When most people think about San Diego, they imagine beautiful beaches, cultural attractions like their world-famous zoo and Balboa Park, and endless sunshine. But the city has a darker side, including what has been billed as America’s most haunted house.
Located in the area now called Old Town, it was once at the heart of the new and burgeoning town of San Diego. It was built in 1855 by Thomas Whaley for himself, his wife Anna, and his growing family. The fact that the land on which the house sat used to be the site of the town’s public executions did not deter Whaley from buying the land. He even witnessed the hanging of the famous thief Yankee Jim Robinson there himself. Perhaps Whaley should have cared more about the site’s past.
Not long after moving into the completed house in 1857 and opening a general store onsite, tragedy first struck the family. Their 18-month-old son, Thomas, died from scarlet fever. Just a few months later, a fire destroyed the general store. After these two catastrophes, the Whaleys moved to San Francisco, but they returned to the house in 1868.
The house was at the center of San Diego life for a while. At various times, it held a theater troupe, a courthouse, and a general store. By 1870, though, activity in San Diego became centered on the new Gaslamp Quarter, leaving the Whaleys as one of the few prominent families still in residence in Old Town. Even the strange and unexplained footsteps the family heard sometimes at night did not persuade them to move. Thomas Whaley actually assumed the noises were from the ghost of Yankee Jim, but he did not let this disturb him.
The Whaley’s bad luck was not over, either. In 1871, Anna Whaley was held at gunpoint while courthouse records were stolen from the home when her husband was on a business trip. Then, in 1885, their daughter Violet committed suicide in the home after the failure of her marriage.
Through all this, the Whaleys remained in the home. Both Thomas and Anna Whaley eventually died in the home, as did four of their children. Lillian Whaley, the last of the family to live in the house, died in 1953. The home was then taken over by the San Diego Historical Shrine Foundation and opened as a museum in 1960.
When workers first began restoring the home in preparation for its opening as a museum, people began to realize just how haunted it was. Workers told of hearing the heavy footsteps, still attributed to Yankee Jim. They also reported hearing tiny footsteps and the sounds of a small child crying and giggling, which people assume was baby Thomas.
Visitors to the home and the docents who work there still claim to see and hear things they can’t explain. Some have said they’ve seen Violet standing on the second floor, where she killed herself. There have also been reports of lights turning themselves off and on, unexplained cold spots after seeing the ghosts, and the smells of a perfume known to have been worn by Anna Whaley.
Rather than frightening guests away, the tales of these ghosts draw thousands of people to visit the Whaley home every year. Children are reportedly extra sensitive to the presence of the spirits, especially that of the Whaley’s fox terrier, which many people have seen running through the home. Of course, the only way to know for sure how haunted the Whaley house is is to pay a visit yourself. Whether you see a ghost or not, the home has a special place in San Diego history and should not be missed.