No trip to San Diego (to anywhere, really) is complete without visiting the local haunted house. Not only is the Whaley House one of the most haunted in the United States, it’s also right in San Diego’s old town, making it easy to find. Win-win!
How haunted is it? It’s so haunted that even Regis Philbin reported encountering a spirit there. Yes, that Regis Philbin.
Built in the 1850s, it’s little wonder there have been deaths at the Whaley House. Back in the day, people were more likely to die at home. But in addition to the natural deaths, the Whaley House saw more than its share of scandal and tragedy.
Thomas and Anna Whaley had six children. Their daughter Violet married married George T. Bertolacci in 1882 in a double wedding with her sister Anna. Unfortunately for Violet, George was a fortune hunter and only interested in her dowry. Apparently he found it lacking. Two weeks after the marriage, as they were traveling by rail to the East Coast, George abandoned Violet, and she was forced to travel home alone – a double humiliation for a young Victorian lady. Shunned by society for this faux pas and for her subsequent divorce, Violet committed suicide in 1885, shooting herself in the chest with her father’s gun.
Her suicide note was a stanza from Bridge of Sighs by Thomas Hood:
Mad from life’s history,
Swift to death’s mystery;
Glad to be hurled,
Anywhere, anywhere, out of this world.
According to my Internet research, her sister, Corinne Lillian, was engaged at the time of Violet’s death and promptly dumped by her fiancee, who didn’t want to deal with the scandal.
Of course, all I wanted to hear when I went to visit the Whaley House was a happy ending. Poor Corinne! First she loses her sister, then her fiancee (who was clearly a weak-kneed ninny). Would Corinne, at least, find love? I’ll tell you what I learned in a moment.
The really odd thing about the Whaley House is that the Whaley’s themselves suspected it was haunted. Thomas Whaley told the local paper that he heard phantom footsteps on the stairs, and mused the place was haunted by the spirit of “Yankee Jim” Robinson, who’d been hanged at the site.
Thomas actually witnessed Yankee Jim’s execution, the last public hanging at that spot. Yankee Jim was hanged for stealing a rowboat, and if that seems excessive to you, it did to Yankee Jim as well. He thought the whole thing was a bad joke up until the moment the wagon jerked from beneath his feet, leaving him dangling. He’s buried in nearby Campo Santo cemetery, one of the oldest in California.
But the executions at the site didn’t put Thomas off, and he bought the land to build his new house on. Bad luck seemed to follow. His business burned down twice. A son died of Typhoid. And of course Violet’s suicide broke his heart.
The ghost most people experience today is female – probably Violet. Thomas Whaley has also been reported. Naturally, I saw and experienced absolutely nothing. No creepy shivers. No scent of Thomas’s cigar. No orbs in my photos.
To add to the charged atmosphere of the house (which I didn’t feel), Thomas rented out one of the lower rooms as a courtroom. At the Whaley House, you can thumb through some of the old court records of convicted crooks and rapists. But the courthouse came back to haunt Thomas in a more prosaic way. Typical of Thomas’s bad luck, the local government wanted to break the lease. Thomas didn’t, so they waited until he was away on a trip. Late one night, Thomas’s wife was awakened by the sound of the front door splintering. She hurried downstairs and was confronted by the Sheriff, who threatened to use deadly force if she didn’t stand aside so they could grab the court records. She stood aside.
Thomas also rented out some of his upstairs rooms to a theater company. The director died two weeks later. He’d been a sickly man, so there was likely nothing paranormal about his death. But it added to the home’s dark reputation.
So what happened to Corinne? Was she also doomed to be one of the unhappy haunts? I asked one of the docents and he hadn’t heard the story of her being jilted by her fiancee. So it may be apocryphal. But she never married.