Villa Montezuma

The Villa Montezuma is an elaborate Queen Anne style Victorian home. It is said that it does not have a single ghost haunting it, rather it has a build-up of spiritual auras accumulated from the many seances hosted there. To start, the ornate house was built for Jesse Shepard a self proclaimed medium who communicated with the dead.

The History

The Villa Montezuma house was built in 1887 by two brothers, William and John High. The house is an eclectic mix of Victorian architecture: scalloped tiling, stained glass windows, gargoyles, turrets, and two imposing, mismatched towers. To this day, it is considered one of the most ornate building in the West Coast.

Villa Montezuma
A handsome, young Jesse Shepard during the early 1870's.
With a strong interest in spiritualism and the occult, the High brothers gave the house to Jesse Shepard as a gift. Jesse (born Benjamin Henry Jesse Francis Shepard) gladly accepted the house and named it Villa Montezuma.

Jesse had a colorful life: he composed music, wrote poetry, and traveled extensively. His talents brought him into the inner circles of high society. He performed for greats such as Alexander Dumas, Oscar Wilde, King Edward VII, and Alexander II of Russia. In addition to singing and playing the piano, Jesse claimed to communicate with the dead: he said he received inspiration directly from Mozart, Beethoven, and Shakespeare!

While in the Villa Montezuma, Jesse organized elaborate balls & galas; he gave musical recitals & poetry readings; and he hosted seances where guests communicated with their beloved dead. The citizens of San Diego were enamored by Jesse: he was a symbol of worldly sophistication. The fact that he dabbled in the occult made him even more attractive.

In short, Jesse was a charismatic showman who charmed people with his music, poetry, good looks, and mysterious psychic abilities.

Villa Montezuma
The cover of "The World" magazine of Jan. 18, 1914 presenting Francis Grierson as "Psychic Pianist".

Villa Montezuma
But the fun was not to last: San Diego's boom years were coming to an end and other concerns led people away from the lavish lifestyle that Jesse represented. After all, how many times do you really need to talk to the dead anyway? The feeling was somewhat mutual: the young city of San Diego didn't have that old-world charm that Jesse thrived upon.

In December 1889, Jesse Shepard sold the Villa Montezuma and went back to Europe. He changed his name to Francis Grierson and pursued a career in writing essays for publication.

Afternote: years later, Jesse Shepard returned to Los Angeles with his long-time companion Lawrence Tonner. By this time, Jesse was old - old and poor. Throughout his life, Jesse relied on the kindness of wealthy patrons. With them gone, Jesse did not have the skills to hold his own. In 1927, Jesse died while playing the piano in a benefit dinner aimed at raising money for himself. He was 79.

The Hauntings

After Jesse Shepard left San Diego, the Villa Montezuma was sold, resold, and rented to many people. Although none reported any ghosts, many experienced extreme bad luck. In 1889, David D Dare, a wealthy entrepreneur and vice-president of a bank, lost his riches within one month of purchasing the Villa Montezuma. Coincidence or bad karma?

In 1906, Dr George Calmus and his wife purchased the Villa Montezuma and, within the year, Calmus turned into a reckless gambler and fell into heavy debt. He went on a business trip and never returned. He abandoned his unsuspecting wife who was eventually forced to evacuate.

The house sold and then was rented to George W Montgomery. The daughter, Mrs White, was a self proclaimed psychic. She told fortunes and performed nightly seances where guests contacted the dead. Like Jesse, this line of work did not find long-term success; the Montgomerys fell behind in their rent payments and were evicted in 1909.
villa montezuma
Much care has been taken to preserve the Villa Montezuma to its original glory. To this day, it remains a "Palace of the Arts" as so named by Jesse himself.

Towers, spirals, and gargoyles keep the Villa Montezuma in a
shroud of mystery and macabre.
Not much activity occurred in the Villa until 1950 when the house was sold to Carl Yeager. After years in the Villa, Mr Yeager died of old age leaving behind his elderly wife. Mrs Yeager was not able to negotiate the stairs and stayed in the lower level - predominantly in the kitchen. With the aging lady, the lonely old house fell into disrepair.

The Villa Montezuma was finally sold to the the San Diego Historical Society. It was restored and opened as a living museum in 1970. As is often the case with old buildings, there was a fire in 1986 which destroyed the upper level and half of the roof. The Villa Montezuma underwent extensive renovations and, to this day, continues to be maintained by the City of San Diego and the Friends of the Villa Montezuma Inc.

Members of the San Diego Historical Society will tell you with conviction that the Villa Montezuma is not haunted. No Ghosts - No paranormal activity - No nothing. The official web site does not mention anything of about hauntings past or present.

However, neighbors living beside the Villa will tell you tales of faces at the upstairs windows and eerie shadows behind closed curtains. Could that be Jesse Shepard coming back to his home in San Diego? Craftsmen who repaired the Villa Montezuma after the fire encountered spirits and psychic events especially in the kitchen. Could that be Mrs Yeager, who was too frail to go up the stairs?

Local psychics suggest that the spirits in the Villa Montezuma are not from one single person, rather residual or left-over energies from spirits who visited during the many seances performed by Jesse Shepard and Mrs White (Montgomery's daughter).

An old Victorian houses with a vibrant history and a string of bad luck. Some call it haunted while others call it enchanted.


Villa Montezuma
1925 K Street
San Diego, CA 92102

Note: the Villa may be closed for renovations. Call to inquire: 619-255-9367