Winchester House Front
Credit: Wikimedia Commons Image

What is The Winchester Mystery House?

Americans love their ghost stories. It's why we've come up with myths like Satanists poisoning our children's Halloween candy, and why we love Internet-era urban legends like the Slender Man (whose rather mundane origin is told right here). But sometimes we find ourselves unable to come up with a fiction stranger than the truth dotted all across our own frontier. From cannibal killers to unlikely disappearances, America is full of the unexplained, the bizarre, and the terrifying.

The Winchester Mystery House is all three of these things.

If you like creepy vacation destinations don't forget to check out the Gardens of Bomarzo, known more colloquially as The Monster Park.

How The House Came To Be

It all started back when Sarah Pardee married Oliver Winchester in the year 1862 at the height of the Civil War. Winchester had an interest in several different businesses before his marriage, including shirt making, but when he acquired the rights to the Volcanic Repeater rifle the man's name became inextricably linked with American firearms. It was the Civil War, and the demand for the Henry rifle, that made Winchester and his new bride richer than either of them would have dreamed possible.

At first the marriage went well. There was plenty of money, business was roaring, and in 1866 Sarah gave birth to a daughter named Annie Winchester. The baby sadly only lived for four days, and she died of a wasting illness. Sarah was deeply saddened by the loss of her daughter, and some say it took her eight years to become something resembling her old self again. In 1881 her husband, and the current heir to the Winchester fortune, died of tuberculosis. How much the "medicine" of the time helped him along is currently uncertain. This left Sarah with all the grief of a childless widow, and the unheard of sum of twenty million dollars in the bank along with roughly a thousand more rolling in every day.

This is where things get strange. Unsure of what to do with her new station in life Sarah turned to a friend for advice. The advice she received was to consult a spiritualist, something that was all the rage during the spiritualism craze that America had caught from Europe like the plague. So Sarah consulted a medium, and the medium conducted a seance to discover the cause of her client's continued pain, suffering, and misfortune. What the all-seeing Ouija board had to say was that the souls of her daughter and husband were still in the house with her. Also that she'd been cursed, and that the souls of everyone that died by her husband's guns would haunt her till the day she met her own end.

The House Is Born

Sarah, being a modern and intelligent woman... took the medium at her word. Sarah sold her house on the East Coast and, guided by the hand of her departed husband came to California. In 1884 she arrived in Santa Clara, and there found a modest six room house being built on 160 acres of land. She bought it all from the owner (a cost she probably didn't even notice) and began construction on the foundations of her new home for herself and her deceased companions.

Here's where things got strange. Sarah scrapped the plans that the original home owner had, and began to build as if she was constructing the home off the top of her head. She employed various carpenters and builders, presenting the foreman with new, hand-drawn blueprints every morning. In small details they were accurate, and even highly artistic, but if you looked at the big picture Winchester House was an Architectural manticore, a mis-matched Frankenstein who seemed to have no rhyme or reason in its construction. The house had gotten up to 26 rooms, very few of which made any sort of sane sense, when railroad cars for the materials and furnishings were dedicated to the constant stream of need the projected possessed.

Winchester Mystery House
Credit: Wikimedia Commons Image

The House Continues

This went on for 36 years. Rooms would be built around rooms, doors opened to vertical drops, skylights were built above skylights and stairways went up just to loop around and go back down again. Fireplaces were installed everywhere, closets opened to brick walls, and everywhere there was a maddening sense of chaos as what had been a home became an estate, and the estate metmorphosed into a massive labyrinth that only the experienced or the possessed could really navigate. Sarah built this place to contain the spirits she believed would haunt her, but especially to confuse and even to trap the bad men, the villains and killers who were no doubt coming to move in with bloody holes left behind by Winchester bullets.

In 1906 the house (if such a term was still applicable when it was seven stories and possessed enough rooms to hold several palaces) was struck by an earthquake. Sarah survived, and she was convinced that the quake was the anger of the spirits who thought the house was nearly complete. So to keep things under control Sarah went right back to consulting with the builders, sealing off rooms and ensuring that the house would never, ever be truly finished. This continued unabated until her death in 1922.

Of course Sarah Winchester had drained a huge amount of the family fortune with the project, and there were other Winchester heirs who were enraged there was so little left. There were rumors of jewels and gold hidden in a safe somewhere inside Winchester House though. So the inheritors, hoping to make the best out of a bad situation tried to find the hidden treasure. They opened nearly 20 safes, but all they found were old socks, newspaper clippings, and bit of fishing line. Any secrets the Winchester House held it wasn't going to give up without a fight.

Over time the place developed a reputation. Ripley, of Believe it or Not Fame, added to the fires of infamy that burned by reporting things like the fact that workmen took 6 weeks just to remove the furniture because the place was so difficult to navigate. The 160+ (no one's sure of the exact count) room home was declared a national landmark in the 1970s, and to this day people can come to California at 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose to view madness in architectural form. There's still mixed word on the ghosts, though many people who work in the house claim to have seen and heard things ranging from mysterious footsteps to the sounds of ghostly workmen. Other opinions run to the idea that even the dead could lose their way in the nonsensical twists and turns dreamed up by a manwoman and built with a fortune earned with blood and bullets.