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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sources 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.