by Walter Bissell
The Thomas Whaley House Museum is located at 2482 San Diego Avenue in the heart of Old Town, San Diego, California. In 1857, Whaley built what is thought to be the first brick house in San Diego.
Made from the bricks of his own kiln, this two-story home with a one-story addition is said by some to be haunted. According to America's Most Haunted, “the house is the number one most haunted house in the United States.” In addition to being the family’s home, it was also Thomas Whaley's own general store. It served many other purposes such as County Court House, grainery, ballroom, school, pool-hall and San Diego's first commercial theater.
Born in New York City in 1823, Thomas was the son of Thomas Alexander Whaley Sr. and Rachel Pye. After acquiring a general education he enrolled in business classes at Washington Institute. In 1849 at the height of the Gold Rush, he left New York and headed for San Francisco. With the help of George Wardle, Thomas set up a store on Montgomery Street selling items from his father’s company and lending out mining equipment and utensils on consignment. The store was a smashing success, but ended suddenly in May 1851 when an arsonist set a fire that destroyed the plaza and his store building.
Whaley Heads West
Aware of booming business opportunities in San Diego, Thomas Whaley set sail with a fellow merchant named Lewis Franklin. Arriving in San Diego, they opened a store called Tienda California. The following year Franklin sold out his share of the business to Whaley. Thomas was well liked and soon became known for his ability to generate and maintain retail stores. He returned to New York City and married his high school sweetheart Anna Eloise DeLaunay in 1853. Continuing success made Thomas quite wealthy and he wanted to build a home for Anna and himself. Even though he knew that public hangings had occurred where he planned to build, he did so anyway. They moved into the house in the fall of 1857. Thomas was appointed as President for the San Diego city Board of Trustees for the 1858-1859 term. Later, this position became known as that of Mayor. The one-story addition on the house served as the county courthouse until 1870. The County Board of Supervisors also met and kept city records there. When Alonzo Horton established New Town, San Diego in 1868 he built a new court house and demanded the old records from Old Town. The people of Old Town fought to remain independent and refused to hand over the records. In March 1871 while Whaley was away on business, Horton staged a raid on Whaley House. Holding Anna on the stairs at gunpoint, he forcefully seized the records. Many people say they still feel a cold chill when they reach the ninth step on the staircase.
At 17 months, Little Thomas Whaley III mysteriously died in his bed. The cries of a baby have been reported coming from the bedroom. Young Violet Whaley committed suicide in 1885 leaving Thomas and Anna heartbroken. They moved to New Town, San Diego leaving Lillian, the Whaleys' youngest daughter, behind them. She lived in the old house until 1953. Thomas Whaley died in 1890 and his wife Anna died in 1913.
Lillian was convinced that the ghost of “Yankee Jim” haunted the Whaley House. James Robinson had been convicted of grand larceny in 1852 and hanged on a gallows erected on the spot where the house now stands. The heavy footsteps of Yankee Jim can be heard throughout the house. Another reported haunting is that of a young blond girl who has been seen in the kitchen and running around out in the yard. She is thought to be the apparition of a young girl who in the mid-1800s’s crushed her throat when she ran into a clothesline. She was carried into the kitchen and placed on the kitchen table. She died a short time later.
Other Reports of Haunting
Hundreds of strange incidents have been reported by visitors to the Whaley House. The sounds of piano music, singing and laughter have been heard throughout the house. The smell of perfume and cigar smoke linger in the hallway. Objects are often seen moving as if someone touched them. Curtains move without a draft; rocking chairs rock; pots and pans sway back and forth; crystals on the lamp move without being touched; and pillows and beds show the impression of someone lying there. Mirrors and the glass bookcase cast the reflections of the former residents of Whaley House. Even the family pet, a terrier named Dolly Varden, is said to have been seen running down the hall and entering the dining room - its’ ears flapping and tail wagging.
Some believe the ghost of Thomas Whaley, wearing a black frock coat and wide-brimmed hat, stands on the second floor landing surveying his home while Anna, wearing her favorite calico dress, moves throughout the house preparing it for an unknown visitor. Will you be the next guest at the Whaley House?