Winchester Mystery House is a sprawling, 160-room mansion south of San Francisco built in the 19th century for the pleasure of Ghosts by Sarah Winchester, the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. The legend of how this house came to be, and what took place within its rooms, is a bizarre one. During the American Civil War, Sarah met William Wirt Winchester, the son of the manufacturer of the Winchester Repeating Rifle. They married in New Haven, Connecticut. Her happiness was short lived, for their only child, Annie Pardee, died of marasmus about one month after birth. Fifteen years later, William died of pulmonary tuberculosis. Sarah’s grief may have been too much for her, for her behavior changed radically. She became a housebound recluse. Her inheritance, a fortune of about $20 million and 48% share in Winchester Repeating Arms Co., offered her no solace.
Sarah had always been interested in the occult, so it was natural that for comfort she turned to Spiritualism in the hope that she could communicate with the spirit of her husband. To that end, she invited Mediums to the house to conduct Séances. None were successful in contacting William. Then Sarah found Adam Coons, a gifted medium in Boston. Coons said he could see William and delivered a message from him warning Sarah that she was under a curse. All the souls of people who had been killed by Winchester rifles had taken their revenge with the deaths of Annie and William. Sarah would be haunted forever by the ghosts of Winchester rifl e victims unless she made amends to them.
Sarah was instructed to sell her New Haven house and move to the West, where William would help her select a new home for herself and the ghosts. If she continually built upon the house, she might be able to escape the curse.
According to legend, when Sarah found an eight-room house on 44 acres in the Santa Clara Valley in 1884, she heard a voice say, “This is it.”
Sarah bought the house and embarked on a strange remodeling program that lasted for 38 years, until her death in 1922. She hired dozens of construction workers to enlarge the house and domestic servants to take care of it. She had no master plan but followed the dictates of the spirits. The crew worked seven days a week, following her instructions, which often had them destroying their work and doing it over again. Sarah daily toured the property to inspect the work, sometimes sketching new plans on paper bags as she went. She had her 12 gardeners plant a hedge of 6-foot high cypress around her property because she did not want any outside living person not in her employ to see what she was doing.
Sarah held to a Victorian style, with ornate woodwork, many embellishments and fine Tiffany stained glass windows and doors. Eventually, the house spread over 6 acres. It was an architectural nightmare, with odd-angled rooms and wings, stairways to nowhere, secret passageways, trap doors and doors that opened onto blank walls. Three elevators that went nowhere were built at a cost of $10,000 each. In all, the house had 160 rooms, 47 fireplaces, 2,000 doors, 40 staircases and dozens of secret rooms and corridors. Sarah spared no expense in procuring the finest woods and exotic materials, such as embossed French wallpaper 1/2 inch thick, and solid gold nails. She spent about $5.5 million over the years. The house was never completed.
During the construction, Sarah became obsessed with the number 13 and required rooms to have 13 windows, windows to have 13 panes, chandeliers to have 13 lights, stairways to have 13 steps, closets to have 13 hooks and so on. The “13” list of features is quite extensive. Sometimes she employed multiples of 13: 26, 39 and 52. The ghosts apparently wanted no Mirrors, so Sarah had none in the house.
The grounds were just as odd as the house. Sarah ordered a statue of an Indian, Chief Little Fawn, to be placed in the gardens. He is depicted firing arrows at unseen enemies. For Sarah, he represented the many Indians who had been killed by Winchester rifles.
Sarah left the house as little as possible. When she chose to shop herself, she would travel by car in one of her two Pierce Arrows, which were painted lavender and gold. She would never step outside the car. Shopkeepers would come to the curb and show her their wares through the car windows.
Because of her strangeness, stories began to circulate about Sarah and what went on inside the house. Whenever she heard the stories, Sarah became upset. Undoubtedly, many of the stories grew more fanciful with retelling.
According to one story, she planned an elegant dinner party and ball and sent out hundreds of invitations engraved in gold. She hired a famous orchestra. But on the night of the party, not a single person came. Sarah waited until midnight. While the story most likely is not true, it is true that Sarah did not entertain guests.
Stories especially concerned a windowless seance room called the Blue Room. No one but Sarah was ever allowed to enter this secret chamber, which was hidden in a maze that only she knew how to navigate. In one corner was a CABINET for spirit Materialization. Sarah also kept a writing table with supplies for Automatic Writing and for using a PLANCHETTE. She visited the Blue Room every day to receive the spirits’ instructions, completely trusting whatever she was told.
It was said that every night at midnight, Sarah donned special robes and went to the Blue Room to entertain her ghostly guests, who were summoned by a tolling bell. For two hours, until the bell tolled again and the spirits left, Sarah communed with her spirit friends. Passersby claimed that they could hear strange organ music coming from the house at these times.
She also threw them dinner parties, always setting 13 places, one for herself and 12 for ghosts. She served them four- and five-course meals cooked by master chefs from Paris and Vienna.
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt paid a call, but was turned away with the message that the house “was not open to strangers.”
The 1906 earthquake that severely damaged San Francisco took a toll on the Winchester House, and many of the glass windows and doors and wood floors, ceilings and walls had to be repaired.
Sarah died in her sleep on September 5, 1922, at the age of 82. Workmen stopped in mid-stride, even leaving half-driven nails, when news of her death reached them. She bequeathed her house to a niece with instructions that the ghosts continue to be welcome and cared for. There was enough building material on premises to continue construction for another 38 years. But the furnishings and ornaments were auctioned off. It took six weeks for the contents to be removed. Local people purchased the house and opened it to visitors, charging an admission fee.
The property, however, went into decline until 1974, when it became a national historic landmark. Restoration work was undertaken of the house and grounds.
In 1983, two museums were opened, the Winchester Historical Firearms Museum and the Winchester Products Museum. The Winchester Mystery House has remained a ghostly haven and now is a tourist attraction. Most of the rooms are sealed.
Many visitors are haunted by various phenomena, such as phantom footsteps, odd sounds, eerie quiet, whisperings, sounds of a piano playing, Smells of phantom food cooking, cold spots, doorknobs turning by themselves, and windows and doors slamming shut. The floor of the gift shop has been found mysteriously covered with water and items in disarray.
FURTHER READING :
- Harter, Walter L. The Phantom Hand and Other American Hauntings. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976.
- May, Antoinette. Haunted Houses and Wandering Ghosts of California. San Francisco: San Francisco Examiner, 1977.
- Riccio, Dolores, and Joan Bingham. Haunted Houses USA. New York: Pocket Books, 1989.
- Smith Susy. Prominent American Ghosts. New York: Dell, 1967.
Any homeowner will tell you that you’re never finished working on your home. Items will need fixing, rooms painted, you’ll add little touches and additions here and there as time and money allow. The Winchester House takes this idea to an entirely different level. In 1884, Sarah L. Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester and heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company fortune, purchased an eight-room house on 150 acres in San Jose and began making a few additions—additions that would keep three shifts of carpenters, architects, and construction workers busy for 38 years until Sarah’s death in 1922. By the end of her life, Sarah turned the eight-room home into a 160-room Victorian mansion with three working elevators, 47 fireplaces, hand-inlaid parquet floors, silver and gold chandeliers, Tiffany windows, staircases that lead to nowhere, doors that open to brick walls, other doors that open to the outside on the second floor with a straight drop down, and many other architectural oddities. There weren’t formal blueprints; Mrs. Winchester would just sketch out rooms on paper and even on tablecloths for the workers to follow. Why did she do this? Sarah’s husband died in March of 1881 of tuberculosis while the couple was living in New Haven, Connecticut. Their only daughter died 15 years earlier during her infancy. Sarah was having a difficult time getting over the death of her husband, so a friend of hers suggested she contact a Spiritualist medium. The medium claimed her husband William was present and “He says for me to tell you that there is a curse on your family, which took the life of he and your child. It will soon take you, too. It is a curse that has resulted from the terrible weapon created by the Winchester family. Thousands of persons have died because of it, and their spirits are now seeking vengeance.” The medium told her to head west; her husband would guide her and she would know when she found the right home. The medium told her to start a new life and to build a home for herself and for the spirits who had fallen at the hands of a Winchester rifle. She was told she could never stop building the house or the curse would take her as it did her husband and daughter. So Sarah Winchester built. If her plans conflicted with a room built earlier, they simply built around. Rooms are contained within rooms, and the floor plan is certainly chaotic at times. Sarah spent a great deal of time in a room she called “The Séance Room.” Sarah Winchester is said to be still wandering her house today, causing disembodied footsteps, murmuring voices, and cold spots. Psychics have gone in and identified many other spirits who they also believe call the Winchester Mystery House home. Whether these really are the souls of those killed by the famous rifle, or whether they’re more a figment of the imagination, is up to each visitor to decide.
Written by — Jeff Belanger Founder, Ghostvillage.com
WINCHESTER MYSTERY HOUSE
525 SOUTH WINCHESTER BOULEVARD
SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA 95128
TEL: 1 (408) 247-2101
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