Setting: Old Town San Diego. June 1987.
It was a sweltering day in San Diego, and it was June. Elizabeth searched on the kitchen counter for the car keys as she nodded her head toward the front door. “I have an idea,” she said to Cathy, who had flown down for Elizabeth’s graduation tomorrow. “Let’s go to the Whaley House.”
It was already 4:00 in the afternoon, but if they hurried, they could get to Old Town in time to go in for at least a little while. The Whaley House closed at 5:00 during the week.
As they hopped into the Buick and Elizabeth steered them toward the freeway, they rolled down the windows and let the hot air blow in. Elizabeth thought. She was morbidly fascinated with the Whaley House, ever since she was a little girl. After an anxious-laden wait in line at the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland when she was six years old, followed by a thrilling and exhilarating ride, Elizabeth’s dad told her that there was a real haunted house in San Diego. He took her there a few weeks later.
The Whaley House, the first brick building in southern California, was built by Thomas Whaley in 1857 on an older site of where San Diego took criminals and hung them to die. After they went up the steps and crossed the wide, front porch, Dad took her inside and pointed out the spot, more or less, where the hangings took place – in the arch between the front parlor and the next room over. He told Liz that not long after Thomas Whaley built the house and the family moved in, they began to hear heavy footsteps pacing around the house. Mr. Whaley figured that the phantom footsteps were made by the ghost of a larger man, who had been known as “Yankee Jim” Robinson. Mr. Whaley had been at the execution, and so he had seen how big Yankee Jim was. The footsteps sounded like they would have been made by Yankee Jim. So the house had been haunted right from the get-go.
Mr. Whaley had built a courthouse off of the north side of the house, which seemed odd and creepy in a way. Elizabeth wondered how many people had been found guilty there.
Years later, one of the Whaley daughters, Violet, had commited suicide after a heartbreaking divorce, at the young age of 22. Eventually, as every member of the Whaley family faded away, stories began to emerge of their spirits returning to the house in Old Town. It was known to be a haunted house.
From that point, Elizabeth was hooked to the idea that ghosts could really haunt houses.
Just a week prior to Cathy’s arrival, Elizabeth had gone with her date Chip to senior prom at the U.S. Grant Hotel, but they had skipped out early and instead when exploring around the Whaley House at night. They walked through the darkness of the garden and peered into the windows and spooked themselves, but nothing paranormal happened.
As Elizabeth drove west along State Route 94, she smiled at Cathy but thought sadly that this might be her last chance to see the house for some time. Liz’s family was moving away, and she was filled with regret to be leaving southern California. It would be good to see the Whaley House one last time. Maybe this time, something spooky would happen.
They arrived twenty minutes to closing and were surprised to find that, apart from the docent, June Reading, there were no other people visiting.
June welcomed them, and, knowing Liz by face, as she had explored the house often, June let the two girls wander at their leisure after sharing some of the history with Cathy. The girls wandered into the courthouse off to the north side of the house, then made their way through each of the rooms downstairs in utter quietude, separated from the rooms by small wooden gates and glass so that none of the antiques would be disturbed.
Toward the back of the house, Liz looked up the steep stairway to the second floor. This particular staircase had always bothered her, somehow. She didn’t know why. Nevertheless, she loved looking at the bedrooms upstairs. They were so personal and old-fashioned.
She started up the stairway. About half way up, she felt vaguely as if someone had reached into her and started squeezing her stomach. She thought to herself that she had better stay in shape and then let the thought go as she finished climbing them and turned left onto the second story landing. She gazed into the back bedroom on the right-hand side of the house. She could hear Cathy mounting the stairs behind from below. About half way up, Cathy slowed her pace. As she reached the top, she went to the right side of the landing.
They each looked at rooms on opposite sides of the staircase, giving each other space to wander. Elizabeth couldn’t shake the squeezing sensation in her stomach. As she moved from room to room, she felt a growing sense of unease…of feeling unwelcome. The feeling began to build, as if in a pressure cooker. She looked at her wrist watch. It was five minutes until five o’clock. She breathed in. Tick-tick-tick…You’re in my space…The words didn’t come from inside her own head, but she didn’t hear them with her ears, either…Tick-tick-tick…I don’t want you here! …Where was the voice coming from?…Tick-tick-tick…Leave!!!
That was enough. Elizabeth found herself scurrying to the stairs, and as she did, she noticed Cathy made a beeline for the stairs and got there before her. They pounded downward, Elizabeth barely managing not to fall on top of Cathy. As they descended, Elizabeth heard furious steps following behind her.
They reached the bottom and burst into a flurry of “Did you feel it, too?” “What was that?!” when they bumped into June, the docent, who had come right around the corner.
“Was it foot steps coming down the stairs?” June asked.
June smiled, frowned for a second, looked at her watch, and murmured, “Oh. They’re a little early. They usually happen at about five minutes after five!”
Elizabeth and Cathy stared at each other, their eyes wide with fright.
Elizabeth gulped. “I felt like my stomach was being squeezed.”
Cathy inhaled audibly. “So did I! Strange!”
June again smiled, and told them, “There’s the ghost of their dog. Sometimes you can hear it running down the stairs in the early evening. But if you feel like you shouldn’t be up there, let me tell you. Once, when Thomas Whaley was away for a time, someone from the city forced his way upstairs for some papers that the city needed. Mrs. Whaley met them part way down the stairs. She was very distraught at this intrusion, and I think she never felt that good about the city afterwards. I think sometimes she still gets upset when strangers come upstairs into her personal space.”
Elizabeth and Cathy said goodbye, left the brick house, and walked up the hill to the car. Neither of them spoke. They got in the car and drove back in silence to Elizabeth’s house, where everyone was happy and welcoming, and it would be warm enough to melt the spooky feeling away.
They left Old Town feeling haunted. They left with certainty that ghosts made their home in a house in Old Town San Diego…and the living were unwelcome.
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