods and stained glass grace every room. A large music room was the focal point of the bottom floor, and it is here that he may have held his famous concert séances. The upstairs was used for entertaining his closest friends and also was his inner sanctum, the place where Francis Grierson was born.

 While living in San Diego, Shepard began to write for a local magazine called the Golden Era owned by an eccentric gentleman named Herr Wagner, who was himself lured to San Diego with the promise of wealth and gold. Writing poetry and prose, Shepard took to writing seriously and when he left San Diego only a year and a half later, he became an author and left his concert séances and piano recitals behind. Along with a new lifestyle, he took a new name, Francis Grierson, Francis being one of his middle names while Grierson was his mother’s maiden name. He wrote of his travels through Europe as well as his views on theosophy and the occult. He even wrote an autobiographical novelization of his growing up in pre-civil war Illinois called the Valley of Shadows, which is still in print today. Sadly, however, Spiritualism and the occult took a backseat to World War I and his writings fell out of vogue. No longer was Francis Grierson being called to lecture about his life and experiences.

 Eventually settling in Los Angeles, Grierson struggled to make ends meet. Supported by his longtime secretary and friend, Lauritz Waldemar Tonner, Grierson struggled over and over for a comeback that never came. He found a Guardian Angel in the form of a female author and poet by the name of Zona Gale. She took pity on his plight and sent him some money while she arranged a benefit concert in which he would play and hopefully garnish enough funds to spend the summer at the Mission Inn in Riverside, which at the time was one of the most popular hotels on the West Coast.

226630794_283e0f5b9e_b I have read correspondences between Frank Miller, the owner of the Mission Inn and Ms. Gale and they came to an agreement that rooms and board would be given to Grierson and he would be welcome to play the piano at the Inn. The invitation was declined, however. Miller wrote that Grierson turned down the lavish offer because he lacked the train fare to make the trip to Riverside but even more tragic, he did not have shoes in which to travel in. We do know that in his last days, Grierson pawned all of his treasures that he acquired from his travels of Europe and the last thing he sold was a gold watch given to him by Royalty.

 The benefit concert for him did go on as planned and on May 29, 1927 in Los Angeles at the home of a friend, Jesse Shepard came back from the dead. He arrived late as always and charmed the people in attendance and despite being 79 years old, he played the piano like he was a young man again. He played for what seemed forever and concluded the evening with one of his most famous pieces entitled The Egyptian March. When he struck the final chord, he bowed his head. As the thunder of applause settled down, he did not move. It was soon discovered by Tonner that Grierson was dead, at the piano, his fingers resting on the final chord of his most celebrated piece.

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 Following the trail of Francis Grierson is a truly fascinating one. I recently visited the Mission Inn and saw the beautiful 1876 Steinway piano which was intended for Grierson to play while he convalesced at the hotel. Across the street at the Metropolitan Museum, I was given access to all the letters between Frank Miller and Zona Gale. There I discovered a treasure that both moved me and shed light on the relationship between Miller, Gale and Grierson. It was a telegram sent to Gale on May 30, 1927. It read simply this: Francis Grierson died last night. I had sent Dewitt down a few weeks ago with an earnest invitation for him to come to Mission Inn as my guest, with the same thoughts that you have written me. It is well for the dear man to go as he has.

 From mystic and philosopher to poet and pauper, Francis Grierson lived a life so full that it took two names and two personalities to encompass them. The Villa Montezuma remains a wonderful historic home with a dark past. As its subsequent owners after Shepard came to misfortune and bad luck, stories of the mansion being haunted have circulated for years. But as people like me who truly know the house have said over and over again, “The Villa Montezuma isn’t haunted, it’s enchanted.” It is truly Francis Grierson’s home.

Charles Spratley is a local historian, tour guide, and writer who lives in Mission Valley.

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