When rifle heiress Sarah Winchester began building her Victorian-style mansion in 1884, she pledged that the construction would never end during her lifetime. The reason? She thought the continuous noise would appease the ghosts that plagued her after the deaths of her husband and daughter as well as help her attain eternal life.
The Mysterious Winchester House
This spooky, rambling California mansion remains a testament to one eccentric, rich woman's unearthly fears.
It stands in the middle of suburban San Jose, California. You might not even notice it was there as you drive by , unless someone points it out. Still, this mansion, just across the street from a strip mall and down a little bit from a movie complex, is perhaps the strangest home ever built. Some people say it is haunted. Most certainly the woman who built it was haunted, if only by her own fears.
The story of this unique dwelling starts in 1839 with the birth of Sarah Pardee in New Haven, Connecticut. Sarah grew into a charming and striking young woman, though she stood less than five feet in height. She soon drew the attention of a young man from New Haven named William Wirt Winchester. Mr. Winchester's father, Oliver Winchester, was a successful businessman who, in 1857, bought a company that made repeating rifles. He changed the name of the business to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and redesigned the rifle to make it more effective. This new version, the "Henry," was capable of firing a shot every three seconds, a vast improvement over most guns at that time. The Henry soon became popular with Union troops during the Civil War and led to huge government contacts for the Winchester Company, allowing the family to amass an enormous fortune.
In 1862, Sarah married William, who soon became the heir to this vast fortune. Good times did not last for Mrs. Winchester, however. In 1866 she had her first and only child, a girl named Annie. The child contracted "marasmus" and died in less than 10 days. The event drove Mrs. Winchester to the edge of insanity. She eventually recovered, but a little more than 10 years later, in 1881, tragedy struck again when William died of tuberculosis. With his death Mrs. Winchester inherited over $20 million, a vast fortune for that time.
The story goes that Mrs. Winchester, inconsolable over her losses, was directed by a friend to a psychic medium for advice. This medium told her that the Winchester family was under a curse: the ghosts of all those thousands of men felled by Winchester arms now wanted revenge. They had killed her daughter and her husband and they would soon kill her.
According to the story, the medium urged Mrs. Winchester to move west. That she did, 1884, settling in the area of San Jose, California, supposedly guided by her dead husband. The change of location might well have as much to do with her health as with any ghost, however. Mrs. Winchester suffered from advanced arthritis and the area's Mediterranean-like climate was thought to ease the pain of aching joints.
In any case, Mrs. Winchester soon found a house still under construction that she liked and bought it along with 162 acres of surrounding land. Apparently one of the conditions set upon her by the medium in order to appease the spirits was that she must continue the construction of the house, never stopping. For the next 36 years Sarah Winchester kept a staff of 22 craftsmen busy 24 hours a day, seven days a week, building, altering and rebuilding the house. There was no master plan, but each morning Sarah would meet with her foreman and show him her sketches for that day's work. Rooms were added to rooms which soon grew into whole wings. Eventually the mansion reached a height of seven stories and had three elevators and 47 fireplaces.
The building was, to say the least, odd. Stairs disappeared into ceilings, doors opened out into thin air from upper stories, skylights were placed in the floors of upper rooms, closets opened into solid walls, stairposts were installed upside-down and chimneys stopped short of the roof. It is unclear exactly what Mrs. Winchester was trying to accomplish in her design. Was she trying to appease the spirits, fool them, or trap them?
Mrs. Winchester seemed to have a flair for design. She was also intrigued with the number 13 and repeated it throughout the house. Many of the windows had thirteen panes. An imported chandelier was altered to carry thirteen candles. The greenhouse had 13 copulas. All the stairways, except one, had thirteen steps.
Despite the size of the house, Mrs. Winchester lived in the mansion alone for most of her years with only servants for company. Perhaps her only release from this self-enforced solitude was playing the piano, which could often be heard by those passing by outside.
Mrs. Winchester's building program met with disaster, however, on April 18, 1906. On that day a major earthquake struck the region. The upper part of the house collapsed, never to be rebuilt. Mrs. Winchester was trapped in her bedroom when the chimney fell and had to be rescued. Soon after, however, workmen cleared away the rubble and construction started again. Thirty rooms at the front of the house, however, were walled off and would never be completed.
For the next sixteen years rooms were added one after another. Then on September 5, 1922, Sarah Winchester died in her sleep at the age of 83. The furnishings were removed and the mansion was sold to a group of investors who opened it as a tourist attraction which it remains so today. Because there was no master plan, nobody is really sure how many rooms are in the building. Each new count seems to come up with a different number. It is estimated, however, that there are around 160 rooms. The estate has been designated a California Historical Landmark and the city has grown up around it. All but 4½ of its original 162 acres has been sold off to feed the expansion of the city.
Is the mansion haunted? Sarah Winchester was convinced it was, and conducted regular séances to keep in touch with the spirits. Staff members at the mansion have reported seeing strange things: Door knobs that move by themselves, cold spots where there shouldn't be, windows that banged shut so hard they'd shatter and chandeliers swinging by themselves.