The Winchester Mystery House is one of the strangest tourist spots I have ever visited. It is located in San Jose, California just south of San Francisco. It is a sprawling Victorian House that sits on 6 acres. The house is truly a beautiful property, surrounded by immaculate Victorian gardens and fountains. And all of this I’m sure sounds very fascinating and enticing but it is the back story of the Winchester House that makes it one of a kind.
Mrs. Winchester, the mistress of the house was quite eccentric. She hailed from the Northeast part of the country. She was born in Connecticut around 1840 into the wealthy family of the Pardees and lived a privileged childhood. She met and married Oliver Fischer Winchester, the manufacturer of the famous Winchester Rifle. They were a happily married couple and in 1866 they had daughter. But tragedy befell the family when the infant daughter died of a marasmus (which is a severe form of malnutrition). Fifteen years later her husband succumbed unexpectedly to tuberculosis. And this is where the story really begins.
Because of these tragic events, understandably Mrs. Winchester sunk into the depths of the deepest, darkest depression and in an effort to understand why she was so tormented she went to visit a spiritualist in Boston. The Medium explained to her, the family and their fortune were being haunted and systematically eradicated by the spirits of all the Native Americans and the Civil War soldiers who had been killed by the Winchester Rifle. Mrs. Winchester was next in line to die. Needless to say – this didn’t sit well with Mrs. Winchester. The Medium advised her to move west and to build a house for the spirits and to keep building, never stopping in hopes it would pacify the spirits and afford Mrs. Winchester eternal life.
Mrs. Winchester dashed over to the West Coast and bought an unfinished farm house just outside of San Jose and immediately began on construction of the house. She hired carpenters who worked in shifts around the clock. Construction never ceased, work continued on weekends and even over the holidays. There were never any blueprints made of the house, Mrs. Winchester would come up with ideas after her nightly midnight séance (I am assuming the ideas were spiritually derived), make sketches and hand them off to the foreman. This may be the reason for the numerous architectural oddities within the Winchester House, such as the stairway that leads to the ceiling, doors that go nowhere and doors which open to walls. The building on the house continued over 38 years. The end result was a very strange house indeed. At one time, it was reported there were 500-600 rooms, but these were later reduced to a mere 160 rooms. It is said there are secret passages within the walls of the house, some of which have never been found. Legend says there is even a fully stocked wine cellar sealed off, hidden, somewhere in the depths of the house and has never been located.
The fact the building never stopped is astonishing in itself, but Mrs. Winchester had some other quirks which she built into the house. She had an extreme fascination with the number 13. On the house’s grounds there are topiary bushes in the shape of 13. There are 13 bathrooms in the house, the 13th bathroom has 13 windows. There are 13 panels on each side of the Otis elevator, and she even had to add a 13th gas jet to the large chandelier. She also believed mirrors were detrimental to spirits and so there were only 3 mirrors in the entire house. She insisted the house staff used only hand mirrors in order to protect the spirits from disappearing. She had a séance room, with 3 doors (I’m guessing the additional doors were escape routes in case things went awry during a séance) and 13 coat hooks.
Mrs. Winchester was rather a strange duck (as I am sure you have gathered by now). She was said to wear a black veil over her face at all times and if any staff member ever laid eyes upon her face, they were instantly fired. It seems she lived in relative isolation – if one can consider being surrounded by incessant construction at all hours as isolated. I can’t imagine listening to the banging and pounding and sawing that never stopped – it would have driven me batty. Mrs. Winchester was an extraordinarily wealthy women, hence her ability to afford the non-stop building. It was estimated because of her shareholdings in Winchester Rifle Company her income was a 1000 dollars per day, every day. Because of her wealth she wasn’t crazy – she was just eccentric. She was said to have slept in a different bedroom every night, in order to keep the spirits confused as to her whereabouts. She died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 82.
The Winchester House is open to visitors. As usual, because I have an almost fanatical interest in the paranormal I dragged my family on a tour. The house is sprawling, the tour is long and mentally exhausting, because everything is just a little out of kilter. I felt a real sense of dread in some of the rooms and was quite relieved when the tour was over. I didn’t see anything paranormal but the overall atmosphere of the house was oppressive, dark and depressing. I suspect it wasn’t like this when all the construction was taking place. The constant sawing and hammering most likely gave the house an aura of promise, perhaps perpetual optimism and renewal. Mrs. Winchester’s spirit is said to roam the labyrinth of halls inside the house. I wonder if she is enjoying the house more as a spirit, or if in fact she wished she had done things differently?
Here is an interesting video on the Winchester House.
If you are interested in the stories of encounters with the paranormal while touring the Winchester House – look here (Spirit Sightings).