The Winchester Rifle, “the rifle that won the West”, was a revolution in gun design. Designed and developed by Oliver Winchester and utilized by the United States’ military branches, the gun’s unique lever action design produced unrenowned riches for Oliver and his heirs. After a series of tragedies drove one of the heirs to madness, the spoils of war were used to build one of the most unusual homes in the United States – the Winchester Mystery House, located at 525 South Winchester Boulevard, in San Jose, California.
Tragedy at the Winchester Mystery House
Oliver Winchester’s oldest son, Wirt Winchester, took his petite bride in September 1862 during the height of the Civil war. Their rifle, able to fire one bullet every 3 seconds, was a favorite of the North during the war. His new wife, Sarah Pardee Winchester, aided by her husband’s riches and superior intellect, was the belle of New Haven and quickly became a prominent figure in the city’s social scene. After four years of marriage, in July of 1866, Sarah gave birth to their first child, Annie Winchester. Unfortunately, soon thereafter, Annie contracted a children’s disease (marasmus) which caused her to wither away and die. The shock of her daughter’s death caused Sarah to withdraw from the public eye and recede into sorrow.
After some time, Sarah and her husband Wirt, tried to resume a normal life (although they had no more children after little Annie). But tragedy struck again less than 20 years later; Wirt contracted tuberculosis and died in March of 1881. Sarah inherited an unimaginable $20 million and nearly half ownership in the still ultra successful Winchester gun manufacturing company. Her share of the company profit resulted in a $1000 per day salary (the equivalent of $20,000 per day in today’s dollars). Regardless of the riches, seeking comfort, Sarah began visiting a medium for spiritual guidance.
A medium offers psychic advice
Through a friend, Sarah was put in contact with a medium (known today as the “Boston Medium”) who agreed to conduct a séance for the rich widow. In a darkened room, the medium fell into a trance and announced that Sarah’s husband, William, was present and that he knew the cause of the awful curse that seemed to befall her. The medium, supposedly relating what was being told by William’s spirit, said that there was a curse on the Winchester family, brought about by the sale of their guns that had taken the lives of a countless number of people. The spirits of the dead, the medium said, had exacted their revenge by taking the life of William and their infant daughter – and there was more sorrow to come.
Sarah was instructed to sell her home in New Haven and follow the setting sun to the west. There, she was told, her husband’s spirit would guide her in finding a new home for herself and the spirits that were haunting her life. When she found the home, the medium said, Sarah should buy it and continually build upon it. “If you continue building you will live,” some legends quote the medium as saying. “Stop and you will die.”
Construction of the Winchester Mystery House begins
Sarah promptly sold her New Haven home and headed west, eventually reaching her destination in the Santa Clara Valley, which is about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. She found a 17-room home, owned by a local doctor, Dr. Caldwell, under construction and negotiated its purchase from him, which included the 162 acres of land on which it sat. With no formal plans, Sarah took over construction of the house and, in keeping with the medium’s advice, continually built upon it until her death. Literally, construction on the home continued day and night for many years.
It was said that the new Winchester House contained a séance room in which Sarah regularly consulted with good spirits about the home’s continued construction. Its many oddities were designed, it is reputed, to confuse and repel the evil spirits that were responsible for the curse on the Winchester family.
Sarah hired several building contractors who worked on the house day and night, 365 days of the year. She would provide them with crude, hand drawn plans, and the builders would go about their job of bringing to life all of Sarah’s imaginative whims. They would build rooms, tear them apart at Sarah’s instruction and rebuild them. In some instances, if a room came out wrong, which was not uncommon given that there were no formal construction plans to follow, they would simply build another room around it. When the home reached 26 rooms, a local railroad line was switched closer to the home so supplies and furnishings could easily be delivered to the evolving house.
The oddness at the Winchester Mystery House
Eventually, the home would reach a height of seven stories and contain a bewildering maze of 40 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, five or six kitchens, two ballrooms and much more. Inside of the house, three elevators were installed as were 47 fireplaces. There were countless staircases which led nowhere; a blind chimney that stops just short of the ceiling; closets that opened to blank walls; trap doors; double-back hallways; skylights that were located one above another; doors that opened to steep drops to the ground below; and dozens of other oddities. Even all of the stair posts were installed upside-down and many of the bathrooms had glass doors on them. There were 40 staircases in the home, several of which lead nowhere and ended at the ceiling. One room features a window in the floor. A door that opens to an eight-foot drop to a kitchen sink.
The house was so large that by the time workers finished painting it, it was time to start painting all over again. It also has many conveniences that were rarely found at the time of its construction, including steam and forced-air heating, modern indoor toilets and plumbing, push-button gas lights, a hot shower from indoor plumbing and even three elevators, including one with the only horizontal hydraulic elevator piston in the United States.
It was also obvious that Sarah was intrigued by the number “13”, a curiosity that was most likely tweaked by her medium. Nearly all of the windows contained 13 panes of glass; the walls had 13 panels; the greenhouse had 13 cupolas; many of the wooden floors contained 13 sections; some of the rooms had 13 windows and every staircase but one had 13 steps (the one exception a staircase with hundreds of one-inch steps). Today, every Friday the 13th, a large bell on the propery is rung 13 times at 13:00 (1:00 PM) in honor of Sarah.
The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
The Winchester House was somewhat damaged in the “Great San Francisco Earthquake” of 1906 and lost a few of its top floors, but it was quickly rebuilt to its present size: an astonishing 160 rooms covering 4.5 acres. (The room count is only an estimate because the house is so convoluted and confusing that an accurate room count has proved virtually impossible.) The house was built with a redwood frame on a floating foundation which probably prevented the house from totally collapsing during the earthquake). When it was all over, portions of the Winchester Mansion were nearly in ruins. The top three floors of the house had collapsed into the gardens and would never be rebuilt. In addition, the fireplace that was located in the Daisy Room (where Mrs. Winchester was sleeping on the night of the earthquake) collapsed, shifting the room and trapping Sarah inside. She became convinced that the earthquake had been a sign from the spirits who were furious that she had nearly completed the house. In order to insure that the house would never be finished, she decided to board up the front 30 rooms of the mansion so that the construction would not be complete – and also so that the spirits who fell when portion of the house collapsed would be trapped inside forever.
For the next several months, the workmen toiled to repair the damage done by the earthquake, although actually the mammoth structure had fared far better than most of the buildings in the area. Only a few of the rooms had been badly harmed, although it had lost the highest floors and several cupolas and towers had toppled over. The expansion on the house began once more. The number of bedrooms increased from 15 to 20 and then to 25. Chimneys were installed all over the place, although strangely, they served no purpose. Some believe that perhaps they were added because the old stories say that ghosts like to appear and disappear through them. On a related note, it has also been documented that only 2 mirrors were installed in the house…. Sarah believed that ghosts were afraid of their own reflection.
Sarah didn’t die when work on the house stopped, yet it didn’t stop until she died on her sleep. On September 4, 1922, after a conference session with the spirits in the séance room, Sarah went to her bedroom for the night. At some point in the early morning hours, she died in her sleep at the age of 83. She left all of her possessions to her niece, Frances Marriot, who had been handling most of Sarah’s business affairs for some time. Little did anyone know, but by this time, Sarah’s large bank account had dwindled considerably. Rumor had it that somewhere in the house was hidden a safe containing a fortune in jewelry and a solid-gold dinner service with which Sarah had entertained her ghostly guests. Her relatives forced open a number of safes but found only old fishlines, socks, newspaper clippings about her daughter’s and her husband’s deaths, a lock of baby hair, and a suit of woolen underwear. No solid gold dinner service was ever discovered.
The furnishings, personal belongings and surplus construction and decorative materials were removed from the house and the structure itself was sold to a group of investors who planned to use it as a tourist attraction. One of the first to see the place when it opened to the public was Robert L. Ripley, who featured the house in his popular column, “Believe it or Not.” The house was initially advertised as being 148 rooms, but so confusing was the floor plan that every time a room count was taken, a different total came up. The place was so puzzling that it was said that the workmen took more than six weeks just to get the furniture out of it. The moving men became so lost because it was a “labyrinth”, they told the magazine, American Weekly, in 1928. It was a house “where downstairs leads neither to the cellar nor upstairs to the roof.” The rooms of the house were counted over and over again and five years later, it was estimated that 160 rooms existed….. although no one is really sure if even that is correct.
The Winchester Mystery House today
Today, officially known as “The Winchester Mystery House” in San Jose, California, the mansion is a tourist attraction that offers a variety of tours of its many eccentricities. It was declared a California Historical Landmark in 1954. The cost to construct it estimated to be $5.5 million dollars (equivalent to $70 million in today’s dollars). It is located at 525 South Winchester Blvd. in San Jose, California.
There have been a number of strange events reported at the Winchester House for many years and they continue to be reported today. Dozens of psychics have visited the house over the years and most have come away convinced, or claim to be convinced, that spirits still wander the place. In addition to the ghost of Sarah Winchester, there have also been many other sightings throughout the years.
In the years that the house has been open to the public, employees and visitors alike have had unusual encounters here. There have been footsteps; banging doors; mysterious voices; windows that bang so hard they shatter; cold spots; strange moving lights; doorknobs that turn by themselves…. and don’t forget the scores of psychics who have their own claims of phenomena to report.
Additional Information about the Winchester Mystery House
UPDATE 3/17/14: The Winchester Mystery House will soon be open for visitors. The San Jose planning department has approved a special permit that would allow overnight guests at the famous haunted house.