The Winchester Mystery House
In San Jose California, sitting on 4.5 acres at 252 S. Winchester Blvd., is the famous Winchester Mystery House. This Victorian style house that was once a simple 6 bedroom farm home, now has over 160 rooms and considered by many to be one of the most haunted houses in the United States of America.
Oliver Fisher Winchester was born in Boston, MA in 1810. As young man he worked as a carpenter and then operated a men’s dress shirt factory. Oliver had an eye for business and saw an investment opportunity in the growing firearms market and in 1855 he bought a controlling interest in the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. With two additional investors (Benjamin Tyler Henry and Nelson King) they began to redesign the company’s Volcanic rifle to create the Henry rifle and reorganized the company (after insolvency) into the New Haven Arms Company in 1957.
After a dispute with Benjamin Tyler Henry and to avoid potentially losing the company to Henry, Oliver Winchester again reorganized the company in 1866 into the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. With the new company name and an improved version of Henry’s rifle and magazine design, the company released the first Winchester rifle, model 1866. The 1866 used the same .44 cartridge but employed an improved magazine and lever action, resulting in more reliable firing and a faster reload.
Oliver Winchester died December 11, 1880 leaving the company to his son William Wirt Winchester. William had married Sarah Pardee on September 30, 1866 and by all accounts they had a happy marriage, until the birth of their only child four years later. Their daughter, Annie Pardee Winchester was born on June 15, 1866 and unfortunately died from Marasmus (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marasmus) a little more than a month later on July 25, 1866.
The loss of their child devastated Sarah, she fell into a deep depression that lasted many years. Before their child’s death, Sarah was a socialite, known for her beauty, bright personality and her piano playing skills. She was well educated, spoke several different languages and was always well received at social parties with her piano playing the highlight of the gatherings.
Just as Sarah began to emerge from her despair another tragedy struck, her beloved husband William died on March 7, 1881 from Tuberculosis. Upon Williams death, Sarah became the majority shareholder in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, inherited over $20 million and a daily income of $1,000 a day (today that would be more than $25,000 a day).
No amount of money in the world could fill her loneliness, and at the advice of a friend she invited a Boston medium by the name of Adam Coons to visit her so she may speak to her late husband. Adam Coons was a respected medium in the Boston area at that time. The medium told her that there was a curse upon her family by the ghosts of all the people who had been killed by Winchester rifles, and to appease them she must leave her home in New Haven, Connecticut and move west, towards the setting sun.
She she was told she would be guided by the spirit of her husband and she would know the exact spot to build when she saw it. There are of course many variations of this story, one variation says it was her niece who suggested she speak to a medium, and another variation suggests that it was her doctor who encouraged her to move to a warmer climate as it may lift her spirits and help her to overcome her depression. Perhaps she simply wanted to leave the place in which she had endured such tragedies.
Believing what this medium had told her, she sold her property in New Haven and left for California and as the medium had suggested, she found the perfect spot to build in San Jose, California in 1884. There was however a problem, this perfect property already had a 6 room farm house on it. The property owner, a Dr. Caldwell, was at first reluctant to sell but with a bit of persuasion the doctor agreed to sell her the house and its large 44 acre property.
Within a short amount of time Sarah had construction underway, 13 to 16 carpenters were hired and were paid above the going rate. They worked on the house in shifts, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, the sound of hammering and saws could be heard throughout the night, and on occasion passers by could hear Sarah playing her piano.
In addition to 13 or more carpenters, Sarah also employed two private chauffeurs, 8 to 10 gardeners and several house maids. With the abundance of building material needed to build the house and the imported furniture to fill it, extra train cars were added just to fill Sarah’s orders.
When Sarah changed her mind about a design she would have her carpenters tear it down and if it was a room they would board it up and build over it.
Each morning Sarah would meet with her foreman to discus new designs and changes to the house plans that were most often scribbled on napkins or brown paper. Sarah had a few rooms of her own that she didn’t have to share with the spirits including the only functional bathroom in the entire house.
Sarah felt the spirits were guiding or even pushing her to constantly build and make changes to the home. One night Sarah had gone into the cellar to get a bottle of wine and saw a shadowy hand-print on the wall, she hurried from the cellar and ordered that it was to be boarded over. To this date it still has not been found. There were more than a few stories that she was attacked by vengeful spirits who would push her down to the floor or into the wall on multiple occasions.
With the building design its difficult to determine whether or not she was trying to appease or confuse the spirits. The house had a staircase that lead to the ceiling, doors that opened into walls, doors could only be opened from the inside, doors in the floors and ceilings, pillars that stopped short of the ceilings, rooms within rooms, balconies on the inside of the house and even chimneys throughout the house that are not attached to a fireplace – Sarah believed this was an easy way for ghosts to travel. There was one door in particular on the second floor, in the Daisy room which opens to a straight drop to the ground below.
The house grew to 7 stories high containing 200 rooms, 10,000 windows, 47 fireplaces, several domes on top of the house and an observatory tower. The height and size of the building weren’t the only things growing, the property surrounding the mansion also grew to 162 acres, on which Sarah may have planned to develop the home even further, we will never know.
Sarah was obsessed with the number 13 and spider web motifs, both of which are shown in many of the features and designs throughout the house, much of which she herself designed. All the staircases in the house with the exception of the 7-11 staircase, have 13 steps, most of the windows have 13 panes of glass, there are 13 holes on the drain covers and 13 gas jets on the ballroom chandelier – just to name a few. There are also many rooms of which sections of floors or walls include the number 13 in some form. Many of the home’s windows include a spider web design.
On April 18, 1906 at 5:12 am an earthquake with a reported magnitude of 7.8 hit the area, it shook the house for 45-60 seconds and afterwards the seven stories were reduced to just four, trapping Sarah in the Daisy room. Her staff worked quickly to rescue her within only a few hours, but most of the top three floors fell into the garden area outside the house. Sarah took this a sign from the spirits that they were displeased and decided not to rebuild the top three floors. After several months of repairs and clean up had been completed, Sarah continued building in other parts of the house.
Every night Sarah would spend time in what is called the Seance room to speak with the spirits and get guidance on how to build the house. Sarah held the only key to the Seance room which contains 3 exits but only a single entrance. Her session on the evening of September 13, 1922 would turn out to be her last, in the early morning of September 14, 1922 at the age of eighty-three, Sarah Winchester joined her beloved husband and daughter. Upon hearing the news of Sarah’s death all work on the house stopped and for the first time in thirty-eight years the house fell silent.
Sarah’s will contained 13 pages of which she signed 13 times, leaving her niece to inherit the bulk of the estate. Sarah also left some money to various charities and to her faithful staff and construction workers. The mansion itself however was not mentioned in the will and was sold to a group of investors who leased it for 10 years to John and Mayme Brown who saw it as a potential tourist attraction, and eventually bought the house in all its glory.
The Winchester House was opened to the public in February of 1923 with Mayme Brown as the first tour guide. It is a now designated as a California historical landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today the mansion is owned by Winchester Investments LLC, a privately held company which represents the descendants of John and Mayme Brown.
In the years the house has been open to the public there have been reports from both staff and visitors about ghostly activity, from phantom foot steps, disembodied voices, banging doors and windows, doorknobs turning by themselves, and ghostly figures. Some of these ghostly figures are believed to be one of Sarah’s carpenters going about his day doing repairs to different areas of the house, he has been seen fixing a fireplace in one of the ballrooms and pushing a wheel barrow down various hallways.
One man, while working on that same fireplace felt someone tap him on the back, he turned around but no one was there. Thinking it was just his imagination he went back to his repairs. He then felt someone push him from behind so he quickly gathered up his tools and went to do repairs on the far side of the estate.
While leading guests to the Daisy room a tour guide heard a loud sigh, so thinking someone had perhaps fallen behind she went to assist them. After not seeing anyone at first she called out and then saw a small shadow figure disappear around the corner, this particular spirit is believed by many to be that of Sarah Winchester because of its small stature.
Harry Houdini toured the home in either 1923 or 1924 and a news clipping from the visit is now on display in the house’s museum as well as a Harry Houdini poster.
Robert L. Ripley featured the the mansion in his “Believe it or not “ column, and he believed the house was truly haunted.
In the early 1990s, the owners of the Winchester property sanctioned a 30 day inspection of the house by paranormal investigator Christoper Chacon.
In her book “The Other Side and Back” (published in July 2000), the late psychic Sylvia Browne, details the experience she had when she spent a night in the house with several others and heard hammering and rattling chains and orbs of light, she also herd organ music. In 2016 long after her eventful visit to the home a new room had been found in an attic space featuring a Victorian couch, sewing machine, paintings and a pump organ and was made visitable to the public.
Whether you think Sarah Winchester was insane, clinically depressed or truly built a house for ghosts, the house itself is a marvel. With all of its illusions, playful tricks and turns, and building mastery, its a Mystery House with Sarah’s heart at the very center.
Today in its full glory, the Winchester house contains:
- 160 rooms
- 2,000 doors
- 47 fireplaces
- 40 bedrooms
- 47 staircases
- 17 chimneys
- 13 bathrooms
- 6 kitchens
- 3 elevators
- 2 basements
- 1 working shower
- 2 ballrooms
- 10,000 window panes
Visitors to the mansion can tour 110 of the 160 rooms. Special features of the house include:
The 7-11 staircase
Built in the shape of a “Y” for easy access to three levels of the house.
There are 3 elevators in the house and a staircase equipped with a short riser because Sarah had suffered from extremely debilitating arthritis and it became very difficult for her to climb the stairs.
The $25,000 Room
A $25,000 storeroom which held many of the fine artisan windows, these windows were valued at $25,000 at the time of her death but are likely worth millions of dollars today.
Located in the front portion of the house, the Daisy Bedroom is noted for the daisy motif highlighted in its stained-glass windows.
The Séance Room is located near the center of the house and as mentioned earlier, Sarah carried the only key to this room which features only one entrance, but three exits.
This room has creamy Lincrusta wallpaper, an ornate fireplace and windows overlooking the central garden. It was rumoured that Sarah slept in a different bedroom every night but this was untrue, within the whole house she had only a few rooms to call her own.
Corridors of the Third Floor
Many tour guides refuse to use these corridors after dark. Some have reported to have heard footsteps when no one is around or hearing a voice calling their name.
This simple attic space has a wonderful acoustic feature to it, by standing in the center of the room your voice bounces back at you. No one knows for sure why that particular feature was built.
Third-Floor Base of Observation Tower
This is the observation town that went tumbling to the ground from its seven story position during the earthquake of 1906, all that remains today is it’s base on the third-floor.
Staircase to the Ceiling
A small set of stairs that go directly up to the ceiling.
This ballroom was built with very few nails and cost a little over $9,000 at that time. The walls and parquet floor made of six hardwoods – mahogany, teak, maple, rosewood, oak, and white ash. Today it would cost at least $125,000 to build such a room.
The wallpaper in this ballroom is encrusted with fine crushed mica that reflects the light and causes a beautiful sparkling effect. Unfortunately this ballroom is no longer being shown on tours to help slow the deterioration of its walls and ceiling.
A very special Thank You to the staff of the Winchester Mystery House for providing me with additional information.