• AP Magazine

    An alternative way to explore and explain the mysteries of our world. "Published since 1985, online since 2001."

  • 1
Encounters with the Unknown—Alternate Perceptions Magazine, June 2024

A visit to “America’s Most Haunted house”

by: Brent Raynes

Brent Raynes and wife Joan in front of the famous Whaley House

On Thursday afternoon, May 16th, my family and I paid a visit to Old Town San Diego, in southern California, taking a guided tour though the historic Whaley House, which bears the reputation of being "America's Most Haunted House." The Whaley House has been featured on the Travel Channel, SyFy Channel, and the Discovery Channel. The show Ghost Adventures (Season 8, Episode 11) featured Zak, Nick and Aaron visiting this site [Link: https://www.travelchannel.com/videos/whaley-family-sightings-0218613]. Here’s a link to a local CBS story recently done on the Whaley House: https://www.cbs8.com/article/news/local/history-meets-the-paranormal-at-the-iconic-whaley-house/509-1c2a72f4-3ebe-4be5-b85f-7058b7dba15d

None other than the famous talk show and game show host Regis Philbin described having had a ghostly encounter at the Whaley House and years later visited the home again with a psychic medium in search of answers. Link: https://www.bing.com/videos/riverview/relatedvideo?q=Regis+Phillman+on+the+Whaley+house&mid=25350A75A30FF5F7934C25350A75A30FF5F7934C&FORM=VIRE

Thomas Whaley was born on October 5, 1823, of parents of Scots-Irish heritage, whose people had arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts back in 1722. Thomas Whaley began construction on his home in Old Town San Diego in May 1856, declaring “My new house, when completed, will be the handsomest, most comfortable and convenient place in town or within 150 miles of here.” He spent over $10,000 (a goodly sum of money back at that time) to build a beautiful two-story Greek Revival house that he had himself designed which was made from bricks created from his own brickyard on Conde Street. Originally, Whaley had arrived in San Francisco from New York around 1849, aboard a sailing vessel known as the Sutton, back during the Gold Rush. Not long after his arrival he opened his own general store on Montgomery Street, with one George Wardle. They sold hardware and woodwork from his family’s business back in New York, Pye and Whaley, plus mining equipment and utensils on consignment. Unfortunately, an arson fire on May 1, 1851, destroyed his business. Five months later, Whaley headed south for a new beginning in San Diego. Soon upon his arrival he became a prominent businessman, partnering with one Lewis Franklin for what would become the first of several general stores that he would come to own in Old Town San Diego.

The following year, Whaley was a member of a 12-man firing squad who shot to death a Luiseno Indian Chief named Antonio Garra, who refused to pay grazing taxes and killed five soldiers who had tried to capture him. He was executed in the Old Town cemetery.

Also in 1852, a criminal named Yankee Jim Robinson was hung, in what was described as a slow and agonizing death, allegedly on the very site where Thomas Whaley would later build his home. According to our tour guide, a total of 707 men had been hung there. Jim Robinson was said to be the last one. Legend has it that before his hanging he stated he was innocent and placed a curse upon the plot of land where the public gallows had stood. This guide went by the name of Bullitt, based on a real-life character from 1852 who we’re told got shot in the butt by Thomas Whaley for showing too much unwanted attention to Thomas’ wife Anna. He survived, and thus the nickname Bullitt. Anyway, our guide Bullitt, who if anything like the 1852 version was quite a jovial, outgoing, fast-talking character, and he certainly didn’t refrain in the slightest from sharing how after witnessing the death of Jim Robinson he approached the local city council to inform them how barbaric the gallows was. And so, our Bullitt pointed out, Thomas suggested a firing squad was far more humanitarian. He even agreed to train members of the firing squad. But Bullitt at this point was sure to let us know that this wasn’t altogether done out of the goodness of his heart, for Thomas Whaley was also a merchant who sold guns.

On May 14, 1853, Thomas married Anna De Launay, whose parents were from France. By 1858, they had three children. Francis Hinton, Thomas Junior, and Anna Amelia.

Tragedies and misfortune came to befall the Whaley family, which I imagine certainly must have felt like a curse had indeed been leveled upon them and their land. In January 1858, Thomas Junior passed away in the house, at 18 months of age, due to scarlet fever. In August 1858, yet another arson fire claimed one of Whaley's wood-framed stores that burned to the ground. The only silver lining that year it seemed was the birth of their daughter Anna Amelia in June. Before the end of the year the Whaley family moved back to San Francisco and eventually, Thomas struck out for a time for Alaska seeking work.

A decade later, in 1868, the Whaley family returned to Old Town San Diego, with three new additional family members, a son named George Hays and two daughters Violet Eloise and Corinne Lillian. Their home was badly deteriorated but Thomas struggled once again to get back on his feet and soon partnered with a Philip Crosthwaite and opened the Whaley & Crosthwaite General Store on the first floor of their two-story home. In addition, he rented the upper floor in 1868 to a Thonmas Tanner who turned it into San Diego's first commercial theater. Sadly, Tanner died just 17 days after opening night of his first play though. In 1869 the upper floor was rented by the County of San Diego for Board of Supervisor meetings while the first-floor brick granary addition to the house was used for one of San Diego's earliest courthouses. However, just two years later, the rival New Town ordered the courthouse furniture and records to be moved there. Old Town residents were resistant to this order though and stood guard to prevent this from happening for a time. But then one night, while Thomas was out of town, a group of New Town residents reportedly broke in and left with the records. Another source states that the records were relocated on March 31, 1871.

On August 19, 1885, Thomas heard a gunshot from the backyard. There, in the outhouse, he found that his 22-year-old daughter Violet, who had suffered a heartbreaking divorce, had shot herself in the chest. She had been under the care of a doctor due to depression. The grief-stricken father carried his daughter into the parlor, where sadly she soon passed away. “She was married at 19,” a young lady dressed in period attire, who went by the name of Oakley, a character who in actual history had performed at the Whaley’s theater back in 1868. “Two months later, her husband abandoned her and that led to a divorce. Then, for the next three years after the divorce, she had been living in gossip, shame, and ridicule. Three years is a long time to be feeling that way. Especially, when she hadn’t done anything wrong. He abandoned her and admitted that he had lied to her during their courtship.”


We asked our guide Oakley about things people experience in the house. “People will feel like they’re about to have something dreadful happen,” she said. “They feel very anxious. They can feel heaviness or like their heart is racing. It’s very common. But you don’t have to worry. There’s nothing evil or malicious. You may feel the sadness and the anxiety and grief, but it never feels evil.”

When asked about her own experiences, she said she has on three occasions seen like something move by her. “They’re very fast for me,” she said. “Very, very fast.” Like a shadow it seems. When I asked about apparitions she mentioned the famous Regis Philbin incident (which I provided a link for in the very beginning of this article), which happened in the very area of the house where we were standing.

After this Thomas moved his family to New Town, in pursuit of some new business venture. He built a new home there at 933 State Street, where he died in 1890. Some years later, in 1909, his widow Ann and three grown children Frances, George and Lillian returned to the Whaley House in Old Town. Anna died there in 1913, followed a year and a half later by Frances. It was said that before the death of Lillian in 1953, that she frequently complained that the spirits of the house didn't want her in the upstairs bedrooms. Visitors claimed to hear footsteps from up on the second floor, which was unoccupied. Lillian would exclaim, "Oh, it's just Yankee Jim walking about."

Reportedly, people claim, in broad daylight, to have seen a fox terrier chasing a transparent black cat in the backyard, both vanishing into the rear wall of the house. Other apparitions have also been reported, including that of a red-haired girl, seen in the dining room, who supposed died of an accidental poisoning in the home, as well as a woman with her hair in a bun, with gold hoop earrings, wearing a gingham hoop skirt dress, a Confederate soldier and a Native American Indian in the courthouse area, while upstairs some have seen who they believe to have been Yankee Jim walking around, Thomas himself at the top of the stairs, and even figures that are believed to have been Anna and Thomas strolling outside.


The Whaley House: America's Most Haunted House, written by Mike Bryant and illustrated by Don Childers. Bryant Press: http://www.bryantpress.com. San Diego, California. First Edition, 2006.

For more information on the Whaley House and how to tour this site and even be involved in paranormal investigations, go to: www.whaleyhousesandiego.com

Sunday, July 14, 2024