Some years ago I visited the Winchester Mansion and wrote this article for ghosts.org.
The Winchester Mystery House was built by Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Winchester, who was the son of the man who founded the Winchester rifle empire. After William died, a psychic in Boston told Sarah that the spirits of all the people and animals of those who had been injured by the Winchester rifles would seek to avenge their deaths. The only way to appease the spirits, said the psychic, was to build them a house. As long as the house was being built, the spirits would not haunt Sarah.
In 1884 Sarah moved to California and purchased an eight room farmhouse in San Jose. Then she began to build. For 38 years, until Sarah’s death in 1922, carpenters worked 24 hours a day, 365 days a year building the strange monument to the spirit world. At the time of Sarah’s death there were 160 rooms (in various stages of completion) in the house. However, it is estimated that over 600 rooms were built and then torn down over the 38 years.
Every night, Sarah would go to her Seance Room to receive messages from the spirits telling her what she should build. The orders from the spirits resulted in many strange constructions, such as doors that open onto walls, stairs that go nowhere, a cupboard that has only 1/2 inch of storage space, and tiny doorways and hallways just big enough for Sarah (who was 4’10” and of slight build) to fit through. Some other interesting features of the house include its 10,000 windows (including some priceless Tiffany stained glass), 47 fireplaces, and a beautiful garden.
Sink with 13 drainage holes, imported from Venice, Italy.
Sarah had a fascination with the number thirteen. Many features in the house were built in sets of 13 or multiples of 13. For instance, in the 13th bathroom (the only one with a shower), there are 13 windows. One of the sinks has 13 drainage holes. There are 52 skylights, and the grand staircase has 13 steps. Thirteen palm trees line the driveway. As a final gesture, Sarah’s will was divided into 13 parts and signed 13 times.
Two other numbers favored by Sarah were 7 and 11. There is one stairway in the house which has 7 steps down and then 11 steps up. Another, called the switchback staircase, turns 7 times and has 44 steps, but only goes up 9 feet! Some speculate that stairs were built so low because Sarah had arthritis; others think she had them built that way to confuse and/or slow down the spirits.
In the courtyard there is a hedge shaped like a crescent moon. Mysteriously, the hedge points to the bedroom where Sarah died.
The Bell Tower
At midnight every night, the bell in the bell tower was rung to summon the spirits. At 2 AM, it was rung again as a signal for the spirits to depart. The rest of the day the bell lay silent (although other sources say it was used to call servants during the day).
The tower was only approachable from the outside by climbing onto the roof of the mansion using a ladder. The bell was hung at the top of the tower, with a long rope hanging down a sheer, unclimbable wall. The rope was reached through underground tunnels, the precise layout of which was known only to the bell ringer and his assistant.
In 1906 Sarah was trapped in a bedroom by an earthquake. Because she slept in a different room every night, it took the servants over an hour to find her. She took the earthquake as an sign from the spirits that they were discontented with the way the construction was going. To appease the spirits, she had the front 30 rooms boarded up, and they were never used again during her lifetime. She also slept in the same bedroom (the one where she died) every night thereafter.
When Sarah died in 1922, the word spread throughout the house, and there are still spots visible where the workers stopped hammering the nails halfway in. After her death, all the furniture in the house was auctioned off. It took 8 weeks (6 truckloads a day) to remove it all. Later the mansion was restored and opened to the public. If you are ever in San Jose, I highly suggest you give it a visit!
The Seance Room was a secret room deep in the heart of the house. Here Sarah would go each night at midnight to consult with the spirits about her building plans. The spirits would direct her what to build next. This room has one entrance but three exits. One exit is the door in, the second is a door that opens onto thin air (a 10-foot drop to the kitchen), and the third exit is through a raised closet door. In this photo you can see guests exiting through the closet door. The other side of the door didn’t have a doorknob, making it impossible to re-enter that way. On the right wall (not viewable in this picture), there were 13 coat hooks, said to hold 13 colored cloaks that Sarah wore during seances.
This switchback staircase turns nine times. Many of the staircases had very low steps like the ones you see here (the steps are only about 2-3 inches high). Although this staircase has 44 steps, it only goes up 9 feet. The tour guides call these types of stairways “easy risers” — easy for Mrs. Winchester to use because she had arthritis. Another theory holds that she built the stairs that way to confound the spirits.
Some of the 10,000 windows in Sarah’s mansion had this distinctive spiderweb design. Perhaps she felt that spiderwebs would make the spirits feel at home!
This is the bedroom where Mrs. Winchester slept after the 1906 earthquake. She died in this room. The furniture items you see in this picture are authentic period pieces, but they did not belong to Mrs. Winchester. Her will provided that all her furniture be auctioned off after her death. Note the window panes in the doors on the left. There are 13 rows of small panes running top to bottom. (The 13th row at the bottom is lost in shadow in this photo.)
The balcony in this picture is toddler sized. It is accessed by a 4 foot door on the left. The balcony looks down over the 7-11 staircase mentioned previously.
This chimney rises 4 stories, only to stop short just inches from the ceiling. A tradition holds that ghosts visit and escape through chimneys, which could explain why there are over 40 fireplaces in the Winchester mansion.
There were several stairways in the mansion that led nowhere. This stairway stops at a ceiling. Perhaps Sarah was trying to trick the bad spirits!
This plaque reads:
The Winchester Mystery House was the home of Sarah Winchester, heiress to Winchester Rifle fortune, from 1884 until her death in 1922.
Mrs. Winchester was convinced by an occultist that the lives of her husband and daughter had been taken by the spirits of those killed by “the gun that won the West” and that she too would share their fate unless she would begin building a mansion for the spirits on which work would never stop nor be completed. She was promised life for as long as she kept building.
So, with $1000 a day royalties from the Winchester Rifle fortune, the sounds of the carpenters’ tools could be heard 24 hours a day for almost 38 years as the diminutive lady built to live. And here is what was created…
Dedicated Friday the 13th, May 1983, by Winchester Mystery House and Mountain Charlie Chapter No. 1850, E Clampus Vitus
“Right Wrongs Nobody”
“An Abridged Guide to the Winchester Mystery House, the World’s Strangest Monument to a Woman’s Fears” (Tour Booklet)
“Winchester Mystery House” (Tourist Guide)
Haunted Houses of California, Antoinette May, 1993 Wide World Publishing/Tetra, pp 124-130