The Winchester House in San Jose, California was once the largest and most expensive private residence in the United States. Construction started in 1884 and continued without interruption until 1922, with armies of workers on-site daily, adding room after room to the home without so much as an official set of building plans. Today it’s known as the Winchester Mystery House and is owned by Winchester Investments LLC and it’s listed as a California Historic Landmark. The lengthy construction period is just one of the mysterious angles of this story, as is the personal life story of the home owner, Sarah Winchester. But in reality, there is no single reason to completely define the “mystery” portion of the house name, but instead a compilation of it’s strange history; one complete with stories of mediums and hauntings, endless remodeling and new construction, and the strange behaviors of Mrs. Sarah Winchester.
Early Life of Sarah Winchester
Sarah Winchester was born sometime around 1840, the exact date isn’t known; the daughter of a carriage maker in New Haven, Connecticut. She grew up in the lap of luxury, enjoying a private school education where she learned to speak four languages and became an expert pianist. Upon reaching her adult years, she married William Wirt Winchester, son of Connecticut Lieutenant Governor Oliver F. Winchester who was also the owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Her early married years mirrored her own childhood in many ways and she and her husband were included in the highest circles of New England Society. In 1866, her life took a tragic turn, one which she would never fully recover from, when her infant daughter Annie died shortly after her birth from marasmus. At the time little was known about the disease, only that it was irreversible and quickly overcame the children it affected. Marasmus is a severe form of malnutrition which is caused by the body’s inability to metabolize proteins, regardless of consumption levels. Her grief pushed her into a great depression and the couple had no more children to help ease her grief.
Not much is known about the family from the point of their only child’s death until William’s father dying in December of 1880, 11 days after his 70th birthday. His death left the company in the hands of his only son. However, William’s tenure as President of Winchester Arms would be extremely short as he too passed away from tuberculosis in March of 1881, at the age of 43. With both her husband and father-in-law deceased, Sarah inherited a nearly 50% stake in the Winchester Arms company and nearly $20 million dollars, making her one of the wealthiest women in America overnight. It’s at this point in Sarah Winchester’s life that the mystery begins, starting with rumors that she consulted with a spiritualist to help guide her through her grief.
The Widower, Sarah Winchester
According to several sources, Sarah went into an even deeper depression after losing her father-in-law and then her husband. It was said that she went searching for answers and ended up seeking help from a spiritualist in Boston. The story at this point becomes mired in opinion, speculation, and strangeness. California historian Ralph Rambo claimed that immediately after the death of her husband, Sarah went on a world tour that lasted for nearly three years. There have been multiple theories of what she did during the long hiatus but none of them can be substantiated with any details. What we do know is that sometime before 1884, she returned to the United States and settled in the Santa Clara Valley but only after purchasing an unfinished eight room farmhouse on 161 acres of land from a Dr. Caldwell. She did have relatives in the area, and it wasn’t seen as unusual for a woman of her wealth to buy a large estate. A different version of the story ties to the Boston medium rumor. Those stories tell the tale that the Boston medium channeled her late husband and through her, told Sarah to travel west to find a suitable place to build a house. She also was instructed that this house should be continuously under construction as appeasement to the ghosts of all those who were killed by the weapons the Winchester Repeating Arms company had produced. The story from that point has different variations, including one where the Boston medium told Sarah that both her infant daughter and her husband were “taken” as revenge for those deaths. There are other stories that draw similar conclusions connecting Winchester Arms with spirits killed by the guns they manufactured, but also stories that paint Sarah as feeling immense guilty for being part of the family business. Still other stories are seemingly spiced up with the idea that the Winchester family was cursed and the even stranger idea that continually building a house would somehow appease these angry spirits. Its’ also been said that the Boston medium told Sarah that if she stopped building the house, she too would be “taken.”
Early Construction of the Winchester House
The project was started using the original unfinished property that Sarah purchased from Dr. Caldwell. Construction began almost immediately upon the final sales documents being signed. One fact that is continuously mentioned in the lore is that Sarah did not have a formal architectural drawing or building plans drafted, but instead chose to be her own planner, designer, and fortunately her own source of financing. The combination of her unlimited finances and the large building project made Sarah Winchester the talk of the region. She was reported to have paid the tradesmen and contractors who worked on her house, wages which were six-times above the market rate at that time. Simultaneously she was also becoming well-known for her generosity; a characteristic the local community embraced. Yet despite her public generosity, it was also no secret that she was interested in just the opposite when she was at home, wishing for complete seclusion. This point was made obvious by the huge screening hedgerow which was installed around the house while it was under construction; it was a polite way to let people know not to bother her.
The Never Ending Construction Project
It was said that Sarah began building like a woman possessed, but by what or whom, no one was certain. Because of her habit of overpaying, she had her pick of local workers and craftsmen who spent the greater part of the next 36 years building, demolishing, rebuilding, and altering the ever-growing structure. It was believed that she kept a crew of 22 carpenters as permanent staff; working in shifts on projects which never ended. Her house was constantly growing and the sounds of hammers, saws, and men moving materials were heard 24 hours a day. Rooms were added to rooms which eventually evolved into entire wings. Floors were added, doors and windows relocated, stairways and elevators were integrated until the house was seven stories tall.
Sarah was a very involved with the work on a regular basis. She would meet with her hired work crews each day to schedule new construction or to solve problems that arose during the night. She was mentally sharp and quickly came up with solutions to keep the building project moving ahead. Some sources claim Sarah purposefully built the house in a non-traditional manner to confuse the spirits, while others claimed she made it confusing so that she could easily hide from a spectral intruder. In fact, the sheer size of the house allowed Sarah to remain in near-seclusion; from the workers, not ghosts. It was reported that she spent much of her time wandering the house, playing the piano, and only occasionally talking to her staff. This routine continued until 1906, when tragedy struck in the form of the Great San Francisco Earthquake.
The Earthquake and Aftermath
Sarah was asleep in a room known as the Daisy Room, when the quake struck. She was temporarily trapped in that room while much of the mansion crumbled around her and we can only guess at the terror she must have felt the entire time. The damage done to the house was severe and at first thought ruinous. The top three floors collapsed completely, falling into the adjacent gardens. Several of the cupolas fell over, fireplaces and chimneys crumbled, and the structural base of the entire building was questioned. Yet, despite the outward damage and partial loss of the upper home, the Winchester House fared much better than the properties around it. Some of the paranormal historians who have researched the house claim that the earthquake was a sign indicating to Sarah that this house should never be finished; the resulting damage seemed to be a warning to her to keep up with construction. Whens he was freed from her temporary prison, she had the builders stop working on the nearly-completed front part of the house and board it up, choosing to leave much of the damaged section unfinished and un-repaired. Another story told the tale slightly differently; this version drew upon the earlier Boston medium tale. It was said that the spirits were angry with her for taking too much time to furnish and decorate newly finished rooms instead of adding additional ones.
Connections to the Supernatural
In hindsight it’s obvious that Sarah was intrigued by the number 13, but with no documented reason why. Nearly every window contained 13 panes of glass; many of 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 aside from one had 13 steps. The one exception has 42 steps. It is a winding staircase with 42 risers but only rises nine feet because each step is only two inches high. The reason why it was built this way is unknown. There are opposing stories that the connection to the number 13 was fabricated by later owners who were pushing a “haunted house” narrative to the public to build notoriety.
The house is also tied to many other paranormal stories or events including objects moving by their own power, music suddenly being heard, and claims of ghost sightings. There have been numerous visitors, employees, and tourists who still today make claims of involvement in something strange and supernatural. Photographs inside the house have captured strange orbs and unexplained imagery.
The House – By the Numbers
At the time of her death, the unrelenting construction had rambled over six acres. The sprawling mansion contained 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, 40 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. It also contained 3 elevators, 2 basements and 1 shower. But despite what the house does have, it’s what it doesn’t have, that makes it interesting. As mentioned earlier, the house didn’t have a master set of building plans, so the end result has flights of stairs which lead to nowhere, floors that have doors and windows in them and doors that open into solid walls. One of these “floor doors” opens to a drop of two stories, which could be deadly. The total footage of the mansion is 24,000 square feet.
Some of the more interesting rooms in the mansion are now “must see” spots on the tour. These include the $25,000 Storeroom which displays several artisan windows that Sarah Winchester purchased during her lifetime. At the time of her death in 1922, the windows were valued at $25,000 (about $350,000 in today’s dollars) and are understood to be worth in the millions now. There is also a Séance Room near the center of the house where according to the stories, is where Mrs. Winchester came nightly to communicate with the spirits and receive instructions for additional construction. Mrs. Winchester carried the only key to this room which features only one entrance, but strangely enough, three exits. There is also the Daisy bedroom, where Sarah was trapped during the earthquake, a grand ballroom, an observation tower, and many different bedrooms, including Sarah’s own room.
Sarah Winchester Passes Away and the Aftermath Surrounding Her Death
Sarah passed away on September 5th, 1922 from heart failure at 83, and she was laid to rest beside her late husband. Her vast fortune was shared among her sister and her many nieces and nephews and some of her most trusted employees. She also left a substantial endowment to the Winchester Clinic of the General Hospital Society of Connecticut, for the care and treatment of tuberculosis patients; a clinic which still exists today. Mrs. Winchester’s personal property, including the furnishings, household goods, pictures, jewelry, and papers were left to her niece, Mrs. Marian Merriman Marriott. The massive home had so much furniture that it required six trucks working nearly six weeks to move it all away. The mansion and farm became part of the estate and both were sold at a later date.
A group of investors bought the Winchester house to be used as a tourist attraction due to its size. An interesting twist to the story is just how difficult it was for the new owners to count the number of rooms in the house. Mrs. Winchester didn’t follow blueprints nor did she have a floor plan laid out to be used as a guide. Reports are that workers routinely became lost in the maze of rooms during counts. Each time the final tally came up different, with the number ranging between 148 and 160, yet to this day these numbers are still disputed. Eventually, the house was declared a historical landmark by the State of California and is registered with the National Park Service.
The Winchester House Today
The house has been a tourist attraction for many years, with 110 of the rooms available for the public to see through a guided tour process. A new in-depth tour, the first new one in two decades, will open in 2017, taking guests into areas which have been shuttered for decades.