If you’re a fan of the whimsical, the unexplainable, and the supernatural, well then visiting Winchester Mystery House should definitely be on your bucket list. Located in San Jose, California, this mansion is an architectural and historic landmark with an undeniably compelling story behind it. What makes it such a must-see? Gather around as we delve into the past and discover the secrets of Winchester Mystery House.
1. It Started Out Small
When the first parts of the structure were laid in the ground, the building that became the Winchester Mystery House wasn’t planned to be a mansion. The original owners envisioned it as a farmhouse, but for reasons unknown, they couldn’t complete construction and left it in its unfinished state. Little did they know what destiny had in store for it. And who knows? Perhaps there was a supernatural reason behind their departure as well…
2. It Caught The Eye Of A Wealthy Widow
A Connecticut woman named Sarah Winchester is responsible for the mansion as we know it. For her, it was love at first sight. She’d moved to California after her husband, William Wirt Winchester, had passed. She was looking for a house to buy, and this unfinished farmhouse in Santa Clara Valley seemed perfect, and it was all for one reason in particular…
3. She Was Very Rich
Sarah Winchester received a huge fortune from her late husband, who’d been the treasurer and sole successor to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. She not only inherited $20 million—that’s equal to $543 million in 2019—but also got 50% ownership of the hugely successful company when he passed. That meant she was making $1,000 per day—nowadays, that would be equal to $26,000 per day!
In other words, the woman had serious dough.
4. She Had Suffered Some Losses
Money isn’t everything, as I’m sure Winchester would’ve agreed. After all, despite the wealth she’d married into, she’d seen her share of heartbreak and tragedy. Her only daughter, Annie Pardee Winchester, contracted marasmus, a form of malnutrition, at the tender age of five weeks and didn’t survive. The loss devastated Winchester, and the couple never had children again—but it didn’t end there.
In 1881, her beloved husband William passed away, leaving her a widow at just 42. Suddenly, she was a wealthy heiress—but she had no one to spend the riches on.
5. She Had Good Reasons To Build
Brokenhearted following the loss of her husband, Winchester decided there was only one way to deal with her grief: By communicating with her husband’s spirit through a medium. The medium, while channeling her late husband, warned Winchester that she would never find peace, claiming that the spirits of those killed by his company’s rifles wanted revenge—and that wasn’t all.
6. They Compelled Her To Build It
The medium continued, explaining that the only way to appease them was to build a house that would shelter them—with one disturbing catch. She said that construction on the house could never stop. “If you continue building, you will live…Stop and you will die.” Spooky enough for ya?
7. She Had To Move
Her husband, through the Boston medium, had also told her that the spirits had lofty real estate goals. They didn’t want her building a house in her native New Haven, where she’d lived happily with William after their wedding. They wanted her to move west and find a house there that she could either tear down or upgrade.
Clearly, those spirits were fans of the Golden State.
8. She, And Winchester Mystery House, Set Records
Remember how those spirits wanted a house where the construction would never cease? Well, as a result, work on Winchester Mystery House kept going on for a whopping 38 years! The work on the mansion set a Guinness World Record for continuous house construction. Apparently, it took an earthquake to stop work on the house…and that lull didn’t last long either.
9. She Left Peacefully
Well, the medium who had encouraged Winchester to build the house was right in one respect…if Winchester continually engaged in building a house, she would live a long life. Either that, or she was just in better health than her child and husband. Winchester lived until the ripe old age of 83, when she passed peacefully in her sleep because of heart failure. …But has she really left?
10. Her Biographer Thinks Differently
Of course, there are several theories about why Winchester was so obsessed with building the house, and no one knows which one is true. Her biographer however, believed that the common story about the house being continuously built is a fabrication. The biographer claimed that Winchester would routinely dismiss all the workers she’d employed to rest and recuperate.
Either way, the house is an enigma…and so is Sarah Winchester.
11. She May Have Just Had A Big Heart
While many people believe that fear of vengeful spirits inspired Winchester Mystery House’s construction, some have asserted that Sarah was just motivated to keep building the house in the spirit of generosity. By keeping the construction going, she was able to provide employment to a whole legion of workers. Those who subscribe to this theory point to the hospital she’d built as further proof of her charity.
Sure, she could’ve had pure motives, but couldn’t she also have initiated other philanthropic ventures?
12. She Might Have Been A Crazy Genius
Maybe Sarah had a master plan. Some argue that the symbols and whimsical design patterns found all over the house show inspiration drawn from the work of philosopher Francis Bacon. Was she a woman haunted by the past, or some kind of mastermind belonging to the Freemason or Rosicrucian society? Was she crazy, or was she trying to find a method to the madness?
Your guess is as good as mine.
13. The House Could’ve Been A Result Of Nostalgia
There’s yet another theory about why Winchester built the house—and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Some think that Sarah Winchester was just lonely. She missed her dearly departed family, and building the house reminded her of happier times—when she and William had built their New Haven home together; doubtless hoping to spend many happy years there.
14. It Has Stairways That Lead To Nowhere
What happens when you’re an eccentric old lady with a lot of money? Whatever the heck you want! Who needed staircases which actually led to somewhere? Not Sarah Winchester. Whether she put them in because she wanted to confuse the spirits that haunted her, or just because it took her fancy, who knows?
15. They Can’t Keep Track
For many years people couldn’t even agree on the exact number of rooms the house contained! The general consensus now is that there are 161 rooms, which include 40 bedrooms, two ballrooms (one unfinished), six kitchens, and 13 bathrooms! What an upgrade from the eight-room farmhouse it used to be. But guess what—this may not even be the final number of rooms!
16. It’s Ever-Expanding
There’s a reason why it’s called the Winchester Mystery House—after all, it keeps revealing cryptic new secrets. In 1975, people actually discovered a new room. It contained just two chairs and a phonograph speaker from the 1900s. Supposedly Sarah forgot all about having this room built and had more rooms constructed all around it—but it doesn’t end there.
Yet another new room revealed itself inside an attic area in 2016! This one had more stuff in it though, including paintings, an organ, a sewing machine, and a couch. What are the odds that yet another secret room is going to be discovered in the future?
17. It Allows Communication With Spirits
When you’re going to build over a hundred rooms, you might as well build one to use for communicating with spirits—especially since they have such strict specifications on their area of residence. Winchester had a séance room, where she went every night to discuss building plans with the spirits. The room only had one entrance, but three exits. Why? To prevent anyone from exiting from the same door they entered in from of course!
18. They Were Survivors
At first, the Winchester Mystery House had seven storeys—until a terrifying disaster changed everything. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake shook and rattled the house to the core. The only reason it did not cave in completely was because it had a floating foundation, which meant it could shift freely and wasn’t completely attached to a brick base. However, a tower and the top three storeys did end up collapsing.
Winchester decided against rebuilding them again, which seems fitting. Construction on the house was always moving forward, never looking back.
19. Its Construction Could Have Stopped
The Winchester House’s construction nearly stopped in 1906 after the earthquake, all for one disturbing reason. Rubble from the tremor trapped Sarah Winchester in the “Daisy Bedroom,” so-called because of the floral motifs on the windows. She was safe in there though, and eventually, some of her loyal carpenters got her out.
20. Sarah Loved A Certain Number
It may be unlucky for some, but Sarah Winchester loved the number 13. The house had many 13-paned windows, 13-step stairways, 13-paneled ceilings; there were 13 coat hooks in the séance room, 13 drains in the sinks, 13 stars in a leadlight window she designed, and 13 bathrooms. Most interestingly, the 13th bathroom also has 13 windows!
She didn’t stop at her house—she made it abundantly clear just how important 13 was to her in another way.
21. It Transfixed Her
Winchester’s will also bore testimony to how important number 13 was to her. It had 13 sections, each of which she had signed 13 times! Now if that isn’t pure dedication, I don’t know what is.
22. The House Became A National Landmark
After Winchester passed on and construction halted, the house was put on the market. It opened it to the public some months later, and became a recognized national landmark in May 1974. There is a plaque on the side of the house that tells its complicated history.
23. It Is Most Famous For A Reason
Time magazine once published a list of the “Top Ten Most Haunted Places.” Guess which house is on that list? Yup! It’s the Winchester Mystery House. It’s in good company with the Tower of London, Edinburgh Castle, and Gettysburg Battlefield as some of the other most haunted places in the world.
24. It Could Double As A Maze
Since a sequel to Labyrinth is supposedly already in the making, perhaps someone could drop a hint in the producers’ ears to check out Winchester Mystery House as a possible movie site? Sarah Winchester’s constant adding of rooms, doors, stairs, and winding hallways in a haphazard fashion has resulted in creating a labyrinthine house, which some say was intentional to confuse the spirits.
25. It Has Closed Doors
Basically, what that means is that you often can’t exit through the exits or enter through what appear to be entrances. Many doors open to blank walls, and one on the second floor opens to a steep drop into nothingness—well, technically the yard below, but no one wants to feel their foot hover over that type of drop.
Even more spooky? It also has trapdoors and secret passages, and no one seems to know exactly how many!
26. Sarah Was Good To Her Staff
Sarah Winchester may have been an eccentric old lady, but some accounts testify that she was a wonderful employer. She treated her staff well and tried to do everything she could to make their time working on the house comfortable and agreeable. In fact, she treated them so well, that some of them refused to ever leave…
27. They Were Unbelievably Loyal To Her
Many tourists who have visited the Winchester Mystery House have insisted that they’ve witnessed a truly chilling sight. They claim to have seen the original Winchester staff haunting the house and grounds. The groundskeeper is reportedly sighted the most. He has black hair and wears a uniform. Many have seen him pushing a wheelbarrow, but some also see him doing repair work all around the house.
28. She Didn’t Shirk Her Duties
She may have been considered a hermit—she certainly didn’t encourage social visits to the house while she was alive. However, Sarah Winchester didn’t avoid the people she had to interact with. She was in regular talks with her carpenters and workers and was always explaining her vision to them. I’m guessing that Winchester was also on great terms with the spirits, as she talked to them every night in her Séance Room.
29. Maybe She Didn’t Leave?
Some visitors to the house sincerely believe they’ve seen Sarah Winchester’s ghost hanging around the house, specifically close to her bedroom. One tour guide swears she saw her ghost look very annoyed when she saw a tour group let inside her bedroom. Can’t blame her; who’d be okay with random strangers walking around their bedroom?!
30. The House Was Ahead Of Its Time
She may have been eccentric, but no one can deny that Sarah Winchester was a visionary. The house contained facilities unheard of at the time of its construction. These included heating (both steam and forced-air), gas lights operated by push buttons, modern indoor toilets, plumbing, the one and only hot shower, as well as three elevators!
Clearly the spirits enjoyed the good life.
31. Houdini Tried To Bust Some Of Its Myths
Harry Houdini decided there was no way all these tales of spirits haunting the house were true, and he took it upon himself to prove them wrong. According to stories, he held his séance in a particular part of the house known as the “Witch’s Cap.” He wasn’t the only one either; Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures, noted psychic Sylvia Brown, and famous medium James van Praagh have attempted to prove the rumors about spirits wrong for once and for all. Spoiler alert: it didn’t go how they planned.
32. It Confused The Myth Busters
All the people who have tried to prove the haunted house story false have left, feeling confused about what hit them. In fact, more visitors reported hearing voices and footsteps in the wake of their leaving than before!
33. Sarah Had Another Name For The House
Winchester Mystery House had a different identity while she was alive. Her name for it was, Llanada Villa. In Spanish it means “house on flat land,” which doesn’t sound mysterious at all, but who knows…maybe a spirit suggested it?
34. She Used Wood In Its Making
Sarah was constantly making changes and adding or removing things from the house at a whim, so she used material that could easily be manipulated and knocked down or molded according to her fancy. For this reason, she chose redwood, even though she didn’t like the look of it. Luckily, she had an ingenious solution to solve that problem too.
35. She Made It Look Different
She asked her workers to apply a faux grain and stain to the wood to make it look different from common redwood. Perhaps you can guess how much that entailed? Well, it took around 20,500 gallons (78,000L) of paint to cover the whole house.
36. Sarah Had A Green Thumb
The Winchester House’s garden was lovingly kept during Sarah’s lifetime, and featured a $20,000 Yew tree, as well as many other plants and shrubs. Winchester brought the greenery indoors too, in the conservatory. It had removable doors and its own elevators, which were used to bring in plants from all over the house so the gardener could water them all at once.
By all accounts, the conservatory is beautiful and full of natural light. And speaking of light…
37. She Loved Light
Did I mention there were 52 skylights in the house? Sarah designed an unusual parquet floor which looked dark when light fell on it, and light in the dark. She had special crushed mica wallpaper put up in the crystal bedroom, so called because it shimmered in the light. She even crystals installed in a window, to see the play of light through it.
Clearly, she put in a lot of thought into that house.
38. Her Architectural Choices Were Unusual
A particularly intriguing part of the house that visitors love is called the “Witch’s Cap.” Located in the South turret, it looks like a witch’s hat. Tour guide Jamie Foster once claimed that she was standing there when she felt someone take hold of her from the back and start dancing. Perhaps a spirit was missing the bygone days of waltzing in ballrooms?
39. She Valued Comfort
And really, why shouldn’t she? Winchester certainly had the money to make sure things were comfortable as well as practical. To ensure mobility as she grew older, she had “easy-rider” stairs installed: These have only a tiny bit of lift so it’s easier for older people to use them. The look is kinda far out though, as the stairs had to zigzag to get from one floor to the other.
Innovations such as these certainly make Winchester sound like a misunderstood genius!
40. It Has Some Upside-Down Elements
Cementing her reputation as a misunderstood genius are some more architectural oddities in the house: The upside-down pillars and columns. Traditionally, columns were wider at the base and narrower at the top; Winchester felt it should be the other way around to make them able to bear more weight. She went ahead and did what she wanted (atta girl!), not caring about convention.
I mean, it worked, right? Plus, architectural genius Frank Lloyd Wright even agreed with her!
41. Its Owner Was Fond Of The Arts
She may have been reclusive, but that doesn’t mean that Winchester didn’t have taste. She was apparently a Shakespeare fan, and had his quotes inscribed in Tiffany glass windows in her ballroom. One theory is that these quotes hold clues about some secrets in the house, but so far, no one has discovered if that is true.
42. It Has Inspired Many Spooky Stories
Apart from the ghostly groundkeeper who many claim to have seen, a lot of visitors to the house have felt someone unseen tugging at their clothes. A maintenance worker also insisted he’d heard footsteps going up the third floor, but when he tried to follow the sound, he couldn’t find anyone. He ended up on the roof, all alone!
43. Sarah Owned Another Unusual Property
Strangely enough, the Winchester Mystery House wasn’t the only unusual property Sarah owned. She also had a big houseboat which became known as Sarah’s Ark. Why, you ask? Well, because she supposedly had a real fear of a Great Flood—as in, the Biblical kind that Noah experienced. Of course, there are naysayers who disavow this theory and say it was just a status symbol. Some people just don’t have any imagination!
44. She Didn’t Seem To Want Guests
Although the Winchester Mystery House had 13 toilets, it only had one hot, running shower. Naturally, this was for Sarah herself. Why didn’t she have more running baths or showers? Well, either because she didn’t want spirits getting too comfortable and wasting her water, or she just didn’t want any unwelcome guests coming over to stay!
45. She Didn’t Forget Her Relatives
While Winchester may not have been very present in the lives of her siblings, she did buy a farmhouse for her sister and brother-in-law. It is now known as the Winchester-Merriman House and is on the Historic Resources Inventory of the Los Altos Historic Commission. When they were all alive, she didn’t really swing by to see them that often. Based on her will, there must have been a reason why—but we may never know…
46. Her Will Was Interesting
Remember the will with 13 sections, that Winchester signed 13 times? Well, she left everything to her niece, Marian—with one strange twist. See, she left Marian everything inside the house—but the house itself made no appearance in the will at all. Quite amazing, considering she spent most of her life building it and living in it. Maybe she genuinely didn’t know who’d love it like she did…
47. Someone Else Saw Its Potential
When her niece and secretary, Marian, had taken all she wanted from the house and sold the rest, appraisers came to judge the worth of Winchester House. They pronounced it worthless, both because of the damage the 1906 earthquake had wreaked, and because it remained unfinished and impractical. However, a local investor bought it for $135,000 and leased it to a couple named John and Mayme Brown.
They fell in love, and eventually purchased it for their own. Clearly, the Browns knew more than the appraisers did!
48. They Wanted To Share Its Story
The Browns opened the house to the public just five months after Sarah Winchester’s passing, and there was no looking back. They renamed it “Winchester Mystery House,” and now their descendants own the home through their company, Winchester Investments LLC. Needless to say, they did really well for themselves.
49. The Clearing Up Took Some Time
It took eight truckloads a day for six and a half weeks to completely empty the house of its old furnishings. Though Sarah’s biographer disagrees, because she finds no evidence to back this claim, I’m willing to believe it’s true. A house that huge? With an owner that eccentric? It can totally happen.
50. She Had A Plan
Sarah Winchester knew that she needed an army of laborers on her payroll if work on the house was to go on every minute of the day. According to Smithsonian Magazine, she hired 16 shifts of carpenters (and paid them three times the minimum wage) to work 24 hours a day, all year round. However, there was one thing that finally made the men stop working.
As soon as they heard the news of Sarah Winchester’s death, they stopped in the tracks. They ceased work so suddenly that they reportedly left several nails half-hammered in the walls of the Winchester Mystery House. Can’t really blame them though, can you, when you know what was going on inside the house…
51. The House Contained Her Valuable Possessions
Winchester Mystery House is the gift that keeps on giving, with new secrets still being revealed every now and then. One such secret was the ballroom safe. It was so well-hidden that there was a huge fuss to see what valuable possessions Sarah had stored in it once it was found. The contents of the safe, however, told a heartbreaking story about what Winchester really valued the most.
All that it contained was two locks of hair—one from her late husband, and one from her daughter.