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Borderland: Mystery of the Musical Medium - Gaddis
MYSTERY OF THE MUSICAL MEDIUM
by Vincent H. Gaddis
The place was the royal residence of Prince Adam Wisniewski in
Rome and the time was a September day in 1894. Members of the
Italian court, social personages, patrons and performers of the
arts had gathered to witness a musical seance. Seated at the
piano was the medium, a tall, slender middle-aged man with a trim
dyed moustache and large brown eyes. On his head was a wig of
dark wavy hair and his cheeks were slightly rouged.
The guests were placed in a circle around the piano and the room
was darkened. As the pianist, his huge hands covering an octave
and a half, struck the first chords, tiny lights flickered in
every corner of the room. The great composers of past centuries
had arrived, some to listen, others to perform from the beyond
their latest compositions through the dexterous fingers of the
medium. Thalbery was first with a rippling fantasia, then he was
joined by Liszt in a rhapsody for four hands. "Notwithstanding
this extraordinary complex technique," wrote the Prince in
Vessillo Spiritista, "the harmony was admirable, such as no one
present had ever known paralleled even by Liszt himself, whom I
personally knew and in whom passion and delicacy were united. In
the circle were musicians who, like myself, had heard the
greatest pianists in Europe, but we can say that we never heard
such truly supernatural execution."
A globe of light and three raps on the Prince's knee announced
the appearances of Chopin and George Sand, respectively. Then
Chopin's spirit, with the expressive tones that distinguish his
compositions, played first a fantasia followed by haunting and
exquisite melodies "with a pianissimo of diminishing notes and
tones full of despair -- a prayer to God for Poland."
The somber mood was dispelled by Mozart who played with the
agility and lightness of a sylph, the genius of his unique and
melodious style displayed by notes that danced to an airy climax
above a Lydian measured undertone.
"But the most marvelous incident of the evening was th
presentation of the spirit of Berlioz by his two chaperones,
Liszt and Thalberg," the Prince reported. "That was the first
time Berlioz had played through Jesse Shepard. He began by
saying that the piano was toned too low for his music (Shepard is
also clairvoyant and clairaudient) and he tuned it a tone higher
himself. For ten minutes we heard the spirits working with the
piano, which was closed. At the first sound we observed that the
instrument was about two notes higher.
"Then Berlioz played sweet, ideal music. It seemed as if we
heard the little bells of a country church; as if we saw and
heard a marriage procession...entering the edifice; then a music
which imitated to perfection the sound of the organ and continued
piano, pianissimo and morendo, as if indicating that the marriage
was celebrated....This piece finished, Berlioz, with the aid of
several other spirits, restored the instrument to its first
tuning and began playing on its ordinary tone while the lid was
Jesse Shepard could speak English and French only, but after the
musical seance he entered a trance state and the spirits spoke
through him in other languages. Prince Wisniewski said that
Goethe came and recited passages in German, while other spirits
spoke in Hebrew and Arabic. "After the seance," the article
concluded, "Mr. Shepard was much exhausted and had to retire to
As the late Dr. Nandor Fodor wrote in his book Between Two
Worlds, "No musical party by the Mad Hatter could sound more
preposterous than this account. It leaves breathless the most
ardent spiritualists." Did Prince Wisniewski make an accurate
report or was he guilty of exaggeration?
Whatever the source of his inspiration, Shepard was a master
pianist whose improvisations left his listeners dumbfounded.
Varied in style, emotionally powerful, his music sometimes had a
delicate lilting beauty and at other times it was haunting,
primitive. His renditions roamed the world and the centuries.
With processions of chords, he evoked the antiquity of Egypt, the
mystery of India, the agelessness of china, and the
sophistication of the West.
John Lane, the English publisher, was a guest one evening at a
Shepard musicale when the performer improvised on the sinking of
the Titanic. The treatment was so stupendous, so overwhelming,
Lane said it caused him to postpone his departure for America for
a fortnight, although he had arranged to sail the very next day.
Edwin Bjorkman, writing in Harper's Weekly, described a Shepard
concert: "Something more than sound issued from that piano: it
was a mood, uncanny yet pleasing, exalting, luring. He seemed to
keep notes suspended in the air for minutes. HOw and then he
would make a shining vessel out of such a chord, and then he
would begin to drip little drops of melody into it, until the
Grail seemed to rise before your vision, luminous with blood-red
rubies....Then the music swelled and became strangely urgent -- I
left there was an image that wanted to break through -- a
consciousness of some mighty presence." Prof. Harold P. Simonson,
author or the only book-length biography of Shepard, writes that
to Shepard "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 -- (he) by means of musical seances, sought to
lead others to transcendental perception." (Francis Grierson, by
Harold P. Simonson, Twayne Publishers, Inc., NY, 1966.)
Unlike Rosemary Brown, the contemporary English housewife who has
produced hundreds of astonishing and gifted compositions said to
have dictated by Liszt, Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven and other
musical geniuses of yesteryear, Shepard's music was never
committed to paper. He believed that to do so would nullify the
rationale of his gift. Some of his improvisations had titles and
basic tonal structures, but his renditions were never exactly the
Born in England in 1848m, Jesse Francis Shepard was brought to
the United States as an infant by his parents. The family
settled on the Illinois prairie, in Sangamon County, in the heart
of the Lincoln country. For a time his log home was a station on
the Underground Railway, and at the age of ten he listened to the
final Lincoln-Douglas debate at Alton. Three years later, as the
Civil War got underway, he was a page to Gen. John C. Fremont in
Later the family moved to Niagara Falls and then Chicago.
Shepard, in an biographical article in The Medium, a London
spiritualist publication, said that his first psychic abilities
of clairvoyance and psychometry appeared when he was 19.
Meanwhile he was taking piano lessens and developing his skill in
a normal manner. In face, for a time, his sister Letitia played
better than he did. When and where did the baptism of
transcendental proficiency take place?
The mystery of this musical medium is presented in Twentieth
Century Authors: "With only two years of formal musical training,
Shepard exhibited an extraordinary talent at the piano. At
barely 21, he set out for Paris, with scarcely enough money to
buy his own passage, and almost overnight became a sensation."
Without a knowledge of French, letters of introduction,
companions or a reputation as a musician, he received immediate
acclaim as piano improvisator par excellence. Within a month he
was a welcome guest at the Parisian salons where he entertained
those distinguished in titles, society and the arts.
In addition to his instrumental endowment, Shepard was blessed
with a remarkable voice. He sang in Saint-Eustache and the
basilica of Montmartre by special invitation, and was chosen by
composer Leon Gasinelle to sing the leading parts in his Mass
written for the fete of the Annunciation and performed with
orchestra and chorus in the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
"With your gifts you will find all doors open before you,"
Alexandre Dumas the Elder told Shepard at a reception. Now the
darling of French nobility, Shepard received so many social
invitations that he sought the advice of friends in dealing with
them. But in time the Franco-Prussian War brought his happy stay
in the City of Lights to an end.
He went to London where he stayed at the home of Viscountess
Combermere. He continued his recitals for the distinguished and
socially elite and also advertised that his psychic services were
available -- "clairvoyant, prophetic, psychometric sittings,
diagnosis of disease, and discovery of mediumistic faculties,"
with the added note that "music manifestations are not given at
the same sitting."
After eight months in London he spent a delightful summer in the
German resort city of Baden-Baden where his circle of
aristocratic friends included the King and Queen of Prussia. In
October, with no knowledge of the Russian language and with only
enough money to pay expenses for one week, he moved on to St.
Petersburg. After spending the week in a hotel room reading the
works of Lord Byron, he took his limitless optimism and a letter
of introduction to Madame and Monsieur Hardy. owners of the
opulent Restaurant Dusseau. They took him in, and while the
fierce Russian winter raged and howled he moved among the high
and mighty, his days "crammed with pleasure and amusements of all
sorts." Princess Abamelik introduced him to General Jourafsky,
the noted Russian mystic who discussed with him the proper
conduct of seances. Shepard climaxed his first visit in the
spring by performing before Czar Alexander II, then returned to
In the autumn of 1874 he returned to the United States. Within a
month he was in Chittenden, Vt., attending the seances of the
Eddy brothers in their farmhouse. He spent ten days there with
Madame Blavatsky and Col. Henry Steel Olcott, later the
co-founders of Theosophy, as crowds of the curious came and went.
According to Olcott, in his book Old Diary Leaves, Shepard not
only gave "mediumistic musical performances," but entered into
the spirit of things by going into trance and singing Russian
songs "under the control of Grisi and Lablache."
Back in New York Shepard continued to visit Madame Blavatsky, but
a personality conflict finally developed. She told Olcott
Shepard was a charlatan and accused him of having paid a
music-master to teach him the Russian songs he sung in the Eddy
farmhouse. But theosophical teachings were another matter, and
years later he lectured on the doctrine.
During the next 12 years Shepard roamed the world living by his
wits and talents in northern California, Europe and a year in
Australia. In Chicago he held a series of seances in the home of
another medium, and according to the daughter of Hudson Tuttle,
"strange and unaccountable phenomena nightly occurred." Tuttle
is the noted author of classical books on spiritualism. Shepard,
the daughter reported, said he was controlled by a bank of
Egyptian spirits, the leader of whom had lived on the earth when
the pyramids were young.
The medium's most amazing performance was simultaneously singing
in two voices, in bass and soprano, his control singing in one
voice and the Egyptian in the other, while another spirit
accompanied on the harp. "Between the musical pieces," she
added, "Mr. Shepard, 'under influence,' gave tests, describing
spirit friends, etc." Throughout his career Shepard's dual-tone
singing left his listeners in states of bewildered shock.
And it was in Chicago that he met Lawrence W. Tonner, his
self-effacing modest secretary, man Friday and dedicated admirer,
who would be his companion the rest of his life. A few months
later they came to San Diego, Calif. Here Shepard would build
his magnificent Victorian mansion, the Villa Montezuma, and enter
a new profession. He had reached life's mid-point, a Midwest
farm boy who had become a globe-trotter over three continents; a
cosmopolite honored in the salons and palaces of society and
royalty. Now would come a time for inner searching, a change in
goals, a personal renaissance.
Designated a historical landmark, the Villa Montezuma is
currently being restored by the San Diego Historical Society, the
San Diego Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and
the Save Our Heritage Organization. Upon completion of the work
it will be furnished with period furniture and open to the
public. Its exterior is somewhat weathered, but the main floor
of the interior with its polished redwood walls, ornate tiled
fireplaces, silvery lincrusta walton ceilings and cathedral glass
transoms is almost the same as when the house was built in 1887.
There are ebony panels inlaid with bas-relief figures of ivory
and mother-of-pearl. A mantel in the design of a medieval castle
tower is made of walnut shingles and imported English tiles.
It is the colored art glass windows that Shepard had made to
order that is the home's outstanding decorative feature. On the
long east wall of the music room is a huge window depicting the
Greek poetess Sappho attended by two cupids. At the north end of
the room are circular windows containing portrait heads of Mozart
and Beethoven in art glass, while on the south wall are similar
windows with portraits of Rubens and Raphael. In the drawing
room are the heads of Shakespeare, Goethe and Corneille. Other
art windows included allegorical representations of the Orient
and Occident (the face of the figure representing the Orient a
portrait of Shepard himself), the four seasons, at St. Cecilia
playing the organ.
When Shepard lived in the house, the floors were covered with
heavy Persian and Turkish rugs with a large polar bear skin in
the music room. An elaborate Oriental candelabrum hung from the
ceiling, and throughout all the rooms were life-sized busts,
exotic plants and polished candelabra. The second floor, since
remodeled into rooms, was originally an art gallery and museum
displaying along with sculpture and paintings, memorabilia and
gifts Shepard had received from royalty, titled patrons and
others during his tours. A Spanish cedar stairway led up to a
third floor tower room beneath a Moorish roof. This was
Private seances were held in the music room. So beatific, so
unearthly was his music that contemporary accounts call it
"simply indescribable." There were listeners who said they heard
drums, tambourines and trumpets accompanying the piano with
voices issuing from the trumpets. Other guests claimed they
heard choirs of voices led by Shepard's own singing, now soaring
to the heights in melodious soprano, then dropping down to an
Two changes occurred in Shepard's life during his San Diego
period, one temporary, the other permanent. There was a crisis
in his spiritual and religious thinking. Although he continued
his musicales and was associated with a group of wealthy local
spiritualists who had contributed heavily to the cost of his
villa, he seemingly tried to break away from spiritualism. He
attacked what he called "phenomenal spiritualism" which led to a
bitter counter-attack by Hudson Tuttle in an article in the
Religio-Philosophical Journal. His upheaval was climaxed by his
becoming a member of the Roman Catholic Church.
The permanent change was his decision to embark on a literary
career with music taking second place. This career began with
the writing of essays for The Golden Era, a West Coast journal
that published much of the early work of Mark Twain, Bret Harte
and Shepard's friend, the poet Joaquin Miller. Most of them were
written in the tower room where in later years it is said a
butler hung himself.
Late in 1888 Shepard and Tonner went to Paris to arrange for the
publication of his first two books, both containing some of the
earlier Golden Era essays. They returned the following
September. Shepard decided that to achieve literary success he
should move permanently to Europe. He needed money. On Dec. 17,
1889, he completed the sale of the Villa Montezuma and all its
furnishings to David D. Dare, a bank executive, and that night
gave his farewell concert before a large audience at the
In a biographical sketch Tonner wrote: "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."
Their arrival in Paris marked the beginning of a twenty-three
year residence abroad. Shepard resumed his European tours and
published reports revealed that he was still the musical medium.
In Austria he played at a reunion of three royal houses as the
guest of the duchess of Cumberland. The Queen of Denmark said
that the piano playing was so marvelous that it seemed four hands
were engaged instead of two. Again he was welcomed in royal
courts and cosmopolitan salons.
Unless he knew his listeners were sympathetic, Shepard did not
refer to psychic inspiration. Few would believe such claims, and
those who did were regarded by others with suspicion. According
to Dr. Fodor, the penalty for belief could be great. Henry
Kiddle, Superintendent of Schools of New York, was forced to
resign when he publicly said he believed in Shepard's spirits.
The school official said he heard Shepard play a magnificent
impromptu symphony under the control of Mozart, give
philosophical dissertations under the influence of Aristotle, and
speak in six different languages while in trance.
During his European years Shepard was writing essays, articles
and books on art, philosophy, human nature, biographical sketches
and his own experiences. With the publication of his book Modern
Mysticism in 1899, he took one of his middle names and his
mother's maiden name "lest his literary efforts be regarded as
mere diversions. Thus, during the last 28 years of his life the
former Jesse Shepard became Francis Grierson.
Included among his published books were The Celtic Temperament
(adopted as a textbook by Japanese universities), Parisian
Portraits, The Humour of the Underman, and Abraham Lincoln, the
Practical Mystic. In 1911 his Invincible Alliance foresaw World
He won the admiration and praise of the leading critics and
literary greats of his day. Maurice Maeterlinck found his
writings mystical, romantic and profound. The Westminster Review
noted his "rare intuition and a profound knowledge both of art
and human nature." Grierson's greatest work was The Valley of
Shadows, the story of his boyhood on the prairies of Illinois, in
Lincoln country, at the time of the spiritual awakening as the
Civil War approached. It presents a poetic and vivid picture of
a bygone time, and was used by Carl Sandberg as an information
source in writing his Abraham Lincoln, the Prairie Years. When
the fifth edition appeared in 1948, Bernard DeVoto called it an
American classic. Edmund Wilson, reviewing it in The New Yorker,
said it fills a "niche which no other book quite fills." This
edition came 39 years after if was first published.
Grierson and Tonner returned to the United States in 1913. He
continued his writing and piano recitals. For a time he was in
Toronto giving lecture on theosophy. He made many friends.
Judge Ben Lindsey introduced him to Henry Ford and he was invited
to membership in the Chevy Chase Club. He discussed the fourth
dimension and occult theories with Claude Bragdon. His literary
friends included Edwin Markham, Sara Teasdale, Mark Van Doren,
William James and Edwin Arlington Robinson.
In 1920 he settled in Los Angeles and a year later published his
final book at his own expense. It was titled Psycho-Phone
Messages, and its 82 pages contained communications allegedly
received through a phone-like device from illustrious but
deceased persons. Abraham Lincoln predicted the failure of the
League of Nations; Henry Ward Beecher assailed the sins of the
Jazz Age; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton preached Women's Lib. Other
messages, warnings and diatribes came from General Grant, Thomas
Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Webster, Oliver Wendell
Holmes, and other great personalities of yesteryear.
Grierson's final years were sad ones. The public was no longer
interested in his music. Despite the efforts of admiring fellow
authors, publishers failed to express sufficient interest in his
manuscripts. Occasionally he gave a lecture or lessons in poise
and practical psychology. Tonner taught French and for a time
was a partner in a small dry cleaning establishment. Despite the
recommendations of Mary Austin, an anthology of poetry Grierson
had compiled and edited could not be sold. Eventually all
sources of income failed and the pair were destitute.
Zona Gale, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, was staying at
the famed Mission Inn in Riverside, Cal., where Grierson
sometimes gave concerts. He visited her at her request. When
she arrived back home at Portage, Wis., she wrote friends in Los
Angeles and encouraged them to arrange a benefit dinner to honor
Grierson and to raise money for him. In the meantime he pawned
the last of his valuable possessions, a gold watch given him by
King Edward VII of England.
The benefit was held the evening of May 29, 1927. Following the
dinner Grierson entertained with what Tonner called "marvelous
instantaneous compositions on the piano." Finally the pianist
told the thirty guests that his final number would be his Grand
Egyptian March. It was a moving rendition, haunting and
mystical, with mighty chords alternating with soft melody that
invoked thoughts of dark antiquity, of temples, the ever-flowing
Nile, of gods dethroned and empires of the past.
When he finished he sat perfectly still as he often did as he
rested, his head slightly bent forward, his fingers on the keys.
There was applause but he failed to acknowledge it. Long seconds
passed. A grim suspicion gripped Tonner. He walked over and
touched his companion of over four decades. It was true!
Dramatically, yet quietly, surrounded by friends, he had entered
the realm of his visions and found peace. peace. M-\M-8 P ^
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