The Whaley House

Thomas Whaley, the son of a successful merchant, wanted to build his family a happy home. He chose the San Diego Old Town as the location for his dream home, but shortly after the family moved in, tragedy struck. Was it just bad luck or did the location of the house have something to do with it? And is it just the Whaley Family that haunt the house? 

The History of The Whaley House 

Whaley House - Virginia Hill via flickr CC BY-ND-2.0
Whaley House – Virginia Hill via flickr CC BY-ND-2.0

Thomas Whaley, a New York merchant, took over his father’s successful business relations and moved to California during the California Gold Rush. He was eager to start a family with his fiancé Anna Eloise Delauney, who he married in 1853. He bought a piece of land in Old Town, San Diego. That the land had been used for hanging criminals, didn’t seem like a problem. In fact, Thomas had witnessed the hanging of James Robinson, alias Yankee Jim, who was sent to the gallows for larceny. He built the first brick house in Old Town, including his general store. He and Anna had 6 children, and for a while everything seemed perfect. But that soon changed.  

Family tragedies 

Whaley House Court Room - David & Karyn via flickr CC BY-2.0
Whaley House Court Room – David & Karyn via flickr CC BY-2.0

Baby Thomas Whaley Jr. was only 18 months old when he died from scarlet fever in 1858. Shortly after this terrible loss, there was a fire which destroyed the store. The grief-stricken family decided it was enough and they moved to San Francisco. The Whaley House was looked after by Frank Ames. In 1868, when business was doing better for the Whaley family, they decided to return to The Whaley House. When the house was fixed up again, it played an important part for San Diego. The Courthouse was located here as well as the first commercial theatre of the town. Things were looking up for the family again.  


Whaley family - Whaley House Museum via wikipedia public domain
Whaley family – Whaley House Museum via wikipedia public domain

Unfortunately, things didn’t stay sunny for the family. In 1870, a small financial crisis arose when most merchants decided to leave Old Town for the prosperous New Town. In 1871, Anna Eloise was held at gunpoint in her own house when Thomas was away on business. The intruders demanded documents from the courthouse. In 1882, daughter Violet Eloise Whaley married George T. Bertolacci. He turned out to be a con artist who only married her for her fortune. In that period, getting a divorce was considered “not done” and Violet got intensely depressed because of the public humiliation and the betrayal.

She committed suicide in 1885 by shooting herself in the chest with Thomas’s own rifle. She was only 22 years old. Her sister Lillian Whaley was engaged at the time of her sister’s tragic suicide. Her fiancé couldn’t take the scandals anymore and broke off the engagement. After these horrific events, Thomas Whaley thought it was enough and he built a single-story frame home for his remaining family members in another part of the town.  

Back again 

Whaley House living room - Gregg O'Connell via flickr CC BY-2.0
Whaley House living room – Gregg O’Connell via flickr CC BY-2.0

The Whaley House stood vacant for more than two decades and it had fallen in disrepair. Francis Whaley decided in 1890 to fix it up and turn it into a tourist attraction. When the house was restored, the remaining family members returned to their much-loved house. Without Thomas this time, for he died in 1890, right before his son’s plans. Lillian Whaley outlived her entire family and stayed at the house until her death in 1953. The San Diego Historical Shrine Foundation opened the historical house to the public in 1960. It now serves as a museum. But it’s not unoccupied! 

The ghost of Yankee Jim 

Yankee Jim's grave - Leo Reynolds via flickr CC BY-SA-NC-2.0
Yankee Jim’s grave – Leo Reynolds via flickr CC BY-SA-NC-2.0

Thomas Whaley wasn’t a superstitious man. Who else would want to live in a place where the gallows used to be? Nevertheless, he was the first one to notice paranormal things around the house. One day, when all the other family members were out, he heard heavy footsteps in the room right above him. It was like a big man with heavy boots was walking around in his house! He went upstairs to check it out but found no one there.

This happened more and more often, and Thomas got more and more convinced of the fact that the spirit of Yankee Jim Robinson was haunting his house. Yankee Jim’s death wasn’t a pleasant one. He was hung from the back of a car, which caused him to slowly suffocate. His neck didn’t snap. Daughter Lillian also acknowledged the hauntings. She heard the stamping boots of Yankee Jim until she met her own end.  

The family ghosts 

Whaley House dolls - Bonnie Dean via flickr CC BY-2.0
Whaley House dolls – Bonnie Dean via flickr CC BY-2.0

Baby Thomas Whaley haunts the house as well. His apparition is never seen, but people claim to hear his tiny, running footsteps all through the house as well as giggles and crying. An older man has been seen standing in front of a window of the house. Children can see him, and they wave at him. This spirit is assumed to be Thomas Whaley himself. He is also seen on the upper landing, his face turned away from the crowd and slowly fading away. Anna Eloise Whaley also still hangs around. She has been seen downstairs and in the garden. Violet has been seen on the second floor. Her presence is cold and full of sorrow.  

Other ghostly residents 

Whaley House - Stacina via flickr CC BY-NC-2.0
Stacina via flickr CC BY-NC-2.0

A woman in a long skirt is often seen in the courtroom. She hides her long, dark hair under a hat and wears golden earrings. A mist like figure is also seen in this room. A young, long haired girl has been seen running around in the dining room. She’s always very quick and playful. Legend says this girl was a friend of one of the Whaley daughters. She broke her neck while playing over. A small spotted dog has been seen running down the hall with big, flapping ears. The Whaleys in fact owned a dog named Dolly Varden back in the days.  

But that’s not all 

cultivar413 via flickr CC BY-2.0
cultivar413 via flickr CC BY-2.0

Even though the full apparitions are rarely seen, there are other ghostly phenomena that people experience in the house. There are shadow figures, lights turning on and off by themselves, doors and windows tend to open and close by an unseen force, a chandelier in the music room swings by itself and there are strange smells, sights and sounds that many visitors and employees have witnessed. There is something there all right. I guess the family came back again, this time to stay forever.  

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Cover photo: Joe Mabel via wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Sources: Wikipedia,,, 
Address: 2476 San Diego Avenue, San Diego 92110, California, USA 

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