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The Whaley House, San Diego

Officially recognized as the “Most Haunted House In California” by the U.S. Commerce Department, the fact that the Whaley House is a whistle stop on most major tours of San Diego should not deter weirdists from making a pilgrimage. The reputation is well deserved. Every volunteer at the house has a story about swinging chandeliers, footfalls on the floor below or above them, smells of lavender perfume and burning tobacco, and seemingly solid, flesh-and-blood figures dressed in 19th century clothes who walk around corners and disappear. The place claims at least seven apparitions, including a small terrier who will lick and hump your leg. The place may have been destined to be haunted, since it was built on the site of an unjust hanging.

Thomas Whaley was a New York businessman when in 1849 he decided to relocate to San Francisco to take advantage of the burgeoning gold rush economy. His retail store was a hit but burned down in 1851, and Whaley decided to try the milder west down south in sleepy San Diego. Again he was successful, which allowed him to return to New York to marry his childhood sweetheart,

Anna. They retuned to San Diego and the new home Whaley had built for them in 1855. A series of tragedies and triumphs (but mostly tragedies) followed, most notably the death of Whaley’s eldest and favored daughter, Anna, in 1888. She shot herself in the chest, despondent over a failed marriage. Her father carried her from the backyard storage building (which is now the facility outhouse) to the rear bedroom, where she died in his arms. Inconsolable over the loss, he vowed never to live in the home again.

After Thomas Whaley’s death at age 57 in 1890, the family moved back in. The final Whaley descendent passed away there in 1953. The death toll was six family members who had died in the house, and a neighbor child who strangled herself by running into a low-stung clothesline.

The violent death that started all this business was an example of quick and harsh frontier justice. “Yankee” Jim Robinson, a small-time criminal and would-be pirate, was caught stealing a rowboat in San Diego Bay. While Yankee Jim’s henchmen only got a year in the pokey, Robinson was hanged for his crime. At a time when the average man in the county stood about 5 foot 5 inches, Yankee Jim Robinson, at 6 foot 4 inches, was hung from a gallows barely taller than him. Instead of snapping his neck instantly, the dastardly cur was left to twist and choke, nearly on his tippy toes, for up to 45 minutes before he was pronounced dead. Thomas Whaley actually reported that he heard and saw ghosts in the home even while it was under construction. He knew about the hanging, but didn’t believe in superstitious nonsense. Over the years, he and his family were obliged to change their views.

Deborah (“no last names please”) has been a volunteer docent and tour guide at the Whaley House for about two years. In that time, she has probably seen the entire panoply of the spectral carnival, which isn’t guaranteed to the casual tourist. “I’ve heard a male voice clearing his throat when I’m in the dressing room changing into my costume,” she reports. Others who use the second-floor rooms to don their period costumes have experienced similar phenomena.

Thomas Whaley himself often materializes at the head of the stairs to the master bedroom. It is not uncommon for visitors to smell the smoke of his cigar or hear his baritone laughter echoing throughout the house. Thomas’s wife Anna is also known to make frequent appearances. Described as a beautiful and graceful woman dressed in gowns of gingham, her flowery perfume and lilting voice envelop the air followed by the eerie strains of a distant piano.

The house (or its permanent residents) apparently don’t tolerate skeptics well. “There was this man who didn’t believe in ghosts and was very vocal about it,” Deborah recalls. “He was a police chief and said he was an atheist and the whole thing. He was standing in the hallway talking to one of the volunteers, and was suddenly hit square in the face with a puff of cigar smoke. The tour guide smelled it too.” Now a sudden convert, the Chief made a mad dash for the door and stood panting on the front porch, only to be hit with another shot of the ghostly smell. The burly dude never returned. I asked if anyone saw smoke or if there might be any explanation for the episode. “Well, that was the strange thing,” Deborah says, “there was no smoke, just the odor. We all smelled it.” Deborah left me alone on the second floor for about 20 minutes and I

did smell the famous lavender-scented perfume that legend dictates was Anna Whaley’s choice scent, but saw no movement, heard no voices, and felt no ghostly brush across my face, as other visitors have experienced.

One of most macabre and recurring happenings in the place is connected to the Yankee Jim hanging. “I think he has a sense of humor,” Deborah observes. “Sometimes we get visitors coming up or down the stairs [the agreed location of the old gallows] who end up with a red mark across their necks. It doesn’t hurt, and most people don’t even notice until someone else points it out. One girl ran out of the house in a panic after her boyfriend noticed the thin red line.”

What is the most disturbing thing Deborah has seen in her tour of duty? “I was downstairs when I heard this incredible shout or yell. It sounded like someone was falling down the stairs. When I ran up to ask if the people up there had heard it, they told me that they thought it was down near me. One of the other staff people, who was in a room off the hallway, said it sounded like someone saying ‘Get out!’ in this nasty voice.” Shades of The Amityville Horror, with perhaps a little subconscious interpretation thrown in, but the incident has apparently not repeated itself.

Much activity also centers on the large meeting room downstairs. Whaley rented it to the City of San Diego to use as a courthouse, but after he had performed extensive renovations, the City decided to move their business to “New Town” which is the present day downtown area, nearer the bay. Mounted on foamcore in the courtroom are photos taken by visitors that seem to show anomalous lights, fog, and the ever-present “orbs” of light.

During Thanksgiving week of 2004, someone tried to break into the Whaley House in the dead of night. One of the rear doors was destroyed beyond repair, but the motion sensors detected no activity and nothing in the house was touched. For days afterwards, visitors and employees alike experienced a bone-chilling coldness in the room until the door was replaced. The space had been used as a sickroom and was the location where Anna died in her father’s arms. The rest of the house also exhibited an increase in phenomena. No one could figure out what scared the vandals and would-be burglars away. Who needs the latest in electronic surveillance when you have ghost security on the job 24/7?

Like some sort of biorythm from beyond, activity appears to come in waves or flaps. There is no guaranteed creepshow in the building, but the ghosts and noises are reportedly most active in the holiday season, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Phenomena have been reported at all times of the day and night. In addition to regular daylight hours of operation, the Whaley House is open from 9 p.m. to midnight for a special showing in the week preceding and up to All Hallow’s Eve. It is also open from 7 to 10 p.m. for nighttime tours in the summer.

A short walk south down San Diego Avenue is the El Campo Santo (Holy Field) Cemetery. Campo Santo was founded in 1849, and served as the Catholic burial ground for Old Town until about 1890. Near the entrance is Yankee Jim’s grave. It’s not hard to miss, and there is an explanatory sign next to the site.

The late-twentieth century witnessed some growth in the Old Town area, and businesses and roads were built over parts of the cemetery grounds. After a search with ultrasound mapping equipment, the city installed small brass markers over the old graves on the sidewalk and even out into the street. Some of the newer buildings reported poltergeist-like activity after building on the Campo Santo grounds, but this has simmered down in recent years. A 2003 visit by a group of ghost hunters armed with electronic equipment and a psychic could find nothing active except perhaps for the presence of a small child, and possibly one of the gravediggers who is buried here. Look for the name “Rafael Mumudes” on the headstone. The best bet may be a visit after the Whaley House has closed down for the night. Unfortunately, the streetlights keep this area fairly well-lit at night, but the rear of the property is shaded by ancient trees nourished by the graves below. 

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