May 5, 2011
FoF: Whaley House
For once, I beat the FoF team somewhere. Last year (mid-2010), I was down in San Diego with my wife. While she attended a conference, I searched the net for local haunted spots and found Whaley House, supposedly the only haunted house certified by the US Government! I packed my gear into the car and drove on over.
In 1852, "Yankee Jim" Robinson was hanged for grand theft riverboat. Attending the hanging was wealthy merchant Thomas Whaley, who later realized that he could buy the site of the hanging cheap. After all, who else would want it? There were consequences, though. According to the Whaley House's web site, Whaley was haunted the rest of his life by the sound of heavy boots tromping around his home, and believed he was being tormented by the late Yankee Jim. (Ignore the stock gallows photo on the show. They improvised a gallows for Yankee Jim out of some wooden beams, a mule, and a cart.)
As a historical site, Whaley House is worth a visit. The house was originally built as a granary, since its brick construction was supposed to prevent rats from entering and eating the grain. The bricks proved to be only a minor inconvenience to the rats, however. Whaley converted the downstairs area to a general store. The lower level at one point served as the local courthouse, and a room upstairs served as the town stage. During Whaley's lifetime, it served as his residence and as the center of town.
The actual paranormal claims made for the house are a mixed bag. For the most officially haunted house in America, they're pretty mild stuff. Once, a small girl waved to a man no one else could see in the parlor. Various psychics and parapsychologists have made unsubstantiated and unfalsifiable claims over the years. The house was even investigated by the incredible ghost-hunting duo of Regis Philbin and Hans Holzer. (This is a concept so bizarre that I can barely believe I just typed it.) Poking around in the dark, Philbin claimed to have seen something filmy and white on the wall. Unable to restrain himself, he turned his flashlight on, only to find himself looking at a portrait of Anna Whaley. Holzer then chided Philbin for turning the flashlight on and making the ghost disappear!
I found no ghosts of my own in my visit, but did hear some stories from two docents in period dresses. One had heard mysterious footsteps in the house. The other had just gotten up from a chair– the very one she was sitting in while telling the story!– and had started to walk away from it, when she heard it move. A co-worker, who was facing her direction, told her excitedly that the chair had slid of its own accord. I asked them about Thomas Whaley's reports of being haunted, which are supposedly from his diary. Apparently the diary is in the possession of SOHO, the historical society in charge of Whaley House, and viewing it is only available by permission. The docents appeared slightly weirded out by my insistent questions, so I stopped pestering.
When the FoF crew visited, they seemed a lot more impressed– at least at first. What brought them to the site were some still photos that they couldn't explain. When I visited, there was a binder of similar photos sitting on a table in the courtroom. These guys had picked the cream of the crop. Watching FoF ooh and ahh over these photos made my teeth grind, which I'm sure my dentist will complain about. I do understand that these cases are selected entirely based on whether they think they'll be able to get good video footage, not on whether the producers/investigators actually buy what they're selling. Still, guys, I'm sitting here watching. The least you could do is pretend to investigate.
The photos that FoF found so compelling were one misshapen light blotch on a wall, one supposed face in a flash pattern on a window, and one ghostly image of a dress. At least they debunked the ghostly dress image fairly. Once they got down there, it was obviously a reflection on the plexiglass that covers all the rooms. They also did some neat work recreating the light blotch on the wall. At first glance, it looks like a photo processing defect, but it is reflected in the glass of a picture hanging on the wall, so we can be pretty sure that the light was in the room at the time. The FoF team brought in a powerful light and moved it around until they got a blob similar to the one on the wall, indicating that it was probably a refraction caused by the lamp on the table. A more interesting approach, though, would be to find out the hour and time of day that the original photo was taken (if possible) and position the light outside to approximate the sun's position in the sky.
It seemed completely obvious to me that the mysterious man with a moustache was a simulacrum– a facelike image created by the flash reflecting from the old, rippled glass in the window. (Actually, without their helpful superimposition of Thomas Whaley's face on the glass, I couldn't see it at all) Reproducing it would be difficult, but a necessary step would be to recreate that precise flash pattern! Instead, they put a moustache on Austin and tried to get his reflection in the window. Sure enough, the flash washed him out. Putting him inside the house made just as little sense, since of course his face would be visible. Yes, once again I realize that this is a photo-op, not a real investigation. How about looking at the irregularities in the glass and seeing if they match up with the features of the "face", for example?
At the time, they claimed that this was enough to justify a "night investigation" of the site. Of course, this means throwing all credibility out the window and running around collecting EVPs. Sure enough, when Bill asks an invisible Yankee Jim if he learned anything from his experience of… being hanged, I guess… he gets a paranormal double-thump sound on the tape. He knows it's paranormal because he doesn't remember hearing it at the time! Bill triumphantly states that that must be the sound of the gavel which Big Jim heard when he was pronounced guilty. Naturally, there's nothing about this noise that actually makes it paranormal. It could be anything from creaking boards to a stumbling sound guy.
Back at headquarters, the FoF team considered that although they could explain all of the photos they'd chosen, the mysterious bangs and the thousands of other ghost photographs taken at Whaley House must mean that the place is haunted. If the photos that I saw at Whaley House are any indication, then this is a vast collection of nothing. As for the government certification, Whaley House is indeed certified as an actual haunted house attraction by the Department of Commerce, which means that you can have the paranormal experience there of buying a ticket. Whether the organizers believe that the place is haunted or not, they know with certainty that claiming it brings in the tourists by the busload. There is a nice gift shop.
There is one unanswered question, though. Did Thomas Whaley actually believe that his house was haunted? Did he write about it in his journal, as the docents claimed? Only SOHO knows. I'll try asking them nicely. I will not hold my breath.
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