As a girl growing up in Australia I always wanted to visit the strange house with the stairway that ends at the ceiling and the door that opens to an eight-foot drop. When I finally visited the Winchester Mystery House I encountered even more strange features, including windows in floors, doors that open onto walls, tiny doors and steps. Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, designed and built this legendary mansion in San Jose, California. The Winchester Mystery House was once seven stories high and had an estimated 500 rooms, while today it still has four stories and 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 6 kitchens, 19 chimneys, 40 staircases, 47 fireplaces, 52 skylights, 950 doors, 3 elevators, 2 ballrooms and 10,000 windows.
Why did Sarah build this rambling mansion? During the tour, guests are told that following the deaths of her husband, baby, and father-in-law, Sarah consulted a psychic named Adam Coons who warned her that she was next. He believed she was the victim of a curse and to avoid death she needed to build a house for the spirits of those who died at the hands of a Winchester rifle. Other versions say that she was advised to build a house to confuse and disorient the spirits, so they couldn’t track her down. It is said that she proceeded to build this house from 1884 until the day she died in 1922.
According to the legends, Sarah Winchester was a highly superstitious woman. This is reflected in her architecture, where “13” is a recurring theme that appears in windows, stairs, and the number of gas jets in a chandelier. Her will is divided into thirteen parts and signed thirteen times. It was the tradition of the time to install a column upside down, for good luck. Sarah needed all the good luck she could get, so she had every column placed upside down, except for one. She was also reputed to be a spiritualist who conducted séances at midnight in a special “séance room”. One night, Harry Houdini allegedly joined her for a séance.
The house is reputed to be very haunted. People claim to hear the sounds of phantom footsteps and heavy breathing, and organ music coming from the Grand Ballroom. Some report being touched gently by good spirits, or being pushed violently by bad spirits. People claim to see doorknobs turn, strange red balls of light, and the sight of ectoplasm dripping from walls. Some have witnessed shadow figures, spirit guests dancing in the ballroom, and the ghosts of cowboys, Native Americans and other victims of the Winchester rifle. Others have seen people in 19th century clothing, and then recognized them as carpenters, servants and maids who appear in photographs around the mansion. Of course, there have been many sightings of Sarah, including an apparition of her that walks through walls and doors.
Many psychics visit the house and speak of strange experiences. Psychic medium Sylvia Browne conducted a séance at the house in which she was able to confirm the curse upon Sarah. Browne saw the spirits of Sarah and the ghosts of fallen soldiers from the Civil War who live in the house. Psychic Jeanne Borgen visited the house in 1975 and performed a séance in the room where Sarah died. In the middle of the séance she took on Sarah’s appearance and her pain. A witness described the incident. “Suddenly it appeared as if Mrs. Borgen’s face had somehow aged – her hair appeared grey and deep lines creased her forehead. She felt staggering pain and was unable to walk. It was as if she were having a heart attack and, as she started to fall, she shouted, “Help me. Someone get me out of here!”
These legends are repeated to the hundreds of people who visit the mansion every day. They are retold online, in books, and on television shows, including Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures. However, some historical research reveals a very different story. Sarah built the house as a personal project and distraction from her grief, and at that time building sprawling mansions was a hobby for the wealthy. She didn’t build the mansion continuously until her death; the 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused so much damage that she moved to another of her many houses for the last sixteen years of her life. The earthquake caused some of the weird features in the house, such as chimneys that stop short of the roof because they were sealed off below ceiling level. Other oddities, such as the thirteenth gas jet in the chandelier, were additions made to the house after her death, when her amazing, historical home was turned into a freak show attraction.
For more about this fascinating story, check out my new book for the JREF - Haunting America: The Truth behind Some of America’s “Most Haunted” Places
. The Kindle Edition is available now, while Nook and iBook versions and print on demand copies will be available in the coming weeks. The book also contains investigations into other classic “haunted” places in the United States, including Alcatraz, the Lemp Mansion, and the Waverly Hills Sanatorium. This book is for those who love legends, but also want to know the facts behind the folklore.
Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter