Ghastly by Gaslight: The Winchester “Mystery House”

With the release of the new movie Winchester, there’s been quite a bit of renewed interest in the Winchester Mystery House. (See trailer below) This immense puzzle of a Queen Anne Victorian style mansion can be found at 525 S. Winchester Blvd., San Jose, CA 95128. Legend has it that its troubled owner continued construction on the house for thirty eight years in order to appease the spirits of those killed by the family business.

A Troubled Widow

Sara Winchester was born Sarah Lockwood Pardee in New Haven, Connecticut in 1840. She was a child prodigy who excelled in literature, music, and languages.  The “Belle of New Haven” drew the attention of William Wirt Winchester, the sole heir to Winchester Repeater Rifle fortune. He married Sarah on September 30, 1862. Their only child, a daughter Annie, died less than two months after her birth in June of 1866, and they did not produce any more children. This would be the start of a string of tragedies that would befall the heiress.

Her husband died from tuberculosis within a year of her father-in-law, Oliver Winchester. She became the heir to the Winchester fortune estimated at $20 million. (The equivalent to over $507,170,000 today.)  She retained 50% of the Winchester Rifle Company and received a stipend of $1,000 a day (or around $25,000 in today’s money). Much of this was earned by the “Gun That Won the West,” the Winchester Repeater Rifle, which was largely seen as a catalyst for the Native American genocide.

What happened next is highly speculative. Reportedly, Sarah went to visit a well-known Boston medium, Adam Coons, who claimed to be channeling the spirit of her departed husband. Coons allegedly convinced Sarah to build a house to contain the disquieted spirits killed by Winchester weaponry. And if construction on the house stopped, Sarah would die.

Believing she was cursed and embarrassed by media headlines that she had amassed a “fortune built on death,” Sarah moved to the Santa Clara Valley in California with her sister and niece. As soon as Sarah purchased an eight-room unfinished farmhouse in what is now modern day San Jose, CA, construction began.

An Escher-Like House

For the next 38 years, Winchester House was in perpetual construction and the legendary hauntings began. There was never any plan or architectural drawings, only Sarah’s spirit-guided scribblings on napkins, newspapers, and whatever scrap paper was available at the time. These would change daily in order to supposedly confuse the wayward spirits.

It’s hard to say if the gambit worked, but she did succeed in confusing anyone visiting the mansion. Stairs lead nowhere, doors have walls behind them, the view from many windows is other windows or walls, and one door opens to a sheer two-story drop. There are rooms within rooms, a skylight in a floor, small spaces into bigger rooms and vice versa.  Even the servants needed maps to find where the actual functional rooms were. Many believed every single room was haunted and that new ghosts arrived as soon as new spaces were finished.

But those frequent confusing changes weren’t Sarah’s only quirks. She was also said to be obsessed with the number 13. A chandelier was changed to hold 13 candles, drain covers in sinks with 13 holes, at one time there were 13 bathrooms, and windows with 13 panes.

The house’s mistress was said to have held nightly secret séances, with an alarm run at midnight to welcome the spirits. A second alarm was set off at 2 a.m. as a sign for the ghosts to exit. Sarah was said to sleep in a different room each night in order to further confuse her phantom guests.

All the Comforts of Home

The home was built with the best and most modern conveniences of gas, electric, plumbing and elevators, although the only hot shower and working toilet were in Sarah’s personal bath. Most of the house was built with wood, but because Sarah didn’t like the coloring, approximately 20,000 gallons of paint were used to cover the offending grain and textures. As Sarah aged, stairs were replaced with shorter steps to accommodate her arthritis. Several windows were designed by Tiffany, including a rainbow window with prismatic crystals. Unfortunately, the window was put in a storage room and was never exposed to the sunlight required to activate the rainbow effect.

The massive mansion expanded to a confusing seven stories until the famous earthquake of 1906. The top three stories and the house’s highest tower collapsed. Sarah was trapped for a few hours in one of the bedrooms. After she was rescued, Sarah abandoned plans to finish the house’s façade and moved to nearby Atherton. It was said, that she believed the earthquake was the work of the spiritual world. This frightened her enough to only visit the Mystery House a few times a year for the remainder of her life. Most engineers believe that the “floating foundation” spared the house from total destruction in the 1906 and 1989 quakes.

The End of an Era

When Sarah Winchester died on September 5, 1922, builders immediately walked away with paint left in cans, nails half hammered into walls, and tools strewn about in the newest addition in progress.

At the time of her death, there were over 161 rooms (40 of those were bedrooms), 47 fireplaces, 2 ballrooms, 40 staircases, 10,000 panes of glass, 17 chimneys, 2 basements, and 3 elevators. Before the earthquake, historians estimate that there may have been over 500 rooms.

The house was left to her niece, although there were no complete instructions in her will, and the puzzle-like house was auctioned off for $135,000. All the furnishings were given to her niece and personal secretary. It took six trucks, working eight hours a day, for six weeks, to empty the home of the multitude of contents.

It was then leased to John and Mayme Brown for ten years. Within five months, they opened the house to the public. It became a tourist attraction with the moniker Mystery House given by none other than Harry Houdini in 1924.

Haunted by the Past?

After much investigation, no one could really determine if Sarah Winchester was truly haunted or that she continued to build on the house to appease her depression.

In reality, historians found that sixteen workers were paid to work on the house 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in rotating shifts. But they were paid well and even given months off at time, thus halting construction. Sarah was quoted as saying “to take such rest as I might.”

There wasn’t any mention of hauntings or ghosts in any of Sarah’s correspondence to friends or family.  There aren’t any records of Sarah actually visiting psychic Adam Coons. Several biographers and historians have suggested that Sarah was instead embarrassed by her false teeth, arthritis, or the shameful fame brought on by the Winchester fortune.

However, paranormal investigators, employees, and visitors have seen and heard many of the standard spiritual sounds. Doors slam amidst footsteps and whispers. Some report cold spots, orbs, and doorknobs that turn on doors with nothing behind them. Most jarring is the occasional window that slams itself shut with such force that the glass breaks. Is this because of the poor design of the house? The house still settling after years of added construction and immense earthquakes?

What do you Do With a “Haunted” House?

The Browns purchased the house and their descendants still run it as tourist attraction through Winchester Investments, LLC. Tours run $20-$49, except for special events. The house is on both the California Historical Places and National Registry of Historic Places.

The Winchester Mystery House still is a mystery to many. As late as 2016, a new fully furnished room was discovered with Victorian paintings, a couch, dress form, sewing machine and a pump organ inside.

Every Friday the 13th, the large bell on the property is rung 13 times at “1300 hours” (13:00 PT, 1:00 PM) to honor its long departed mistress, Sarah Winchester.

Special viewings at the Mystery House of the movie Winchester, starring Dame Helen Mirren, have sold out and more screenings are expected to be scheduled. Perhaps Sarah herself will take in a view?

Watch the trailer for Winchester, released Feb 2018

Sources and photos courtesy of Winchester Mystery House, Wikipedia, and biography “Captive of the Labyrinth” by Mary Jo Ignoffo

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The Countess, Victoria L. Szulc, is a multi-media steampunk author and artist. You can follow her works on her blog.

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