Winchester Mystery House: The House That Fear Built

Sarah Pardee Winchester
Sarah Pardee Winchester
Most people would love to inherit $20,000,000, but for Sarah Pardee Winchester, the petite heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, that money came with a curse. After her infant daughter died of a rare disease and her husband died of tuberculosis, she became terrified that she was being haunted by the ghosts of anyone who had been killed by a Winchester rifle. And unfortunately, with the success of the Winchester rifle (known as “The Gun that Won the West”), more than a million ghosts could be haunting her.

Determined to rid herself of the curse and the ghosts, Sarah Winchester sought the advice of a psychic who convinced her she needed to start building a grand house to appease the ghosts, and to never, ever, finish building. To be successful, the construction would need to be continuous—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Mrs. Winchester set straight to work. Moving from Connecticut to San Jose, California, she bought a piece of land surrounded by fruit orchards. The result of her efforts is San Jose’s famous Winchester Mystery House, now a historical landmark.

Winchester Mystery House

From the outside, the 160-room house looks beautiful – with big picture windows, balconies and turrets. But the inside paints the picture of a lonely, scared woman slowly losing her mind. Room after room, staircase after staircase was built at her whims over the span of 38 years. Contrary to how most people approach home building, she spared no expense but didn’t do much advance planning which is evident in the floor plan today.

Tiffany windows in storage at Winchester House
Sarah Winchester ordered Tiffany windows in advance and kept them in storage for whenever she needed them.
Some doors lead straight into brick walls. One doorway on the second floor, appropriately nicknamed, The Door to No Where, leads outside to absolutely nothing—no staircase, no balcony, no hallway. If you were to walk out this door you’d drop two stories to the garden beneath. Another doorway would drop you one floor into the a sink. In many cases some of the more than 2000 windows were built facing walls, providing no view. This is not only odd, but a shame as many of these windows were designed and made by Louis Comfort Tiffany. These individual works of art, priceless today, are found throughout the house, some installed in rooms without natural light, others against walls or and even more stored in a basement.

Mrs. Winchester’s eccentricities didn’t stop with the building. She liked to know what her servants were doing at all times, and several of the windows enabled her to spy on them or to overhear their conversations. If any of the servants dared to give her advice on construction, they were given their walking papers at the end of that day. She had bells rigged throughout the house so that when she needed something no matter which room she was in, a servant could come to her. When an earthquake severely damaged a wing of the house, she just had it sealed off, never bothering to fix it or tear it down.

She was also fixated on the number thirteen. Multiple rooms in the house have thirteen windows. There are thirteen bathrooms and there are even trees outside sculpted into the numbers one and three.

Stairs to nowhere
Stairs to nowhere…
Upon her death, her favorite niece had the house completely emptied. It took moving men working eight hours a day six weeks to empty the house of its contents and the Mystery House has not been able to find any of the original furniture to return to the house. Sarah Winchester’s will gave part of her fortune to tuberculosis research, because it was the disease that killed her husband. These are arguably the best dollars Sarah Winchester ever spent.

The Winchester Mystery House holds tours daily and popular evening flashlight tours every Friday the 13th. It is definitely worth a look if you are in town and have an afternoon to sightsee.

Winchester Mystery House Facts:

  • Construction started: 1884
  • Construction ends: 1922
  • Cost of Construction: $5,500,000
  • Length of Construction: 38 years
  • Rooms: 160
  • Doors: 2,000
  • Windows: 10,000
  • Stairways: 40
  • Fireplaces: 47
  • Chimneys: 17
  • Bathrooms: 13
  • Kitchens: 6
  • Gallons of paint needed for exterior: 20,000

Source: Winchester Mystery House


Deborah Lacy loves crime fiction a little too much. You can follow her on Twitter (@quippy), if you dare.

Comments

  1. sleuthsister Kim

    You make me want to hop on a plane and come visit right now!

  2. bev Lacy

    So for years I drove past the signs for this house and always wondered what is it? Why do people go there…and now I know. Pretty cool.

  3. Sleuthsister Kim

    You make me want to hop on a plane and come visit right now.

  4. Clare 2e

    Cool article, Deb! It’s a big part of the setting for Tim Powers’ contemporary fantasy Earthquake Weather (1997), the conclusion of a magical, electrical, ghostly trilogy that makes use of the mystery house’s hidey holes and twisty-turns into nowhere. After reading that, I’ve always wanted to visit, and what fun it would be to be touring it tonight by flashlight. ooooooohhhh

  5. Deborah Lacy

    @SleuthsisterKim – What are you waiting for?

    @Clare2e – the evening flash tours are pretty cool. The place adopts another whole character in the dark.

  6. Terrie Farley Moran

    I had no idea that such a place existed. Thanks for this.

  7. Deborah Lacy

    @Terrie – you have to go next time you even come near San Jose.

  8. Kristi1

    Sarah’s story was so sad. She’d lost the people she loved and was preyed on by psychics. She lost her mind looking for all the answers and a way to communicate with her husband and baby.

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