By JILL DIAMOND | Uptown News
While some legends fade away, others continue to stay fresh in people’s minds and become even more popular over time.
Take the two-story Whaley House Museum in Old Town. The house, which was constructed in 1857 and is a historical landmark, is where numerous ghost sightings have been reported for decades.
A brick monument to early San Diego, the home was built by Thomas Whaley, who was a pioneer and prominent citizen, once serving as president of the board of trustees and earning the nickname “Mayor Whaley.”
Whaley was additionally a merchant and real estate agent and the house was designed by him and constructed of bricks made in his own brickyard.
According to Dean Glass, Whaley House Museum historian: “In its day, the house was a hub of social activity, with its brick construction, fireplaces, and large rooms being very attractive to 19th-century San Diegans accustomed to small adobe houses. It served as the first commercial theater in San Diego; San Diego’s second county courthouse and seat of justice; and Thomas Whaley’s general store, all of which have been returned to the museum for visitors to see today.”
In addition to serving as historian, Glass is a member of the museum’s curatorial team, as well as the administrative manager for Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), which operates the museum on behalf of its owner the County of San Diego.
“I have worked at Whaley House for just over 15 years. I have been a fan of the museum since first touring as part of a fourth-grade field trip in 1975,” Glass said.
SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons is the director of the Whaley House and has been since 2000.
As one of the oldest brick houses in Southern California and San Diego’s finest example of a mid-1800s brick mansion, it has been designated California Historical Landmark No. 65, Glass said.
As for all those unusual sightings, well, Glass said: “The house’s haunted reputation dates back to the 19th century, mainly stemming from the fact that it stands on San Diego’s former execution grounds, and its fame is worldwide thanks to countless books and TV shows that report on it. Reports of hauntings continue to this day, and visitors continue to tour the museum in hopes of spotting something supernatural. Our hope is that visitors also learn about the history of San Diego in the 1800s, the Whaley family, and the house itself.”
When asked if he has personally witnessed any ghosts himself, Glass says he has, and more than once.
“I saw a full apparition of a man I believe was Thomas Whaley (though in his 20s), standing on the upstairs landing as I walked up the stairs one morning. He looked at me as if he was curious as to who I was and why I was in his house, then disappeared. He was all shades of gray, no color to him; I’ve seen a few other fleeting figures that are all gray also, but none as distinct as Mr. Whaley,” he recalled.
“On one occasion, I witnessed the chandelier in the courtroom swinging back and forth for no apparent reason. I have also on many occasions heard footsteps walking across the upstairs floor when no one is there; these sounds are always preceded by a loud crashing sound, like a sonic boom. I once heard a man clear his throat loudly as if to let me know I wasn’t alone when I was alone in the museum.”
And with Halloween just around the corner, many like to visit the Whaley House Museum in hopes of possibly seeing a ghost or two, he said.
“While October/Halloween is a fun time of year to tour the Whaley House, and we dress the museum in traditional Victorian mourning complete with casket in the parlor and our focus is more on the ghostly legends of the house, the hauntings seem to happen throughout the year, both morning and night. Sometimes these occur when one is alone and other times whole groups have witnessed strange goings-on,” he said.
If you’re wondering why someone would want to visit the famous home/museum, there are a few reasons, he said.
“It has been said that the Whaley House contains more history within its walls than any other building in the city, and I believe that is likely true. So, anyone interested in history or heritage tourism will find the museum a fascinating look at 19th-century San Diego,” he said.
“The museum is furnished with period furnishings and artifacts, many of which belonged to the Whaley family. Also, people who are interested in the paranormal or fans of any of the many television shows that have filmed here will want to see it in person. While no one can guarantee a ghost will materialize at any time, there is always the chance of an encounter. The Whaley House offers both history and mystery to its visitors.”
Fact or fiction
While the story of the Whaley House is a fascinating one, some of the most famous legends surrounding it simply are not true, Glass added.
One of these involves the little Washburn girl who was supposedly killed in the backyard when she ran into a low-hanging clothesline — never happened. Nor was anyone hanged from the pepper trees in the side yard; these trees were planted by the Whaleys long after anyone was hanged on the property, and the hangings occurred on gallows that stood beneath the footprint of the house, Glass said.
“Also, daughter Violet Whaley’s husband George, while far from a perfect gentleman, was not quite the cad he is made out to be and did not abandon Violet on their honeymoon as has been reported,” he said.
For Halloween, Glass said there will be extended nighttime hours the last week of October and will stay open until midnight on Oct. 25, 26 and 31.
“The house will be dressed in Victorian mourning as if someone has died. We also light the house using historic oil lamps to give it an authentic, and extra creepy, atmosphere,” he said.
A private home for decades, the Whaley House opened as a historic house museum in May of 1960 and has been operated by SOHO since 2000. Since then, SOHO has been in the process of restoring the house to its appearance of the focus period of 1868-72, when the general store, courtroom, and theater were present. The restoration is ongoing, and SOHO is currently working on restoring the guest-chamber with period design carpet and wallpaper, according to Glass.
Thomas Whaley and his immediate family might be gone, but there is some family still living.
“Yes, and we are in touch with a few of them,” Glass said. “They do not seem to like the attention of being associated with the Whaley House, so we like to let them have their privacy.
“The Whaleys’ great-great-grandson donated a collection of furniture, artifacts, journals, letters, and photographs of the Whaley family to us several years ago. Many of the furnishings have been returned to the museum; photos, letters, and journals were very helpful in compiling our book ‘The History & Mystery of the Whaley House,’” Glass said.
— Jill Diamond is a Southern California freelance writer with a penchant for interesting historical pieces. Reach her at JillDiamondHistory@gmail.com.