This visit to the Winchester Mystery House is the latest entry in Project: Haunted House, a series of posts where I visit purportedly “haunted” places and write about my experiences. Read more here!
The crazy, reclusive woman is a well-worn archetype in literature and film. Emotionally and psychologically unstable, she is damaged goods, unable to escape from a painful past. She is isolated from others. Those around her define her by sorrow, anger, and “insanity.” Her behavior is misinterpreted and her motivations are ignored. She might start off as a psychologically stable character, but cruel psychological manipulation breaks her down. Sometimes, she really is insane, but her mental illness is far more complex than portrayed and we’re never given her full story. These portrayals twist her into something both delicate and dangerous
You know this archetype. The most famous example is Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, but she shows up in different versions as the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, and Jennet Humfrye in The Woman in Black. She also appears in films like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Gothika, and The Ring. Some of these works are my all-time favorites. I’ve always been intrigued by these characters, probably because I’ve always seen them as very misunderstood.
The Crazy Lady also shows up in tons of myths legends, and ghost stories. One of the most famous examples of a weird, reclusive, possibly bat-shit lady is Sarah Winchester, mistress of the infamous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.
According to the stories, Sarah Winchester was haunted by spirits and used her considerable wealth to build a huge mansion to both appease and confuse the ghosts. The house is said to be something out of an M.C. Escher drawing, with staircases leading into ceilings, doors leading into walls or to a two story drop outside the house, inaccessible rooms, doors set in the floor, and other architectural oddities. She held nightly séances to commune with the very same ghosts who haunted her. Now she haunts the house, doomed to wander the labyrinthine halls she spent her life building.
It’s a good story, right? Lots of people are drawn in by this story—myself included. Not only can you visit the house, but you can take several guided tours throughout the house and grounds. Rumors about Sarah persist almost a century after her death. You can tour her house, even opting for a “Candlelight” Tour during Halloween to catch a glimpse of Sarah Winchester’s ghost. And in a year or so you’ll be able to watch a major film about Sarah Winchester and her house, starring Oscar-winner Helen Mirren.
Given all the lore surrounding the Winchester Mystery House, I decided to visit it. As a proud architecture and art history nerd, I was pumped to see a house both gorgeous and haunted. How could I not, especially with countless websites and blog posts recounting all the weird features of the house, along with the spookiest stories about Sarah’s intentions?
At this point, I was convinced by the rumors—she must have been so crazy—touched, as we say in Texas—bless her heart. Who else would spend this much time and money to build such a house? I was ready to photograph loads of creepy shit and scribble tons of testimonials from the staff. I went to the Winchester Mystery House expecting to see the house of a woman who went absolutely bonkers from grief. Who honest to God believed that if she made her house a maze that only she could decipher, the spirits wouldn’t haunt her.
But it wasn’t like that at all.
And I realized there was much more to Sarah’s story.
It wasn’t the house of an insane woman, roving the halls to conduct séances, a slave to her mental instability. Instead, it was the house of a woman who, with wealth and time on her side, tried to fight off her profound grief by busying herself with a never-ending project. While she probably never healed from the loss of her family, she seemed like a smart, savvy, driven woman very much in control of her faculties.
I did a fair bit of research on the estate and its mistress before visiting. The facts are these:
Sarah Winchester was born Sarah Lockwood Pardee in New Haven, Connecticut in 1840. Being born to a wealthy family, her early life was close to perfect. Her family sent her to the best schools in New Haven. She grew up with cultured tastes and became an admirer of Shakespeare and Homer. She spoke five languages—Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and English. She was a gifted piano player. She studied at the Young Ladies Collegiate Institute at Yale University, where wealthy girls could get something like a college education, since Yale refused to admit women at the time.
Being so gracious, intelligent, and attractive, it was not long before she got married. At the age of 22, Sarah married William Wirt Winchester, heir to the Winchester family fortune and the successor to his father’s business, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. At this time, business was booming for the Winchesters. Their most popular rifle, the Henry Rifle, boasted a dramatically high rate of fire that exponentially increased the destructive power of the rifle. The Henry Rifle proved essential in several Civil War battles, not to mention indispensable to American forces as they pushed west into Native American territory. The Henry Rifle made the Winchesters filthy rich.
Life was good for Sarah and William. By all accounts, they were very happy together. In July 1866, their happiness grew with the birth of their first dauther, Annie.
But their happiness was short-lived. Annie suffered from a rare and serious childhood disease called marasmus. Her body could not metabolize nutrients and she became severely malnourished. Sarah and William watched their baby starve to death, helpless to stop it. She died nine days after her birth.
They never had another child.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, William died of tuberculous in 1881.
Thus, at the age of 41, Sarah Winchester had already buried her only child and the love of her life.
Now, no one knows why Sarah didn’t try for more children or why she didn’t remarry after William’s death. Certainly, untimely deaths were common in the 19th Century, and it wasn’t strange to bear tons of children or remarry several times. The odds of a loved one dying were too great. But Sarah refused to do this, for whatever reason.
And here is where the story starts to become more folklore than fact.
For years, Sarah grieved for William and Annie. Desperate for comfort, she attended a séance held by a famous Boston medium in a bid to commune with the spirit world, and maybe her husband. During the séance, the medium told Sarah that the spirits of everyone who had been killed by a Winchester rifle were furious with her. They were punishing the Winchesters and were responsible for the deaths of her child and husband. The spirits threatened to come after Sarah unless she moved west and began construction on a house. The spirits demanded that construction never cease, forcing Sarah to build the hose for the rest of her life. This was to be her penance on behalf of her family and the weapons that made them rich.
And so, according to the legend, Sarah moved to California, bought land for her sprawling estate, and started the endless construction of her mansion. Soon enough, tales of her extravagant spending and eccentric mannerisms spread far and wide.
When I drove up to the Winchester Mystery House, I was not expecting it to be in the middle of a city. But there it was, nestled in the middle of San Jose, this massive Victorian house painted in a garish color scheme. Later I would learn that Sarah Winchester used to own much of the surrounding land, but it had been strategically sold off after her death.
The exterior of the house was breathtaking. The color scheme, while strange to a modern person, is very historically representative of the Queen Anne Victorian style. Everything seemed very well-maintained—no cracking paint, no sagging or rotten wood. Whoever owns the place does a lot to keep it up. (The tour guides swear it’s just a private company, but it’s *totally not* the Winchester Repeating Arms company, you guys.) From the get go, this didn’t seem like a typical haunted house.
Instead of going through the front door, the crowd was funneled into a staging area where we checked in for our tour. This staging area also happened to be the gift shop. I’d arrived early enough that the cheery staff encouraged me to “find something I liked” in the gift shop or visit one of the other “smaller” exhibits.
It was so surreal. First, hidden speakers blared cheesy, overwrought “scary” music, even in the concessions area. There I could have my pick of deep-fried, sugary, greasy food and then saunter over to the mini exhibit for the Henry Rifle. There were large display cases full of old rifles, placards recounting details of the Winchester Family and its business, and old-timey posters hailing the Henry Rifle as “the most effective weapon in the world.”
Next, I went to explore the gift shop, which was the single largest, most ridiculous, tackiest gift shop I have ever been in, with all sorts of “spooky” knickknacks, lotions, scented candles, gun memorabilia, cheaply-made but overpriced jewelry, porcelain bowls, fairy statues, candied walnuts, beanie babies, and a random array of sweatshirts. If an object was big enough to fit “Winchester Mystery House” on a label, then it was in the gift shop.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long for the tour to start. The tour guides were very insistent that no one take photos, so the pictures of the interior are not mine. BUT, believe me when I say that these pictures don’t do the house justice, because the house is absolutely gorgeous, with 160 rooms, including a grand ballroom, 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, 47 staircases, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. The interior is sumptuous; parquet floors, rich wood work, precious Tiffany art glass windows, and other decadent elements grace almost every room.
I was overwhelmed by the decorative details of the house. Much of the wood in the house was redwood, which had a lovely luster. All of the carvings had been done by hand, intricate, painstakingly delicate things carved into wood trim, banisters, railings, and moldings. There were many instances of fancy joint work or brilliant parquetry. Vibrant stained glass windows dazzled nearly every room. The replica furniture was all handmade and spanned a variety of styles from Continental to Victorian to Crafts. The curtains and other textiles were rich, lush, and just as detailed as the rest of the house. It was beautiful. I can only imagine living in a house that magnificent.
But it was also too much. The details alone were exquisite but together they overwhelmed me. I experienced so much sensory overload I had to look away. While Sarah clearly had great taste, it was obvious that she hadn’t really thought much about the cumulative effect of walking through the house. Each room was meant to be its own little capsule, decorated to within an inch of its life.
The house had been custom-made to accommodate Sarah’s petite stature, which proved to be another source of discomfort. It was her house after all. Why would she need a tall door when a short one would do? Why use a wide hallway when a thinner one wouldn’t make her uncomfortable? I am 5’10’’, and I had a hard time with certain portions of the house, particularly the stairs. They were built with shallow and deep steps because her legs couldn’t reach very high, especially in her old age. I was not used to such steps and was forced to shuffle. I knew my body did not fit in this space, but the stairs made me painfully aware. I felt her presence in this way, forced to use the space as she would have. I felt how this was her house and no one else’s.
Despite her lack of formal training, Sarah designed and managed all of the construction. She was one smart cookie. Sarah had a hand in everything, arguing with her foreman on the precise way she wanted a room’s layout, explaining how exactly the lighting panel should operate. To conserve water, she designed a whole system of drains and drip pans to collect excess water from her conservancy and funnel it to her gardens. To self-treat her arthritis, she designed the Hall of Fires, a series of linked rooms with four fireplaces. Apparently it worked pretty well, because she spent a lot of time there.
The grounds were just as impressive. Sarah loved gardening and had plants, trees, flowers, shrubs, and herbs imported from all corners of the globe. She had extensive orchards which produced plums, apricots, and walnuts. Ever the enterprising woman, she started selling the fruit, drying it on her property in “drying tanks” she designed herself. This little side business was successful and she used to extra funds to supplement her income.
As the tour progressed, I realized the property was built like a little community, self-sufficient and fitted with the best amenities available. The estate had its own electrical system; before that, it had its own gas manufacturing plant! It also had its own water system with miles of pipes servicing the mansion and surrounding buildings. At any one time, her staff was composed of 8-10 gardeners and 10 field hands to tend the orchards. She retained a personal mechanic to service her car collection. She had a grounds’ foreman and small army of construction workers and skilled laborers to work on the house. And all this was in addition to her house staff of maids and cooks.
I was confused. A different portrait of Sarah had emerged during the tour and I hadn’t seen any creepy stuff. She seemed a sharp, smart woman with an eye for finery. She seemed demanding, unafraid to push for what she wanted. She was deft with her finances but liked nice things. She took care of her staff and made sure their families could live on the grounds. For every story that said she was a tyrannical old lady there was a story of her unending kindness to her staff. There are stories of her inviting the neighboring children to her house to play in her gardens and eat ice cream. She paid her employees double what the going rates were for their jobs. She made many sizable donations to needy charities in the area.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE WEIRD STUFF?
The staircase that leads straight into a ceiling? The Door to Nowhere? The windows in the floor? What about the tales of her late-night séances, or her communing with ghosts by ringing bells late at night? What about the tales that she wore a black veil all the time and fired any servant unlucky enough to see her face?
Underwhelming. So underwhelming.
That was the interesting part—the tour guides actually explained everything and it didn’t have anything to do with ghosts. The maze-like, shallow staircase? It used to be a normal staircase. When Sarah developed terrible arthritis and couldn’t climb regular stairs anymore, she instructed her workers to build the current staircase on the footprint of the old staircase. The famous walled-off staircase was the result of a renovation—the staircase was no longer needed, and rather than rip it out, she had it cut off. The windows in the floor were her crude attempt to create a central ventilation system in the seven-story house, since it was difficult to circulate air and natural light into the lower floors. A first-floor door that opened into the garden allowed her workers to access a bathroom designed solely for their use. And Sarah had a bad habit of expanding and combining some rooms while scrapping others entirely, so doors became superfluous, like the famous Door To Nowhere.
Honestly, she did have one room that was specifically designated for her “personal séances.” It was bare, unfurnished, and undecorated. According to lore, Sarah would shut herself inside for hours, praying or talking to spirits. But according to my tour guide, it also functioned as a study, because, after hours inside, Sarah would emerge with hand-sketched plans for the house. She came up with new additions, layout changes, drawings for her new stained glass windows inside the séance room. She leave it to her chief architect to decipher and implement her plans, no matter how unrealistic.
At the end of the tour, I realized Sarah Winchester was smart and educated, but not when it came to architecture. That’s why the house is strangely constructed, with no regard for normal technique. We take for granted the work that engineers and architects do, and here is an example of why we pay them money to build stuff for us. Sarah solved problems as best she could, but without any professional guidance. It shows. But she was filthy rich, so why should she care except to make sure things were safe?
She was an incredibly sad and lonely woman who had a lot of free time on her hands. Understandably, she was something of a control freak. She wanted everything just so, always concerned about keeping an eye on her staff and resolute in her desire to handle the construction of her house without outside help. She was stubborn and unwilling to compromise or be told what to do. She built room after room, designed stain-glassed windows, invented drainage systems, involved herself in the lives of her staff, and dedicated much of her fortune to charitable pursuits to stave off her loneliness and boredom. And she didn’t really care what anyone else had to say about her.
SO IS THE HOUSE HAUNTED?
After the tour, I pulled aside my tour guide and asked if she thought the mansion was haunted. She gave me a cheery smile and a rehearsed answer about how people have claimed to see Sarah’s frail ghost during the candlelight tours, walking along the corridors or playing the piano. I pressed her further, asking her for her honest opinion. She thought for a bit and told me she had never experienced anything paranormal. “The house is old and hard to navigate. It’s a bit claustrophobic. You can get overwhelmed and get lost. I think that freaks people out,” she explained. She said she knew co-workers had seen the ghosts old landscapers. Those ghosts where harmless, mostly concerned with finishing their work. “If there are ghosts here,” my tour guide declared, “they certainly aren’t mean.”
Back in the gift shop, I asked a cashier if he thought the house was haunted. He seemed genuinely taken aback by my question. “No one ever asks me that,” he said, shyly. He told me he did think the grounds were haunted. He described an encounter he had with something a few years back. He was closing up the shop and was in the back room closing out the register when he saw a box open itself. The cardboard flaps slowly unfolded and came to rest, as if someone was peering into the box. The cashier swore up and down that there was no draft in the room and that he wasn’t drunk. He confessed he had been startled and a little afraid, but he never felt as though he was in danger. He thought it was just a curious ghost.
REFLECTION UPON MY VISIT
I do not think Sarah Winchester was a crazy lady who believed the ghosts were going to kill her if she stopped building her house. I think she was full of grief from the deaths of her child and husband, grief which I suspect she never healed from. I think she tried her best to move on, and her considerable wealth allowed her to stay busy while using her intellect and creativity. Sure she was eccentric, maybe a little kooky, but nothing I saw in the house was truly creepy. Everything had a convincing and rational explanation.
As for the house itself, I’m not sure if it’s haunted or not. Other people swear up and down they witnessed unexplainable things. I like to think the tour guide and cashier were telling the truth; then again, they work at a legendary haunted house attraction. I never saw anything weird or felt a malevolent force.
What I did feel was a profound sense of awkwardness tinged with shame. I had come to gawk at a dead woman’s house, like everyone else there. My glee at witnessing madness gave way to humble respect for this sad but determined lady. The whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth. The Winchester Mystery House actively stokes the public imagination, doing a lot to make people think there are truly creepy things to see there. I fell for it.
Maybe the stories are true. Maybe not. I saw a woman’s monument to her pain and also her resolve, dressed up with hokey Halloween music, cheap Ouija boards, and an exaggerated story. At any rate, Sarah Winchester was haunted by the ghosts of her past more than anything else. There is no need to conjure up wild stories to explain her behavior, especially when those wild stories explain more about the people around her.