The Winchester Mystery House is located in San Jose, California and is a large mansion filled with architectural oddities. There are stairs and doors that go nowhere, other stairs with various steps, stair posts were installed upside down, and chimneys that have no purpose. These oddities, and the many more that exist in the house, were intentional and the person behind the house kept construction going for close to 40 years.
Sarah Winchester (nee Sarah Pardee) was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1839 and eventually married the heir of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, William Winchester. The company was behind the repeating rifle, one that was easy to reload and fired rapidly; it was also the gun that was used by Northern troops in the civil war and known as “the gun that won the West”.
Sarah faced two major losses over her life: the first was her infant daughter dying only a few weeks after birth and William dying from tuberculosis a few years later. Losing William and her child left her distraught and she eventually went to a medium for guidance. This is where the story of the mystery house began.
The medium spoke to Sarah of a curse that struck her family and how she was being haunted by the ghosts and spirits of those who had been killed by the Winchester Rifle. The only way to ward off the ghosts’ vengeance was to build a house for them; but the only caveat was that the house was to never be completed. She was to never stop building on the house because if she did, the medium said she would die.
And in 1884, Sarah moved west with this new-found advice, eventually buying a six-bedroom farmhouse on 162 acres in San Jose, California. And for 38 years, Sarah was the architect and designer of the house and she had a séance room in which she received instruction from the ghosts each night. It grew and grew – with an inheritance of $20 million and just less than half the stock of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, she had more than enough money to just keep building unto the house.
Some of the oddities of the house, such as the staircase that goes nowhere, come from Sarah just covering up her mistakes and working around them. With no completion date in mind, no master plan for the house, and an unlimited budget, mistakes weren’t really a concern. And many of the staircases in the house are short in nature but for a reason: Sarah had very bad arthritis and the small stairs allowed for her to get up them. There are some people who think that all the oddities of the house were actually deliberate and built to confuse the spirits haunting her.
The actual number of rooms isn’t quite known, even to this day. One estimate is 160 rooms and Sarah would sleep in a different room each night to confuse the spirits. However, this also confused her servants after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, as they couldn’t find her and she eventually spent several hours trapped in one room. That same earthquake also lead to the collapse of the top three floors of the then seven floor house.
The house also has 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, two basements, six kitchens, 10,000 window panes, 467 doorways, and a grand total of two mirrors. The lack of mirrors, shockingly, comes from Sarah’s belief that spirits were afraid of their reflect. There’s a gorgeous glass window with a wall behind it so that no light could shine through it; some cabinets only have a depth of an inch or so; a storeroom filled with expensive additions that she never got around to using. When she died in 1922, the constant construction stopped and she had spent $5.5 million on it. But because of the earthquake damage still left from 1906 and the weird design, the house only sold for $135,000.
Can you visit?
Yes, you can visit! The house was bought by investors after her death, who planned to open it up as a tourist attraction. And 95 years after Sarah Winchester’s death, it remains a tourist attraction in San Jose today! There are daily tours and flashlight tours offers on Halloween and all Fridays the 13th. Although, be careful if you do visit: some say the house is still haunted by the spirits who cursed Sarah Winchester, with mysterious footsteps, moving lights, cold spots, and more experienced by visitors.
And that is the story behind the Winchester Mystery House.
Sources and to learn more:
- Why does the Winchester Mystery House have stairs leading nowhere? – Molly Edmonds, How Stuff Works
- Learn more about the house! – Winchester Mystery House
- What’s with the Winchester Mystery House? – Stuff You Should Know episode
- The Winchester Mystery House is Getting Its Own Movie (About Damn Time) – The Mary Sue
- The Winchester Mystery House – Atlas Obscura
- Mystery House – 99% Invisible