Walking through The Winchester Mystery House had a different feel than I was expecting. It was much more…touristy. The house has been adapted so much for tourism that it lost some of its authentic Victorian charm and was left feeling like a somewhat mundane version of The Haunted Mansion at Disney.
The Winchester Mystery House is a Victorian Mansion located in San Jose, California. The home was made famous by Sarah Winchester. The folklore is that Sarah inherited the Winchester Repeating Arms Company after the death of her husband, William Wirt Winchester, and believed she was haunted by the spirits of all those who had been killed by the weapons her family manufactured. In an effort to confuse the spirits, she built stairways and doors to nowhere and continuously re-constructed the home for decades. However, this isn't totally right.
Sarah Winchester was born as Sarah Lockwood Pardee in 1839, in New Haven, CT. On September 30th, 1862, she married William Winchester. The couple had one daughter, who was born four years later. Unfortunately, she only lived for ten days before dying from marasmus. Tragedy continued for Sarah Winchester. In 1881, she lost both her mother, father-in-law and her husband. After her husband passed away, Sarah inherited $20 Million (over $500M adjusted for inflation in 2021), as well as a 50% stake in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Making her one of the richest women in the world at the time. Eager to start fresh and after seeking the advice of a medium, Sarah moved to the West Coast. She purchased a farm house in San Jose, California. Just south of San Francisco, where two of her sisters already lived.
Sarah brought on workers and carpenters to alter the house. Eventually turning the two story farmhouse into a seven story home with 160 rooms. Sarah’s actual intention was to expand her house so that her remaining family members could live with her. Sarah wasn’t happy with any of the architects she met with however, and eventually decided to design the home herself. Which led to the haphazard house that now exists, with stairs and doors to nowhere. Because she had so much money, the issues with the house didn’t slow her down. She kept going. Sarah would make one decision, face an unexpected result, and in order to solve the problem she would add a new addition or feature.
An article ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 24th 1895 that stated Sarah’s obsession with building was connected to her fear of death. The newspaper wrote that Sarah believed if she stopped building, she would die. Sarah also kept to herself, which only stoked the rumors about her constant building. This article is mostly cited as the impetus for the Spiritualism rumors that eventually become connected to the house, though it does not say that Sarah was building a mad house to confuse the dead.
The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 didn’t help matters either. It remains one of the most destructive Earthquakes that we know about. Sarah abandoned updating parts of the house impacted by the damage. Additionally, the mansion was reduced from seven stories to four because of it.
Sarah Winchester died on September 5th 1922 of heart failure. Her remains were transported back to New Haven, Connecticut. Only five months after her death, the Winchester Mystery House was opened for paid tours which have continued for a century.
What’s interesting, is that when you visit the house today, the tour guides will tell you about how it’s speculated that Sarah built this unruly house as a way to escape the spirits of those who had been killed by Winchester guns. And if you look up the story of the home, many cite this as fact. We are even shown the seance room along the tour. However, there is very little evidence to support any of these rumors or that Sarah held seances in the home at all. One historian believes that the seance room was actually the gardener’s quarters. And to be honest, this makes sense. Standing in the seances room I was left feeling…uninspired. It didn’t feel spooky or haunted or even that interesting. It felt like a small room that connected to another room via a cool hidden door.
The history behind this haunting is certainly less exciting than the rumors, but we’d rather know the truth than perpetuate a story that isn’t accurate. Especially as it concerns real people and insinuates “instability” or “obsession,” when there was actually only a sense of adventure and a fun (if not chaotic) home improvement project.