Winchester Mystery House

Winchester Mystery House

Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born about 1840 in New Haven, Connecticut. Sarah was born to a `well off` family and attended some of the higher cultered private schools. In 1862 Sarah married William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Winchester, Lieutenant Govonor of Connecticut, and manufacturer of the famous Winchester Repeating Rifle. This was right at the height of the Civil War, and Winchester had landed a huge money making contract to provide their Repeating Arms to the army. They enjoyed a happy life, living in a high class New England society. Tragedy struck in 1866 when their infant daughter Annie died from a mysterious childhood disease, Marasmus. Sarah fell into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. Fifteen years later, in March 1881, her husband’s premature death from tuberculosis added to Mrs. Winchester’s distress. It is said, she ultimately sought help from a spiritualist. 

According to some sources, the Boston Medium consulted by Mrs. Winchester explained that her family and her fortune were being haunted by spirits – in fact, by the spirits of American Indians, Civil War soldiers, and others killed by Winchester rifles. Supposedly the untimely deaths of her daughter and husband were caused by these spirits, and it was implied that Mrs. Winchester might be the next victim.

However, the medium also claimed that there was an alternative, Mrs. Winchester was instructed to move west and appease the spirits by building a great house for them. As long as construction of the house never ceased, Mrs. Winchester could rest assured that her life was not in danger. Building such a house was even supposed to bring her eternal life.

Mrs. Winchester packed her bags and left Connecticut to visit a niece who lived in Menlo Park, California.  In 1884 she purchased an unfinished farm house just three miles west of San Jose, and over the next thirty-eight years she produced the sprawling complex we know today as the Winchester Mystery House. She immediately hired carpenters to work in shifts around the clock. By the turn of the century the eight-room house had grown into a seven-story mansion! The estate eventually grew to 161 acres of farmland, which included orchards of apricots, plum, and walnut trees to supplement Mrs. Winchester’s income. She also owned homes in Atherton, Los Altos, and Palo Alto.

Mrs. Winchester’s financial resources were virtually unlimited; upon her husband’s death she received several million dollars in cash and 777 shares of stock in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Upon her mother-in-law’s death in 1897, Mrs. Winchester received 2,000 more shares, which meant she owned just under fifty percent of the company’s capital stock. This provided her with an income of $1,000 a day – back in the days before income taxes.

The combination of her wealth and her eccentric building project gave rise to many rumors in the local community. On the one hand, Mrs. Winchester was generous with her employees, paying three dollars a day when the going rate was one and a half dollars. She often paid trades-people in gold coin, and when she went to town they would bring their wares right out to her carriage for inspection. Orphanages and many other local charities benefited from anonymous contributions. She welcomed neighborhood children and let them play on the grounds, even inviting them in to eat ice cream or play the piano.

On the other hand, Mrs. Winchester’s interest in seclusion was evident from the start. One of the first tasks of the gardeners was to plant a tall cypress hedge surrounding the house. She reportedly kept her face covered with a dark veil at all times, and there are stories of her firing servants who caught a glimpse of her face by accident.

The seven story house prior to the 1906 earthquake that leveled it to four stories.

Then there were occurrences that defied explanation. Neighbors would hear a bell ring at midnight and 2 a.m., which according to ghost lore are the times for the arrival and departure of spirits. Some said that Mrs. Winchester never slept in the same bedroom two nights in a row, in order to confuse any evil spirits that might be waiting for her. At the very center of the house is the Blue Room, where Mrs. Winchester supposedly would go every night to commune with the spirits. This room consisted of a cabinet, a table with pen and papers, a closet, and a planchette board – used for transmitting messages from the beyond. Legend has it that she would wear one of 13 special colored robes and receive guidance from various spirits for her construction plans.

One of the few existing photos of Sarah Winchester. She forbid people taking photos of her.

In 1884, construction began on the project of such magnitude that it was to occupy the lives of carpenters and craftsmen until her death thirty-eight years later. The Victorian mansion, designed and built by the Winchester Rifle heiress, is filled with so many unexplained oddities, that it has come to be known as the Winchester Mystery House.

Sarah Winchester built a home that is an architectural marvel. Unlike most homes of its era, this 160-room Victorian mansion had modern heating and sewer systems, gas lights that operated by pressing a button, three working elevators, and 47 fireplaces. From rambling roofs and exquisite hand inlaid parquet floors to the gold and silver chandeliers and Tiffany art glass windows, you will be impressed by the staggering amount of creativity, energy, and expense poured into each and every detail.

Mrs. Winchester was understandably distressed and, as one did in those days, she consulted a spiritualist. Much to her horror, she was told that the spirit world was full of the ghosts of people (and doubtless buffalo) killed by her husband's rifles. They were very angry with her, and things were going to get bad. Her only chance, the spiritualist said, was to build a house, and keep building it. For if the house was never finished, no ghost could settle into it, and she could never be haunted.

The bedroom that Sarah was believed to have died in.                                  Stairway to nowhere.                                       

And so we have a warren-like structure in suburban San José that makes a fortune from those who believe in ghosts. There are many features in the house supposedly designed to confuse (or possibly trap) unwary spirits: doors that are very small or lead nowhere; long, winding staircases with very shallow risers; windows that look into other parts of the house; pillars installed upside down and the number 13 found everywhere.

The Mystery House is especially busy at Halloween. They do special tours in the middle of the night in which bold ghost hunters get to wander the spooky hallways in the dark, armed only with a special Mystery House flashlight (which you get to keep afterwards). 

That, of course, is the commercial front, and very successful it is too. The reality is rather different. The description of the house is correct, but most of the anomalies can be put down to the continual building and to much less bizarre aspects of Mrs. Winchester's life. The shallow stairs were a result of severe arthritis that prevented her from raising her feet very far. Everything was built small because she was only 4' 10" and designed the house around herself. She was a very distrusting person and used internal windows to keep an eye on her staff.

What is more, if you take the "Behind the Scenes" tour you discover that Mrs. Winchester was actually very smart. The house is full of the latest (for Victorian times) technological marvels. It has gas lighting in every room, it recycles rainwater in case of drought, and it was one of the first buildings in the area to be earthquake-proofed.
The house was originally seven stories tall until the 1906 earthquake which levelled three stories leaving the structure to be four stories tall.

Number of rooms: 160

Cost: $5,500,000

Date of Construction: 1884 - September 5, 1922 (38 continuous years!)

Number of stories: Prior to 1906 Earthquake - 7; presently 4

Number of acres: Originally 161.919; presently 4

Number of basements: 2

Heating: Steam, forced air, fireplaces

Number of windows: Frames 1,257; panes approx. 10,000

Number of doors: Doorways 467, doors approx. 950 not including cabinet doors.

Number of fireplaces: 47 (gas, wood, or coal burning)

Number of chimneys: Presently 17 with evidence of 2 others

Number of cars at her death: 2 (a 1917 Pierce Arrow Limousine & a 1916 4 cyl. Buick truck)

Number of bedrooms: Approx. 40

Number of kitchens: 5 or 6

Number of staircases: 40, total of stair steps - 367

Number of skylights: Approx. 52

Number of gallons of paint required to paint entire home: Over 20,000

Number of ballrooms: 2 (one nearly complete, and one under construction)

Blueprints available: None, Mrs. Winchester never had a master set of blueprints, but did sketch out individual rooms on paper and even tablecloths.

Sarah Winchester was the first to report ghost in the house. Often, she spoke to them nightly, ringing a bell at midnight to summon them. A second bell run at 2:00 a.m. told them it was time to leave. However, it seems that someone might need to ring a bell around the place again. The unusual goings-on reported in the Winchester House include organ music in the Blue Room where Sarah died, a couple lingering in the corner of a bedroom, cold spots in Sarah's bedroom, and apparitions of Sarah. Perhaps one of the oddest is the smell of chicken soup coming from a long-unused kitchen.

 Since Sarah Winchester's death, several psychics have reported feeling cold spots and seeing red balls of light that fade and explode.

 Besides their normal tours, Winchester Mystery House offers special flashlights tours every Friday the thirteenth and at Christmas.

 Today the home is owned by Winchester Investments LLC, and it retains unique touches that reflect Winchester's beliefs and her reported preoccupation with warding off malevolent spirits. These spirits are said to have directly inspired her as to the way the house should be built. The number thirteen and spider web motifs, which had some sort of spiritual meaning to her, reappear around the house. For example, an expensive imported chandelier that originally had 12 candle-holders was altered to accommodate 13 candles, wall clothes hooks are in multiples of 13, and a spider web-patterned stained glass window contains 13 colored stones. The sink's drain covers also have 13 holes. In tribute, the house's current groundskeepers have created a topiary tree shaped like the numeral 13. Also, every Friday the 13th the large bell on the property is rung 13 times at 1 o'clock p.m. (13:00) in tribute to Winchester.

Ghost Photos caught at Winchester Mystery House

This image was captured in a mirror


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