Have you ever sat under a blanket with a flashlight telling ghost stories? The light under your chin paints your face orange and leaves black hollows for your eyes. The stories all have similar themes. Often, an event triggers the haunting like a sudden, violent or unjust death. More deaths in close proximity only increase the strength of the supernatural. Perhaps the troubled spirits seek revenge or are part of a curse. Or maybe, their sorrow and loneliness can’t be contained entirely in their lifetime.
You can’t forget the protagonist in these stories (or perhaps antagonist if you side with the ghosts). The person whose actions brought about the haunting in the first place. Maybe it was their greed or cruelty. Perhaps they taunted the underworld or they just happened to accidentally created a vortex to the other world. Either way, the choices of these particular individuals have profound effects on the supernatural.
We spent an evening with Calliope from Haunted San Diego Ghost Tours, who took us on a journey through San Diego’s haunted past. We couldn’t say if the places we visited were truly haunted from our personal experience, but they certainly had all the elements of great ghost stories. We were not only entertained, but slept with the lights on that night.
The Whaley House
Our night began and ended in Old Town, the first Spanish settlement on the West Coast and home to arguably on the most haunted house in America – The Whaley House. Thomas Whaley was a successful businessman whose greed might have brought a long, violent string of tragedies. The Whaleys were wealthy, and as such owned the only horse drawn carriage in town. It was this carriage that was used in the botched execution of Yankee Jim Robinson in 1852.
Yankee Jim was a town drunk and a generally tolerated petty thief until he stole a boat from a prominent townsman for a quick fishing trip to Point Loma. He returned the boat intact and proceed to drink himself into a stupor. A kangaroo court was quickly convened and Jim was sentenced to hang.
The sentence was carried out with equal haste and no less that twenty minutes later, Jim was swinging from the end of a rope. Unfortunately, death did not come as quickly. You see, Yankee Jim was an extremely tall man for the times, and the gallows were built to snap the neck of a much shorter individual. To make matters worse, the hasty executioner did not bring the traditional hood. As Jim swung from the gallows he gasped – “I was only fishing” still not believing the intent was more than simply to scare him. The ropes tightened. His eyes bulged. His legs kicked and eventually, after 45 minutes, the life fully drained from his body.
Thomas Whaley, completely unconcerned with the after world, built his mansion on top of those very gallows in 1857. In fact, Yankee Jim was hung right where the music room arch stands. The property was also adjacent to the oldest Catholic Cemetery in California, El Campo Santo. These grounds entomb Yankee Jim and 447 other souls.
Greed and convenience led the rapidly growing city to neglect the sanctity of the dead. In 1889 a horse-drawn streetcar line constructed right through the cemetery. The headstones were moved but the bodies were not. Since then cemetery shrank to a fraction of its original size as the town grew around it. Did these buildings and streets encroach on sacred ground and were the living paying the price?
In 1996, local businesses pooled their resources to make peace with the dead. They conducted an exorcism in the graveyard and surrounding property. They used ultrasound equipment to locate the graves in the roadway (now San Diego Boulevard) and place grave markers. They also erected memorials on the front and back of the cemetery to commemorate the 38 graves they knew of under pavement. These actions appear to have quieted many of the spirits, but they came over a hundred years too late to help the Whaleys.
Thomas Whaley lost his third born and namesake to scarlet fever in 1858. He died in the Whaley house just a year after it was built. Later that year, their store burned to the ground and the family chose to flee north to San Francisco
You know these stories. It doesn’t end there. The elder Whaley had a fantastic plan that would make him even richer. He returned to his cursed home with a load of merchandise he acquired in San Francisco, intending to add to his fortune. All he found was tragedy.
Violet Eloise was the fifth out of six children and always regarded as their sensitive one. Her marriage to George Bertolacci ended on her honeymoon when he left in the middle of the night. The family called him a con artist; seeking to marry Violet only to acquire a substantial dowry. Perhaps, the elder Whaley chose greed again and didn’t extend the dowry he had indeed promised. Either way, Violet was alone and disgraced. Her depression deepened until she found solace with her father’s 32 caliber pistol. She quoted Thomas Hood’s Bridge of Sighs in her suicide note:
Mad from life’s history,
Swift to death’s mystery;
Glad to be hurled,
Anywhere, anywhere, out of this world.
Thomas Waley boasted “My new house, when completed, will be the handsomest, most comfortable and convenient place in town or within 150 miles of here”. Perhaps that arrogance and opulence are what kept the hauntings going. Many deaths and tragedies occurred in the house throughout the years. Thomas Whaley’s granddaughter died in the home; a slow painful death from accidentally eating rat poison. A fair number of Whaleys died of natural causes in their home. However, it’s the story of the Tanner Troupe that I find most peculiar.
The Whaleys, always looking to make a buck, offered to rent out their mansion for a venue for these touring performers. Opening night was a rousing success with 150 guests at standing room only. However, the joy was short-lived. Less that three weeks after opening, Thomas Tanner died and within the year his theater troupe had disbanded. Did their misfortune stem from taking up residence in that cursed abode?
Certainly, the Whaley House has a documented history of tragedy and death. From Yankee Jim to the troubled Violet or the unfortunate Mr Tanner people have claimed to have seen them all at one time or another. Is there any justification for the United States Chamber of Commerce decree that this house is indeed haunted. Perhaps, as the governing body’s name implies, it’s simply a good ghost story or perhaps, it’s something darker and more sinister.
From Old Town our tour moved to the Villa Montezuma, a house literally built to commune with the dead. Jesse Shepard was most certainly a talented musician with a flair for theatrics. He made his mark conducting musical seances across Europe.
In 1887, the first spiritualist society successfully courted Mr. Shepard to San Diego with the promise to build a lavish home & theater. Jesse spared no expense of his benefactor’s money in the construction of the Villa Montezuma to his exact and secret specifications. Night after night, the crowds would gather to watch Shepard’s elaborate performance where he claimed to be channeling the spirits of multiple composers simultaneously as he played the piano or commune with long dead Egyptians and Romans.
Rumblings among skeptics were voicing concerning Mr. Shepard’s authenticity and the story was he fled to escape his critics. That could certainly be but perhaps what drove Jesse Shepard away from performing was that he may have succeeded in opening the gate between this world and the next that he thought was merely an act.
He suddenly retired from musical seances to pursue a career in writing far away from Southern California. Slowly, he dissipated all of his accumulated wealth until, impoverished, he was forced to put on one last show in Los Angeles. Perhaps too close the vortex he opened.
Jesse Shepard was 79 years old and frail from a hard life of want and hunger. Stagehands had to carry him to the piano on stage for his final concert on May 29, 1927. The crowd stood in disbelief that this man could play music at all. Yet, when the lights came on his fingers came to life. Beautiful music flowed and the crowd was delighted. When it was over, Jesse slumped over the silent keyboard. The crowds erupted with applause but there would be no encore. Jesse Shepard had crossed over to the spirit-realm.
The other occupants of the house fared no better. Of the 13 owners of the Villa Montezuma, they all went bankrupt or died in the house. The final owners were the Yeagers. Carl Yeager died in 1958 leaving his grieving widow behind.
For a decade, Mrs. Yeager languished in her empty home. At first, it was odd that she never stopped wearing the black dress from the wake. Then, there were stories of her yelling from the balcony to the people walking by. Asking if they had seen her husband and when will Carl be home. She even went so far as to hold people at gunpoint and demand answers on WHERE IS CARL? The last straw was when she sold the home to a door to door salesman for pennies on the dollar. Her family suddenly appeared and were appalled. They took the salesman to court and sent Mrs. Yeager to a home.
Eventually, the city took ownership of the property but Mrs. Yeager didn’t fair so well. Our guide Calliope said how Mrs Yeager wandered out of the institution and somehow found her way back to the Villa Montezuma at the exact time of a construction project. Silently, she walked unnoticed by the workmen, into the tower where she would watch for Carl. She would not leave that tower alive. Inexplicably, the doors shut behind her and her frail voice could not be heard shouting for help. She wasn’t found for days. Perhaps the gate opened again to take another soul across.
Although there is no mention of haunting on the Villa Montezuma websites, there has been reported sightings of both Mrs. Yeager standing on the balcony in her black dress and the piano music of Jesse Shepard echoing from the empty and deserted building. A good story no doubt and how could you not believe a house with gargoyles rain spouts and dragons on the roof wasn’t haunted.
Trip to Old Stingaree
We boarded the ghost bus and traveled to our next destination, the Gaslamp Quarter. The area is now the crown jewel of San Diego’s tourism crown. In fact, it has always attracted visitors, of a sort, in its dark and seedy past. From the 1880’s to 1916 this was the Stingaree district, an area of ill repute filled with gambling halls, opium dens, and brothels.
Surely there were many violent deaths in the region but this rift to the underworld appears to have been built by a series of unusual coincidences in very recent times. The 1970s saw a period of gentrification and renewal to this neighborhood, from which the modern Gaslamp Quarter was born.
However, the old had to be cleared to make room for the new. Standing in the way of progress was the fabulous Grand Horton Hotel and western styled Brooklyn-Kahle Saddlery Hotel. These hotels were dismantled brick by brick, moved, and reassembled as a conjoined hotel at their current location of Fourth and Island.
The most famous ghost here is undoubtedly Roger Whittaker whom everybody agrees haunts room 309 and the surrounding hallways. The question is how did he come upon this particular room?
The first story is that he was murdered in 1843 and carried out into the swamp to be dumped near the present day location of the hotel. There just weren’t enough people around in San Diego in 1843 and even if there were it doesn’t really make sense to go that far away to dump a body….this story also provides no justification of why room 309 is important.
The second story makes a little more sense. Roger Whittaker was a gambler who was cheating at cards. He was shot in the saloon but crawled to his hotel room to hide in the armoire. His assailants followed the blood trail into his room and finished the job. Still, this story holds some seeds of doubt as, either hotel would probably have been too luxurious for a man of Whittaker’s character so he most certainly wasn’t staying there at the time of his death.
Our guide, Calliope, offered third variation that was fantastic, but plausible. What if the gambling story was mostly true? Whittaker might have been gambling in Wyatt Earp’s Saloon Seven Buckets of Blood, which occupied the corner of Island and Fourth before the hotels were moved. Was it in the Seven Buckets of Blood where Whittaker was gunned down by no less than Wyatt himself?
Much like the previous story, he could have returned to some hotel somewhere and to be shot dead in his armoire. Now, about a century later, his assailant’s room is moved right on top of the spot of his initial shooting. Wala, the vortex is opened, and Whittaker emerges through the armoire in Wyatt Earp’s old room. A fantastic series of coincidences for sure, but each one is plausible and bears no direct refuting from the evidence.
The other ghost in residence is one Mrs. Ida Bailey, madam and curator of the Canary House which sat on the grounds before the Hotel Horton was moved. Ida serviced all kinds of men when they would knock at her door. However, if a woman would come knocking the door wouldn’t open.
The stories say that Ida will knock on room 209, the address of her brothel on Island Street. If a man answers, she will show herself in a crimson red dress. If a woman should answer, there will be nobody there.
The hauntings of the Horton feels somehow less sinister than Villa Montezuma or the Whaley House. Also, the movement of the properties seem to break the ties with the presumed ghosts in question. Still, there is no such thing as a bad Wyatt Earp story.
William Heath Davis House
So far within the stories of the night, we have heard how the space between the living and the dead has could have been bridged by apparent accidental coincidence, by deliberate actions, and by ruthless greed and brash indifference. Is it possible that this crossing can also be made out of love and caring?
Caddy-corner to the Grand Horton Hotel is the William Heath Davis House. This house is the oldest structure in downtown San Diego. It is a prefabricate salt block house that was shipped around the tip of South America and assembled in San Diego at State and Market in 1867. Five years later, it was moved to 227 Eleventh Street and occupied by Mrs Anne Scheper. In 1970, it reached its current location on Island Street during the same renewal project that brought in the Grand Horton and gave birth to Gaslamp as we know it.
The summer of 1872 saw a horrific Tuberculosis epidemic. Hospitals were overrun with the sick and dying. Mrs Scheper had medical training and took patients in at her makeshift hospital at the William Heath Davis House. She had little resources to treat the sick while the lived but she did all she could for them in death. She had the bodies cremated and made every effort to locate the deceased’s family to return their remains.
Calliope told us this story from within the William Heath Davis home. Haunted San Diego Ghost Tours has special permission to allow tours night access to the house. Inside, the air was thick and heavy with a musty smell. The walls weren’t quite square after the house’s long history and many moves. The floors creaked a little too much and all light and sound seemed to be stifled by the stale air.
We listened to our guide speak and tried to imagine the small room we were standing in housing eighteen patients dying of TB. She gathered us closer to tell us the big secret. Mrs. Scheper tried to return the remains of her patients but she didn’t finish the job.
Roughly 200 urns had been stored in the floorboards between the first and second story. They remained unknown and undisturbed until 1984 when electricity was first installed in the house. Calliope pointed to a light and said they were running electricity right above our heads when they made the discovery.
A chill ran through my body. Things got very real. I wouldn’t say I saw a ghost, but I appreciated leaving the house and breathing fresh, clean air again outdoors.
The reported hauntings in the Davis House center around a woman in simple Victorian clothes , much like a nurse would wear. Could this be Mrs. Scheper keeping watch over her charges in the afterlife? Perhaps trying to finish her task of returning their bodies to their families.
Who are you going to call
If you research haunted San Diego you’ll see that our tour covered most of the famous hauntings with the notable exception of the Hotel Del Coronado. That property was just beyond our reach that evening. Still, San Diego Ghost Tours did a fantastic job of scheduling the highlights in a reasonable time and spacing. Our host Calliope was entertaining and delightful.
I wouldn’t recommend commercial tours if you really want to see a ghost to prove / refute the existence of the paranormal. If one could solve those mysteries for the price of a ticket do you think they would still be mysterious at all? However, if you want to hear ghost stories told by energetic and amusing hosts, while you stand in the places where the incidents actually occurred, I would wholeheartedly recommend San Diego Ghost Tours for you.
Disclaimer: Although our experience was complimentary, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own.