The Whaley House

The Whaley House
San Diego, California

The Whaley House

The stories are legendary, known throughout the world. Within the innocuous-looking house, something is not right. Visitors feel eyes upon them, as if their every move is watched. Some feel the tightening strangle of a hangman’s noose around their necks as they pass beneath a specific archway. Still others hear the footsteps, the deep laughter, or even the giggle of a child that is not there. And yet, more than one hundred thousand people flock to the site every year, eager to get their own taste of the paranormal. And who could blame them? In a home more than one hundred-fifty years old, many have died but never left. While it has been deemed the most haunted house in California, many claim it to be the most haunted in entire nation.

There are many reasons a house may be deemed important. In the case of the Whaley House in San Diego, those reasons are numerous. It could be that the history of the house is very much the history of the city, having been around since the city was a 250-person settlement. It could also be because the house is one of the oldest structures in the city, and that its very existence is a thing of wonder. However, what sets the Whaley House apart from most other buildings is a distinction is shares with only one other in the state, and only twenty-eight others in the entire country. The Whaley House is one of only a handful of homes recognized by the federal government as being undoubtedly haunted.

The story of the Whaley House begins even before the home was built by Thomas Whaley in 1857. The land on which it was to be built was the site for public hangings in the young town of San Diego, with a particularly gruesome hanging taking place in 1852, when a man named “Yankee” Jim Robinson was convicted of trying to steal a boat. The hangman did not take into account Robinson’s remarkable height, and, as the cart was pulled from beneath him, his neck did not break. His toes dragged the ground, leaving him to struggle and choke for nearly forty-five minutes before finally passing away. Present at this hanging was Thomas Whaley, who, despite the land’s previous use and history, purchased the site on which to build a home for his wife and children.

The house he built had a great many uses, becoming something of a hub for what is now known as “Old Town” in San Diego. At various points, it functioned as a courthouse, a residence, a theater, and even a place for public balls. However, it was first and foremost the home of the Whaley family.

Thomas Whaley and his wife, Anna, moved into the house in 1858 with the first of their six children. However, tragedy struck when the boy died at just eighteen months of age. A second child arrived, followed by four more in the coming years. A life of wedded bliss and family happiness was not to be had by the Whaley’s, as tragedy was to follow them throughout their lives.

In 1871, the Whaley house was being used to store county records for local government. It was during this time that a bitter rivalry between the “Old Towners” and the “New Towners” erupted, sending the political climate of San Diego boiling. It was during this year that, while Thomas was out of town on business, a gang of “New Towners” broke into the Whaley House, terrorizing Anna and her children, and stealing all the court documents and records. Upon his return, Thomas Whaley was furious, not only for the seizure, but for the treatment of his family. He spent the next twenty years trying to extract some measure of satisfaction through the court system to no avail.

In 1885, Whaley’s daughter, Violet, died in what was referred to as a success in a long string of unsuccessful suicides. However, controversy surrounded her death, as well as her other “suicide attempts.” It was reported that her previous attempts would have had to been accomplished by Violet throwing herself out a second story window, turning ninety degrees in mid-air, and landing in the cistern. In her latest, and last, attempt, she reportedly shot herself in the outdoor restroom. A suspicious note was found hours later, but no gun was ever recovered.

Of any other place in the nation, the Whaley House has not only the most consistent, but also the most numerous identifiable spirits. What sets it apart from other reputedly haunted sites is that, in most sites, many visitors experience some sort of phenomenon. In the Whaley House, however, most visitors experience something.

Whaley Family

The oldest and most consistent ghost to be experienced was first noticed by Thomas Whaley in 1860, when he wrote in his journal about heavy footsteps that he heard roaming up and down the halls. He believed the sound’s source to be “Yankee” Jim Robinson, who’d been hanged only a few years before. Today, people still hear the footsteps, and a few have even felt the strangling clutch of the hangman’s noose as they walk beneath the archway that stands where the gallows once stood.

Also still present and often experienced is Thomas Whaley himself. His cigar smoke is the most often experienced sign of his presence, although he has been known to fill the halls with his laughter. Some have even seen him, always dressed in a frock coat and top hat. His wife, Anna, is also seen and heard by guests, most often through the sound of phantom music and the scent of her perfume. Most often described as a petite beautiful lady, she has also been seen as a ball of light, and has been heard singing in the hallways. She also occasional asks guests standing next to the piano to play a song for her.

There is also the ghost of a child who haunts the kitchen. Though her name has never been verified, she is believed to be between nine and thirteen years old. She giggles and darts about, moving furniture, cookware, and loves playing with the large butcher knife that hangs in the kitchen.

There are other ghosts in the home that have been witnessed by hundreds of visitors, employees, psychics and skeptics alike. Violet Whaley is said to walk the back porch, as is an actress who is reported to have been stabbed to death by her boyfriend when the house was used as San Diego’s first professional theater. There is also a woman who sits in the area once used as the courtroom that most feel does not like visitors. Even Thomas Whaley’s fox terrier, Dolly, is reported to sprint down the halls and brush against startled guests legs from time to time.

Added to the specific ghosts are the other manifestations that are seen often in the home. Strange lights and fog are common occurrences, as are chairs that rock by themselves and windows that unlatch and open. There are even chains that hang in the old courtroom that swing for no reason, often when the guides are telling the story of “Yankee” Jim Robinson.

Present Day:
Corinne Lillian Whaley, Thomas’ daughter, continued to live in the house until her death in 1953. It was purchased in 1960 by the Board of Supervisors of the County of San Diego, who recognized its historic importance. Since that time, it has been open to the public as a museum, and run by the Save Our Heritage Organization. And although the house has a proud reputation as a haunted location, the staff do request that visitors remember that it is first and foremost a historic museum.

Whaley Sign

Best Times:
Phenomena occur year round at the Whaley House, making it a year-round attraction for paranormal enthusiasts. Group tours are available, as are private tours, though, for obvious reasons, no tours are offered during the last week in October. For more information about the Whaley House, visit their website at

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