Most of us want to get home construction over as soon as possible. We worry about the expense and complain about the inconvenience. But for Sarah Winchester, construction was a way of life. For 38 years, she had construction going 24 hours a day at her home in San Jose, Calif. This was no ordinary construction job, though; the house is an oddball labyrinth of rooms that at one point reached seven stories. It's filled with weird things like stairs and doors that go nowhere. And I haven't even mentioned the ghosts.
Sarah Winchester didn't always want to build a haunted mansion. Born in 1839, Sarah Pardee was one of the social stars of New Haven, Conn. Although she only stood 4 feet 10 inches, she was known for her beauty and her sparkling personality. In 1862, Sarah married William Winchester, who was the heir of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The company had developed the repeating rifle, a gun that was easy to reload and fired rapidly, at a rate of one shot every three seconds. The gun was used by Northern troops in the Civil War and was also known as "the gun that won the West" [source: Silva].
The young couple started a family in 1866, but their daughter, Annie, died in infancy, a blow that Mrs. Winchester never recovered from. Mr. Winchester died of tuberculosis 15 years later. Distraught over these losses, she visited a medium for spiritual guidance.
The medium told her that the Winchester family had been struck by a terrible curse and was haunted by the ghosts of all those killed by the Winchester rifle. Their spirits were seeking vengeance, and the only way to appease them was to build a house for them. The ghosts had another request: that the house never be completed. Never stop building, the medium told Mrs. Winchester, or you will die. We can't know exactly how she interpreted this advice; she might have thought the spirits would get her if she stopped, or she might have seen continuous construction as a path to eternal life.
Mrs. Winchester headed west to build a home for herself and her ghosts. She bought a six-room farmhouse on 162 acres in California and set to work building, a task that would occupy her until her death 38 years later. But how did she end up with such a weird house? Why did she construct stairs that went nowhere and doors that opened into walls? Find out on the next page.
Constructing the Stairs and Doors to Nowhere
Mrs. Winchester served as her own architect, but it's possible that some ghosts had a hand in designing the house as well. Each night, Mrs. Winchester would retreat to her séance room and receive instruction from the spirits on the progress of her house. The next morning, she'd present her construction workers with hand-drawn sketches of what was to be done.
Sometimes it seemed she didn't care what she built, as long as she could hear the hammers of her crew. The crew might spend a month constructing a room, only to be ordered to destroy it the next month. Because Mrs. Winchester paid well, no one disputed her instructions. Mrs. Winchester had inherited $20 million and just less than half of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company stock [source: Taylor]. This left Mrs. Winchester with a daily income of about $1,000 to spend on her house [source: Taylor]. (Multiply those figures by about 20 to get an idea of how much money that would be in 2008 [source: U.S. Department of Labor].)
But what of these doors and stairs to nowhere? Doors may open onto walls, or in the case of a second story door, to the outside, resulting in a big fall for anyone who might try to exit that way. A closet door in the second floor séance room opens onto a first-floor sink several feet below. The stairs to nowhere are pretty much what they sound like: Stairs go up until they reach the ceiling, and then they just stop.
The useless stairs might have a simple explanation; the stairs were likely a part of the original house that Mrs. Winchester bought, and when she started adding on to the home, she covered up the stairs. Whether it was accidentally or on purpose, Mrs. Winchester usually covered up her mistakes by just continuing to build around them. Because she had no master plan for the house, her architectural ideas didn't always work out. Since she had no deadline for completion, she'd either tear down the mistake or cover it up with something else.
Some people think that these touches were designed to confuse the evil spirits that were haunting Mrs. Winchester. Believing that ghosts would get lost on stairs that went nowhere or accidentally step out of a door that went outside, Mrs. Winchester might have deliberately installed these weird touches. If this sounds strange to you today, you're not alone. Even at the time that Mrs. Winchester was building the house, she was regarded with suspicion. Some thought her an eccentric with too much money on her hands, and her home took on the nickname "mystery house" not long after her death.
Because Mrs. Winchester left no diary or other communication, we honestly have no idea what might have been going on her mind. What we do have is her house, which is still open to tourists. Is it a monument to madness or money? Is it still haunted? On the next page, we'll poke around inside the Winchester Mystery House.
Visiting the Winchester Mystery House
Mrs. Winchester died in her sleep in 1922, and the house was sold to a group of investors who wanted to create a tourist attraction. To this day, it's hard to know exactly how many rooms are in the house, because people kept getting lost when they counted. Even the home's California Historic Landmark description calls it a "large, odd dwelling with an unknown number of rooms" [source: Taylor]. It's estimated that about 160 rooms are in the house [source: Winchester Mystery House].
You can see the room where Mrs. Winchester died on the tour, as well as the Daisy Room, where Mrs. Winchester was trapped for several hours after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. According to legend, Mrs. Winchester slept in a different room each night so that the ghosts couldn't find her, but unfortunately, the servants couldn't find her either after the earthquake. Mrs. Winchester was convinced that the spirits were going to get her during the earthquake, and that the earthquake was a sign from the spirits that they were angry that she might finish construction on the house. To appease the spirits, Mrs. Winchester boarded up the rooms damaged by the earthquake so that they would never be repaired, and thus, never finished. She may have also been hoping to trap some of the evil spirits inside that suite of rooms.
The house had reached seven stories by 1906, but the top three floors collapsed after the earthquake. Some other famous numbers associated with the house include its 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, two basements, six kitchens, 10,000 window panes and 467 doorways [source: Winchester Mystery House]. Despite these impressive numbers, there are only two mirrors; Mrs. Winchester thought that ghosts were afraid of their own reflection [source: Taylor].
Mrs. Winchester also had an obsession with the number "13." Many things installed in the home feature 13 of something: 13 window panes, 13 wall panels, 13 sections of flooring, 13 stairs in each staircase. There are 13 bathrooms, sinks have 13 drain holes and the séance room has 13 coat hooks.
Beyond the stairs and windows to nowhere, there are other architectural oddities all over the house. Stair posts were installed upside down, and chimneys that served no purpose are all over the house. There are cabinets that are less than an inch (2.54 centimeters) deep. Mrs. Winchester ordered a beautiful and outlandishly expensive Tiffany glass window, but after she installed it, a wooden wall was built behind it, so that sunlight could never shine through the panes. There's a storeroom of other expensive windows, wallpaper and furnishings that Mrs. Winchester never got around to using that was valued at $25,000 at the time of her death [source: Grant]. That's just a drop in the bucket of the $5.5 million that Mrs. Winchester eventually spent building her house. However, due to the unrepaired earthquake damage and the crazy design, the house sold for a mere $135,000 [source: Strangetastic].
See the spooky links on the next page to learn more about the Winchester Mystery House.
Winchester Mystery House: Author's Note
Just before I accepted my job at HowStuffWorks.com, I took a cross-country road trip. I was spending a few days in San Francisco, and I kept seeing advertisements for the Winchester Mystery House. I was so intrigued that I made a detour into San Jose to see the famous home, and I was very glad I did. The ghosts, the steps leading nowhere and the recurring motif of the number 13; what's not to love? Then, a mere four months into my tenure as a writer, I was assigned this article. No one on the staff knew that I had just been to the Winchester Mystery House, so I have to think that some mysterious force was behind the coincidence -- Sarah Winchester herself, perhaps?
The thing that struck me on my tour was how respectful the tour guide was of Mrs. Winchester. It would be very easy to tell the story of this house and paint Mrs. Winchester as insane or stupid. But the tour guide introduced me to a complex, grief-stricken woman, and I tried to keep that image of Mrs. Winchester in my mind as I wrote this article.
- Grant, Kay. "Winchester Mystery House." TravelLady Magazine. March 2005. (March 26, 2008) http://travellady.com/Issues/March05/1300WinchesterMysteryHouse.htm
- Silva, Lee and Susan. "Winchesters won the West and also made the Winchester mystery house possible." Wild West. December 2001. (March 26, 2008) http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=83184560&Fmt=3&clientId=30380&RQT=309&VName=PQD
- Strangetastic.com. "Mystery House Commentary." (March 26, 2008) http://strangetastic.com/category/wmh/
- Taylor, Troy. "The Winchester Mystery House." Ghosts of the Prairie. (March 26, 2008) http://www.prairieghosts.com/winchester.html
- Winchester Mystery House. "Amazing Facts." (March 26, 2008) http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/facts.html
Winchester Mystery House: Cheat Sheet
Stuff you need to know:
- The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, Calif. was built by Sarah Winchester from 1884 until her death in 1922.
- The house is a labyrinth of approximately 160 rooms and bizarre features such as stairs that lead nowhere, doors that open onto walls, columns that are installed upside down and chimneys that don't reach the ceiling.
- Heartbroken from the deaths of her infant daughter and her husband, Sarah Winchester consulted a medium who told her that her family was cursed, as her husband was the heir of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The medium told her that the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles were haunting her, and the only way to appease them was to build a house for as long as she lived.
- Winchester allegedly consulted the ghosts haunting her about the design of her house. She held nightly séances to commune with the ghosts, and then presented hand-drawn plans to her architect the next morning.
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