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Haunting San Diego

For those who want to experience a true fright night this Halloween, San Diego—California’s oldest city—has lots of haunted places with “spirited” activity.


Whaley House, at 2476 San Diego Ave in Old Town, is San Diego's most famous haunt by far, as it is one of two nationally recognized haunted houses. Now a museum with ghostly tours, the Whaley house was built in 1856 by New Yorker Thomas Whaley and is reportedly occupied by at least four, maybe five, active ghosts, University of San Diego historian and professor Iris Engstrand, snapped here with her granddaughter Madison Morgan at a Chargers game, tells Bisnow.

Iris interviewed the museum’s docent for her book, San Diego: California’s Cornerstone, and identified the spirits that appear to exist here. Whaley in 1869 remodeled the home’s north room, which was originally a granary, to serve as the county courthouse at his own expense. Two years later, promoters of Alonso Horton’s New Town forcibly removed the courthouse and its records to Sixth and G streets without compensating Whaley his costs or loss of rent. He supposedly still walks about Whaley House muttering to himself about the unfairness of it all.


Whaley’s wife, Anna De Lannay Whaley, who died in 1913, has remained at her husband’s side and likes sitting in the kitchen. She reportedly ran her fingers through a guest’s hair on at least one occasion. The Whaley’s 18-month-old son Thomas Jr., who died in 1858, has remained with his parents. The Whaley’s youngest daughter, Corinne Lillian (Lilly), lived at Whaley House (above) and took in other children, including one of the more frequently seen ghosts, a small, red-haired girl who has told some visitors there are four other ghosts in the house, including a baby boy.

Another famous Whaley House ghost is Yankee Jim Robinson, who was hanged on the premises in 1852 for stealing a boat—quite a harsh penalty for the crime, says Iris. He was injured during his capture and remained unconscious during most of his trial. Robinson made his presence known in the 1960s when a theater group put on a play at Whaley House based on his execution, called The Ballad of Yankee Jim.


While Iris doesn’t actually believe in ghosts, she doesn’t discount the possibility of their existence either. She says if ghosts exist, the most likely place to find them in San Diego is on the Star of India. This British vessel has a long, mysterious and rather dark history, beginning with its maiden voyage, when the crew was forced to saw off the ship’s masts during a gale.

Originally named the Euterpe, the Star of India (above) is a full-rigged iron windjammer built on the English Isle of Man and put into service in 1863 carrying cargo, passengers and immigrants between the UK, India and New Zealand until 1906, when she was sold to the US. The ship served as a salmon hauler between Alaska and California until 1926, when she was retired. The oldest iron-hulled merchant ship still afloat, the Star of India was restored and is moored at the San Diego Maritime Museum, 1492 North Harbor Drive.

The ship’s first captain died on the second voyage and was buried at sea. Another of the ship’s captains slit his own throat while in a drunken fit, was sewn up by the ship’s physician, but ripped his stitches out and bled to death in the First Mate’s Cabin. This cabin reportedly has a dark presence, and passengers reported being awakened by someone touching them or pulling the covers off.

In 1886, a young stowaway fell 100 feet from the rigging and died three days later. Shortly thereafter, passengers and crew began reporting that the boy’s ghost drew an “S” shape on their backs when they neared the spot where he fell. This is how the game of tag was played at that time. They also reported cold spots and hearing the boy giggling.

Other ghostly encounters have been reported on the lower deck, where many passengers and crew died from accidents and disease over the ship's long history. Some visitors to the Star of India report the smell of freshly baked bread coming from the galley.


Next on our most haunted list is the Hotel del Coronado (above) at 1500 Orange Ave in Coronado, which opened in 1888. Kate Morgan, who checked into the hotel under a false name in 1892, supposedly has haunted the hotel since she was found dead five days later from a gunshot wound to the head. Called the “beautiful stranger” by newspapers because her true identity was unknown for several weeks, Kate’s death was officially ruled suicide, but some believed there was foul play, as a homicide report stated the bullet didn’t match her gun.

Born Kate Farmer, she was married to Thomas Edwin Morgan, a mail carrier in Nebraska, but ran away with Albert Allen, her husband’s stepbrother, and ended up in Los Angeles working as a housemaid.

Following her death, guests reported lights flashing on and off, moving books, and linens being pulled back throughout the hotel. The most active paranormal activity is in Room 3312, where Kate died, and the hotel gift shop.


Iris says the Horton Grand Hotel at 311 Island Ave in Downtown's Gas Lamp Quarter, has a resident ghost. Shortly after the hotel was restored and reopened in 1986, a psychic detected the ghost of Roger Whitaker, a gambler who had been gunned down, stuffed into an armoire in Room 309, and left to die.

Since then hotel guests have reported lights turning on and off, the sounds of a poker game, cold spots and playing cards appearing out of nowhere.


Villa Montezuma, now a museum at 1925 K St, is also famous for paranormal activity. There are varying views on what’s haunting this beautiful Queen Anne Victorian mansion, which was built in 1887 by opera singer, musician, composer and author Jesse Shepard, who was also a spiritualist. Shepard was known for holding musical séances in a special room in the heart of the house, calling upon the spirits of Mozart and Chopin to help him play the piano. His activities didn’t go over well in San Diego society, so Shepard moved back to Europe.

Some believe this house its haunted by ghosts, possibly one of Shepard’s servants who, stricken by grief, had committed suicide there. Others say it has a build-up of spiritual activity accumulated from the many séances held within. The locals just call it The Spook House. There reportedly is a strong presence felt by visitors in a room where Shepard called up his musical spirits.

Many think he has returned to the place he loved most in life and communed with the masters, as visitors report hearing piano music coming from the locked séance room.


Pioneer Park, at 1521 Washington Place in Mission Hills, is a tranquil urban park filled with happy, shrieking children by day, but at night the specters of Calvary soldiers buried there reportedly come out. Nighttime park strollers report seeing ghostly lights or orbs floating around.

In 1870, the 10 acres comprising this park were set aside for a Calvary Cemetery and 1,650 soldiers were buried there. The cemetery fell into disrepair over time, so the land was donated to the city in 1968. Trees were planted, playground equipment installed and an elementary school was built next door. Tombstones that were illegible were recycled, some were moved to Mount Hope Cemetery and others were placed in a memorial in the corner of the park, but the graves were never disturbed.


Investigated by San Diego Ghost Hunters, the USS Midway at 910 North Harbor Drive is a decommissioned US Naval aircraft carrier that was the largest tonnage ship in the world until 1955, but now is a floating museum. Commissioned one week after WWII ended, she served an unprecedented 47 years, saw action in the Vietnam theater, and was the flagship in the 1991 Operation Desert Storm.

Besides her historic and patriotic importance, the USS Midway has quietly gained a reputation for paranormal activity. Though museum guides have kept the details of hauntings quiet, more than 30 spirits have been recorded over the last five years, and it was listed as one of four haunted ships and discussed at the 2012 Maritime Ghost Conference in San Diego.


Iris also tells us there are reportedly two ghosts haunting Founder’s Hall (above) at USD. One is an unidentified nun. The other spirit has been identified as Ann Catherine Swankey, a student and daughter of a USD professor, who was murdered by a serial killer on Nov. 20, 1984, when her car broke down on I-8.