Friday, October 15, 2010

The Whaley House

The Whaley House in the 1860's

One of my very favorite places in the world is the Historic Whaley House Museum here in San Diego, California.   As Halloween approaches, I thought it'd be a nice idea to share my favorite haunt with you all.  I have loved this home since driving past at the age of six (well okay, my mom was driving).  It was the very first 'old fashioned' house I'd ever seen, growing up in a 1960's modern subdivision.   It had me at first glance!  I recall saying..."Mommy, what IS that place?"  She shared with me a bit of it's history, and I knew I just had to get in there.  I still recall what I wore on my first visit at the age of 12.  The house was different then than it is now; it was a victim of midcentury restoration practices.   But at least it was saved.   Gone now are the early American reproduction light fixtures, the historic San Diego Trolley that sat in the yard, the ferns and hedges, the wagon wheel rose garden, the Woolworth Mannequins in Antebellum clothing frozen in a life size diorama behind plexiglass, and the dozens of lovely dollies in the nursery.

                        The Thomas Whaley Family in 1860: Thomas, Anna, Francis and baby Anna Jr.

 The Whaley House is a pretty unique place.  It was built on a site occupied by a ghost.  It was built by ghosts.  It was saved by ghosts.  The Whaley House is in itself a ghost.   I're saying that's just not possible.  But it IS! The house was built on property which had been San Diego's execution grounds, just outside 'town.'  Really, a hop, skip and a jump from the main plaza.  A new San Diego resident, young  native New Yorker Thomas Whaley witnessed the hanging of "Yankee Jim" Robinson here in 1852.  A somewhat botched hanging.   A few years later, the property was available for purchase and Whaley, knowing what a good piece of land this was, went ahead and bought it.  He probably didn't tell his bride to be that he'd be building their dream home on the towns hanging ground.  You know how men are sometimes.  What she didn't know certainly wouldn't hurt her...would it?

                                                                          The Parlor

So, Thomas began construction of this home in 1856.  He built a two story brick Greek Revival 'showcase' home in the little dusty frontier pueblo...quite stately among the typical adobe style of construction. Thomas was a merchant, and was very good at making money.  For a short while.  He built this home for his bride, fellow New Yorker Anna Eloise De Launay.  They had six children:  Francis, Thomas Jr., Anna Jr., George, Violet Eloise and Lillian.  They had the best of everything; a Rockaway carriage with a span of sorrels, brussels carpets, mahogany furnishings, etc.  They also had a ghost...Yankee Jim Robinson apparently liked to stomp around in his heavy ghostly boots. 

Now, perhaps it's not a good idea to build upon bloodstained ground.   As quickly as the Whaley's dream lifestyle began it came to a careening halt. The Whaley's lost their store to an, they lost their second son Thomas to Scarlet Fever at 18 months in the house.  Employment continued to elude a bitter, depressed  Thomas Whaley. Son George fell into alcoholism.  Their daughter Violet Eloise committed suicide, shooting herself in the outhouse and subsequently dying in the same room her brother baby Thomas died in.   The Whaley's granddaughter Theresa Eloise died at the age of 10...their 3 year old great granddaughter Marion Eloise ingested ant poison at the house which was fatal.  Lots of family tragedy.   Was the property cursed?  Was the family name of Eloise cursed?  Who knows.  But at any rate...there's been ghostly goings on and bumps in the night in the place since it was built.

The home was the most unique in southern California at the time.  It was the County Seat; the north annex of the home housed San Diego's courtroom.  It was the site of San Diego's first commercial theater, home of  "The Tanner Troupe."  The home housed Thomas' general store.  For all the work Thomas put into the house, they certainly didn't live here much.  They moved to San Francisco in 1858 after the death of little Thomas.  Returned in 1868 and left again in 1885.  Returned to live out their years after the turn of the 20th century.  The home sat alternately rented or unoccupied during the Whaley's absence..

Thomas Whaley passed away in 1890 in another home he'd built in "New Town" San Diego.  Anna Whaley, the matriarch, died in the Whaley House in 1913, followed by her eldest son Francis a year later.  Their daughter Lillian resided primarily alone in the house until her death in 1953.  The house sat abandoned and slowly decayed. 

The Whaley House was slated for demolition in the late 1950's.  Thankfully, this unique home was saved at the 11th hour by a fledgling group of preservationists.  It was opened as a museum in 1960.  Unfortunately, Old Town San Diego was 'the other side of the tracks' at the time and business was NOT booming. It appeared that the Whaley House Museum would have to close it's doors. 

Once again, at the proverbial 11th hour, the home was again saved.  By GHOSTS.   Suddenly, little ghost stories began slipping out and appearing in the San Diego Union.  Predictably, interest in the old brick house picked up.  A San Diego television personality named Regis Philbin agreed to do a fluff piece on the house and spend the night there.  And the rest is history.  Famed ghosthunter Hans Holzer further publicized the house.  The operators even came up with a claim that the California Chamber of  Commerce had declared the Whaley House an 'official' haunted house.

Who is haunting this house, you may wonder?  Well, there's the builder, good old Thomas Whaley himself, his wife Anna, their daughter Violet, possibly the baby Thomas, and of course that scurrilous scoundrel Yankee Jim Robinson.  The original operators apparently made a deal with the Whaley descendants not to discuss either Violet's suicide or little Marion's poisoning.  Instead, they put them in the ghostly witness protection program and came up with alternate identities for their spirits.

The apparition of a suicidal woman holding a knife became 'someone affiliated with the theater', and the ghostly little girl who runs about the property became a neighbor child who ran into a low lying clothesline. 

The Tanner Troupe Theater

 The Whaley House is now operated by the Save Our Heritage Organisation, and among the restoration and improvements they've made to the property, they've also been able to provide many missing puzzle pieces and tell us the truth about the Whaley family...their accomplishments, their joys, their tragedies.  So we know much more now about the spirits who seem to continue to reside within the house's walls.

Many people come to the Whaley House to see a 'ghost'....and walk away thinking they haven't.  But they have.  The Whaley House is in itself a ghost.  It's depicts a way of life and a time that we can glimpse but not fully get our hands on.  No matter the quality, authenticity and beauty of the restoration, in order for us to visit this wonderful place... there are velvet ropes keeping us out of parlors, docents instead of residents, spectators instead of gracious visitors. There is no cashier in the general store, no judge pounding a gavel in the courtroom, the theater stage stands empty.  The organ and guitar are unplayed.  No dishes or laundry or babies being washed in the kitchen tin tub.  No laundry drying on the line in the sunshine outside.  The stove stands ice cold.  No plump little hands to propel the dolls in their carriage.  The pitter patter of little feet have disappeared; replaced by the running stomps of  teenage ghosthunters.  The flicker of candlelight has given way to camera flashes. 

The Whaley & Crosthwaite General Store

I don't know if the Whaley House has ever experienced peace...except when abandoned.   I know there were some happy times in the place, and I prefer to imagine the family in their rare moments of bliss.  Others like to focus on the tragedies.   Or the furniture...the wallpaper, the antiques, the architecture...or the spirits.

Whatever your interests in an old place, if you are ever in San Diego, please do come visit this awesome home.  And while you may not see the can be sure they are probably watching you!  For more information on the Whaley House Museum, it's history and it's restoration, please visit:  and  it's operators, The Save Our Heritage Organisation:


  1. Very cool story! I love old homes and their history. Thanks!

  2. Wonderful story! I visited several "haunted houses" in San Diego when I went there on a convention with my company. I don't recall that house by name (it's been years!), but I did visit a house where there was a courtroom and they talked about hangings being done right outside. I wonder if it could have been the same house. Hmmm...


  3. Hi Amy,

    It was one in the same. You were probably on a "Ghosts & Gravestones" tour. They stopped at three homes, the William Heath Davis, the Villa Montezuma, El Campo Santo cemetery, and the last stop was the Whaley House. I was head docent there a few years ago and worked primarily night tours at the house for G&G, and later private night tours. Fun job! Maybe I saw you!

  4. Simply wonderful! I will be sure and mark it for a visit.

  5. Bravo Robin, you tell the story well :-)

  6. I love the Whaley House too and visit it everytime I get down south to Old Town. SOHO is doing good work. I really enjoyed the historical clothing seminars they put on a while back and wish they could do more. Actually, my son's friend was a docent at the Whaley House a few years ago...her first name is Kimberly but my 50+ year old brain isn't letting me remember her last name. Small world!!