Located in San Diego, California, the Whaley House has earned the title of “the most haunted house in the U.S.” Built in 1857 by Thomas Whaley on land that was partially once a cemetery, the house has since been the locus of dozens of ghost sightings..
Thomas Whaley was born in New York City on October 5, 1823 to Thomas Alexander Whaley Sr. and Rachel Pye. Thomas Whaley married Anna Eloise DeLaunay in 1853 in New York. Their six children were Francis Hilton, Thomas Jr., Anna Amelia, George Hay Ringgold, Violet Eloise, and Corinne Lillian. Thomas Whaley died at 933 State Street on December 14, 1890. His wife Anna died February 24, 1913. They are buried at Mount Hope Cemetery.
The earliest documented ghost at the Whaley House is “Yankee Jim.” James (aka Santiago) Robinson, a thief who was convicted of attempted grand larceny in San Diego in 1852, and hanged on a gallows off the back of a wagon on the site where the house now stands. Although Thomas Whaley had been a spectator at the execution, he did not let it disuade him from buying the property a few years later and building a large brick house which served as a courthouse, a courtroom, a theater, and a boarding house—as well as the family home of Thomas and Anna Whaley and their children.
Immediately after its construction was completed in 1857, the mansion became the center of business, government, and social affairs in Old San Diego. But according to the San Diego Union, “soon after the couple and their children moved in, heavy footsteps were heard moving about the house. Whaley described them as sounding as though they were made by the boots of a large man. Finally he came to the conclusion that these unexplained footfalls were made by Yankee Jim Robinson.
Little Thomas Whaley was the first to die in the house at the age of only 17 months, in his upstairs bedroom. The cries of a baby have been reported coming from this room. One daughter, Violet, committed suicide at the home by shooting herself through the heart on August 18, 1885. Violet’s spirit is most present and felt.
In the fall of 1966, a group of newspeople volunteered to stay in Whaley House to spend the night with Yankee Jim. Special permission was granted to the journalists by the historical society, and the ghost hunters settled in for their overnight stay. The wife of one of the reporters had to be taken home by 9:30 P.M. She was badly shaken and claimed that she had seen something on the upper floor that she refused to describe. The entire party of journalists left the house before dawn. They, too, refused to discuss the reason for their premature departure, but some people say the ghost of Yankee Jim, still protesting the horror of his death, confronted them. Since that time, night visits have not been permitted in Whaley House.
In addition to the sightings of the primaryspirits of Thomas and Anna Whaley, other notorious ghosts include those of Yankee Jim, who walks across the upstairs sitting room to the top of the stairs; a young girl named Washburn, a playmate of the Whaley children; and “Dolly Varden,” the family’s fox terrier. And then there are the screams, the giggles, the rattling doorknobs, the cooking odors, the smell of Thomas Whaley’s Havana cigars, Anna’s sweet-scented perfume, the sound of footsteps throughout the house, and the music box and piano that play by themselves.
Today, no one is allowed in the Whaley House after 4 P.M., but police officers and responsible citizens say that someone—or something—keeps walking around half the night turning all the lights on. Often, while conducting tours through the old mansion, members of the society have heard eerie footsteps moving about other parts of the house when the rooms were visibly unoccupied. People often reported having heard screams echoing throughout the second story of the mansion, and once a large, heavy china closet had toppled over by itself. Numerous individuals had sensed or psychically seen the image of a scaffold and a hanging man on the south side of the mansion.
Author deTraci Regula relates her experiences with the house: “Over the years, while dining across the street at the Old Town Mexican Cafe, I became accustomed to noticing that the shutters of the second-story windows [of the Whaley House] would sometimes open while we ate dinner, long after the house was closed for the day. On a recent visit, I could feel the energy in several spots in the house, particularly in the courtroom, where I also smelled the faint scent of a cigar, supposedly Whaley’s calling-card. In the hallway, I smelled perfume, initially attributing that to the young woman acting as docent, but some later surreptitious sniffing in her direction as I talked to her about the house revealed her to be scent-free.”
Famed psychic Sybil Leek claimed to have sensed several spirits there, and renowned ghost hunter Hanz Holzer considered the Whaley to be one of the most reliably haunted structures in the United States.
The brick house in Old Town is now a museum, at 2482 San Diego Avenue in Old Town, San Diego, California.