The Winchester Mystery House

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

I’ve been wanting to go to the Winchester Mystery House for nearly 30 years – ever since I saw it featured on TV. It was on either “That’s Incredible” or “Ripley’s Believe it or not”, I can’t remember which – both featured the bizarre and the strange, and were on TV in the early 1980s when I lived in Canada.

Winchester Mystery House, from front left, and gardens

Winchester Mystery House, from front left, and gardens

Somehow we never got there on our previous two trips to San Francisco. I was very glad that on our third and recent trip there, we were able to hire a car and get to San Jose to pay a visit to this fascinating house.

Chances are, you’ve heard of this place already. It’s the house built by Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. Sarah and her husband had only one child, Annie, who died of a rare childhood disease when she was six weeks old. A few years after that, Sarah’s husband died of tuberculosis. Some say she was driven mad with grief, and never got over the death of her baby. Whatever the case, Sarah got it into her head that she was cursed by the vengeful spirits of all of those who had been killed by the Winchester rifles her husband’s family had produced, and the only way to break the curse was to buy an unfinished house and keep on building.

She moved from her home in Connecticut and bought an unfinished eight-room farmhouse in California. She hired servants, gardeners, and a crew of carpenters, who kept building. In fact they didn’t stop. These carpenters worked in shifts, and the work carried on continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until Sarah’s death 38 years later.

It’s a bizarre house.  It has 160 rooms and 40 bedrooms. There are stairs that go nowhere, doors that open onto blank walls, other doors that lead to two-storey drops, secret passages, rooms with no floors, windows that look out onto brick walls. Sarah Winchester designed most of the house herself.  Some say she built the house the way she did to confuse the spirits. I think she was likely suffering from paranoid schizophrenia – she thought spirits were speaking to her, and the servants were conspiring against her. But she was also stupidly rich, and therefore it didn’t matter how mad she was, people would do what she said. Apparently she paid all her staff twice the going rate, but she paid them daily in cash, so that if she had the whim to fire anyone, she could do so on the spot. Arguing with her about her illogical building plans was apparently a cause for instant dismissal.

Me standing at the front of the house - note lack of symmetry...

Me standing at the front of the house – note lack of symmetry…

Sarah WInchester was obsessed with the number 13, which is a recurring motif throughout the house. Windows have 13 panes of glass.  Ceilings have 13 panels. There is even a chandelier with 13 light fittings. Apparently it originally came with 12, but Sarah wasn’t having that and she added the thirteenth herself – and you can tell which one she added, because it’s wonky and obviously stuck on.

Naturally there are many stories about the Winchester house being haunted. It does have a decidedly creepy appearance. With so much building work the house is not symmetrical, and viewing it from the outside it looks odd. Inside, there are so many rooms many of them don’t have any windows or natural light, so it is rather dark and dim. But we saw it on an exceptionally hot and sunny day – positively balmy for the time of year – and it was full of tourists, so it didn’t seem particularly creepy. Then again, I have no psychic sensitivities whatsoever. I’d like to remain open minded about the existence of ghosts, but if there are any, I’m unlikely to ever see any. I don’t get easily creeped out. So saying, I rather wish we could have gone at Hallowe’en, when they do a ‘ghost tour’ by torch light. The place might be a whole lot creepier then.

I did feel rather sorry for Sarah Winchester. She lived alone in this house apart from her staff, and apparently never had visitors – the rest of the family thought she was nuts and stayed away. So she rattled around alone in this immense house, working her way around the 40 bedrooms – never sleeping in the same room more than one night in a row, allegedly to confuse the spirits she was convinced were out to get her.

Outside view of 'door to nowhere' - leads to 15-foot drop

Outside view of ‘door to nowhere’ – leads to 15-foot drop

You are not allowed to take pictures inside the Winchester Mystery House, and any that are on the internet are copyright and not able to be used without permission. Which I don’t have. So I can only include here pictures of the outside. But a Google search of the Winchester Mystery House will take you to plenty of websites that do include images of some of the bizarre features of the house.

If you are ever in the San Jose area of California, do visit the Winchester Mystery House if you can.  It’s a fascinating tour. And is the house really full of vengeful ghosts, or was Sarah Winchester as mad as a box of frogs? Well, you’ll have to make up your own mind about that.

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1 comment so far

  1. tmewalsh on

    Wow, what an interesting house and backstory. Thanks for sharing 🙂


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