The Winchester House, also called the Winchester Mystery House, is a mansion constructed for ghosts.
Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun tycoon William Wirt Winchester, once lived at the house known as The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Nine months after Winchester’s passing in 1922, the home started to draw tourists. The large, oddly constructed Victorian and Gothic home is well known for its size and architectural features.
Who was Sarah Winchester?
Sarah Winchester was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1839. She was usually referred to as Sallie after her paternal grandmother. In 1862, she got hitched to William Wirt Winchester.
Winchester gave birth to a girl in 1866, and the family named her Annie Pardee Winchester. The infant struggled to survive, was given a marasmus diagnosis, and passed away a month later.
Winchester’s mother, father-in-law, and husband all passed away between the fall of 1880 and the spring of 1881. Her husband left her with a sizable inheritance.
Mary Converse, her oldest sister, passed away in 1884. Her doctor advised moving to a warmer, dryer area around this time since she started developing rheumatoid arthritis. Winchester relocated from New Haven, Connecticut, to California in 1885 when he was 46 years old.
Sarah L. Winchester’s decision to relocate, according to Mary Jo Ignoffo in her book Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune, may have been influenced by her doctor’s advice, her fond memories of visiting San Francisco with her husband in the 1870s, as well as advertisements touting the state’s favorable climate and health advantages.
Winchester requested that her three surviving sisters accompany her to California, and they complied.
A Winchester Repeating Arms Company representative from San Francisco named Edward “Ned” Rambo led Winchester on a tour of the Santa Clara valley in 1886 in search of a residence. He took her to see a 45-acre ranch that was up for sale close to San Jose.
She bought the land from John Hamm, which comprised an eight-room, two-story farmhouse. She gave her new house the name Llanada Villa since the property made her think of Llanada Alavesa from the Basque region.
Daisy Merriman, Winchester’s niece, moved in with her when she was about twenty-one years old in 1890. Merriman was hired as Winchester’s administrative assistant to handle banking and commercial correspondence. They were paid members of the Red Cross and Associated Charities and participated in philanthropic activities together.
Winchester covered the cost of Daisy’s marriage to Frederick Marriott III in 1903. Winchester bought many houses and pieces of land in Atherton that same year. Daisy and her new husband were allowed to reside in one of the houses, which they did.
Later, Winchester bought a house for the couple nearer the railway station so Fredrick could commute there. Instead of constructing a home, Winchester bought a houseboat, or ark as they were known at the time, in 1904 and moved onto a sizable plot of land north of Coyote Point, close to the hamlet of Burlingame.
At the age of 83, Winchester passed away on September 5, 1922.
What Is the Story Behind the Winchester House?
While constructing a home on Prospect Hill in New Haven, Winchester and her husband became interested in architecture and interior design. Winchester recruited at least two architects with the intention of enlarging the farmhouse, but she fired them and decided to handle the planning herself.
She meticulously planned each room, oversaw the work, and asked the carpenters she hired for guidance. The then-common world’s fairs served as her inspiration for the design of the home. Although the home’s size was comparable to other houses at the time, a woman managing such a project was rare.
According to Colin Dickey in his book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, she could be regarded as an architectural pioneer of the era.
She was known to start over and stop work if the progress did not satisfy her standards, creating a maze-like structure. A seven-story structure was reportedly destroyed and rebuilt sixteen times, according to an article in the San Jose News from 1897.
Some walled-off external windows and doors were left in place as the house grew in size due to her extensions. In some areas of the house, there are now up to five levels. With Gothic and Romanesque aspects, the design was primarily Victorian.
Because Winchester became weary easily, he would regularly take pauses from construction, some of which lasted months. Contrary to assertions made in papers and by tour guides that she kept the mansion under construction nonstop for 38 years straight until her death in 1922, this significantly slowed down progress.
The house had about 500 rooms at its height.
The purpose of Winchester’s expansive residence, according to Bruce Spoon, a San Jose State College student who chose to write about it for his master’s thesis in 1951, was to convey her artistic vision and preserve jobs for workers.
What Happened to the Winchester House?
The Winchester House sustained significant damage in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Despite tales to the contrary, there is no proof that Winchester was present in the San Jose house. After the earthquake, she spent most of her time at her home in Atherton, where she owned other residences throughout California.
Most of the chimneys were destroyed, along with the seven-story tower. The third and fourth-story expansions, as well as one whole wing, were all demolished. After the earthquake, Winchester removed the debris but did not do anything else to the property.
Where balconies had once been, there were now empty doors, pipes sticking out of what had once been window boxes, and staircases that abruptly ended at higher floors.
With the exception of minor maintenance tasks and the addition of an elevator in 1916, Winchester only worked on the San Jose house after 1910 owing to deteriorating health. She spent her time at this point focusing on her finances and creating an investment portfolio. She was “much more successful building an investment portfolio than a mansion,” according to Mary Jo Ignoffo.
The home had 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairs, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and six kitchens when Winchester passed away in 1922.
Attraction For Travelers
Nine months after Winchester’s passing in 1922, the home started to draw tourists. The house was in bad shape and was thought to be worthless. Investors bought the property and leased it to John and Mayme Brown, who converted it into a tourist destination. Later, in 1931, they bought the house. After Winchester’s passing, the house underwent many room alterations.
Mayme Brown served as the home’s first tour guide. When they learned of superstitious claims being made about the house and Winchester, Winchester’s former neighbors, acquaintances, and employees became unhappy and angry that the Browns were profiting from lies. They characterized Winchester as more level-headed and business-savvy than the majority of males.
Harry Houdini paid the house a quick visit in 1924 and is said to have been intrigued by its unique design and architectural innovations. Still, he could not conduct a thorough inspection due to other obligations. Some reports claim Houdini advised tour operators to use “Winchester mystery home” as a marketing term for the building.
The home was in bad health when Keith Kittle, a former Disneyland, and Frontier Village worker, took over as general manager in 1973. He had the mansion refurbished in the 1970s and 1980s and a Winchester rifle museum constructed.
He started a marketing effort that featured enormous billboards along the highways and applied for historical landmark status. The house on the billboards is silhouetted, suggesting the possibility of a ghost encounter. He played on the history and superstition already spreading, encouraging attendance. Until 1996, Kittle served as general manager.
As of September 2022, Winchester Mystery Mansion, LLC, a private company that stands in for the Brown ancestors, owns and runs the house. Author Mary Jo Ignoffo claimed that tour guides must adhere to a script that emphasizes fabrications and falsehoods in her book Captive of the Labyrinth.
Ignoffo reported that one of the guides bemoaned, “Because I have to tell people lies, I feel so conflicted! My heart aches a little for Sarah each time I walk through the house and have to bring up 13s and other “kooky” stuff. Every time a visitor uses the phrase “such a nutcase,” I have to hold my mouth.”
The True Story Behind the Winchester House
Over the years, different rumors, exaggerations, and myths have added to the mystique surrounding Winchester, and popular writers have found some disturbing tales that could explain why the building was constructed.
She Inherited the Money and Didn’t Know What to Do with It
Tourist publications that can be purchased at the Winchester Mystery House make claims that Winchester may have inherited up to $20 million and could have made $1,000 each day in royalties from her inheritance.
Ignoffo reports that the value of her husband’s estate in 1881 was $362,330, but this sum included around $300,000 in stock that Winchester would receive when her mother-in-law passed away in 1898.
She had a total of 777 shares valued at $77,700, which included her husband’s Winchester Repeating Arms Company interests. Between 1880 and 1885, the company paid an average dividend of $7,770 per year.
She was Haunted by Ghosts
Susy Smith, a novelist, is credited with creating the urban legends surrounding her desire to go from the east coast to California in her 1967 book Prominent American Ghosts.
According to Smith’s account, Winchester went to a medium named Adam Coons in Boston, who informed her that she and her family were being haunted by the ghosts of people who had been killed by Winchester rifles, that she had to build a house for these ghosts, and that she had never to finish the project.
Since then, brochures and publications have consistently said that Winchester met a medium. There is no proof that Winchester met with a psychic medium, even though it is feasible given that this was normal practice for women of her status at the time, according to Ignoffo.
A researcher called Emily Mace and others searched through editions of the spiritualist publication Banner of Light and Boston city directories that mentioned spiritualists in the area. Still, they could not locate anyone by the name of Adam Coons.
Why The Winchester House Was Never Finished
Newspaper mentions of Winchester first appeared around 1895. The articles in these local publications were rife with rumors regarding Winchester and the development of her San Jose residence.
Despite massive, elaborate homes being frequently erected by the wealthy, her lack of touch with neighbors and the knowledge that her income originated from the weapons industry contributed to a superstitious narrative.
The media reported that Winchester believed stopping the work would bring ill luck, which is why it was continuing. This hypothesis ultimately developed into rumors that she thought she would pass away if the construction stopped.
When the Winchester house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) mistakenly reported that construction took 38 years. They also emphasized that Winchester believed she had to keep building or she would pass away.
Also, HABS misidentified the acquisition date as 1884 when county records indicate it was actually made in 1886.
A few papers were published that were critical of the superstitious perspective. In one, an unnamed friend denied these superstitious charges, calling them ridiculous and praising Winchester for being an uncommonly rational person.
When Winchester lived in the Atherton mansion in 1915, her family spent nearly a year there to attend the nine-month-long Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The staff shut down the house for a week so they could attend the fair, but no construction took place during this time.
There needs to be proof, according to Ignoffo, that Winchester was forced to continue her construction project when she would have chosen to concentrate on estate planning.
The Strange Layout of the Winchester House
The notion that Winchester’s sanity was in question and that she constructed her house in a bizarre, maze-like manner to confuse and prevent spirits from attacking her first surfaced in the middle of the 1890s and has continued to gain ground since her passing.
Winchester’s religiosity and bad mental health are demonstrated by the doors and windows that open to nothing, the abnormally short steps, the stairs that stop at the ceiling, the inside barred windows, and the trap doors on the floor.
These peculiarities in the house have straightforward causes, claim paranormal investigators Nickell and Ignoffo. Before the house modifications, the barred windows were outside windows that were closed up.
Due to the 1906 earthquake and the significant damage it caused to the property, doors, and windows that opened to nothing were a result. Due to Winchester’s deteriorating health, modest steps were constructed. The trap doors were constructed in a greenhouse where extra water could flow and be piped to an outdoor garden.
Winchester decided not to restore the home after the earthquake-related destruction.
The Winchester House Clocktower
The tower bell was used as a site fire alarm to summon construction workers. Later, according to Joe Nickell, accusations that it was used to “summon spirits” surfaced.
Eerie Music at Night
Joe Nickell believes that Winchester frequently played the pump organ in the Grand Ballroom when she couldn’t sleep, which accounts for reports that nearby neighbors heard “ghostly music” emanating from the home.
Parties for the Dead
Joe Nickell contends that the reports that Winchester hosted parties for the dead in her house, complete with opulent foods served on gold plates kept in a safe, are fantastical and unsupported. Nickell claimed that when the safe was opened after her passing, nothing except personal items and a lock of her infant’s hair were discovered instead of the expected gold plates.
The Blood of Thousands
The most pervasive myth about Winchester’s home construction around the turn of the 20th century is that she felt terrible guilt over all the murders brought on by Winchester rifles and over inheriting such a sizable sum of money from the arms industry.
Given that the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was seen as successful in the 1800s and that having a weapon was considered essential for survival, Ignoffo contends that Winchester was unlikely to be at fault.
Obsessed And Superstitious
As Winchester aged, particularly around 1900 as her health problems, which included arthritis, missing teeth, and neuritis, grew worse, according to Ignoffo and paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, she became more solitary and reclusive.
She developed a mysterious reputation due to her reluctance to interact with people in public or connect with her peers, which fueled the belief that she was superstitious. Miss Henrietta Severs, Winchester’s longtime friend, claims that Winchester had no superstitious beliefs.
Nobody who knew Winchester’s family, coworkers, or gardeners ever accused her of being crazy, superstitious, or suffering from guilt.
In her will, all of her employees were listed as beneficiaries.
US Presidents Turned Down by Sarah Winchester
Winchester turned down two invitations to host American presidents. First, a committee was formed to plan accommodations for President William McKinley’s visit in 1901, but Winchester still needed to issue an invitation.
Without stopping, the president was traveling with his official coaches by the palace. Second, a local tale claims that when President Theodore Roosevelt arrived in 1903, Winchester refused to unlock a gate for him.
This was untrue since the president had no desire to see Winchester because a visit to his house might have increased the sale of rifles. He did not want to appear to be supporting any brand.
Despite the fact that she had valid reasons for not entertaining the presidents, these incidents fueled allegations that she was mentally unstable and a crank.
Why was Sarah Winchester Obsessed with the Number Thirteen?
The lore holds that Winchester’s apparent fixation with the number thirteen is the reason behind the building’s thirteen bedrooms, thirteen baths, and thirteen windows in some rooms.
However, these and “the other unusual elements, which have made the house a world-famous oddity, were added after Mrs. Winchester’s death,” claims carpenter James Perkins.
Did Sarah Winchester Hold Sessions with Spirits?
People who spent every day with Winchester reported that she had little interest in séances and that there was no evidence of them taking place there.
However, a false urban legend has emerged that she conducted midnight to two in the morning séances alone in the blue room or in a closet to consult ghosts about the construction that needed to be done the following day.
The closet séances were improbable given that they were usually social gatherings and not performed by individuals, in addition to the fact that records indicate the blue room was the gardener’s bedroom. There were no records mentioning seances at the Winchester House.
Hauntings at the Winchester House
Both tourists and tour guides have reported encountering chilly areas, footsteps, cooking odors, strange noises, whispers, slamming doors and windows, and feelings of being watched.
According to investigator Joe Nickell, these could be the result of confirmation bias and suggestibility brought on by media attention and reports that the mansion is the most haunted in the country or possibly the entire globe or that it is home to more than a thousand spirits.
In one instance, according to Nickell, a mysterious figure that people believed to be a ghost turned out to be a member of the household’s staff. According to Nickell, there is no proof that the house is haunted, and purported whispering noises can be made up in the listener’s head or result from wind noises.
Additionally, temperature oscillations are typical in old, sprawling, draughty houses; therefore, strange noises may be explained by the house settling and changes in the outside temperature.
RIP Victims of the Winchester rifles.
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