The Whaley house
Thomas Whaley came to California during the Gold Rush. He left New York City, the place of his birth, on January 1, 1849, on the ship Sutton and arrived 204 days later in San Francisco. He set up a store with business partner George Wardle where he sold hardware and woodwork from his family’s New York business, Whaley & Pye. They offered mining equipment and utensils on consignment. This young entrepreneur, born on October 5, 1823, came from a Scots-Irish family, which immigrated to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1722. His grandfather, Alexander Whaley, a gunsmith, participated in the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War where he provided flintlock muskets to soldiers and the use of his house on Long Island to General George Washington. Thomas’ father, Thomas A. Whaley, carried on the family gunsmith business, and served in the New York Militia during the War of 1812. He married Rachel Pye, whose father, William, manufactured locks in Brooklyn.

Whaley’s business acumen, acquired in part from his education at the Washington Institute, proved beneficial in San Francisco. He was so successful that he was able to establish his own store on Montgomery Street, erect a two-story residence near the bay, and rent out Wardle’s edifice. After an arson-set fire destroyed his buildings in May 1851, he relocated to Old Town San Diego upon the advice of Lewis Franklin, a fellow merchant. Whaley set up various businesses and amassed enough money to return to New York to marry his sweetheart, Anna Eloise DeLaunay, the daughter of French-born parents, on May 14, 1853.

Upon the couple’s return to San Diego, Whaley entered various general store business partnerships, most of which lasted less than a year. He purchased a lot at the corner of San Diego Avenue and Harney Street in September 1855, and in May of the following year, built a single-story granary with bricks manufactured in his own brickyard nearby. In September 1856, Whaley commenced construction of an adjacent two-story Greek Revival style brick building which he had designed. Upon completion in 1857, the building was acclaimed as the “finest new brick block in Southern California” by the San Diego Herald, and cost $10,000, an impressive sum in the 1850’s.

By 1858, Thomas and Anna Whaley had produced three children: Francis Hinton, Thomas Jr. (who died at 18 months), and Anna Amelia. In August 1858, once again arson-set fire destroyed Whaley’s business. Rebuilding in a time of economic downturn was problematic, so Whaley moved his family to San Francisco, where he worked as a U.S. Army Commissary Storekeeper for a short while. Three more children, George Hays Ringgold (named for a business partner), Violet Eloise, and Corinne Lillian, were born. In 1867, Thomas Whaley took charge of three government transports with stores at Sitka, Alaska Territory, before the American takeover on October 18.

After a major earthquake in May 1868, the Whaley Family returned to their home in San Diego. There Whaley partnered with Philip Crosthwaite to open the Whaley and Crosthwaite General Store. San Diego
pioneer Crosthwaite was the Deputy County Clerk and later San Diego’s Chief of Police. In 1868, Thomas rented the upstairs southwestern portion of the house to a Mr. Thomas Tanner, who transformed the living quarters into San Diego’s first commercial theater. Just three months after the Tanner Troupe’s October 1868 opening, Mr. Tanner died suddenly and the troupe disbanded. Later in 1869, the County of San Diego rented the theater space and the former granary for use as meeting rooms for the Board of Supervisors and one of San Diego’s earliest courthouses, respectively. After the establishment of

New Town San Diego by Alonzo Horton in 1868, the seat of government moved there. Residents of Old Town resisted the change, even refusing to hand over the court records. On the evening of March 31, 1871, County Clerk Chalmers Scott gathered a group of

New Towners, rode out to the Whaley House in express wagons, and forcibly removed the records. Although Whaley wrote a series of letters to the Board of Supervisors noting that their lease had not expired and demanding rent and repairs to the building, his demands were ultimately ignored.
On January 5, 1882, sisters Violet and Anna Amelia had a double wedding, Anna Amelia marrying her first cousin, John T. Whaley, and Violet wedding George T. Bertolacci. Violet’s marriage ended sadly, and she divorced Bertolacci in 1883. Succumbing to depression, she took her own life on August 18, 1885. Later that year, the family moved to New Town, where Thomas built a lovely single-story frame home for them at 933 State Street. Hoping to capitalize on the San Diego boom, he opened a real estate office at 5th and G in the First National Bank Building with various partners including Ephraim Morse. He retired in 1888 after a long career of entrepreneurial endeavors, and passed away at the State Street home on December 14, 1890 at the age of 67.

The Whaley Home in Old Town was rented out for many years and eventually fell into disrepair until late 1909 when Whaley’s oldest son Francis returned to the old brick house and undertook the restoration of the building. Rehabilitated at the same time as the establishment of the Los Angeles & San Diego Beach Railway down San Diego Avenue, which coincided with the great turn of the century tourist movement, Francis utilized the family home as a residence and a tourist attraction where he posted signs outside promoting its historicity and entertained visitors with his guitar.

On February 24, 1913, Anna died in the house, followed by Francis on November 19, 1914. Lillian continued residency in her family home, writing her memoirs, and passed away in 1953.

In 1956, the house was up for sale and plans to demolish it to make way for a gas station were curtailed by June and Jim Reading who, with a concerned group of citizens, convinced the County of San Diego to buy and restore the house. The Whaley House opened its doors to the public as a historic house museum in May of 1960 and since November of 2000 has been operated for the county by Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO). SOHO is in the process of returning the house to its nineteenth century appearance.

Ghostly Legends
According to the Travel Channel’s America’s Most Haunted, the Whaley House is the number one most haunted house in the United States. The alleged hauntings of the Whaley House have been reported on numerous other television programs and been written up in countless publications and books since the house first opened as a museum in 1960. Although we cannot state positively that the Whaley House is really haunted, the voluminous documentation of paranormal occurances at the site makes a compelling case. But, if there are ghosts at the Whaley House, who are they and why are they here?
The earliest documented ghost at the Whaley House is “Yankee Jim”. James (aka Santiago) Robinson was convicted of attempted grand larceny in San Diego in 1852, and hanged on a gallows off the back of a wagon on the site where the house now stands. Although Thomas Whaley had been a spectator at the execution, he did not let it disuade him from buying the property a few years later and building a home for his family there. According to the San Diego Union, “soon after the couple and their children moved in, heavy footsteps were heard moving about the house. Whaley described them as sounding as though they were made by the boots of a large man. Finally he came to the conclusion that these unexplained footfalls were made by Yankee Jim Robinson.”
Many visitors to the house have reported encountering Thomas Whaley himself. The late June Reading, former curator of the museum, said, “We had a little girl perhaps 5 or 6 years old who waved to a man she said was standing in the parlor… We couldn’t see him. But often children’s sensitivity is greater than an adult’s.” However, many adults have reported seeing the apparition of Mr. Whaley, usually on the upper landing. One said he was “clad in frock coat and pantaloons, the face turned away from her, so she could not make it out. Suddenly it faded away.”
The Whaley House stands, silently watching over San Diego Avenue, as it has done for a century and a half. Every day visitors come from around the world to tour the historic museum. It contains so much history within its walls, that even the non-believer will enjoy the tour. For believers and skeptics alike, the house draws them back time and again, in search of those elusive ghosts. As Regis Philbin once said, “You know a lot of people pooh-pooh it because they can’t see it. But there was something going on in that house.