Gallows, Ghosts, and Paved Over Graves: A Visit to San Diego’s Whaley House

On a September day in 1852 James “Yankee Jim” Robinson was taken from an adobe jail to the gallows. Standing upon a wagon, a noose was placed around his neck. When the order was given, the wagon driver pulled away, and Yankee Jim reportedly kept his feet on the wagon as long as possible, but he eventually swung, dying for the crime of stealing a boat. In the crowd was Thomas Whaley, who three years later bought the former hanging grounds to build his home. Little did he know he was in for years of hauntings and heartbreak. Today the home is open as a museum, showcasing life of a San Diego family during the later half of the 19th-century, and playing into the stories of hauntings.

A brick house with white painted porch sits behind a sign reading "Whaley House Historic Landmark No. 65"

The Whaley House, a small, but stately looking home made of brick featuring a white column porch.

Thomas Whaley was born in New York City, but like many, made his way to California in 1849 after gold was discovered. But instead of toiling away panning for gold, Whaley arrived in San Fransisco and set up a shop with George Wardle, catering to the gold hungry miners. When an arson fire destroyed their business, Whaley relocated to San Diego, where after a variety of successful business ventures, he briefly returned to New York to marry his sweetheart, Anna Eloise DeLaunay. When the couple returned to San Diego in 1855, Whaley purchased the former gallows grounds where he witnessed Yankee Jim’s execution, building a single story granary connected to a larger two story home, where he also operated his general store from. By 1857, his store outgrew the modest room of his home, and he moved his business to the center of town, in what is now Old Town San Diego.

The porch of the home, which is brick, with green shutters.

A plaque reading "T. Whaley" is affixed to the front door.

The parlor of the home, in front of the fireplace sits a small table and two chairs.

After settling in, the couple had three children, Francis, Anna, and Thomas. The family began to hear footsteps when no one was around, and soon they decided it must just be Yankee Jim, and left it at that. It is said that the archway dividing the parlor is where the gallows was once erected. Ghost or no ghost, the family was struck by tragedy when Thomas, at only 18 months, died of scarlet fever in 1858. And oddly enough, Whaley’s store was victim to yet another arson fire. The loss of their son and store weighed heavy on them, and they chose to relocate to San Fransisco. There, Whaley became a U.S. Army Commissary Storekeeper, and they welcomed three more children, George, Corinne, and Violet. However, their time in San Fransisco was short lived, an earthquake in 1868 made the family decide to move back into their very own haunted house back in San Diego.

The parlor of the home, with an archway separating two areas. White and gold wallpaper line the walls, a dark wood organ sits agains the wall with a guitar leaning against it, the fireplace is next to it.

The light fixture of the parlor, three glass globes with crystals hanging below.

One of the bedrooms. A wood dresser with mirror sits in one corner, a dark wood desk in the other, and a full bed with red and white quilt in the center.

A blue glass light fixture featuring a floral motif hangs in the hallway.

Two porcelain dolls with cloth dresses sit upon a blue and white bedspread in what was one of the children's rooms.

A portable writing desk sits atop a table, with a letter, and pair of glasses atop.

Inside the parlor a desk with bookshelf above sits in the corner. Dark red curtains hang from the window.

Sheet music for "Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still" sits upon the organ.

Back in San Diego, Whaley chose to resume his store out of his home, and rent out space within the home. For a brief couple months between October of 1868 and January of 1869, the Tanner Troupe Theatre rented the large upstairs bedroom, and in doing so the Whaley House becoming San Diego’s first theater. The granary became the home of the San Diego Courthouse, and rooms above served as record storage, but as Old Town was beginning to fade, and New Town San Diego was becoming the new place to be, the records forcibly removed and relocated to the New Town area in 1871.

One window of the home features text reading "Whaley and Crosthwaite General Store"

Area of the home that was Whaley's general store. Dark wood display cases feature various items from the era.

The stage in the room that was the first theatre in San Diego. Gold curtains hang around the stage, where a chair sits with a small table by it, atop the table a skull, candle, and book.

Interior of the courtroom, featuring dark wood seat for the judge, and table for defense and prosecution. An old fashioned brash lamp hangs from the ceiling.

The family was hopeful when both Anna and Violet were married in 1882, but Violet’s new husband ended up being a con artist, and he left her. Even though Violet was able to get divorced, she was shunned by society. Humiliated and depressed, Violet killed herself in 1885 in the home’s privy in the backyard with her father’s gun. With the second loss of a child, the family decided to move to New Town, but it was brief, as Whaley passed way in 1890.

The old Whaley home sat vacant until 1909 when Francis returned. By now Old Town was having a second life thanks to the Ramona tourists, and Francis used the home to entertain them with his guitar and playing on the historical importance of the home. Anna, Lillian, and George also returned, and one by one they each passed away within the home, with the exception of Lillian, the last Whaley, who passed way in a rest home in 1953.

The back of the home, which features exposed brick, windows with green shutters. A red water pump sits in the foreground and is attached to a wooden trough.

In 1960 the Whaley House became part of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park (despite being a block off of the larger park area) and opened as a museum. In 2000 maintenance of home transferred to Save Our Heritage Organisation and continues to be operated as a museum. The home is also both a San Diego and California historic landmark.

The Whaley House, a small, but stately looking home made of brick featuring a white column porch.

In recent years, the Whaley House has been featured on many ghost related shows, and labeled as one of the most haunted placed in America, with the spirts of not just Yankee Jim, but multiple members of the Whaley family and even their dog walking the floors of their old home. However, I did not experience or capture anything. But that isn’t to say others have not.

It should be noted that tickets to view the Whaley home are purchased in the downright adorable Verna House next door.

The Verna House, a small home painted a golden yellow and maroon.

Oh, and did I mention that poor Yankee Jim was buried less than two blocks from the Whaley home in El Campo Santo Cemetery? Perhaps another reason his spirit walks the Whaley House. Like the nearby Whaley House, El Campo Cemetery is also reportedly haunted, perhaps because when the horse drawn streetcar arrived in 1874, it forced the relocation of several graves, while others were left behind and paved over. It wasn’t until 1993 that at least 13 of the graves were discovered using ground penetrating radar.

A wooden sign reads "El Campo Santo Cemetery (The Holy Field) Founded 1849 State Historical Landmark #68"

White painted wooden crosses mark the graves of some of San Diego's early residents. Some graves have white picket fences around them.

A wooden tombstone reading "James Robinson 'Yankee Jim'"

A bronze plaque reads "Remembering the more than 13 people, mostly children, who lie buried beneath Linwood Street. These graves were discovered with the use of ground penetrating radar in 1993. Rest in Peace. This plaque was placed by the Historical Shire Foundation with funds from the San Diego Community Development Block Grant in 1994." A small diagram shows where the graves are in relation to the street and gate to the cemetery.

A black wrought iron gate opens into the cemetery.

The Whaley House offers self guided tours, as well as guided tours on select nights. You can learn more on their website. Visit it at 2476 San Diego Avenue. And while you’re there, walk just a block and a half to El Campo Santo Cemetery at 2410 San Diego Avenue.

Family History. The Whaley House Museum. Accessed 12 July 2019.
Hanging Yankee Jim.” Los Angeles Herald. 7 October 1873. Via UCR. Accessed 14 July 2019.
Plaques and Docents on site.

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