Overwhelmingly praised as the first of its kind and finest home in Southern California, the Whaley House was a central pillar amongst the Old Town community. Besides being the Whaley family home, it was also San Diego’s first commercial theater, the county courthouse, and a general store. The legendary Whaley House is widely regarded as one of the most iconic landmarks in San Diego. From its rich Greek Revival architecture style and authentic decor to its mysterious and chilling past, it’s no wonder why this home attracts visitors from all over the world. Spend the day exploring the family home of Thomas Whaley as you’re transported back to life in the 1800s. Grab a memorable souvenir at the Verna House, located directly behind the Whaley House, and stick around for a delicious meal at the New Orleans Creole Cafe. See what makes the famed Whaley House an absolute can’t miss San Diego experience!
Some of what you’ll see and learn when you visit the Whaley House.
On May 6, 1856, Thomas Whaley began construction on his new home and proclaimed “My new house, when completed, will be the handsomest, most comfortable and convenient place in town or within 150 miles of here.” The two-story Greek Revival house was designed by Thomas Whaley and made from bricks created in Whaley’s very own brickyard on Conde Street. The house was the first of its kind, costing more than $10,000 upon completion. Furnished with mahogany and rosewood furniture, Brussels carpets, and damask drapes, the Whaley House was overwhelmingly praised as the first of its kind and finest home in Southern California.
From 1869 through 1871, the Whaley House became the gathering place for the entire San Diego community. Besides being the Whaley family home, it was also San Diego’s first commercial theater, the county courthouse, and a general store. The home became such an integral part of the community that it was later the focal point in a battle between Old Town residents and New Town residents. The San Diego County government had been renting a portion of Whaley House for its offices and records. Whaley offered several times to sell the house to the county, but the offer was ignored. New Towners demanded that the county offices and records be moved to New Town. Despite threats of armed resistance from the Old Towners, the records were moved on March 31, 1871, effectively shifting the focus of the city to New Town.
Although the Whaley House was a communal treasure, it primarily served as the residential home for Thomas Whaley and his family. Unfortunately, tragedy continued to strike the Whaley family while they lived in the home leading to an increase in reported paranormal activity. In fact, the Whaley family told the San Diego Union shortly after moving in that they heard heavy footsteps in the house, which they believed to be the ghost of James “Yankee Jim” Robinson, who had earlier been hanged on the property for stealing a boat. One such event, the violent suicide of Violet, one of the Whaley daughters, caused Thomas to build a new home in downtown San Diego and move his family.
In 1890, Thomas Whaley passed away in the new home on State Street, never to return to the original Whaley estate. Abandoned for close to 20 years, the Whaley House was neglected and in poor condition until Francis Whaley, their eldest son, decided to go back in 1909. After moving in, Francis began restoring the property and entertaining tourists by playing his guitar and telling stories about the house’s background. In the years that followed, most members of the Whaley family returned to live and eventually die in the brick house, including Francis who passed away one year after his mother Anna, in 1913.
The Pioneer Family of San Diego
Thomas Whaley arrived in California around 1849, during the famous California Gold Rush. Upon arrival, he set up a store with George Wardle on Montgomery Street in San Francisco. It was there where he sold hardware and woodwork from his family’s New York business, Pye & Whaley, as well as offering mining equipment and utensils on consignment. Born on October 5, 1823, the young entrepreneur came from a Scots-Irish family, which immigrated to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1722. Alexander Whaley, his great-grandfather, was a gunsmith and participated in the Boston Tea Party. It was during the Revolutionary War where he provided flintlock muskets for soldiers and the use of his house on Long Island by General George Washington. Thomas’ father, Thomas 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 entrepreneurial spirit and sharp business acumen, acquired in part from his education at the Washington Institute, helped him flourish in San Francisco. Thomas Whaley capitalized on his success by establishing his own store on Montgomery Street. After an arson-set fire destroyed his buildings on Montgomery Street in May 1851, he relocated to Old Town San Diego upon the advice of Lewis Franklin, a merchant who operated stores in San Francisco and Old Town. Whaley set up various businesses with Franklin, Ephraim Morse, Francis Hinton, and even his brother, Henry, 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.
Shortly after marriage in 1855, Thomas and Anna returned to San Diego. It was then that Thomas Whaley purchased the land and set forth on his journey to build the finest home in California. By 1858, Thomas and Anna Whaley had produced three children: Francis Hinton (named for a business partner), Thomas (who died at just 18 months), and Anna Amelia. Later in life, the Whaleys welcomed three more children: George Hays Ringgold (named for a business partner), Violet Eloise, and Corinne Lillian.
When most folks think of San Diego, they picture the undeniable gorgeous beaches, the breezy beautiful weather and the vibrant cultural and artistic attractions. But for those who have an affinity for the paranormal, San Diego’s famed Whaley House is widely regarded as the most haunted house in America, with its rich and dark past, spine-tingling cases of spiritual encounters and inexplicable events.
Although the Whaley family’s unfortunate past plays a key role in the Whaley House’s chilling history, many believed the home was destined to be haunted before construction even began. The property was infamous amongst the community as the site where local thief Yankee Jim Robinson was publicly executed. Thomas Whaley was nevertheless unfazed by the location’s grim history and continued to build his dream home. The eerie legacy of the Whaley House continued to grow as the family was struck with tragic deaths, as well as paranormal and spiritual encounters that many still discover today.
Learn more about the incredible, hair-raising history of The Most Haunted House in America here.