The old west is ripe with tales of lawless criminals, many of which were brought to justice. Cue ghost stories, where vengeance and justice is often just the beginning of the tale. Yankee Jim, also known as James “Yankee Jim” Robinson, was a notorious criminal in the early days of San Diego, California, in the mid-1800s. And his story is one of many such tales. He was known for his violent and lawless behavior; he was eventually sentenced to death for stealing a boat.

Born in New York in 1810, Yankee Jim moved westward and eventually settled in California in the 1840s.

Yankee Jim was known for his criminal activities, which included horse theft and robbery. He was arrested and imprisoned multiple times, but he was always able to escape or be released due to technicalities in the law. In 1851, he was finally caught and convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to be hanged.

The Yankee Jim Hanging

According to legend, Yankee Jim’s execution was a spectacle that drew a large crowd of spectators. The hanging took place on a hill overlooking San Diego, and Robinson was forced to climb a steep hill to reach the gallows.

He reportedly made a last-minute confession, but it did not save him from his fate. He was hanged on September 18th, 1852.

According to the news article at the time:

The rope was adjusted around Yankee Jim’s neck and he delivered his farewell speech to the large crowd that had gathered to witness the execution. He told them he had been a good man and given piles of gold to help poor men… [Sherriff Crosthewaite] finally ordered Fisher to drive on, and the old man applied his whip freely to the mules. Yankee Jim kept his feet in the wagon as long as possible, but was finally pulled off. He swung back and forth like a pendulum, until he strangled to death. And thus ended the career of the dreaded desperado, Yankee Jim.

It was said that his ghost haunted the area, causing mischief and mayhem for years to come.

His Ghost

In fact, the legend of Yankee Jim’s ghost became so well-known that it was incorporated into the city’s history and folklore. It was said that his ghost could be seen wandering San Diego, and that he would appear to anyone who dared to venture too close to the spot where he was hanged.

After the Whaley house was built on the site in 1857, spirit sightings became common. They were often seen in the room and the staircase over where the gallows once stood. Some ghostly encounters consisted of hearing noises in the upstairs, while some people reported actually seeing Yankee Jim himself. In 1860 Thomas Whaley wrote in his journal he often heard footsteps upstairs and thought they belonged to Yankee Jim.

yankee jim grave

Over time, the story of Yankee Jim became a popular tale in San Diego, and it has been retold many times in books, movies, and other media. The hauntings of Whaley House was turned into a 2012 horror movie. Today, Yankee Jim’s ghost is still said to haunt the area, and many people believe that the legend of Yankee Jim will continue to live on for generations to come.


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Last Updated on July 28, 2023.

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  1. I grew up in San Diego, where the Whaley House is located in Old Town. That is where I grew up hearing stories about Yankee Jim, his trial, and long drawn out hanging for stealing a boat. Of course there were the ghost stories as well… I live in the Bay Area now. I haven’t met anyone who knows the story of Yankee Jim.

  2. Ummmm, is this the same story, of the same Yankee Jim who was hung, as told, but in San Diego…not San Francisco?

    1. Has been corrected. Thanks. Meant Diego but typed Francisco.

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