Public opinion of Yankee Jim would go from bad to worse when he attempted to steal the 30-ton pilot boat Plutus docked in San Diego Bay. Pursued by vigilantes Yankee Jim escaped by jumping into a rowboat where he eventually went across the bay and landed in Point Loma. He was captured several hours later when he stopped at a ranch asking for food and water. The rancher became suspicious when he remembered hearing of the townspeople looking for a tall stranger in a red shirt.
Realizing Yankee Jim was the wanted man, the rancher grabbed a sword. At the same time Yankee Jim bolted with the rancher and his wife in hot pursuit. The chase ended when the rancher smashed the rusty sword over Yankee Jim’s head. The rancher then lashed the battered man to a mule and walked him back to town.
Within days of being captured, the county, who had authority of the bay, placed Yankee Jim and his two friends on trial. At first Yankee Jim thought the whole thing was a skit designed to scare him. The jury was made up of some of the men who originally chased him and Judge Benjamin Hayes was drunk during much of the trial.
The trial began with prosecutor James W. Robinson (no relation) telling the jury that Yankee Jim came to town to steal San Diego’s only ship to commit piracy on the high seas. The proceedings were so amusing to Yankee Jim he had to be told several times to stop laughing. In the end, he found it was no joke. After a short deliberation, the jury reached a verdict and recommended death. Judge Hayes agreed and Yankee Jim was sentenced to die at the end of a rope the next day.
While Yankee Jim’s sentence may seem harsh and swift for modern day standards, for some jury members the hanging couldn’t come soon enough. They wanted to take him outside and lynch him right after the trial. Cooler heads prevailed and the law that required a jury to wait 24 hours before a hanging was followed. Without a jail to house Yankee Jim he was shackled to a tree to await his sentence.
The hanging took place on August 18th on the site of what is now the Whaley House. As soon as Yankee Jim saw the rope he knew the last 24 hours of his life had been very real. Death came slowly for the Canadian as the scaffolding was not high enough for his 6 foot 3 inch frame and he spent half an hour strangling on the rope.
The execution of Yankee Jim should have brought closure to one of the most sensational cases of 1852 but it was only the beginning. Shortly after his hanging some citizens reported seeing his ghost in the area of the gallows.
After the Whaley house was built in 1857 spirit sightings continued, mainly in the room and staircase directly over where the gallows once stood. Some encounters consisted of hearing noises in the upstairs but some people reported actually seeing Yankee Jim. In 1860 Thomas Whaley wrote in his journal he often heard footsteps upstairs and thought they belonged to the condemned Canadian.
For more than a century and a half many visitors to the Whaley House have reported feeling a choking sensation when they walk over the spot Yankee Jim was hung.
In 1964 television personality Regis Philbin and a companion tried to spend the night in the house. Around 2:30 a.m. they saw someone, or something, walk from the study into the music room. When they shined a flashlight on the mysterious guest it vanished into thin air. The men fled and the haunted house reputation exploded.
Several years after Philbin’s encounter, a college class was reenacting the trial of Yankee Jim in the Whaley House courtroom. When several members of the mock jury reported seeing Yankee Jim’s ghost, the class fled in terror.
Today the Whaley House is reported to be home of many spirits including the Whaley family and stands as one of two officially registered haunted houses in California. With hundreds of sightings of spirits, aberrations and specters, some paranormal experts call it the most haunted house in America.
Ghosts in Old Town
Yankee Jim Robinson arrived in San Diego in the summer of 1852. It’s not known for sure where he picked up the name “Yankee” although it’s likely the tall blonde Canadian was a former sailor who came to California in 1842 after serving in the Navy. Historians differ on whether Yankee Jim picked up the name there or while prospecting for gold in Northern California.
Why Yankee Jim came to San Diego is also a source of debate. There are those who insist he was a good-natured man who came to town with two friends seeking a place to live. There are others who speculate the men came as part of a crime spree that was supposed to lead them to a retirement in Mexico.
The men quickly discovered their stay was not going to be a happy one. They arrived just as the city was struggling with the bankruptcy. The ensuing crime and economic tensions had pushed tempers to an all time high and outsiders were being blamed for every problem in town.