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The Winchester Mystery House

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

December 29, 2011

Winchester Mystery House

Located in Downtown San Jose, California, this incredible Gothic Victorian mansion is an oddity, surrounded by freeways, fast food outlets, and the high rises of Silicon Valley. In the bygone days, when Santa Clara County was known for its orchards, the eccentric Winchester Rifle heiress, Sarah Winchester, designed and built this legendary house. This is another of the “Most Haunted Houses in America,” but this isn’t so much a paranormal story as one about a woman whose life was reputedly ruled and ruined by belief in the paranormal.

Sarah Winchester

Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1839. In 1862, during the height of the American Civil War, Sarah married William Winchester, the sole child of Oliver Winchester, owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The couple only had one child, Annie, who died in infancy of tuberculosis. Oliver died in 1880 and was quickly followed by William, who died in 1881. Her husband, like her child, died of tuberculosis and Sarah became a major benefactor to pulmonary research, donating $2 million during her lifetime to this cause. As the last Winchester, Sarah became an independently wealthy woman. Her husband bequeathed to her fifty percent of the Winchester Company and the substantial income of $1,000 per day, tax free as it was then.

Sarah slipped into a deep depression following the deaths of her family members. But do the facts end here? Sarah, now alone and vulnerable, was reputedly convinced her family members were victims of a curse. Allegedly, she travelled to Boston to consult with psychic medium Adam Coons (also reported as “Coombs”), who confirmed the wealthy widow’s fears that the Winchester family was cursed. He explained that the spirits of those people and animals who had died at the hands of a Winchester rifle, “the gun that won the West,” were avenging their deaths by claiming the lives of her husband, child, and father-in-law. Sarah was next.

Coons had a peculiar solution. The only way Sarah could appease the spirits was to build them a house in which they could live. Others claim she was told to build a house to confuse the spirits. He advised that his client move west and build this home. As long as the house was being built, the spirits would not harm Sarah. Utterly convinced by Coons and desperate to remove this “curse,” Sarah relocated to San Jose and purchased an eight-room farmhouse. Coons’s cruel counsel commenced Sarah’s mission to create a house that became a constant thirty-eight-year work in progress leading to an astonishing labyrinthian mansion. On what was once a hundred-sixty-acre estate, the contemporary building boasts some staggering statistics: one-hundred-sixty rooms and four stories (in its prime the house had seven stories), with six kitchens, forty bedrooms, nineteen chimneys, forty staircases, forty-seven fireplaces, fifty-two skylights, nine-hundred-fifty doors, three elevators, two ballrooms, and ten thousand windows!

It’s said that Sarah had builders working twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, over the four decades of construction. In total, the mansion was remodelled over six hundred times at a cost of five and a half million dollars. However, there were only ever two sets of formal blueprints, for the elevators and the boiler. All other plans were sketched onto scraps of paper, napkins, or even tablecloths and were destroyed upon implementation. The construction began in 1884 and ended on the day of Sarah’s death on the fifth of September, 1922. Apparently, Sarah’s goal was to never complete the remodelling, lest the spirits exact their revenge upon the last living Winchester.

I attended the complete Estate Tour of the house, including a guided tour of the mansion and the estate grounds. Sadly, none of the original furnishings adorn what must have once been an opulently decorated home. Upon Sarah’s death, her sole relative, niece Frances Marriot, auctioned off most of the furnishings. The tour guide informed us that it took eight weeks to remove all of the furniture from the premises, at six truckloads per day! Only twenty-four of the rooms are now furnished sparsely with donations, all genuine period furniture but not the original household décor. Aside from the fireplaces, elevators, a chandelier, an organ, and some original marble and tiling, all that remains now is the house.

One of the first rooms we visited was the “Séance Room,” built deep inside the house. The room has three exits but only one entrance. One door leads to a sink while another door opens to a ten-foot drop to the kitchen! According to our guide, this is where Sarah held nightly séances between the hours of midnight and 2 AM. At midnight the bells in the bell tower would ring to summon the spirits to the séance. When the séance was completed, the bells would toll to signal that it was time for the spirits to depart. Conflicting stories state that Sarah’s construction efforts were guided by the spirit of her husband, while the guide asserted that Sarah’s séances were an attempt to contact the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles, to seek their advice and instructions on how the following day’s construction should proceed. Of course, this runs contrary to the claim that she wanted to conceal her plans from the spirits.

inside of the Winchester Mystery House

If we believe the stories, when Sarah began her quest to placate the “spirits,” her life became inextricably bound to the paranormal, with superstition and fear influencing every part of her life. Sarah Winchester was, by all accounts, an educated woman of her time. She had attended school, was fluent in four languages, and was an accomplished musician. So why did she succumb to the occult? Why did she believe Coons’s superstitious theory and illogical solution, and to such an obsessive extent? It appears that Sarah suffered a powerful combination of grief, a natural predisposition to depression, and considerable guilt at her family’s bloodthirsty trade and subsequent affluence. Apparently, Sarah often referred to her family’s wealth as “blood money” derived from misfortune. Furthermore, this was still the zenith of Spiritualism. Perhaps these factors led to Sarah’s superstitions, her substantial wealth allowing for the indulgence of her eccentricity.

staircase leading to the ceiling

The Winchester mansion has many peculiar and redundant features. This is a house that could have been the brainchild of M.C. Escher. The house itself looks like an elaborate, colourful Victorian mansion, albeit with many add-ons; turrets, cupolas, and cornices. We started the tour in the stagecoach entrance and as we entered the house itself, we were directed to peer around a corner at a stairwell. This infamous stairwell leads straight to the ceiling!

This house is as eccentric as its owner and designer. The legend asserts that Sarah built the maze-like mansion to confuse and disorient any lurking spirits. However, the design truly succeeded in confusing her staff given the large and complicated nature of the premises coupled with the fact that Sarah didn’t ever want anyone to know her exact whereabouts—servants were summoned to a wing rather than a room. The house is a web of corridors, stairwells, and rooms within rooms within rooms. There are many doors high enough to only accommodate Sarah’s diminutive four-foot-ten-inch frame. There is a tiny, superfluous balcony. One room has a window built into the floor. Countless closets, doors, and windows open out onto blank walls. A “door to nowhere” opens outward to an eight-foot drop! A blind chimney stops short of the ceiling. There are numerous trapdoors and double-back hallways. There are security bars on internal windows. There is a “Room of Fires,” a sauna-like room with seven sources of heat, built to “ease Mrs. Winchester’s arthritis.” Most rooms have strange, awkwardly shaped alcoves of varying height and depth that aren’t large enough to house anything at all.

door to nowhere

All of the bathrooms have glass doors and spy holes, while the kitchen was designed so that Sarah could overhear the gossip of her staff. Apparently, if anyone ever proposed building plans, or discussed her plans or her, they were fired on the spot. For their loyalty and silence, her staff was paid $3 per day, triple the standard rate of the time. Throughout the house, curious, winding stairwells climb only a few feet and are raised only two inches high. While the tour guide initially explained this as another architectural attempt to “confuse the spirits,” the alternate theory was far more skeptical and realistic: that Sarah designed these “easy riser” stairwells with her chronic arthritis in mind.

During the 1906 earthquake, in the early hours of the morning, Sarah became trapped in a room in the front section of the house. The walls shifted and the door became jammed shut. She had been in the habit of sleeping in a different room each night, purportedly to “confuse” the spirits as to her whereabouts. Again, this only confused her staff when they couldn’t find her. Eventually, after a full hour of searching, she was located. The marks still exist on the door where a crowbar was employed to wedge it open.

The earthquake damage to the house was extensive. The entire top three floors collapsed into the garden and were never rebuilt. We were told that the incident convinced Sarah that the “spirits” were displeased with the progression of her handiwork as it appeared that she was nearing completion of the home. She promptly sealed off the front section of the house, thirty rooms in total, and they were never again used during her lifetime. Supposedly this was to ensure that the house was perpetually “under construction.” To this day they remain as they were, partially remodelled and with broken plaster and damaged walls as evidence of the quake. This episode also persuaded Sarah to select a permanent bedroom (with easy access to her séance room) and it was here that she died in her sleep at the age of eighty-three.

Today, the Winchester Mystery House is regarded as the safest house in California as far as earthquakes are concerned, as the mansion is built on floating foundations. This is a feature implemented by Sarah’s builders and not of her own design. Sarah’s builders were ahead of their time for environmental design—an upstairs green house was designed to conserve water. This feature was also built into her kitchens and bathrooms. The house has many modern conveniences that were seldom found at the time of its construction, including steam and forced-air heating, indoor toilets and plumbing, button controlled gas lights, a hot water shower, and the three elevators, one model of which is unique to the house. Sarah had yet another strange feature built into her home. A Victorian superstition of the time dictated that one column in every home must be installed upside down for good luck. As usual, Sarah took this notion to the extreme. She reversed the tradition and had every column placed upside down, bar one!

Despite her many guest rooms, parlors, and ballrooms, obviously named for convention, Sarah never had any guests, aside from one famous gentleman who never made it past the front door. One day, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt made an unannounced visit to the Winchester home. A particular rifle had been named after him, a limited-edition commemorative weapon. When Roosevelt appeared on the doorstep of the home, the staff member who greeted him, obviously unaccustomed to visitors, reprimanded the startled president for daring to try to enter through the front door. Obviously mistaken for a disruptive job applicant, Roosevelt was advised, “You’ll enter the house through the back entrance, like the rest of the servants!” Roosevelt was so highly offended that he left the grounds and never returned. In a more likely but less dramatic account, Roosevelt had requested a visit with Sarah but he was flatly refused. Another account claims that Harry Houdini once made an impromptu visit to the house. Houdini was graciously welcomed and even attended a midnight séance. However, the tour guide confirmed that this event took place in 1924, two years after Sarah’s death.

If we believe the stories, Sarah must have led a lonely and tortured life. Despite her painfully arthritic hands, she would often play the ballroom organ with great energy, “for the spirit guests.” Every night, the lady of the house would sit down to a lavish dinner alone—or so it would seem. The elaborately decorated table was always set for thirteen: Sarah, and her twelve spirit guests. Sarah was no Friggatriskaidekaphobe; she had an obsession with the number thirteen that was reflected throughout the house. This is a reoccurring theme, from the thirteen windows in most rooms to the thirteen steps for each stairwell and the thirteen drains in every sink. In the séance room, there are thirteen clothes hooks for the thirteen coats she supposedly used in her nightly ceremonies. Sarah was a preferred customer of the Tiffany Company in New York and the house still contains many fine examples of leadlight windows. The most prized example contains hundreds of crystals and cost $15,000. She was once invited to design her own leadlight window and created a piece that is a swirl of colours and stars (thirteen stars, of course).

One of the last rooms we visited was the ballroom, an elegant room that cost $9,000 to build. A door in the centre of the room was locked at all times during Sarah’s lifetime and only she had the key. Upon her death, her staff eagerly seized the keys and unlocked the door. Inside, they found a vault. Inside, they found another vault, and yet another within that. After unlocking a total of five vaults, they came to the treasure: not money or jewellery, as they had expected, but a lock of her husband’s hair, a lock of her daughter’s hair, and their obituaries. If Sarah was truly superstitious, perhaps she so carefully stored these precious keepsakes to hide them from those who would use them against her in a spell or a curse.

San Jose wasn’t always known as Silicon Valley. The region was previously known as the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight” as it was renowned for the Winchester orchards and local farms. The 160-acre Winchester estate was mostly farmland where plums, apricots, almonds, and walnuts were grown, dried, and sold at markets under Sarah Winchester’s own packing label. Only a few trees still exist on the grounds. The estate also contains a Firearms museum. But the Winchester Company didn’t only produce guns; they made silverware, flashlights, fishing tackle, roller skates, and electric irons. They were also the country’s largest producer of hardware, including farm and garden tools.

But are there any ghost stories surrounding the Winchester Mystery House? It must be noted that the tours are marketed as historical rather than ghost tours. I questioned the guide and while she didn’t have any personal experiences, she had heard stories from visitors. As always, these are stock ghost stories: footsteps down the halls, cold spots, orbs captured in photographs, the sound of doorknobs turning and doors banging, and sightings of Sarah. Various books and websites repeat these same stories about the mansion, including other tales of phantom organ playing, disembodied voices and screams, strange lights, strange smells, and even sightings of ectoplasm! Of course, various psychics have toured the house and capitalized on its reputation, including Sylvia Browne, who confirmed the “curse” and reported she witnessed the spirits of Sarah and fallen soldiers from the Civil War. Most surprising of all, there aren’t any reports of phantom hammering and construction. These people just don’t know how to invent a plausible ghost story! It seems that the stories come from the visitors, not the staff.

We should be skeptical about the stories surrounding the Winchester Mystery House. There are no primary documents attesting to the stories; in fact, they are all anecdotal and usually conflicting. Sarah was extremely reclusive and didn’t leave behind any diaries or letters revealing her beliefs. Books about the house and owner all provide second-hand information; one popular book was written by the grandson of a former gardener. The stories have likely been embellished over time. After all, Sarah was the subject of much gossip and rumour during her lifetime and beyond.

Did Sarah really visit a psychic? Even if she did, what took place during the sitting? Did she receive other advice that influenced her actions? She probably wasn’t instructed to move west; she had relatives in California and thus a reason to move. But what motivated her to build the house? Was she profoundly superstitious, or was this all-consuming project a hobby for the eccentric Sarah—a distraction from her loneliness and sorrow? The woman behind the Winchester Mystery House really is a mystery.

But the house’s strange design features are artifacts of previous renovations and designed for special needs. The winding double-back steps were designed with a pragmatic purpose—Sarah’s mobility. The barred windows in internal rooms were once external and the bars served a valid security purpose. The chimney that stops short of the ceiling is located where a roof once stood. The windows in floors were once skylights in roofs, and the doors that open onto walls are simply examples of rooms added on to other rooms.

It is said that when Sarah died the news of her demise spread quickly throughout the estate. Her servants and builders immediately laid down their tools; half-hammered nails can be found throughout the mansion, the work halted mid-task. However, the existing house and six acres of the estate necessitate constant maintenance: there are gardens to care for, rooms to paint, and constant cleaning and repairs. In a way, Sarah’s project continues to this day.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.