The Eerie Story Behind California's Winchester Mystery House.
A Tale Of Delusion: Winchester Mystery House [California]
The Eerie Story Behind California's Winchester Mystery House And Its Owner, Sarah Winchester
Doors that lead to nowhere. Secret passageways that snake throughout the house. Staircases that go up to the ceiling. It's easy to see how the Winchester Mystery House got its name.
“The great legend was that [the owner] was trying to confuse evil spirits…people who were killed by a Winchester rifle,” explains Tour Manager Janan Boehme. Visitors have claimed to see these spirits while roaming through the Victorian-style mansion since it opened for business in 1923, a year after the homeowner passed away.
This peculiar homeowner was Sarah Winchester, who was married to William Wirt Winchester, the son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, the manufacturer of the Winchester repeating rifle…“the gun that won the west.” When William passed away shortly after the death of his own father, Sarah inherited his share of the company and a great deal of money. When her mother-in-law died, she inherited her shares as well, leaving her with an astonishing $20 million [$275 million in 2016]. But the death of her husband – as well as the death of their infant daughter a few years earlier – led many to believe that Sarah had turned to spiritualism for guidance.
In 1928, six years after Sarah's death, a description of her nightly prowls to the Winchester Mystery House's Seance Room appeared in the American Weekly: “When Mrs. Winchester set out for her Seance Room, it might well have discouraged the ghost of an Indian or even a bloodhound, to follow her. After traversing an interminable labryinth of rooms and hallways, suddenly she would push a button, a panel would fly back and she would step quickly from one apartment into another. Unless, the pursuing ghost was watching and quick, he would lose her...”
Had the deaths pushed Sarah to create this mansion as a way to stop ghosts from haunting her? Or had she become mad, alone in a giant, jumbled up mansion?
“All these [rumors are] urban legends,” said Boehme. “She
was a wealthy woman from back east who came to California, a small,
agricultural area at the time. She started building this house and people
wondered who she was and what she was doing?
And [why] she was so wealthy? She [also] never seemed to stop building.”
Rumors though begin somewhere?
Sarah was born in 1840, the daughter of two carriage manufacturers in New Haven, Connecticut. Back then she was known as the “Belle of New Haven” and lived a very cultured and educated upbringing. Despite this, Sarah was actually “not the socialite type,” which is one reason she left Connecticut. (Others say she left Connecticut when a Boston Medium explained that her family and her fortune were haunted by spirits. The medium stated that Sarah should move out west and appease the spirits by building a home for them…and that she must never stop.)
“She didn't want to live the life of a wealthy, philanthropic woman,” continues Boehme. “She didn't like to advertise herself or answer questions about herself. She just wanted to be with her family out in California. But with lack of information, people make up their own information.”
Sarah began her building project with “steadfast determination,” immediately hiring carpenters to work in shifts around the clock. By the turn of the 20th century, she had a seven-story mansion. She was kind and generous with employees and even let neighborhood children play on the grounds as she played the piano for them. However, her “interest in seclusion” - she almost immediately had the gardeners plant tall trees around her house – made her quite the mystery.
Not a professional architecture or designer by any means, Sarah was “just having a good time” and viewed the house as a hobby, according to Boehme. “She just kept on going and playing with different ideas. If she didn't like it, she'd tear it down and try something else. It's a hodgepodge of very unusual looking rooms and hallways. It wasn't built to a plan. So it ended up being odd.”
When Sarah passed away in her sleep from heart failure in 1922, the Winchester Mystery House contained 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms and six kitchens. The 24,000 square foot house had cost $5 million to build at the time [close to $70 million in 2016]. With no journal entries or interviews, the rumors continued to grow.
“The community's first reaction was [that] she was crazy,” explains Boehme. “But she really wasn't. She was very intelligent if you read her letters. She was a savvy business woman. And she was a very bright and clear thinker. She just wanted to do things her own way. She didn't care what other people thought.”
The imposing Victorian mansion has been featured on many television shows, and, according to Boehme, it's a “magnet for people who like the unusual or paranormal. They want to think it's haunted.”
While the Winchester Mystery House isn't as giant or glamourous as other more conventional mansions built during that time period, there are many stand-out rooms. One of Boehme's favorites is the ballroom. It's very beautiful,” she gushes. “The work in there is wonderful. The woodwork is all made of white ash [and is] very detailed. It has a beautiful floor made of five woods. There's also wonderfully [appointed] stained glass windows with Shakespearean quotes.”
In fact, there is a large noteworthy collection of stained glass throughout the house, some of which has never been installed or used. There are also three elevators…a rare occurrence in that time period.
The Winchester Mystery House continues to fascinate visitors who travel to experience both the architectural intensity and sheer bewilderment that fueled such an enormous endeavor. But many come simply to try to understand and stand in the shoes of Sarah Winchester…to see through her eyes.
A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia
has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among
others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.