By John R. Beyer
The most haunted house in Southern California is supposed to be the Whaley House in San Diego, but is it really haunted? Thousands upon thousands of visitors each year declare something close to the following:
“I’ve never been so scared in my life!”
“Voices were speaking to me the moment I walked into the house.”
“A ghost was so real and fresh, it asked me out for a date.”
OK, I have no idea if any of the above was actually said — especially the last one — but, and I want to phrase this very carefully, this house has spooky and paranormal written all over it.
Throughout October, I focused my writing on supposedly haunted places. It’s been fun visiting and writing about them, but, again, I go back to the question from my first entry in this series: Do I (or you) believe in ghosts?
Read more Beyer’s Byways:
I’m not a believer or disbeliever in spirits who allegedly walk between this place we call reality and some other realm, but a trip to the Whaley House had me really questioning all the hoopla over ghosts. I mean, really questioning it…
Built in 1857, this Greek revival home — no idea exactly what that means, but it is stylish — sits in what is known as Old Town in San Diego. It’s called Old Town because it was first built near San Diego Bay a long, long time ago.
“Papa, why do they call this Old Town?” a son asked his father (a long, long time ago in the old part of town).
“I don’t know,” the owner of the Greek revival house replied, “but please bring me some bread, olive oil and, umm, you know, something else to do with mythology. I understand future generations will study it and think we were really smart. I mean, we live in a Greek revival home after all. We have a responsibility to live up to, right?”
Turns out, the original owners of the house weren’t Greek at all, but of the Scot and Irish breed. They just liked the Greek style.
Thomas Whaley moved to this part of the Southern California coast with his spouse, Anna, in 1853. The couple built a house and, with their six children, moved into it on Aug. 22, 1857.
Times, however, were not wonderful for the Whaley family. They lost their son, Thomas Whaley Jr., on Jan. 29, 1858, to scarlet fever. He was just 18 months old. Soon after that, a store they owned burned to the ground. The family packed up and moved to San Francisco. But in December 1868, they found themselves back in San Diego.
Everything was looking up for the Whaleys by then, but up never lasts forever.
Their daughter, Violet, married George T. Bertolacci in 1882. He turned out to be a con man who only married Violet for her father’s money. He left her, after just two weeks, when he learned there was no dowry to be had.
Distraught, Violet filed for divorce, but the shame of the sham of a marriage haunted her daily. On Aug. 18, 1885, Violet went into the backyard and committed suicide. She was 22 years old.
She left a note:
“Mad from life’s history,
Swift to death’s mystery,
Glad to be hurled, anywhere,
Anywhere, out of this world.”
The note was part of a Thomas Hood poem written in 1844. Such a sad ending for someone so very young.
To add more pain for the family, the fiancé of Violet’s sister, Corrine Lillian, broke off their engagement. What a jerk!
And so Thomas Whaley built another house not far from the first. I suppose he was done with the terrible memories his original home kept. But not all the Whaleys felt the same. In fact, many members of the family resided in the first until their deaths. The last to go was Corrine Lillian, who lived until 1953.
So is the Whaley House haunted? Guests and staff state that they have heard voices, footsteps, the opening and closing of doors at all hours. Ghostly images of one of the Whaleys are often reported by a docent or to a docent.
It seems to make sense. Baby Thomas Jr., Violet, Anna, Francis, George and Corrinne all died at or in the Whaley House. Perhaps they never truly left.
LIFE magazine, in 2005, referred to the Whaley House as the most haunted house in America. Obviously LIFE never visited my house on Thanksgiving when our relatives come a-haunting… I meant a-visiting.
The house has appeared in so many episodes of people chasing ghosts that I can’t write them all down here. Actually, I could, but don’t want to. Here’s a couple: “Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files” and Biography Channel’s “The Haunting of” that focused on Regis Philbin.
I did not make that up. Way back in 1964, Philbin said he had a personal encounter with Mrs. Whaley — and Biography made a documentary on it!
I once saw a ghost coming right at me, or, perhaps, it was a tree I ran my motorcycle into. Anyway, I blacked out. It could have been a ghost. Biography Channel presents, “Beyer’s Close Encounter with a Ghostly Tree, or Why a Beyer should not be allowed to drive a motorcycle.”
One of the first ghostly sightings at the Whaley House was reportedly of a man named Yankee Jim. With a name like that, a person would think him a mighty, seafaring sailor. Nope. Jim was a ruffian who had been convicted of grand larceny.
For his crimes, he was hanged from the gallows. Would you like to guess where the gallows were located? In the yard where Mr. Whaley later built his house. Whaley was actually a witness to the enforcement of the sentence, but that didn’t prevent him from buying the property and building his family residence there.
“It is a safe place now,” Whaley was heard saying. “Yankee Jim won’t be hanging around here anymore.”
I apologize for that one.
There are so many ghosts haunting the Whaley House, according to numerous sources, that they have to wait in line to scare visitors: “Hold on, Casper, it’s my turn.”
Even ghost canines have been spotted running down the hallways looking for a fire hydrant. Again, apologies. I just couldn’t help myself there. But dogs have been seen, and unseen, within seconds.
So what about our encounter at the Whaley House? Well, we take a lot of photographs on our adventures, and this one was no different for Laureen and me.
As I was coming down the house’s stairwell, a photograph of Laureen was a must. I asked her to pause on one of the bottom steps. She loves posing for the camera and easily complied.
At that moment, I felt as though someone was right behind me on the stairs. I turned around and saw something move to the right so quickly, like in a blink, that the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I’m not sure what it was, but it was there and then it wasn’t.
“Did you see that?” Laureen asked.
I nodded. “Saw it and felt it, too.”
“It was right behind you. A whitish something. Right behind you and then it was gone.”
I didn’t get a photograph of Laureen at that moment. I actually think I forgot I had a camera at all. We left with great rapidity when we hit the bottom of the stairs.
Am I a believer in ghosts? I can’t say I am or that I am not. The jury is still out. But that experience on the stairwell is hard to explain.
Contact John R. Beyer at email@example.com.