San Diego, California is a city rich with history and culture. Though it wasn’t incorporated until 1850, people have been calling San Diego home since at least 1769.

Boasting 250 days of sunshine every year, the city doesn’t seem like the kind of place you would find the most haunted house in America. However, in Old Town, nestled among other 19th century homes and businesses, sits the Whaley House.

The two-story Greek Revival home was carefully designed by Thomas Whaley and built using bricks made in Whaley’s own brickyard. In addition to housing Thomas and his family, the Whaley House also served over the years as a convenience store, the county courthouse, and San Diego’s first theater.

The Whaley House, Historical Landmark
The Whaley House, Historical Landmark No. 65 sign. America’s most haunted house at Old Town in San Diego, California

However, when tragedies began plaguing the family after moving in, people in town started whispering about a curse. Thomas had been warned before construction that the land he had purchased may come with a wrathful spirit. He dismissed these worries then, but he may have lived to regret it.

The gallows

Before it was the site of the Whaley House, the land was the site of the town gallows. Many executions had been carried out on the land, but perhaps none as disturbing as that of Yankee Jim. In 1852, James “Yankee Jim” Robinson was sentenced to death following a charge of grand larceny.

Earlier in the year, Jim had been discovered as a thief, and been chased out of his northern California town under threat of hanging. Upon arriving in San Diego, he quickly turned back to his life of crime, and recruited two local men to help him steal a rowboat out of the harbor.

The men were caught and arrested, and Jim was brought before a jury that included the two men from whom he’d stolen the boat. When they handed down the death sentence, Jim laughed, confident that it was a tactic to scare him off future crimes.

The gravity of his situation dawned on him the next morning, when he stood on a mule cart with a noose around his neck. Jim made a speech proclaiming himself as the real-life Robin Hood, stealing on behalf of the poor. As the mules drove off, his body fell, and it immediately became clear that something was wrong.

Jim was a tall man, standing around 6’4”, and the noose had not been adjusted for his height. Rather than his neck breaking, he swung from the rope while slowly choking to death. Among the witnesses to this botched execution was Thomas Whaley.

The Whaley Family & Misfortune

Thomas was a native of New York, in California to conduct business for his father’s company. In 1853, he returned to New York and married his sweetheart Anna Eloise DeLaunay.

By the end of the year, the couple had made the decision to permanently relocate to San Diego. Thomas purchased the very land on which he’d watched Yankee Jim die, and in 1856, began construction on his dream home.

The Whaleys, now with sons Francis and Thomas Jr. in tow, moved into their completed home in 1857.

Almost immediately after moving in, the family began reporting paranormal activity occurring in their house. They would hear heavy boots stomping around the hallway and on the stairs, with seemingly no cause.

Townspeople passing by on the street would claim to see figures moving around in the windows, despite the house being empty. The Whaleys attributed the unusual happenings to the spirit of Yankee Jim, which they did find frightening, but believed to be harmless.

Thomas opened a convenience store on the first floor of the home, selling items such as hardware and mining equipment. The business proved successful, Thomas and Anna were expecting a third child, Anna Amelia, and everything seemed to be going well for the Whaleys. That is, until January 1858, when the first of many misfortunes befell the family.

Thomas Jr., the Whaleys’ second-born, contracted scarlet fever. At only 18 months old, the infant died from his illness in an upstairs room. Almost as if this loss opened a door for more tragedy, just months later, the family’s general store went up in flames and was destroyed. Overwhelmed, Thomas and Anna decided to move to San Francisco for a fresh start.

There, the couple had three more children; George, Violet, and Corinne Lillian. However, after a violent earthquake destroyed several buildings in the Bay Area, the Whaley family moved back to their home in San Diego in 1868. Things seemed to pick right back up where they had left off.

The general store was repaired and re-opened; the county courthouse headquartered themselves on the first floor of the home, and an upstairs bedroom was repurposed as San Diego’s first theater.

As time went on, the heart of San Diego began to shift to the newer part of town. The theater troupe performing out of the home disbanded after their operator, Thomas Tanner, unexpectedly passed away.

Business started to dwindle in the general store. The courthouse moved their operations out of the home, following an armed robbery that resulted in various records being stolen. For the first time in its history, the Whaley House was quiet.

On January 5, 1882, two of the Whaley daughters were married. Anna Amelia married her first cousin, John T. Whaley, and Violet Eloise was wed to a man named George T. Bertolacci. It was a joyous time for the family, but as had almost come to be expected, the joy was short-lived.

On their honeymoon, Violet woke one day to find her husband missing. He had left a note, confessing that all along, he’d been a con artist seeking out a piece of the Whaley family fortune. Violet was heartbroken.

She returned to the Whaley House, an inconsolable divorcee. She spent most of her days wallowing on the second floor of the home until, at 22 years old, she shot herself in the chest with her father’s gun.

Violet’s suicide immediately became a scandal around town, and the Whaley family were cast in a poor light. The youngest Whaley daughter, Corinne Lillian, was engaged at the time, but her fiancé called off the wedding to avoid affiliation with the family.

Thomas finally decided to move his family out of the house that had seen so much misfortune, and into a new home downtown. Here, Thomas’s health declined until he passed away in 1890.

The original Whaley House stood empty for close to 20 years, falling into disrepair. Finally, in late 1909, Francis Whaley took control of his childhood home and began the process of restoring it.

He intended to turn the house into a tourist attraction, advertising it as a historical landmark and playing guitar for visitors. Francis, along with his mother and remaining siblings, moved back into the home in 1912. They all lived out the rest of their days in the Whaley House.

Hauntings at the Whaley House

However, even after the last Whaley’s death in 1953, it seems the family are still roaming the halls of their storied home. Today, visitors to the Whaley House report apparitions, flickering lights, unexplainable sounds, and more.

Orbs and mists appear to move around the house and have been captured in hundreds of photos. The crystals on the parlor room’s lamp will swing on their own, and chandeliers will rock as if stirred by a nonexistent breeze.

The most encountered spirit is that of family matriarch, Anna Whaley. She is seen roaming the downstairs rooms or out in the garden. She is a warm and inviting presence, often accompanied by the phantom aroma of French perfume. Her husband, Thomas, is possibly a bit less inviting.

His apparition is mostly seen on the second floor, peering down at visitors from the top of the stairs. He has been reported to blow smoke in visitors’ faces if they get too close. The couple seems to have been reunited with their infant son, Thomas Jr., whose cries and giggles can be heard echoing through the empty halls; as well as the sound of tiny feet racing across the floor.

San Diego's haunted house. Whaley House Museum, old town
San Diego’s haunted house. Whaley House Museum, old town

A very sad-looking woman, believed to be the spirit of Violet, occupies the second floor. Even when she isn’t seen, her presence is felt. Many guests in the home have become overwhelmed with an unbearable sadness on the second level, preceded by extreme drops in temperature.

Heavy footsteps still fall on the stairs in the evenings, heard by countless visitors over the last century and a half. The home’s original ghost, Yankee Jim, is also believed to be responsible for the muddy boot prints that appear in inexplicable places.

These phenomena have been reported by all manners of people, including construction workers, celebrities, and law enforcement officials. Regis Philbin was allowed to stay the night in 1964 for his talk show but fled before morning, after witnessing the apparition of Mrs. Anna Whaley.

Visiting the Whaley house Museum Today

Room in Whaley House Museum, old town of San Diego
Room in Whaley House Museum, old town of San Diego

Today, the Whaley House operates as a museum and proudly bears the title of “America’s most haunted house.” The house is open daily for self-guided tours from 10 am to 4:30 pm, and tickets start at $13.30.

In the evening, guided tours are offered that focus more on the haunted history of the home, starting at $18.05. For the ultimate thrill, the Whaley House also hosts a paranormal investigation each night after hours ($94.05). You’ll want to plan ahead, as tickets for investigations are extremely limited!