For nearly 100 years, the Winchester Mystery House located in San Jose, California has been Mecca for paranormal investigators, ghost hunters, mediums, and even non- paranormal believers. On February 2, 2018, the house and its chilling past will be attracting increased interest when the supernatural horror movie “Winchester,” starring the wonderful Dame Helen Mirren in the lead role, is released.
The Oscar-winning actress plays Sarah Winchester, a grieving, reclusive and tormented heiress to a firearms fortune, has a supernatural compulsion to build a house that to the outsider looks like a “monstrous monument to a disturbed woman’s madness.” The house is a prison, an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts who died at the hands of her husband’s guns, and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters…
But, before you see the movie, here are some of the myths, folklore and real-life events that surround the Winchester Mystery House. You decide what is fact and what is fiction…
Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born in 1840 in New Haven, Connecticut and married William Wirt Winchester, on September 30, 1862. William’s father was Oliver Fisher Winchester, the founder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company – the manufacturer of the highly successful rifle often referred to as “The Gun That Won the West.”
Happily married, Sarah and William traveled among the wealthiest of social circles New England had to offer. When Sarah gave birth to their only child, Annie Pardee Winchester on July 12, 1866, it seemed as though life for the Winchesters was perfect. Unfortunately, due to an infantile disease known as Marasmus (a severe form of malnutrition due to the body’s inability to metabolize proteins), Annie died 40 days later.
On December 11, 1880, adversity struck the Winchesters twice more. The first time was when Oliver Winchester passed away at the age of 70 after being in ill health for some time. The second occurred three months later on March 7, 1881, when William succumbed to tuberculosis.
William’s share of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company – roughly 50 percent and valued at approximately $20 million (more than $450 million in 2018) – transferred to Sarah, giving her an income of roughly $1,000 per day.
She used a portion of this inheritance to finance an endowment that funded Yale New Haven Hospital’s Winchester Chest Clinic, which is still operating today. The clinic provides evaluation and treatment services to patients with tuberculosis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, interstitial lung disease, pulmonary vascular processes, lung cancer, cystic fibrosis and undiagnosed or general respiratory problems.
An alleged spiritualist, Sarah was devastated by the string of deaths and believed she would be next. Folklore suggests that the distraught widow sought the advice of a Boston medium named Adam Coons. During a séance, he told her – while supposedly channeling her late husband – that the spirits of slaughtered American Indians and fallen Civil War soldiers who had been killed by Winchester rifles caused the family tragedies.
He said the only way Sarah could escape the ghosts’ fury was to leave Connecticut, travel to California and build a mansion to appease/honor the tortured spirits. He added that to assure her own safety, she could never finish constructing the house.
Taking the warnings to heart, Sarah left New Haven and took up residence in the San Francisco Bay area – eventually moving inland to the Santa Clara Valley (now San Jose) in 1884. Her apparent motive for the move was to live in close proximity to her Pardee relatives, many of whom had come to California during the 1849 Gold Rush.
Sarah purchased an eight-room farmhouse along with its 161 acres of farmland about three miles west of Santa Clara, and began turning it into a seven-story mansion that became known as the Winchester Mystery House.
Sarah communicated with the spirits of the dead for her architectural direction. Every night she would go to the séance room and summon them by ringing a tower bell at midnight. After receiving her spiritual building orders and writing them down on scrap paper and napkins, Sarah would dismiss the spirits two hours later with another ring of the tower bell.
She then gave her handwritten instructions to the construction foreman, and shifts of carpenters would immediately get to work, operating on a 24/7 rotation for 38 years.
The séance room has only one door leading into it and Sarah kept the only key, however, three doors led out. One opened onto a 10-feet drop into a kitchen sink below, while another door was disguised as a closet that led to a concealed passageway.
Prior to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the house had an impressive seven stories. The quake violently shook the mammoth and sprawling home and reduced it to four. Sarah resisted venturing any higher from that time forward.
In total, the mansion contains 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, 52 skylights, six kitchens, three elevators, two basements and 13 bathrooms. The 13th bathroom has 13 windows and 13 stairs leading up to it.
Sarah’s obsession with the number 13 can be found throughout the building. She reworked a priceless chandelier to hold 13 candles instead its original 12; wall hooks were installed in multiples of 13; sink drain covers possessed 13 holes; 13 panes in a window; 13 steps in a staircase, etc.The house contains many idiosyncrasies such as staircases that lead to the ceiling and stop. Not all 2,000 doors can be walked through – one leads to a 15-foot drop into bushes in the garden below. Other doors open onto walls or dead-end hallways.
There are many secret passages. A particularly odd delight is a cabinet that, when opened, gives access to 30 rooms of the house.
Tiffany stained-glass windows were installed in places where they would get no light. Others were installed that contained a spider web pattern designed by Sarah featuring her favorite web design and the repetition of the number 13. This window was never installed.
A second window was designed by Tiffany himself, so that when sunlight strikes the prismatic crystals, a rainbow is cast across the room. The window was installed in an interior wall in a room with no light exposure, preventing the effect from being seen.
Many of the mansion’s architectural flourishes were quite modern. Sarah, who suffered from debilitating arthritis in her later years, constructed a unique stairway with special stairways to accommodate her limited range of motion. Steam and forced air warmed the mansion’s water supply and its many rooms. Indoor plumbing was installed, and the halls were lit by push-button gaslights. There was only one working toilet; the other restrooms were decoys to confuse spirits. It is believed Sarah never slept in the same room two nights in a row to try and evade her tormentors.
On September 5, 1922, after a conference session with the spirits in the seance room, Sarah went to her bedroom for the night. At some point in the early morning hours, she died in her sleep of heart failure. She was 82 years old. As soon as they heard the news, workers dropped their tools and left the house leaving rooms abandoned and in disrepair. Some had spent their entire working life on that one home. Half-hammered nails can still be found in the walls
A service was held in Palo Alto, California, and Sarah’s remains lay at Alta Mesa Cemetery until they were moved for burial in her home state of Connecticut in the family plot alongside her husband William and infant daughter Annie. The grave is located in Evergreen Cemetery, New Haven. The grounds at the Winchester Mystery House feature a replica of her gravestone.
In accordance with her 13-part will (signed 13 times), Sarah divided her estate into generous portions to be distributed among a number of charities and those people who had faithfully spent years in her service. Her favorite niece and secretary, Marian Marriott, oversaw the removal and sale of all of Sarah’s furnishings and personal property.
Sarah made no mention of the mansion in her will, and appraisers considered it worthless due to earthquake damage, the unfinished design and the impractical nature of its construction. It was sold at auction to a local investor for over $135,000, and subsequently leased for 10 years to John and Mayme Brown, who eventually purchased the house.
In February 1923, five months after Winchester’s death, the house was opened to the public, with Mayme Brown serving as the first tour guide. Harry Houdini toured the mansion in 1924 and the newspaper account of his visit (displayed in the rifle museum on the estate) called it the “Mystery House.”
In October 2016, the Winchester Mystery House preservation team discovered a previously hidden room in the mansion’s attic space. Reportedly, Sarah was trapped in the room during the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and afterward boarded up the chamber as she thought evil spirits were responsible for the quake.
The preservation team found the contents undisturbed after nearly 100 years. There were numerous items in the room, including a pump organ, Victorian couch, dress form, sewing machine and paintings. Dubbed “Sarah’s Attic,” the space was re-located out of the house and into the Central Courtyard.
Today, the building is designated on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and has been declared a California Historical Landmark. It is registered with the National Park Service as “a large, odd dwelling with an unknown number of rooms.”