We went on a night time tour of the Whaley House a few weeks ago. A tour guide gave us the inside details about the house and the grounds. She also told us stories of experiences the staff and some of the tour guests have experienced. Although, we didn’t have any experiences ourselves, the tour of the home and cemetery (a few blocks down the road) were quite interesting. We didn’t bring a professional camera, so the photos are all taken by a camera phone. The only dislike we ran across was the fact you couldn’t walk in the rooms and there was a small glassed off area you could look through. We’d recommend anyone to check it out if you are in the area.
Our tour was about 45 minutes. We began in the town hall and listened to the tour guide give us general information about the home. We then moved into the hall that had some artifacts of the home and photos. The dinning area was next. The guide had said one corners of the room seemed to have the most activity. There was a glass set of doors where a woman is sometimes seen. (We didn’t notice any odd activity). Next was a downstairs room were one of the sons died of scarlet fever. We proceeded up a staircase to look at the other rooms and a theatre. They say on the ninth step of the staircase, some have trouble breathing due to a man hanging himself from that area. The rooms seemed to be normal for the time period. There were a lot of dolls on each bed (a little creepy). The theatre upstairs was very dark. We all sat down and listened to the stories of the shows that were put on in the past. There used to be a staircase on the balcony that went downstairs so patrons could walk up and watch the show instead of going into the house. The back left corner was said to be the most active. It was actually where we were sitting but we didn’t notice anything unusual. We then went downstairs to view the living area and entertaining area with a piano. After the tour of the inside of the house, we made our way to the back yard where you could take photos of the back of the house. Sometimes a woman appears at the window on the second floor.
There is a cemetery a few blocks down the road that we went to shortly after the tour. The cemetery was filled with white crosses and some had white gates around there graves. It was quite dark, but we did manage to take some photos.
Here the photos from the home & cemetery.
The History Behind the Mystery
Two giggling boys crouched upon the porch of the old brick house and began to rotate the small lever in the door, resulting in the delightful jingle of a bell. The clicking of dainty quick footsteps approached and slowly, the door opened just a crack. The smell of heavy perfume wafted past the children’s noses. “Hay espantos aquí con ojos grandes!” whispered the diminutive Frenchwoman peeking out from the glass-paneled door bearing a rectangular silver nameplate reading “T. Whaley.” Momentarily paralyzed with fear, the boys’ eyes grew wide in terror. Slowly glancing toward each other, they simultaneously backed away from the door and took off running toward the plaza.
Those were the words of Anna Whaley, spoken over a century ago on a regular basis to the curious children of Old Town who had a habit of creeping up to her home just as the daylight began to fade, in the hopes of seeing a specter before their mothers called them home for dinner. Mostly, they saw Mrs. Whaley. Sometimes she just gave them a good scare right there on the front porch. If she wasn’t too weary or feeling poorly, she invited the children inside to enjoy a cookie or small treat, and perhaps a tall tale. A very tall tale. One that stood about 6 feet, 4 inches tall to be precise. The tale of Yankee Jim Robinson, the ghost who was haunting her house.
No one born after 1850 had ever seen this lanky stranger, but everyone knew who he was. You couldn’t live in Old Town and not know who Yankee Jim Robinson was. Jim was infamous. He arrived in San Diego in 1852 and roused up quite a ruckus. Apparently, he had a bad habit of taking things that didn’t belong to him, and the good citizens of the pueblo had pretty much lost patience with this sort of newcomer. He was captured, tried and brought to a vacant lot south of the plaza, conveniently located within steps of El Campo Santo cemetery. A crude gallows had quickly been constructed in his honor. Yankee Jim was given a Catholic baptism to save his mortal soul, after which the 6’4″ newly christened Santiago Robinson was hauled up onto a buckboard wagon and a thick, coarse rope was placed about his neck. The wagon pulled out from under his feet and dropped him within inches of the ground; in fact, Jim was so much taller than the average fellow that the toes of his boots were scraping the dirt. A handsome mustachioed young man from New York stood in the crowd observing Yankee Jim slowly strangle to death. And the rest, as they say, is history.
A couple of years later, the property where Yankee Jim and a few others swung into oblivion was purchased for a song by that young man in the crowd who likely felt a tinge of pity for the criminal and at the same time noticed the choice property this event was taking place upon. Thomas Whaley made the deal of the century and in 1856 built his castle right smack dab on top of the spot that only a few short years before sent bad men to meet their maker.
Certainly friends and neighbors shared their reservations with Whaley regarding his choice of lot to build upon. He smirked at their superstitions and built a grand house he was certain would be the envy of all. Whispered rumors began to circulate about the grand Greek Revival mansion down the street. Seems the Whaleys had themselves an invisible “squatter” who moved into the house even before they did and it’s been presumed ever since to be the perturbed wraith of Yankee Jim.
Old Town folklore handed down over one hundred fifty years reveal rumors of ghostly residents in the Whaley House began at the time the structure was built. Stories from family, friends, boarders, and neighbors have filtered through the decades until no one is quite sure where some of the tales began. The folklore itself has become cemented in the history of the Whaley House.
Thomas Whaley is reputed to be the first family member to remark upon the heavy disembodied footfalls up on the second floor when no one else was in the house. According to Anna Whaley, there was a presence in the house that surrounded her that she could not shake off. Eventually Anna regarded the property to be doomed, the cause of all the tragedy in her life. Son Francis Hinton Whaley spent several years restoring the home at the turn of the 20th century and had his own otherworldly experiences there. Spending hours alone in the home, he’d close all the shutters and curtains and attempt to communicate with the spirits he believed to be present. Lillian Whaley shared the home with boarders in her later years, many of whom remarked upon odd occurrences in the structure. She felt the widespread rumors of the hauntings to be both a blessing and a curse. The stories circulating kept vandals away from the property, at the same time discouraged renters when she needed the extra income.
Anna Whaley’s words about those ghosts with big eyes were ironic in that now it would appear she too is among the spirits that roam the halls of the Whaley House, and is likely responsible for some of the bumps taking place in the night in the old brick building. Chairs rock, chandeliers swing, doors open and close of their own volition. Invisible fingers strike the keys of a piano no longer present in the house. The sounds of cutlery against fine bone china, a wordless phantom meal emanates from the dining room often accompanied by the aroma of fresh baked bread and pies during the holidays. The scent of fine Cuban tobacco and French perfume waft through the halls. The activity isn’t limited to the human variety; the Whaleys had a menagerie of four-legged family members with fanciful names, “Dolly” the dog and “Winks” the cat among their favorites. Many individuals have witnessed a small dog chasing a cat through the house and out into the garden.
Over the years, scores of individuals have heard the disembodied pounding of a gavel dispensing frontier justice emanate from the courtroom. The raucous laughter and music of vaudeville seep from the walls of the upper rooms rented to the Tanner Troupe Theater. The strains of violin, guitar, and piano float past from long forgotten musical soirees, parties and balls. The pitter-patter of tiny feet scampering down the hallway, the clicking of dainty high heeled slippers and the rustling of silk skirts; a child’s laughter, a child’s cries, a mother’s sweet French lullabies.
Thomas and Anna Whaley’s 18-month-old son Thomas Jr. contracted scarlet fever and died in the house in 1858. The sounds of a baby or young child are often presumed to be little Tommy. Another child, a young girl, has been witnessed playing in the dining room. The legend of the “ninth step” began when folks experienced an odd sort of pressure upon ascension of the narrow staircase, which for many years was presumed to be the revenant of Anna Whaley reliving a traumatic event, attempting to thwart visitors from gaining access to the second floor. More recently that sensation of pressure is attributed to the wraith of Yankee Jim who may have died in this particular spot, although Lillian Whaley reported that her father told her Yankee Jim was hanged over the location of the archway separating the parlor and study.
A young woman is often sensed lingering upon the second floor of the house, and many perceive a feeling of profound sorrow in that portion of the home. She is thought to be the Whaleys’ daughter Violet, who committed suicide and died in the house in 1885. Likely suffering from a clinical depression compounded by life events, Violet had a tendency to remain in solitude on the second floor of the home during the last year of her life.
Thomas Whaley himself, sporting pantaloons, a frock coat and top hat has been witnessed standing at the top of the stairs surveying his castle. His wife Anna, attired in a cheery green gingham gown has been momentarily spotted upon the settee in the parlor, perhaps about to enjoy a sip of tea, or take a few stitches upon her sampler, which would surely read “Home Sweet Home.” According to scores of paranormal investigators and visitors, the spirits of Thomas and Anna Whaley continue to dwell here watching over their brood. This is their home, and they show no signs of leaving.
They are gracious hosts, as long as you remember what your mother taught you, to always mind your manners in someone else’s house. The Whaley House staff cannot guarantee that you shall see, feel, smell, or hear anything out of the ordinary on your visit and thusly, we cannot guarantee you will not. We can assure you, however, that the entities that occupy the Whaley House are fully aware of your presence and everything you do and say. If you are quiet and listen carefully….you may indeed experience something from beyond the veil.
About the Whaley House & Grounds
Located at 2476 San Diego Avenue in historic Old Town San Diego, the Whaley House stands today as a classic example of mid-nineteenth century Greek Revival architecture. Formally dedicated as a historic house museum on May 25, 1960 and open to the public ever since, it is one of southern California’s most popular visitor destinations. Over 100,000 people visit the Whaley House annually, with guests traveling from across the globe to experience this world-renowned museum. It is owned by the County of San Diego and since September of 2000 Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) has managed and operated the property. SOHO, a non-profit advocacy organization, has lead the community as a powerful catalyst for historic preservation by raising awareness and appreciation of our region’s architectural and cultural heritage since 1969.
The building was started with the construction of a granary that later became the courtroom. The two-story house and store addition was designed by Thomas Whaley himself and constructed in 1857. It was the first two-story brick edifice in San Diego, and was built from bricks made in Thomas Whaley’s own brickyard. Whaley boasted, “My new house, when completed, will be the handsomest, most comfortable and convenient place in town or within 150 miles of here.”
The house is now in the process of a major restoration. Our interpretive period is from 1856 when construction began on the house to 1885 when Thomas Whaley moved his family to a new home in New Town, San Diego. Our primary focus is on 1868 to 1871, when the Whaley House was not only the Whaley family residence, but also San Diego’s first commercial theater, the county courthouse, and the Whaley and Crosthwaite General Store, all of which have been restored to the museum.
The Whaley House Complex consists of:
- The Whaley House Museum, a not-to-be-missed experience that will be enjoyed by persons of all ages.
- The historic Verna House, which houses the Whaley House Museum Shop. This 1870s French Mansard was moved to its current location, next to the Whaley House, to save it from demolition in 1965. The Museum Shop features Whaley House souvenirs and t-shirts, an eclectic assortment of gifts and art that will appeal to everyone, and a large selection of books on San Diego History, architecture, art, and the paranormal.
- Two false front store buildings, of which there are only two others that still exist in the City of San Diego, that were moved from downtown San Diego to the Whaley House Complex in 1964 to save them from demolition. The two at the Whaley House Complex currently house the New Orleans Creole Café. The Café offers indoor and outdoor patio dining.
- Our replica nineteenth-century rustic gazebo seating area is the perfect place to relax after a hearty meal or a walk through Old Town State Park.
- The historic Derby-Pendleton House. This c. 1850 wood-frame and adobe structure is named for its two best-known residents, humorist George Horatio Derby (better known by his pennames “Squibob” and “John Phoenix”) and San Diego County Clerk and Recorder George Allen Pendleton. The building was moved out of the path of Interstate 5 to its current location in 1962. Although it is not open to the public, it provides a classic backdrop to the Whaley House grounds. Read more about the Derby-Pendleton House from the July 2005 SOHO Reflections newsletter.