The unhappy history of Winchester Mystery House and its builder, Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune.
Out of great fortune and misfortune, grew the Winchester House in San Jose, California. For all of its grandeur, there is nothing of happiness within its walls.
The story of the house cannot be separated from that of its builder, Sarah Pardee, born to a wealthy family in Connecticut, who in 1862 married William Winchester, heir to the manufacturer of the Winchester Repeating Rifle, which had enjoyed immense commercial success and amassed a huge fortune. The marriage was said to be a happy one, and a daughter--Annie--was born to the couple, but lost to marasmus, a “failure to thrive” type of illness, in 1866. It’s said that the loss of her child sunk Sarah Winchester into a depression from which she never recovered. When some years later, when her husband died of tuberculosis (in 1881), he was still a relatively young man, and this loss caused his widow to surrender completely to her melancholy. Her staggering fortune was of no comfort to her.
Stories vary on whether she sought advise from a medium--or psychic--who supposedly relayed a message from her husband that to prevent herself from being the next victim of a curse hanging over the family, she must build a house and never cease its construction.
Whether this was the catalyst for her actions or she was simply motivated to uproot herself and leave painful memories behind, Mrs. Winchester left her native New England to visit family in California. While there, she found a small house being built on a large parcel--162 acres--of property. She purchased it, and her lifelong building commenced.
Without an architect or formal plan for building in the house, Sarah hired a building foreman and drew sketches of what she would like done--not from the standpoint of what she intended to achieve overall, but in fits and starts and according to her whim of the day. She kept a regular crew of 22 workmen on hand to implement the ongoing work on the house, which eventually sprawled to 4.5 acres. It is to their credit that the house manages to maintain a relative cohesiveness of design on the exterior--but inside are stairways that rise all the way to the ceiling--or go nowhere at all; doors that open onto nothing, sometimes with quite a drop beyond the threshold; several instances of doors and windows that opened onto blank walls. There are secret passageways, hidden rooms--some with doorways that open from the outside, but trap one inside. The house has over 10,000 windowpanes, 47 fireplaces, and 950 doors. The interior of the home is of such confusion that the official count of rooms inside is given as approximate, at 162; many room-counters have been assigned the task, but become disoriented and lose count.
Although not given to discussing her motivations, credence is given to stories of Mrs. Winchester’s belief in the existence of a curse, through the “motive to her madness” in the séances that she conducted nightly, allowing nobody into the séance room but herself. We cannot know if she attempted to communicate with the spirits of her husband and child, but she was said to have hoped to gather friendly spirits through these sessions, to help guard her against what she viewed as legions of decidedly UN-friendly ones: the curse was said to be carried out by the spirits of those killed by hundreds of thousands of Winchester rifles, the invention of which they understandably felt was a great evil. She often emerged from the séance room with a sketch of a new feature to be added to her home.
The trickery of her many odd stairways, doors, hiding places, secret passages and hidden rooms, was said to be designed to confuse ill-intended spirits lurking around who might wish her harm. She had a fascination with the number 13--often considered unlucky--and had it worked into many decorative touches in her home, and in repeated themes, such as having 12-light chandeliers converted to 13-light fixtures, flights of 13 stairs, and rooms with 13 windows; perhaps this, too, was to intimidate superstitious spirits. Spider webs were another apparently-favored theme.
Naturally, because of the sad life lived out by Sarah Winchester in these walls, her belief in a family curse, and her seeking counsel through paranormal channels, one is not surprised to hear that the house is believed by many to be haunted, with numerous sightings of spirits being reported--the management of the Winchester House now tracks incidences of these sightings, (please see http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/sightings.cfm). The preponderance of the sightings reported, state that it was Mrs. Winchester herself whose presence was seen or sensed.
Living in loneliness, grief, and fear to the ripe and painfully arthritic old age of 83, while compulsively continuing to build in order to outrun the terrifying prospect of menacing spirits, one can’t help but wonder if Mrs.Winchester didn’t suffer more greatly in her longevity than anything the spirits might have had in store for her. Her death in 1922 brought an end to 38 years of constant construction, and hopefully peace after a long and tortured life. She was returned to New Haven, Connecticut, to be buried with her husband and daughter.
Today, the Winchester House in San José is open for guided tours, and provides a memorable experience along with its fascinating story, for all who enter.
History Channel, Weird US TV, Winchester Mystery House
© Web J., May 20, 2010.