Madness, séances, death, ghosts, guns, strange symbolism, architecture directed by terror—Sarah Winchester’s San Jose home ticks a Hell of a lot of bizarre boxes. Even if you aren’t interested in the paranormal, the house is such an intriguing and unique place that, hopefully, this post will be worth a read. So, if you’re sitting uncomfortably, we will begin.
The legendary Winchester Mystery House sprawls over a four-and-a-half acre site at 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, California. Once the residence of Sarah Winchester (the widow of firearms magnate William Wirt Winchester) the house stands today as a reminder of the power of paranoia and fear. Its busy-but-orderly exterior only hints at the chaotic interior that awaits the visitor who, upon entering, would encounter twisting hallways, uncountable rooms, staircases the go nowhere and doors that open unto drops—and that stuff’s just the beginning.
You see, the spirits of those unfortunate enough to have been killed by the renowned Winchester Rifle—‘the gun that won the west’—are said to wander the maze-like passageways seeking retribution.
In 1866 Sarah lost her newborn baby to marasmus—an event from which she would never truly recovered. The emotional trauma lingered and was compounded fifteen years later when William died of tuberculosis. Sarah grieved so deeply that, like many in the Victorian era, she was drawn to Spiritualism and attempted to contact them through a medium. Of course, the medium did make contact and the message that came through terrified her:
“[William] says for me to tell you that there is a curse on your family; a curse which took the life of both himself 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 victims have died because of it and their spirits are now seeking vengeance.” Shocked, Sarah asked if there was a way to break the curse. “You must start a new life,” replied the medium, “and build a home for yourself and the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon too. You can never stop building the house. If you continue building, you will live. The moment you stop is the moment you will join the spirits in death.”
Sarah’s vast fortune meant she had the pick of San Jose’s artisans and craftsmen. New constructions soon engulfed the original house, with section after section being demolished, rebuilt and remodelled. A small army was employed to work around the clock all year round. There was no interruption to the work and no architectural plans were drawn up in advance. Instead, Sarah would retreat to a special room and conduct séances during which ‘voices from beyond the grave’ would instruct her upon the building work to be undertaken the next day.
Construction continued without pause for thirty-eight years.
By 1906, the house had become a seven storeys-tall mansion, including forty bedrooms, two basements, ballrooms and indoor toilets. There were 250 doors, forty-seven fireplaces, six kitchens , assorted lifts, and a staircase that had forty-four steps and seven complete turns. Seventeen chimneys further punctuated the house’s already jumbled skyline.
The house was also intentionally built with elements that were designed to befuddle any guest—whether living or dead. Trap doors and skylights inhabit strange places and some of the floors are deliberately slanted. Staircases lead nowhere, cupboards and doors open onto blank walls or worse—sheer drops. The séance room too was not immune to the unusual layout, having just one entrance and yet three exits. Amongst all this, upside-down balusters and unusable chimneys dot the interior. In fact, so convoluted was the floor plan that an accurate count of the rooms proved impossible and it was not uncommon for workers to become lost.
There are also thought to be a few secret passageways (one is known) in the house, but they are yet to be discovered.
Official photo gallery here.
There are also two recurring themes within the house. Firstly, the number thirteen appears in many places: chandeliers have thirteen candle holders, there are rows of thirteen coat hooks, some sinks have thirteen plug holes, walls and ceilings are sometimes made up of thirteen panels and staircases have thirteen steps. Secondly, spider’s web designs feature too: amongst other things, there are Tiffany glass stained glass windows with web motifs that were designed by Sarah Winchester herself, and normal windows leaded in web patterns.
On the 5th of September, 1922, after some time in the séance room, Sarah retired for the night and died in her sleep. Due to its bizarre nature, the house was deemed worthless at first. Rumour maintained, however, that a large safe was hidden in the house which contained a vast hoard of jewellery including a solid-gold dinner service which Sarah was thought to have used to entertain her spectral guests. Her relatives forced open a number of safes but found nothing of any monetary value. One safe had another safe within it, and a further safe within that which contained nothing but a lock of her baby daughter’s hair. Soon after Sarah’s demise, the house was sold at auction to investors for $135,000—despite her having spent something like $70,000,000 on it.
But is it really haunted? Aptly for a house that enjoys such a uniquely macabre raisin d’être, there have been a large variety of possibly paranormal events reported over the years. Here’s a mere taste:
- The echo of spectral footsteps on wooden floors.
- Exploding balls of red light.
- Disembodied voices.
- Doors that open and close of their own accord.
- Windows that slam shut with such force that they shatter.
- A mystery piano player (said to be Sarah herself) can sometimes be heard tickling the ivories late into the night.
- The sudden aroma of chicken soup has been smelled coming from long defunct kitchens.
- Even doorknobs have been seen turning by themselves.
One employee was, for a time, the focus of a variety of unexplained activities. While closing up the mansion alone one evening, he locked the courtyard’s heavy doors and momentarily turned to set the burglar alarm. Turning back, he found that the doors had silently been unlocked behind him. Stranger still, after another shift he switched off all the lights and once again made sure the doors were correctly locked. As he made his way to where his car was parked, he was shocked to see every light in the third floor had come on. Finally, he arrived for work one morning to discover his desk was soaked with water. Even his pen holder was full. The surrounding walls and ceiling were all reported to be ‘bone-dry’ and no source for the mysterious liquid could be found. One quiet dark night, another caretaker heard the sound of a screw slowly turning somewhere in the wood-panelled wall nearby. It was soon followed by the sound of a screw falling to the floor, but when he turned on the lights he could find nothing out of the ordinary.
Some of the Winchester Mystery House’s spooky denizens might even have been caught on camera, with strange shapes and figures being discovered in photographs, sometime in what appeared to be period dress. Plus, there are a whole host of orb photographs taken at the WMH, but I’m pretty sure this ‘phenomena’ has been ruled out now as non-paranormal.
The house is open to the public. Guests that claim paranormal experiences while at the mansion are encouraged to note the events down in the guestbook. It’s an interesting read, but must be taken cum grano salis.
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