When most folks think of San Diego, they picture gorgeous beaches, beautiful weather and cultural and artistic attractions. But for those who have an affinity for the paranormal, San Diego beckons investigation, with its rich and dark past, haunted spots, spiritual encounters and inexplicable events.
The Whaley House may not look like anything special, but it’s been called the “most haunted house in America,” once by Time Magazine, the other by the Travel Channel series Ghost Adventures. So what makes this unassuming, two-story brick house in historic Old Town San Diego such a locus of supernatural activity? This small house has as many ghost stories as it does historical accounts and that does add up to a lot. The moment I heard about the Travel Channel dubbed “most haunted place in America, I knew I had to check it out.
From the moment you arrive at the house, they start playing up the haunted aspect. I mean the gift shop has at least 15 different books all related to how haunted the house is. You can even buy a “got ghosts” mug or T-shirt, if you feel so inclined. After paying my 10 dollars, I headed out of the gift shop and into the main house.
The house has a long—and at times tragic—history. Over the years it has acted as a granary, San Diego’s first commercial theatre, and the county court house, in addition to housing the Whaley family from 1857 until 1885 and again between 1909 and 1953. Built by family patriarch Thomas Whaley with bricks from his own brickyard, the Whaley House was the first two-story brick building in San Diego.
To find the origins of the Whaley House hauntings, you have to go back farther than the house itself. Before the first bricks were laid, the ground where the Whaley House would be built was used as a makeshift gallows. In 1852, James “Yankee Jim” Robinson was convicted of attempted larceny and hanged in the back of a wagon over the spot where the house now stands.
According to newspaper accounts of the time, the hangman set the noose improperly, allowing Jim’s feet to graze the ground, prolonging the hanging process. “Yankee Jim” kept his feet on the wagon as long as he could, and when he was finally pulled off, he swung back and forth like a pendulum until he strangled to death.”
Thomas Whaley witnessed the execution, but didn’t let that deter him from buying the property to build his family home in 1857. Almost as soon as the family moved in they began to hear heavy footsteps moving through the house, which Thomas Whaley said sounded like they were made by the “boots of a large man.” Eventually, the family concluded that these footsteps were the work of the ghost of “Yankee Jim.”
(In 1869 the city leased this room as a courthouse. As the population grew in San Diego’s “New Town” the city fathers wanted to also move the public records out of Old Town. A heavy iron chain in the room has been seen to swing on its own, and many people report feeling uneasy there. Heavy footsteps have long been heard upstairs, above this room.)
“Yankee Jim” wasn’t the last death that the Whaley House would see. Many Whaley family members haven’t strayed too far from the house named after them since their deaths. Thomas and Anna Whaley are both thought to haunt the Whaley House. Thomas has been sighted standing at the top of the staircase, while Anna is usually seen in the parlor, each sporting Victorian style clothing. One of their children, Thomas Jr., who passed away from Scarlet Fever in 1858 at just 18 months old, is also believed to reside within the house. Dying suddenly and tragically at such a young age may have trapped the spirit of the young boy, with many reporting to hear sounds of a child within the Whaley House. Then there is the ghost of Violet, another of the Whaley’s children. Violet was shamed, abandoned and conned by her own husband, which spiraled her into a depressive state. She retreated to her family home where, at just 22 years old, she took her own life by shooting herself in the chest. The influence of Violet’s entity is felt by many, who experience extreme bouts of sadness in the area she committed suicide. The Whaley’s dog and cat are among other spirits of the family that have taken up a ghostly residence within the home, seen occasionally chasing each other inside and across the gardens.
In the mid-1800’s a young girl running down the hill outside, struck a clothes line which crushed her throat. She was brought into the kitchen, where she later died on the kitchen table. Since then, a blond girl has been reported in the kitchen and running in the yard. Pots and pans hanging on the kitchen wall have been seen to move.
In 1871, when Thomas was away on a business trip, a group of armed men held Anna Whaley at gunpoint as they seized the courthouse records from the home. This, many say, was a turning point for the family and the house.
No one has lived in the house since 1953 and over the years restoration works have been carried out seeing all different workmen come and go into the building. The historic house opened as a museum on May 25, 1960. To visit the Whaley House today is to sweep back time like a curtain, leaving the visitor standing on the threshold of the 1850s — the age of stagecoaches and crinolines – in what for years was the only “grand mansion” in a dusty little frontier town.
(The archway between the parlor and music room is located where Yankee Jim Robinson was hung in 1852, before the house was built. People report feeling a constriction in the throat when standing there.)
(One of the other unnerving apparitions that has made its appearance has done so in the form of music. Sometimes the organ can be heard playing. The organ is still in working condition and was one of the original pieces of furniture in the house. I believe it was a source of entertainment for Mrs. Whaley who was an avid player.)
Over the years, plenty of visitors to the house have encountered ghostly phenomena within its walls. Most have claimed to have heard unexplained noises from loud bangs, whispering, laughter, wallowing and even screams and crying. The list of people who claim to have witnessed spectral phenomena extends to celebrities. Comedian Tom Green called out to the spirits in one room and was answered by a child’s voice, which was caught on tape, while Regis Philbin visited the Whaley House in 1964 and saw what he thought was the ghostly presence of Anna Whaley, a “filmy white” apparition that appeared in front of her portrait.
Unfortunately, during my visit I wasn’t lucky enough to witness any ghosts, but as far as scary things, the most frightening item I saw during my time here was these creepy dolls they had all over the rooms. Honestly, I don’t need to see a ghost; those dolls were bad enough!
With a long history of tragedy and misfortune, it’s hardly surprising the Whaley House has earned the title of “the most haunted house in the U.S.”
If you’d like to view more haunted history on the house check out season 9 episode 12 of Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel. For visitors the house is located at 2476 San Diego Ave in San Diego. Price of adult admission is $10. This is a self-guided tour, but plenty of docents are readily available to answer any questions you may have.