Winchester Mystery House a World Famous Tourist Attraction

Sarah Winchester Remodeled Home for 38 Years

The Winchester Mystery HouseCredit: Tracy S. MorrisEllen Raskin wrote that the poor are crazy, the rich just eccentric.  If this is true, then Sarah Winchester pushed the boundaries of eccentricity as far as a wealthy woman could.

Winchester can be compared to notable wealthy eccentrics such as Elvis, Michael Jackson or Howard Hughes.  But Winchester’s whims make Elvis’ Jungle Room, Hughes’ Spruce Goose and Jackson’s Neverland Ranch seem almost normal by comparison.

For 38 years, Winchester had workers continuously building on her house around the clock to forestall her own death at the hands of spirits that were killed with Winchester rifles.  By the time of her death, her house had grown into a 160 room maze.

Winchester’s sad story began with what seemed like a happy ending.  Sarah Lockwood Pardee was by all accounts the social star of New Haven, Connecticut.  This young, charming princess of the New England’s social scene found her prince charming in William Wirt Winchester, the sole heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company fortune.  On September 30, 1862 the two married and within 4 years, the couple gave birth to a baby girl.

But tragedy struck after a short few weeks when the little girl died.  The death of her daughter pushed Sarah into a deep depression that Sarah never quite recovered from.  Sixteen years later, Sarah became the unrivaled heiress of the Winchester fortune when her father-in-law and then her husband died within a the span of a single year.

What followed, according to popular legend, was a complete psychological break from reality.  Winchester visited a psychic who told her that her misfortune came because every spirit ever killed by a Winchester Rifle was now seeking vengeance on the Winchester Family.  The only way to stop them was to build a home for the spirits.  The construction for the home must continue, night and day and if construction ever stopped, the spirits would become angry and kill Mrs. Winchester next.

After receiving this advice, Sarah Winchester packed up, moved to California and purchased an orchard near San José.  From there, she launched a fruit-growing and packing business.  Meanwhile, she channeled her considerable wealth into her newest hobby: renovating the farmhouse for the spirits.  Construction on the house would continue for the next 38 years, until Winchester died in 1922.

Popular accounts state that Winchester received building plans from séances held nightly in her home.  Séance inspired architecture or not, the Winchester house has a confusing layout and a number of design flaws.  Doors and windows open into blank walls, staircases and chimneys go nowhere.  Servants who worked in the house often needed a map to move around without getting lost.

There are two other theories as to why the Winchester house construction was so confusing.  One more popular theory is that Sarah wanted to confuse the spirits that would try to attack her in her home.  The second is that she simply wasn’t a very good architect and would fire anyone who disagreed with her construction plans.  According to tour guides, Sarah paid each staff member in cash daily so that if she had to fire an employee, they could be dismissed directly.

The Spider Web WindowCredit: Tracy S. MorrisWinchester home has a number of oddities that are evidence of Sarah’s paranoia.  Several rooms are built so that Sarah could listen in on private conversations and fire the speakers if she didn’t like what she heard.  Spider web motifs and the number 13 are also represented throughout from rooms that have 13 windows to chandeliers comprised of 13 candlesticks and windows with spider web leading.  Although Mrs. Winchester never received visitors, she also built 2 ballrooms. 

Eccentricities aside, Sarah Winchester also held patents on new inventions that were innovative for the time, such as a laundry sink with a sloped scrub board that would drain water back into the basin and a drying machine that her employees used to prepare fruit for shipping.

When Sarah died, the majority of her wealth was donated to charity.  She gave her niece the furniture in the house, which took six and one-half weeks to remove from the home.  About her extravagant house, Sarah Winchester’s last will and testament said nothing.  A group of investors bought the home and turned it into the tourist attraction that visitors may see today.

The Winchester Mystery House is open for tours daily except for Christmas Day.  Most tours do not need reservations.  The notable exception being a special Friday Night flashlight tour that does require a reservation.  Tickets may be purchased online through the Winchester Mystery House website.