Scarier Than Ghosts?

Is this the most haunted house in America?

We crossed an item off the bucket list on Saturday when Kimi and I visited the Whaley House in San Diego’s Old Town district. The Whaley House is reputed to be the most haunted house in America by many psychic researchers, and if the stories about the property’s past are true, it’s easy to see why. 

Thomas Whaley was a forty-niner who made a small fortune selling supplies to miners in San Francisco before relocating south to the sleepy settlement of San Diego, where he built this house in 1857. Whaley must not have believed in ghosts because he constructed his home on the bad juju site of the public gallows, where a few years earlier he witnessed convicted row boat thief Yankee Jim Robinson pay the ultimate price for his minor offense. Whaley soon became a believer when footsteps began appearing in empty rooms in the house, and his family members started dying on the premises in mysterious ways. 

The Ninth Step.

The docents who work on the grounds dress in period costume and all seem to have had personal encounters with a host of otherworldly presences, such as footsteps, slamming doors and smells of perfume and cigar smoke coming from empty rooms; an invisible baby crying in the nursery; and even a disembodied dog who will occasionally hump a tourist’s leg. A sour-faced Whaley is said to appear on the second floor, and his long-deceased wife sometimes shows up at a back window to inspect her gardens below. One particularly haunted spot is said to be the ninth stair leading to the second floor, which was the same spot where Yankee Jim once dangled. Guests at the house have reported choking at the spot, and some have even found rope marks around their necks after climbing the stairs. 

We felt nothing unusual during our visit, but many a skeptic has become an immediate convert during a tour, including Regis Philbin, who reportedly once encountered a ghost at the house. 

Mrs. Whaley checking on her gardens? Nope, just a tourist.

The Whaley House was still worth the $6 admission cost, but there is another place two blocks away that comes with a large creepiness-factor, free of charge. 

Yankee Jim's grave in El Campo Santo Cemetery.

Nearly 500 bodies, including the unfortunate Yankee Jim, were buried in El Campo Santo Cemetery from 1849 to 1880. Sometime around 1899, the city government decided that a horse-drawn trolley was a greater need for the citizens of San Diego than the preservation of burial sites, and a line was cut through the cemetery without anyone bothering to relocate the bodies first. Eventually the street was paved, and today when tourists drive over San Diego Avenue or walk down the sidewalk next to the street, they are crossing over at least twenty graves that are now marked with small brass plaques that read “grave site.”  

Which just goes to show you that dead people are often less scary than the living ones in city government. 

A grave in the middle of San Diego Avenue.

About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

4 responses to “Scarier Than Ghosts?

  • debbie

    ok…u 2 do the COOLEST things! this place is on our list of things to do in Cali…I see we will have to definitely check it off list, soon, after reading your article!
    saw an episode of ghost hunters featuring Whaley House! you should look it up on-line & watch the episode!
    so happy you are blogging again…love reading your posts!

  • Kimi Stephens

    I was disappointed that I didn’t see or feel anything particularly unusual, even on the ninth step, but I did feel a slight rush of cold air while climing the stairs. It was probably just a breeze from the open front door, but I’d like to think maybe ol’ Yankee Jim was just saying “hello” from The Beyond.

    Even if you don’t encounter any other-worldly spirits, the house itself is a wonderful museum and just fun to tour through.

  • Peggy

    What a fun article. I love ghosty thingies. Used to visit lots of “haunted” houses and hotels in Colorado. It was a blast. Once, me and three other women encounterd a ghostly presence in a room in a 120 year old hotel near Leadville. A window in a room (which opened by raising it), raised up very slowly all by itself. None of us were standing near it. In fact no one was near it at all. But, ALL of us saw it raise at the same time. The thing is, the window was in a bathroom, and someone in one of the stalls had just laid a “stink bomb” that was gagging us all. No one said anything to be polite, but I guess the stench was more than the ghost could handle. True story.

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