While Turnbull Canyon receives all the fame regarding Whittier’s creepy history, the town itself gets ignored. Founded in 1887, Whittier is imprinted with history that spawns over 100 years. Originally a Quaker town, Whittier has had its fair share of creepy stories, including ghost sightings that plague areas of Uptown Whittier, Whittier Boulevard, Founder’s Memorial Park, and other day-to-day areas you may be familiar with. We all know about the murders that took place in Turnbull Canyon, and the horrors at Fred C. Nelles Correctional Facility, but do Whittier natives and inhabitants really know about the gruesome history that plagues our town? From several ghost stories and the former home to a speculated serial killer, some of its history will leave you with a sour taste in your mouth.
I had the privilege of learning about Whittier’s haunted history and mostly-forgotten past in the Haunted Whittier Tours. At $20 every Tuesday night, one gets the opportunity to tour around Whittier’s “most haunted” areas, circling the outskirts of Uptown Whittier and settling in Central Park, where host, Jacob Caputo tells a plethora of ghost stories about several Whittier locations and sights. Jacob Caputo, a Whittier native whose Whittier family history stretches all the way from after WWI, began the tour at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to give people something to do. Jacob surely did not disappoint. Some of the tales told pushed me down a dark rabbit hole of researching Whittier history and parapsychology for weeks.
Jacob acknowledges the cultural diversity in Whittier history that contributed to its identity and its history. “Our history here in Whittier, we weren’t just farmland. There’s a lot of places in Orange County, even LA County…we’ve had Mexican communities here…the Spaniards were here, before then, we had the Tongva…We have all of this history here, and of course, some of it will be left behind.” Jacob also alluded to the importance of realism in ghost stories and the issues with fabricating. When referring to the ghost stories he heard, Jacob explained, “[t]hat’s how you do it. You let it come to you. You don’t make it up, even though it may be tempting.” What is most frightening about ghost stories is their realism, and although there are variations and dramatizations, every story is rooted in fact.
The tour begins at the Modern Shaman, a restaurant on Greenleaf Avenue, right in the heart of Uptown Whittier, carefully lit inside and oddly reminiscent of the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland, where Jacob spent years working. There, Jacob tells his first story– about the Wardman Theater. Established in the 1930s, the theater debuted Vaudeville shows and motion pictures until the 1980s, when it was converted into the Pussycat Theater, an adult cinema house, which premiered exclusively adult films. While the history of the building alone is fascinating, the events that transpired inside are even more enthralling. The building, spawning back to the 1930s is the location of several deaths, including one during its Pussycat days, which included a worker handling the light projector. The man became a victim of a gruesome accident and passed away in the projector room. Since the revival of the Wardman Theater, now called the familiar Whittier Village Cinemas, several female workers report feeling an ice cold touch on their back and shoulders, as if a hand was reaching out to them. So next time you are in the theater, just remember there may be a spector enjoying the film in the seat next to you.
We continued further down Greenleaf Avenue where Uptown Whittier morphs into empty lots. Jacob detailed the multiple sightings that occurred in each area before we settled outside a church on Bright Avenue. This is where Jacob told his most harrowing story yet. The notorious Richard’s Antique Store, a three-story warehouse located on Whittier Boulevard, has been the site of multiple ghostly encounters, mostly concerning its lower level floor. Jacob recalled receiving a phone call all the way from New York, where a man described being inside the store as one of the most traumatizing experiences of his life. Loitering around the abandoned basement on skateboard, before the area was converted into an antique shop, the then-teenager locked eyes with an unfamiliar woman. The warehouse, once a citrus packing facility, employed young post-industrial women who packaged fruit for distribution. Apparently, the basement has been the site of several chilling accidents, including that of a man who was unfortunately killed by a falling crate and then, a rumored electrocution by a faulty elevator. The boy, while wandering the abandoned area, saw a woman nearing him and his friends. Her eyes, he described, were wide, and looked directly upon them. She was dressed in all white, victorian-looking attire, according to the man, and walked in a float-like manner. But, what was most strange, was the blue haze surrounding her like a sickly halo with her jaw locked in place, as if being forced shut. When explaining the encounter with Jacob, he put two and two together. The locking of the jaw and the blue haze could be the result of the woman being electrocuted. And that, exactly is what was rumored to happen in the citrus packing facility. Whether you believe that spirits reappear as themselves in times of death, this image is certainly shocking. The man’s voice, Jacob recalls, was quivering with fearful sincerity as he sounded haunted by the image even to this day.
While closing in on Central Park, Jacob went into details about an alleged serial killer, right here in Whittier, accused of brutally taking the lives of his wife and children. George Hassler, a veteran returning home from World War II, committed this grisly act, which included people finding the remains of his family underneath the floorboards of the house. What is now a small strip mall on Whittier Boulevard, quite aways across from East Whittier Middle School was Hassler’s home, stripped away to make room for shops and an apartment complex. Members found remains of the deranged man’s wife and kids, after he fled to Texas, where a similar crime occurred. As a naval officer, Hassler supposedly travelled from port to port terrorizing unsuspecting victims before settling in Whittier with his wife and kids at the start of the 1950s and 1960s.
Jacob also told numerous stories about Founder’s Memorial Park, formerly known as Mount Olive Cemetery and a former contender to Rose Hills. With the cemetery being eviscerated in favor of a park, family members were given the option to transfer loved ones’ graves to Rose Hills. However, given this cemetery reaches back to Whittier’s founding in 1898, many of the graves were over 50 years old, with relatives leaving the city or forgetting their loved ones.
To this day, the park’s ground remains uneven as a result of the forgotten graves. A memorial plaque commemorates the park’s history, with trees in dedication to deceased family members. The park, in Jacob’s tours, is mentioned frequently by his guests who recall seeing spirits roaming the park alone during all hours of the day. I decided to see this myself, hoping to spot any ghostly encounters. During my walk, I was unable to spot anything unusual or experience strange sensations, but I did note the history that remains prevalent to the park. Right beneath the park name on the plaque are the words, “Mt. Olive Cemetery,” keeping the park’s chilling past alive in its name.
The last connection to haunting history is at Whittier College itself. While it remains known that Whittier is haunted, either by students who are disturbed by the old buildings, or hearing of the hauntings themselves, many are unaware of Whittier’s history. An infirmary and training camp for soldiers during World War II, Whittier College is bound to be haunted by specters. Past articles allude to experiences in dormitory halls, including Wanberg and Harris. And, most notoriously, Wardman Gym. The official Whittier College YouTube account posted a video in 2012, exploring the gym and its paranormal encounters, which you can check out here. I had a conversation with Jacob, who even stated that Whittier acted as a former infirmary for Spanish Flu victims at the height of World War I.
Whether or not Whittier is haunted, it is important to consider these illustrious “specters” as real people as you and I who died in tragic ways. Going forth this Halloween and in dual celebration with Dia de Los Muertos, it is always crucial to respect the dead and their legacies. After all, you never know who will turn up from the afterlife to haunt you back.
Image Courtesy of City of Whittier