Albert Seeley ran the U.S. Mail stage line from San Diego to Yuma and Los Angeles. In 1868, Seeley bought the Bandini residence in Old Town. When Alonzo Horton heard Seeley wanted to convert it to a hotel, Horton almost begged him to build one in New San Diego instead. He even offered Seeley free land in “Horton’s Addition,” a growing collection of structures and shacks near the bay.
Seeley said no. He preferred Old Town. He added a second story to the Bandini House and named it the Cosmopolitan Hotel. (He also built a stable nearby, now the Seeley Stable Museum.) Word had it he told Horton, “Your mushroom town of New San Diego soon will peter out.”
In the next three years, Old and New San Diego fought a battle in the courts, and nearly in the streets, for the seat of power. Old San Diego had reigned for 100 years, but “Horton’s Addition” had outgrown its older sibling. New San Diegans took a vote. Everyone who cast a ballot demanded that all county records — stored at the Whaley House in Old Town — have a permanent home in New Town. In effect, the city center would make a three-and-a-half mile shift to the south. Old Towners refused to let go.
After months of legal chicanery, the district court granted the change. The fight was so heated that to this day each side has a competing version of the move.
The Official Story
On March 29, 1871, district judge Murray Morrison ordered a “convenient and proper Court Room” in New San Diego, along with space to house “all legal processes and papers” at the building. In effect, Morrison, an ardent Old Towner, abandoned his cause. County judge Thomas “Little Tommy” Bush, another faithful Old Towner, backed the mandate.
“The vexed county seat question has received its quietus at last,” wrote the Union on April 1. The order from the district judge “at once disposes of the matter and, we believe, to the entire satisfaction of the people of the county.”
Elizabeth MacPhail: “Although the move may have been made at night to avoid interference from wrathful bystanders, it was not done illegally.”
According to the official version, on the evening of April 3, 1871, newly elected county clerk Chalmers Scott drove three wagons to the Whaley House, on the outskirts of Old Town. Five or six men politely removed all the documents from the upstairs rooms and carted them to the two-story Express Building at Sixth and G.
Thus the county seat changed without incident.
“The move was not secret, surreptitious, and against a last-ditch stand,” writes Leland Ghent Stanford. It wasn’t the legendary “slapstick variety” portrayed by word of mouth. The “forthright and undramatic” shift had “none of the exaggeration that later became [the] accepted but bogus coin of conversations.”
Those who favor a silent transition claim that had it been otherwise the San Diego Union and Bulletin would have made melodramatic hay of the event. Instead, on April 4, the Union announced that “the County Records were all brought over yesterday and are now safely housed.” The Bulletin followed suit: “a peaceful transition…all the archives of San Diego County passed quietly and honorably from the oldest city in California to its young but lusty neighbor. It was inevitable.”
The Unofficial Legend
There were no firsthand accounts of the move, and even today, pro–Old Towners contend that the official story is bunk. Though Scott had legal sanction, his methods were anything but peaceful. And claiming that things went smoothly means that the city of San Diego was born on a lie.
The move, Old Towners still argue, was actually a raid.
According to the legend (based on word-of-mouth accounts and reenactments), Chalmers Scott wanted to avoid a confrontation. The previous summer, angry Old Towners had borne arms in defense of their county seat. So Scott chose a day when Thomas Whaley would be out of town on business.
Around midnight of April 3, Scott and three others drove two express wagons north. On the rise half a mile from Old Town, they stopped. Scott had his three henchmen wrap the horses’ hooves in gunnysacks and grease the wheels. (“If not properly greased,” Lillian Whaley wrote years later, “the screech made by these wheels could be heard for a long distance.”) The express wagons — a wide flatbed in back, removable wooden slats up the sides — trudged the rutted, two-lane road in near silence.
They passed the rough-hewn wooden cabin of well- and grave-digger Don Ravel Mamudes, and the old jail, its cobblestones like rows of gray teeth with cavities. Just before the road angled left, they tiptoed past El Campo Santo Cemetery, which housed the bones, among others, of Antonio Garra, the Cupeño chief who wanted to rid California of white people (Thomas Whaley was one of Garra’s 12-man firing squad), and of Yankee Jim Robinson, who was hanged, where the Whaley House now stands, for allegedly stealing a boat.
Up ahead, moonlit behind a shield of trees, the two-story brick house. Surrounded by open lots, as if deliberately aloof, the classical structure was almost 300 yards from Old Town plaza. A seven-foot whitewashed adobe wall ringing the property added to the sense of isolation.
When the wagons reached the building, the men abandoned precaution. Scott banged on the northernmost door of the courtroom with the butt of his shotgun.
An oil lamp flared upstairs. Curtains parted in a window. Then the lamp blew out.
Scott banged again.
Fed up, he slammed his shoulder at the door and split it from its hinges. The door reeled like a drunk and crashed onto the wooden floor.
Two men hauled courtroom furniture out to the wagons.
Scott and a man carrying a torch clomped down the hallway, yellow apparitions flickering on faux marble walls. They climbed the stairs.
On the fourteenth step — some accounts say the ninth — stood a horrified Anna Whaley. On the landing above, her five trembling children and their domestic, 16-year-old S. Yow, wiped sleep and acrid smoke from their eyes.
Described by her husband as “gentle and innocent as a lamb,” Anna Whaley had a fragile nature. Accustomed to New England civility, she ran from her first bullfight “and never attended another.” She adapted to Old Town and made many friends among her neighbors, but she was at best a reluctant pioneer.
Scott angled his double-barreled shotgun at her chest. At first, he didn’t announce his intentions — he’d just stormed up the stairs as if trying to punch them out.
Anna Whaley froze. Who was this man twice her size? What was all this banging in her house?
“The records,” Scott shouted. “Where are they?”
At first Anna stood mute. Then she screamed, “Get away! Stay away! Leave us alone.”
In some accounts, Scott knocked her to the floor. In others, fearing he’d shoot her and the children, Anna pointed to the three rooms left of the stairs. “There,” she mumbled. Anna and Yow herded the children into the master bedroom
The invaders began separating court records, rusty-orange with wear and kept in 24 wooden boxes, from family possessions. Toys and stuffed animals flew across the room. Books slammed off the walls. A mirror shattered. Thick-soled boots crunched the shards into smaller fragments as the men carried the boxes down the stairs.
It took three hours to transfer the legal history of San Diego County. Anna Whaley’s fear lasted a lifetime.
On August 12, 1869, Thomas Whaley rented the “big room” and three upstairs bedrooms to the county for $65 per month. The lease for a “temporary” courthouse ran two years. On April 5, 1871, Chalmers Scott wrote to Whaley: Now that the rooms are vacated, “the county will no longer be responsible for the rent.” That day, Judge Morrison conducted the first court session in New San Diego.
Always tight with money, when Whaley returned home and heard the news, he dashed off a bill to the Board of Supervisors “for the rent up to August 12.” When the board didn’t reply, he fired off another, demanding not only back rent but repairs to the building, especially for “all glass broken during the occupancy.”
The board tabled each letter and never paid Whaley a cent.
Less than two weeks after the transfer, a marker proclaimed victory: the “South San Diego” Post Office became the San Diego Post Office.
“New” San Diego had become San Diego.
June Reading: “The controversy signified the end of Old Town dominance of San Diego political affairs; it was no longer the county seat, and its glory had departed.”
But not the controversy, and as the years have passed, the two sides have grown even farther apart.
An Old Town Rebuttal
Contrary to the official story, in which Whaley’s complaints dwindle away, he seethed for years — and may still.
In 1965, the psychic Sybil Leek held a séance at the Whaley House. Among the four ghosts she identified was a 5'10" male with a mustache and sideburns. His long green coat smelled of cigar smoke. He was a “vicious spirit,” said Leek. He would rather “have his revenge on the house” than “go peacefully into the light.
“The man continually worries about…papers taken from the house which are four miles away.”
The man spoke through Leek: “An injustice has been done to me!” He proclaimed he was “still master of the house” and bemoaned removal of the records because the thieves also took some of his personal papers. Among them was a journal so private, Whaley had told a friend, that if someone stole it, he “would not hesitate running that man through with a sword or shooting him.”
June Reading, the no-nonsense curator who shepherded the Whaley House restoration, was at the séance. When the spirit spoke of injustice, she wrote, “Of all of us in the room, only I could have known those words. They appeared in letters [Whaley] had written to the Board of Supervisors in 1871…No one had access to the collection but me, and this material…was safely locked in filing cabinets in the house.”
Thomas Whaley, she added, was fond of cigars.
A New Town Rebuttal
Whaley’s lease included the “big room,” his former granary, along with three upstairs rooms for the county records. These filled 24 wooden boxes. Eight boxes per room, or 24 jammed in one, doesn’t leave much space for the family. According to the census of June, 1870, Whaley occupied the house with wife Anna, five children, and S. Yow.
But according to Robert Wells Haven, in order to make room for the court and documents, at some point in 1869 “Whaley moved his family from Old Town.” Haven doesn’t cite references: he says neither when nor where they moved. But if he’s right, the night the New Town thugs banged on the door, there was no one home. ■
— Jeff Smith
Cleveland, Daniel, “Pioneer San Diegan Tells of Strife in Early Days over New Courthouse,” San Diego Union, February 21, 1926.
Haven, Robert Wells, “Thomas Whaley,” Masters Thesis, SDSU, 1963.
Lamb, John J., San Diego Specters, San Diego, 1999.
MacPhail, Elizabeth C., New San Diego and Alonzo E. Horton, San Diego, 1979.
Reading, June, “Another Perspective of the 1965 Séance,” The Haunted Whaley House II: A History and Paranormal Guide to America’s Most Haunted House in Old Town, San Diego, California, West Hills, 2004; The Thomas Whaley House, San Diego, 1960.
Stanford, Leland Ghent, San Diego’s LL.B. (Legal Lore & the Bar): A History of Law and Justice in San Diego County, San Diego, 1968.
Strudwick, June A., “The Whaley House,” San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, April 1960, vol. 6, number 2.
Whaley, Thomas, personal papers and letters, manuscripts, Whaley House, San Diego.
Articles in the San Diego Union and the San Diego Bulletin.
View Part One of this story.