Nestled amongst the hustle and bustle of beautiful San Jose, California, sits a very peculiar mansion.
This enormous, four story house holds 160 bedrooms, 2,000 doors and 40 staircases, many of which are not conventionally built. Doors open to reveal only walls, staircases lead straight into the ceiling, and secret passages run throughout.
This unusual mansion attracts thousands of visitors a year. Those eager to visit come to marvel at it’s one of a kind architecture, experience the paranormal and learn more about the eccentric woman who spent millions of dollars and 36 years building it.
Welcome to the Winchester Mystery House.
The Exceptional Sarah Winchester
Sarah Pardee was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1839 to a well-respected upper middle class family. From a young age Sarah was exceptional. By 12 years old, she was very well read, a talented musician and fluent in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Latin.
As Sarah grew older, her talents and beauty earned her the nickname “The Belle of New Haven.” It’s no surprise that in 1862, she married the wealthy William Winchester.
William was the heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which was founded by his father, Oliver Winchester. Famous for producing the Winchester Rifle, better known as “the gun that won the West”, the Winchester company was wildly successful, producing a massive fortune for the Winchester family.
Sarah’s Time of Tribulation
In 1866, after a few years of marriage, the couple were expecting their first child. When Sarah gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Annie, they were surely overjoyed and dreaming of a happy life as a family. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Their dreams were shattered when Annie died at only six weeks old from marasmus.
As if the death of a child was not enough, Sarah faced even more hardship a few years later with the death of both her mother and William’s father. Soon after, in 1881, William passed from tuberculosis.
Now the heiress to the Winchester family fortune, Sarah received a sizeable inheritance of $20 million (about $560 million today), 50% ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and a personal income of $1,000 (about $25,000 today) a day, making her one of the wealthiest women in the world.
Heading West to Fight a Curse
Despite her fortune, Sarah was devastated by the numerous losses in her life. According to legend, she contacted a spiritualist for guidance, a practice not uncommon in the 19th century.
The medium told her that she was cursed, and that the spirits of all who were killed by firearms produced by the Winchester family were seeking revenge by killing her family. The only solution was to move west and begin building a house for the spirits.
At least that is how the legends are usually told. It should be noted that Sarah had two sisters that lived in California, which may have served as a more likely reason for her to move and start anew.
Regardless of the reason, in 1885, Sarah packed up and moved west to San Jose, California. Finding a two story, eight bedroom farmhouse, she moved in and began renovating the property.
Stories differ as to why the spirits would have told Sarah to build a house. Some say that the house was intended for the spirits to live in and that they instructed Sarah on exactly how to build it. Some say that the massive house would trap the ghosts inside, or that it was meant for her to hide from them.
Interestingly, most of these legends have one particularly dark piece of lore in common: Sarah would die if construction on the house ever ended.
The Winchester Mystery House
Starting in 1886, construction began on Sarah Winchester’s mansion. Quickly, the two story home grew to an impressive seven stories and spanned over 24,000 square feet.
The most noticeable feature of the home is its size. With 160 rooms, 6 kitchens, three dining rooms, 40 staircases, 47 fireplaces, over 2,000 doors and over 10,000 windows, the house is enormous.
Surprisingly, the size isn’t the reason the house is famous.
Bizarre and Unusual Features
Sarah, with no training as an architect, designed the house herself. Whether this was by the ghosts’ direction, or because she preferred to do things on her own, her designs are unusual, to say the least.
One door opens directly to a 15 foot high drop above a garden, and another opens 8 feet above a kitchen sink. Some doors open to reveal only a wall behind them, while others are too small to walk through. One door is a trap that can be opened only from the inside, but not from the outside.
Many areas of the house challenge visitors’ preconceptions of how a house should be built. Some balconies and windows face indoors instead of outdoors and some rooms have windows on the floor.
Like the trick doors, there are several staircases that lead directly into the wall or ceiling.
Full of opposites, some cabinets are less than an inch deep, yet another cabinet contains a door that leads to 30 rooms. In some places, they built small rooms inside larger rooms.
One cannot say that the Winchester House is not beautiful. Despite its oddities, hard work and attention to detail is clear throughout, for example, in the ornate stained glass windows on display in an unconventional place.
Somehow, the least surprising feature of the home is the network of secret passages that lead throughout.
In its prime, the structure reached a staggering seven stories high. Unfortunately, the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 severely damaged the upper levels, and workers were forced to reduce it to a mere four stories.
Building the Mystery House
Construction on the Winchester house was an exhausting and non-stop process for workers.
A day’s worth of work, much of which made little sense to begin with, could be scrapped and redone the next day. Unsurprisingly, in 1975, a new room was discovered, which was locked, sealed over and forgotten to time.
Construction consisted of shifts of 16 employees who may have worked around the clock. Despite her eccentricities, Sarah was a generous woman and was said to pay her employees 3 times the standard rate. She even bought homes for the employees and their families to live in during construction.
Whether construction was truly ongoing 24/7 is up for debate. An 1895 San Francisco newspaper article about the house reported that she believed that if the house were finished, she would die. However, it’s also been reported that Sarah called off work sometimes in the summer because of the heat.
For those wondering what a house like this would cost, it’s estimated that Sarah spent $5 million (about $71 million today) to build it.
On the night of September 5, 1922, Sarah died of heart failure in her bedroom in the Winchester house. Construction came to an abrupt end after 36 years of continuous work.
Rumors Spread About the Mysterious Widow
While part of the allure of this mysterious house lies in its unusual features and history, a large component is the mysterious Sarah Winchester.
Known as being very private and reclusive, Sarah did not go out much and lived in solitude. Despite her vast wealth, she did not attend parties or mingle with socialites. Gossip quickly spread about this mysterious widow without her around to set rumors straight.
Sarah has often been criticized for using her wealth in such an unusual manner, as many believe it should have been spent more practically or charitably. Ironically, her money was spent in an unusual but practical way of keeping locals employed at a fair wage for 36 consecutive years.
Upon her death, Sarah left most of her vast fortune to charities.
Visiting the Mystery House
Less than a year after Sarah Winchester’s death, the house was sold and opened to visitors on June 30, 1923. Since then, over 12 million have visited the property, including the famous magician Harry Houdini, in 1924.
Some visit to appreciate the unique architecture and designs. While Sarah’s building plans may have been frustrating for the builders, they are a marvel to visitors.
Unsurprisingly, a house with as much mystery surrounding it comes with plenty of paranormal claims. Guests of the house have claimed to see figures that aren’t there and floating orbs. Some say they have heard voices speaking to them, only to realize there is no one around.
Sarah Winchester’s unique work of art is still an enigma. A century later, we are still uncertain of her motives or the real truth behind why such an odd and grandiose mansion was constructed. One thing can be certain, the legends surrounding the mysterious Winchester house will continue to draw attention for years to come.
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Haag, P. (2016, July 7). The Heiress to a Gun Empire Built a Mansion Forever Haunted by the Blood Money That Built It. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved January 5, 2023, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/heiress-gun-empire-built-mansion-forever-haunted-blood-money-built-it-180959712/
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Olito, F. (2021, October 4). Take a look inside the famously creepy Winchester House, which has 160 rooms, staircases that lead to nowhere, and doors that open into walls. Insider. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from https://www.insider.com/tour-photos-winchester-mansion-2019-8
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Originally published on Medium’s Lessons from History publication on January 13, 2023.