The Whaley House is a Haunted 19th-century house in San Diego built on land where executions took place. Several ghosts inhabit the Whaley House, including one of San Diego’s most celebrated criminals, Yankee Jim Robinson. The house is considered one of the most actively haunted houses in America.
The builder of the Whaley House was Thomas Whaley, born on October 5, 1823, in New York City to a well-to-do- family. Whaley’s father died when he was nine and left a considerable sum of money for the boy’s education and start in business. Young Whaley did not fare as well as his father, however, and was lured to California by stories of instant wealth in the gold rush. He settled in San Francisco in 1849. Once again fate seemed against Whaley when fire burned down his businesses. He relocated to San Diego and become a partner in a general store. Whaley prospered and became a prominent businessman.
In 1953, he returned to New York City and took a bride, Anna Eloise DeLaunay. The couple went back to San Diego, where they were greeted with a ball in their honour. By 1856, the Whaleys had two sons, Francis and Thomas, Jr., and Whaley decided it was time to build a house. He bought a piece of land in Old Town for a bargain.
There was a reason why the land was cheap. It had once been the site of an execution block where people were hanged. The most famous execution had taken place on September 18, 1852, when Yankee Jim Robinson, a local thug, was led to the gallows. Robinson and two other men were convicted of trying to steal a pilot boat, the Plutus, out of San Diego’s harbour. The men were sentenced to a year in prison, but Robinson was sentenced to death. The jury included the owners of the pilot boat and the judge allegedly was drunk. Local townspeople were so anxious to see Robinson dead that an attempt was made to lynch him before the sentence could be carried out.
Right up to the end, Robinson did not believe he would actually be executed. Even as he stood on the gallows, he lectured the onlookers about the injustice of his trial. Unfortunately, his death was not swift. At six feet four inches, he was too tall for the rope used, and his neck did not snap. Instead, he twisted and struggled as he slowly strangled to death—an excruciating scene that went on for 45 minutes and was witnessed by Thomas Whaley.
Robinson’s gruesome demise was forgotten as Whaley cheerfully built a grand two-story, Greek revival mansion at a cost of $10,000. He furnished it in grand style. The Whaleys entertained lavishly. Their daughter, Anna, was born.
Whaley anticipated a long, gracious life, but his happiness was cut short. In January 1858, their second child, Thomas Jr., died at 17 months of age. Later that year, an arsonist burned one of Whaley’s businesses on the plaza in Old Town. The Whaleys retreated to San Francisco for nearly 10 years. Whaley also spent some time in Sitka, Alaska, as a member of the city council.
Three more children later, the Whaleys decided to return to San Diego. Whaley remodelled and enlarged the house. They resumed their sumptuous entertaining. He leased out parts of the house to be used as a hotel, granary, school, saloon, jail, and dance hall.
In 1869, the county leased one wing of the house to be used as a courthouse. A controversy developed over moving the courthouse to a new location—more and more people were relocating from Old Town to New Town. Martial law was imposed in Old Town. One night while Whaley was away on business, men broke into the house, held Anna at gunpoint, and raided the courthouse. Enraged, Whaley demanded reparations for the damage, but the county ignored him and he had to let the matter drop.
On August 19, 1885, tragedy befell another child. Daughter Violet Eloise, who had a history of emotional instability, became depressed and distraught only two weeks into her marriage. She took Whaley’s pistol, went to the outhouse, and shot herself to death in the heart. Whaley carried her into the house’s lounge, where she died. She left behind a sad poetic farewell note:
Mad from life’s history,
Swift to death’s mystery;
Glad to be hurled,
Anywhere, anywhere, out of this world
Whaley moved his business ventures to New Town and put his house up for sale, but there were no buyers. He died on December 14, 1890. His widow, Anna, remained in the house until February 24, 1913. The Whaley family retained ownership of the house until 1953, when the county took it over. By then it was in disrepair. It was restored and opened as a museum in 1960.
According to lore, haunting activity began as soon as the Whaley family moved into their house. Whaley reportedly heard strange noises and the sounds of heavy boots thumping upstairs. He was convinced it was the ghost of Yankee Jim Robinson. The sounds are still heard by museum employees.
Robinson’s ghost is joined by the ghosts of Whaley, his wife Anna, Violet Eloise, sons George and Francis, and Whaley’s three-year-old great-granddaughter, who accidentally poisoned herself by swallowing ant poison. Visitors frequently experience the Smells of Anna’s sweet perfume, Thomas’s pipe tobacco, and freshly baked bread and apple pie. They hear footsteps and piano music, perhaps a remnant from the days of lavish entertaining. A baby’s anguished cry has been heard emanating from the bedroom where Thomas Jr. died. The sounds of children laughing and playing are heard. According to records, a playmate of the Whaley children died in the kitchen after being severely injured while playing outside. Sometimes apparitions are seen. A strange, heavy mist has been seen in the master bedroom. Electronic Voice Phenomena of voices and music has been recorded. A rocking chair has been seen to rock on its own and chandeliers have swung without being touched.
HANS HOLZER was one of the first ghost experts to investigate the Whaley House in 1965. He was accompanied by Sybil Leek, an English witch and psychic, and television personality Regis Philbin. According to Holzer, the three saw the apparition of Anna, but it disappeared when Philbin switched on his flashlight.
Leek conducted a Séance and served as a medium for several ghosts, including a hostile man who seemed to be Whaley, angry at the injustices done him and the intrusions into his house. Another ghost was that of a 13-year-old girl who had died suddenly.
- Belanger, Jeff. The World’s Most Haunted Places. Franklin Lakes, N.J.: New Page Books, 2004.
- White, Gail. Haunted San Diego: A Historic Guide to San Diego’s Favorite Haunts. San Diego: Tecolote Publications, 1992.
Built in 1856 by Thomas Whaley, a merchant from New York, the house was used for business purposes as well as the family residence. The building served as county courthouse and seat, theatre, granary, and store. The property was the town gallows before the house was built. The most regular spirits present today are: Thomas Whaley, Anna Whaley (wife), James Robinson (hung on the property before the house was built), and a small girl (around 3 years old).
Back in 1993, I visited the Whaley House. Some might remember that there used to be some very spooky-looking mannequins in the upstairs bedrooms. I walked past the master bedroom and I heard the spirit voice of Anna Whaley. She explained to me that she did not like her dress on that mannequin and that people visiting were spooked by the mannequins. She found it disrespectful.
I went up to the caretaker and said, “Excuse me, I hope you do not think I am crazy, but Anna told me she doesn’t like her black dress on that mannequin.” The caretaker looked at me and said, “I believe you. Not many things in this house actually belonged to a Whaley family member, but that is indeed Mrs. Whaley’s dress.” The lady also remarked that she and Anna were the only ones who knew that fact, so of course she believed me. This caretaker was June Reading, who was instrumental in saving the house.
I came back to the house a few months later and found that all of the mannequins had been removed, and the black dress was now laid out on the bed. As I was standing there, Anna’s spirit thanked me for delivering her message. Little did I know that in the year 2000, a battle would ensue in court over what was and what was not Whaley property. I told every docent who would listen to save Anna’s black dress. To this day, I do not know if it was my insistence or some documentation left by June Reading, but the dress was saved. There is a theatre stage there now, but if you look at old pictures of the Whaley House, you will see Anna’s black dress laid out on the bed.
Up to this point, I only had a spirit voice and the word of June Reading, who passed in 1998, as proof of that being Anna’s black dress.
In August of 2003, I was researching through newspapers from the 1887 to 1888 timeframe. In the San Diego Union I found an article about a Gala Ball held at the Hotel del Coronado in 1888. Anna is included on the guest list. There is a detailed description of Anna’s black dress! This must have been the occasion that caused her to buy the dress from Paris. Ten years after first communicating with Anna’s spirit, I have found tangible proof of what she told me in a local newspaper printed in 1888.
Written by — Bonnie Vent Spirit Advocate, San Diego Paranormal Research Project
THE WHALEY HOUSE
2482 SAN DIEGO AVENUE
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA 92110