The History Behind the Mystery
Two giggling boys crouched upon the porch of the old brick house and began to rotate the small lever in the door, resulting in the delightful jingle of a bell. The clicking of dainty quick footsteps approached and slowly, the door opened just a crack. The smell of heavy perfume wafted past the children's noses. "Hay espantos aquí con ojos grandes!" whispered the diminutive Frenchwoman peeking out from the glass-paneled door bearing a rectangular silver nameplate reading "T. Whaley." Momentarily paralyzed with fear, the boys' eyes grew wide in terror. Slowly glancing toward each other, they simultaneously backed away from the door and took off running toward the plaza.
Those were the words of Anna Whaley, spoken over a century ago on a regular basis to the curious children of Old Town who had a habit of creeping up to her home just as the daylight began to fade, in the hopes of seeing a specter before their mothers called them home for dinner. Mostly, they saw Mrs. Whaley. Sometimes she just gave them a good scare right there on the front porch. If she wasn't too weary or feeling poorly, she invited the children inside to enjoy a cookie or small treat, and perhaps a tall tale. A very tall tale. One that stood about 6 feet, 4 inches tall to be precise. The tale of Yankee Jim Robinson, the ghost who was haunting her house.
No one born after 1850 had ever seen this lanky stranger, but everyone knew who he was. You couldn't live in Old Town and not know who Yankee Jim Robinson was. Jim was infamous. He arrived in San Diego in 1852 and roused up quite a ruckus. Apparently, he had a bad habit of taking things that didn't belong to him, and the good citizens of the pueblo had pretty much lost patience with this sort of newcomer. He was captured, tried and brought to a vacant lot south of the plaza, conveniently located within steps of El Campo Santo cemetery. A crude gallows had quickly been constructed in his honor. Yankee Jim was given a Catholic baptism to save his mortal soul, after which the 6'4" newly christened Santiago Robinson was hauled up onto a buckboard wagon and a thick, coarse rope was placed about his neck. The wagon pulled out from under his feet and dropped him within inches of the ground; in fact, Jim was so much taller than the average fellow that the toes of his boots were scraping the dirt. A handsome mustachioed young man from New York stood in the crowd observing Yankee Jim slowly strangle to death. And the rest, as they say, is history.
A couple of years later, the property where Yankee Jim and a few others swung into oblivion was purchased for a song by that young man in the crowd who likely felt a tinge of pity for the criminal and at the same time noticed the choice property this event was taking place upon. Thomas Whaley made the deal of the century and in 1856 built his castle right smack dab on top of the spot that only a few short years before sent bad men to meet their maker.
Certainly friends and neighbors shared their reservations with Whaley regarding his choice of lot to build upon. He smirked at their superstitions and built a grand house he was certain would be the envy of all. Whispered rumors began to circulate about the grand Greek Revival mansion down the street. Seems the Whaleys had themselves an invisible "squatter" who moved into the house even before they did and it's been presumed ever since to be the perturbed wraith of Yankee Jim.
Old Town folklore handed down over one hundred fifty years reveal rumors of ghostly residents in the Whaley House began at the time the structure was built. Stories from family, friends, boarders, and neighbors have filtered through the decades until no one is quite sure where some of the tales began. The folklore itself has become cemented in the history of the Whaley House.
Thomas Whaley is reputed to be the first family member to remark upon the heavy disembodied footfalls up on the second floor when no one else was in the house. According to Anna Whaley, there was a presence in the house that surrounded her that she could not shake off. Eventually Anna regarded the property to be doomed, the cause of all the tragedy in her life. Son Francis Hinton Whaley spent several years restoring the home at the turn of the 20th century and had his own otherworldly experiences there. Spending hours alone in the home, he'd close all the shutters and curtains and attempt to communicate with the spirits he believed to be present. Lillian Whaley shared the home with boarders in her later years, many of whom remarked upon odd occurrences in the structure. She felt the widespread rumors of the hauntings to be both a blessing and a curse. The stories circulating kept vandals away from the property, at the same time discouraged renters when she needed the extra income.
Anna Whaley's words about those ghosts with big eyes were ironic in that now it would appear she too is among the spirits that roam the halls of the Whaley House, and is likely responsible for some of the bumps taking place in the night in the old brick building. Chairs rock, chandeliers swing, doors open and close of their own volition. Invisible fingers strike the keys of a piano no longer present in the house. The sounds of cutlery against fine bone china, a wordless phantom meal emanates from the dining room often accompanied by the aroma of fresh baked bread and pies during the holidays. The scent of fine Cuban tobacco and French perfume waft through the halls. The activity isn't limited to the human variety; the Whaleys had a menagerie of four-legged family members with fanciful names, "Dolly" the dog and "Winks" the cat among their favorites. Many individuals have witnessed a small dog chasing a cat through the house and out into the garden.
Over the years, scores of individuals have heard the disembodied pounding of a gavel dispensing frontier justice emanate from the courtroom. The raucous laughter and music of vaudeville seep from the walls of the upper rooms rented to the Tanner Troupe Theater. The strains of violin, guitar, and piano float past from long forgotten musical soirees, parties and balls. The pitter-patter of tiny feet scampering down the hallway, the clicking of dainty high heeled slippers and the rustling of silk skirts; a child's laughter, a child's cries, a mother's sweet French lullabies.
Thomas and Anna Whaley's 18-month-old son Thomas Jr. contracted scarlet fever and died in the house in 1858. The sounds of a baby or young child are often presumed to be little Tommy. Another child, a young girl, has been witnessed playing in the dining room. The legend of the "ninth step" began when folks experienced an odd sort of pressure upon ascension of the narrow staircase, which for many years was presumed to be the revenant of Anna Whaley reliving a traumatic event, attempting to thwart visitors from gaining access to the second floor. More recently that sensation of pressure is attributed to the wraith of Yankee Jim who may have died in this particular spot, although Lillian Whaley reported that her father told her Yankee Jim was hanged over the location of the archway separating the parlor and study.
A young woman is often sensed lingering upon the second floor of the house, and many perceive a feeling of profound sorrow in that portion of the home. She is thought to be the Whaleys' daughter Violet, who committed suicide and died in the house in 1885. Likely suffering from a clinical depression compounded by life events, Violet had a tendency to remain in solitude on the second floor of the home during the last year of her life.
Thomas Whaley himself, sporting pantaloons, a frock coat and top hat has been witnessed standing at the top of the stairs surveying his castle. His wife Anna, attired in a cheery green gingham gown has been momentarily spotted upon the settee in the parlor, perhaps about to enjoy a sip of tea, or take a few stitches upon her sampler, which would surely read "Home Sweet Home." According to scores of paranormal investigators and visitors, the spirits of Thomas and Anna Whaley continue to dwell here watching over their brood. This is their home, and they show no signs of leaving.
They are gracious hosts, as long as you remember what your mother taught you, to always mind your manners in someone else's house. The Whaley House staff cannot guarantee that you shall see, feel, smell, or hear anything out of the ordinary on your visit and thusly, we cannot guarantee you will not. We can assure you, however, that the entities that occupy the Whaley House are fully aware of your presence and everything you do and say. If you are quiet and listen carefully....you may indeed experience something from beyond the veil.
WHALEY HOUSE MUSEUM
2476 San Diego Avenue, San Diego 92110