July 2, 2012

Ghost Pictures? History-Haunted Whaley House

More haunted history around San Diego, California.

In 1850, the newly-formed county of San Diego boasted a population of 798 living souls—a far cry from the nearly 3 million in residence today. By 1852, the first ghost of note was in the process of becoming.

Prosecutor James W. Robinson
James Robinson a.k.a. Santiago Robinson a.k.a. Yankee Jim had plotted to steal a pilot boat—or so the court ruled. Yankee Jim was not exactly a model citizen. Reportedly, he had come to San Diego a year earlier to escape some problems in a northern mining camp. When he was caught in rowboat too close to the schooner Plautus in San Diego harbor, things went hard for him. He was convicted of attempted theft of the boat and sentenced to death. For reasons unknown, his accomplices were let off. Oddly enough, so the story goes, Jim's prosecutor shared  his name.

Poor Jim. His troubles did not stop there. As the story goes, the gallows from which he was hung were built for a man of regular height. Yankee Jim was quite a bit taller, so when the wagon was pulled out from under him, his feet brushed the ground and his neck failed to snap. He strangled to death, instead. Another story claims that the rope was too long, but the effect was the same—strangulation. It’s worth noting that he died proclaiming his innocence. In addition to these oddities, apparently the executioner was his godfather, Sheriff William Crosswaithe.

A few years later, the site of Yankee Jim’s demise became the archway between the music room and parlor of one of the most haunted houses in the United States: the Whaley House. Though the owner, Thomas Whaley, was a spectator at Jim’s hanging, that fact does not appear to have troubled him when contructing his beautiful new home around the gallow’s former location.

Now that begs the question: Did the tragic event of 1852 set the stage for future tragedies and the haunting of the Whaley House? Though, like most homes, the Whaley House witnessed periods of familial joy and contentment, it also was the scene of great sadness and suffering.

Whaley House: View from garden
Thomas and his wife, Anna, moved into their new Greek Revival-style residence in August, 1857. On January 29, 1858, their third child, Thomas Whaley, Jr., died from scarlet fever. He was just 18 months old.

Disaster soon followed tragedy. Located within the family home was Mr. Whaley’s general store—a successful venture until destroyed by fire shortly after baby Thomas’ death. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the Whaleys moved to San Francisco for a time. They returned to San Diego 10 years later.

The Whaley House must have been the scene of happiness on January 5, 1882. Two of the Whaley daughters—Violet Eloise and Anna Amelia—had just been married in Old San Diego. However, Violet’s joy was short-lived. During her honeymoon, she awoke one morning to find that her husband had vanished. The young bride had been the victim of a con artist interested only in the substantial dowry that he believed he would collect. Violet returned home to live, humiliated and shunned by “polite society” who deemed somehow that she was a tarnished woman. Depressed and tired of life, she took her own life with a 32-calibre gun on August 18, 1885. She was only 22.

The scandal of Violet’s death had its own repercussions. Her sister, Corrine Lillian, was engaged at the time of the suicide, but her fiance could not bear the associated shame of it, so broke off the engagement.

Perhaps seeking to escape the cloud of tragedy that had settled over their home, the Whaleys moved to a house built by Thomas in Downtown San Diego. For more than two decades the Whaley House stood vacant and neglected.

Thomas Whaley died in 1890. In 1909, his son Francis decided to restore and reopen Whaley House as a tourist attraction. By 1912, it was also home again to his mother Anna, sister Corrine Lillian, brother George, and Francis himself. However, it did not take long for Death to again visit the family. On February 24, 1913, Anna died (age 80); Francis a year later, on November 19.

For a time, Death took a holiday . Then, on January 5, 1928, George Whaley died, leaving Corrine Lillian to live out her life seemingly alone in the house until her death in 1953.

It’s not surprising to find that the Whaley House is haunted. Ghost hunters, docents, and visitors to the landmark have experienced a variety of ghostly manifestations from apparitions and the feeling of being watched, to footsteps, rappings, strange smells, cold spots, the sense of being touched, and so on. Even the United States Chamber of Commerce has declared the house to be genuinely haunted.

To this I will add my own experience. While visiting the Whaley House back in 2005, I took numerous digital photos, expecting to capture nothing in particular; just pics of the interior. When I took a look later, however, I found two images of particular interest. The first was that taken of Mr. Whaley’s study. There is cane propped against the desk that, supposedly, is actually his. Note the round blue ball just near the cane’s handle. I’ve seen many pictures of dust orbs, but never one so opaque or so blue. I don’t know. It’s curious.

The other is a bit more difficult to see on a small scale, but in this photo, on the right side of the table, towards the center and near the edge, there is something that almost looks like smoke rising from the table. It’s my understanding that a child died after consuming something poisonous in that room. Again, I can’t say for sure what I’ve captured, but I will say that I’ve taken several hundred photos with that camera, and I’ve caught nothing like this before or after. Subtle, but strange.

Let me know what you think.

Happy Hauntings!


  1. I like the orb on the cane. the one of the table is too small to be of any consiquince to me, my opion.

    1. You may be right, but in an enlarged photo of the table, this little trail of light appears quite odd. Having said that, I agree, the orb on the cane is the stranger of the two pictures. I appreciate your observations.

  2. "Yankee" Jim was tall and "well developed physically" (San Diego Union) and about 34 years old when he was hanged. The old gentleman in the above photo is actually James W. Robinson, who shared the same name and was "Yankee" Jim's prosecutor at his trial in San Diego. It is not "Yankee" Jim.

    1. I always try to be accurate in my reporting, so would appreciate the specific source information supporting your comment. Once verified, I'll be happy to make the necessary changes, if needed. Thanks!

    2. http://www.sandiegohistory.org/bio/robinson/robinsonjames.htm

    3. Thanks, Dino. The post has been updated to reflect your information. The documented/sourced correction is much appreciated!

  3. If you really zoom in on the orb, towards the bottom left, you can make out a face.

    1. Fascinating. I'll give it a try. I took dozens of pictures that night at the Whaley House, but only this one revealed something unexpected or strange. I've seen lots of other pictures of orbs, but never one as defined and opaque as this one.