The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, is one of the strangest and most enigmatic mansions in the world. It is also the most intriguing. With 160 rooms encompassing 24,000 square feet, it also has doors that open into walls, staircases that end at ceilings, rooms inside of rooms, and a treasure trove of other oddities that would make any curiosity seeker salivate.
It was built by Sarah Winchester, whose vast multi-million dollar fortune from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company through her late husband, Will, gave her the equivalent of $24,000 per day in today’s dollars. He passed in 1881 when they were living in New Haven, Connecticut, and when she moved out to California, Sarah began constant construction on what had been an eight room cottage. Beginning in 1886 until Sarah’s death in 1922, it is said that shifts of 16 carpenters worked on the house 24 hours a day, every day, for three times the going rate.
Prior to the 1906 earthquake that rocked the greater San Francisco area and decimated the building, it had grown to seven floors with over 200 rooms. But the top three floors collapsed during the quake, which could account for staircases ending at ceilings.
Why did Mrs. Winchester become so obsessed with building this unique house? Legend has it that she never fully recovered after the death of her infant daughter, Annie, and 15 years later when her husband died of tuberculosis, Sarah sought out the spiritual guidance of a medium. The medium told the grief-stricken woman that the family was cursed, haunted by the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifle. These ghosts were seeking vengeance, and the only way to appease them was to build a house that could hold them all. But it wasn’t enough to simply build a large house. Sarah was instructed to never stop building, never stop adding on to the house.
The legend continues on in California during construction. It’s said that each night, Sarah would retire to her seance room to convene with the spirits and receive instructions for the next day’s work. The sketches she handed the construction workers were hand-drawn and often contradicted other projects within the house. For example, she would order the destruction of a room just after finishing its construction or block expensive stain glass windows she had just installed with a wall to another new room. In 1975, workers at the house discovered a room that had been completely covered up for nearly 70 years.
The number 13 is predominantly featured throughout the house, such as halls with 13 ceiling panels, closets with 13 hanger pegs, 13 steps on many of the staircases, and the 13 windows in the 13th bathroom. Is it just coincidence given the odd architecture, or is it part of the legend had been, perhaps, instructions from the spirits.
As for ghost sightings at the Winchester Mystery House today, there have been several. One is possibly that of a former handyman at the house. With jet back hair, the apparition of this man repairing the fireplace in the ballroom and sometimes pushing a ghostly wheelbarrow down long, dark hallways has frequently been seen by both tour guides and visitors .
Modern handymen have also experienced what may have been one of their comrades from long ago. In one particular case during a restoration project in the Hall of Fire, one worker was up a ladder when he suddenly felt a tap on the back. When he turned his head, no one was there. He shrugged it off thinking he’d just imagined the tap, but when he set back to work he felt someone pushing against his back. Having had enough and not wanting to be hurt by something unseen, the worker hurried down off the ladder and ran across to another part of the estate to work on a different project.
There’s also the experience of a tour guide named Samantha. One day, she was leading a group of tourists into the “Daisy Bedroom” where Sarah Winchester was trapped during the 1906 earthquake when everyone heard a very loud, audible sigh emanate from the small hallway just outside the bedroom door. Samantha checked the hallway for a guest that may have fallen behind the group, but instead of finding one of the visitors she spotted a small, dark figure, short in stature glide around the corner in the hall. The tour guide stepped around the corner, but did not spot the figure again, although she did hear another loud sigh. She believes the group may have encountered the spirit of Sarah Winchester, annoyed that other people were in her favorite bedroom.
Why Mrs. Winchester truthfully felt compelled to build her magnificent house we may never know. She left no journals and never publicly spoke about it. So, perhaps the legends are true, and perhaps, there are other secrets to uncover within the Winchester Mystery House.