Villa Montezuma, San Diego

by Real Haunts Team

Many believe the unusual Villa Montezuma, in the Sherman Heights neighborhood of San Diego, California, is cursed at the very least. Architecturally quite distinct from other buildings in the area, this eclectic red Queen Anne-style mansion was built in 1887 for a renowned musician named Jesse Shepard.

Also known as writer Francis Grierson, Shepard was born in Britain, then emigrated with his family to America when he was a baby. For a while he was based in San Francisco, before being persuaded to move to San Diego by wealthy ranchers William and John High.

The building of the San Diego railroad in 1885 had given the town a considerable boost, and people were flocking to live there. With schools, universities and concert halls becoming established, many poets, musicians and painters in Shepard’s cultured San Francisco circle also re-located.

Shepard was deeply involved in a Spiritualist group, to which William and John High also belonged. The High brothers built Villa Montezuma for him, to his exact requirements, naming it after the ship that transported him from Britain to America all those years before.

Shepard only lived in the house for a year before moving to Paris in 1888, to publish his first book. He sold Villa Montezuma a year later, and in the decades that followed the house passed between several different owners.

Used as a boarding house during WW2, this historic mansion later fell into disrepair. It was bought by the City of San Diego in 1970, and opened as a museum in 1972. At one stage it was a popular wedding venue, before closing in 2006 due to safety concerns. Following a number of renovations, it re-opened for occasional tours in 2015. But as well as its historical significance, Villa Montezuma also has a reputation as a haunted house.

The Ghosts of Villa Montezuma

A few of its past owners, including Shepard, performed séances in the house. Shepard’s séances were particularly notable, with him allegedly using his own voice to simulate an entire orchestra. He would summon spirits of long-dead composers, such as Mozart and Chopin, to play the piano with him as part of the performance.

Passers-by would hear the sound of a full orchestra, at times when Shepard was believed to be alone in the house. Locals frowned on these strange goings-on at Villa Montezuma and were uncomfortable with Shepard’s claim that he could communicate with spirits from the other side – including Shakespeare and Julius Caesar.

Shepard’s reputation was adversely affected, and by the time he left San Diego, he was shunned by local society. His wealth dwindled, and by the time he died in 1927, he was said to be living in abject poverty, wholly dependent on his old friend Lawrence Tonner.

Visitors to the house since have reported hearing piano music coming from the locked room where Shepard’s musical séances took place. There is said to be a strange presence in the room, which some believe is the spirit of Shepard returning to the place he loved.  

With the help of Friends of Villa Montezuma (FOVM), much of Shepard’s original lavish and often unusual design details have been restored. These include multiple stained-glass windows, statues of gargoyles, secret passages, hidden doorways, and five fireplaces – with hidden alcoves behind them.

Shepard’s impressive music room on the main floor takes up the entire east side. On the south side is a tower room with an Arabesque dome, offering panoramic views to Point Loma and south to Mexico – believed to have inspired Shepard’s creative writing and composing.

A man, believed to be one of Shepard’s servants, was said to be so grief-stricken when his wife died that he hanged himself in the tower. His ghost is still believed to haunt the house. Some claim to have seen his sad, mournful form peering through a window in the dome; others allege the sighting of an apparition, hanging from the same location where the man reputedly took his life.

Visitors at Villa Montezuma have reported an eerie atmosphere around the place, and there is a corner of the grounds where plants will never grow – quite inexplicably. Other strange happenings include ghostly figures appearing in the stained-glass windows. One particular window shows the face of the artist Rubens, whose beard looks more grey with each passing year.

Even Shepard’s death in 1927 was unusual. It occurred at the end of a piano concert he was giving for friends, immediately after he had played the very last note – while he was still seated at the piano.

Many of Villa Montezuma’s past owners, including Shepard himself, ended up in financial ruin and were forced to sell. There is commonly thought to be a curse at the heart of this unusual historic mansion: the eventual decline of anyone who dares to live there.

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