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The Winchester Mystery House

Owned by Sarah Winchester from 1886 to 1922, the Winchester Mystery House is widely known for its architectural oddities. Believing her family to be cursed (following the loss of an infant child in 1866 and her husband in 1881), she sought advice from a medium. It is said that the medium was able to channel her husband, William Wirt Winchester, from beyond the grave. He advised her to move to California to build a home for the fallen victims of the Winchester rifle. This gun was made by Winchester Repeating Arms, a company founded by her father-in-law.

And so Sarah headed from New Haven, Connecticut to San Jose, California where she used the money from her inheritance to build a home for these forlorn spirits.

The Winchester Mystery House

The original two-story farmhouse boasted eight rooms, a normal size for homes at the time. By the turn of the century, it had grown to be seven-stories tall with nearly 600 rooms. An earthquake in 1906 damaged the top three floors so today the house stands four-stories tall with 160 rooms remaining.

The real mystery is found within—spanning more than 24,000 square feet, there are many illogical features to the home, including: staircases that abruptly end at the ceiling, doors to nowhere, rooms inside of rooms, secret hallways, and 13 bathrooms, only one of which functioned properly.

The Winchester Mystery House
A staircase that leads up to the ceiling. Credit: Rachel Kirsten So

The reason for the having so many restrooms that didn’t act as a restroom? To confuse the spirits, according to Sarah Winchester. It is also said that she would sleep in a different room each night for that same reason. The unique design was believed to be inspired by the spirits that “lived” alongside Winchester—either to satisfy them or keep them from haunting her.

Story has it Sarah would meet with local mediums to try and reach out to the “good spirits.” Those spirits would be consulted on how the house could satisfy them. She also held occasional seances at night in a peaked turret now called “The Witch’s Cap.” Then, the following morning she would deliver new building plans to the construction crew.

In total, the house has 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 47 fireplaces, 40 staircases, 13 bathrooms and 9 kitchens (post-earthquake). Sarah was ahead of her time, partially due to her fascination with modern technology. The home had three elevators, push-button gas lights, forced-air heating, modern indoor pluming and other rare features for its time—making it one of the most modern and advanced homes at the turn of the century.

The Winchester Legacy

When Sarah Winchester died in 1922, construction ceased and some of it remains unfinished to this day. She left all of her possessions—excluding the house—to her niece who had lived with her for 15 years. As Sarah never mentioned the home in her will, it was left to the government who considered it to be worthless, mainly due to the awkward design and earthquake damage. It was then sold for $135,000 to John and Mayme Brown. Five months after Winchester’s death the house was opened to the public for tours.

The Winchester Mystery House
Only known photo of Sarah Winchester

In 1924, the famous magician Harry Houdini visited the house in an attempt to debunk many of the rumors. He left with more questions than answers and referred to it as the “Winchester Mystery House.” Beginning in the 1930s it would be officially marketed as such.

In 1963 the house was incorporated with a mission “to continue to preserve Sarah Winchester’s home and gardens, making them accessible to future generations,” according to their website. In 1974 it was granted state historic landmark status and added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today the house is owned by Winchester Investments LLC, a private company representing the descendants of John and Mayme Brown.

The Winchester Mystery House
The house opens to the public in 1922

While many restorations have been made to parts of the home, it still has unique features that reflect Sarah Winchester’s reported fixation with keeping away evil spirits. The number thirteen and spider web designs—which held spiritual significance to her—are still carried throughout the house.

The house remains as mysterious today as it was when Sarah was alive. Most of this is due to the loyalty of her staff, to whom she paid large sums of money. Her servants never spoke a word about her motives or actions, even after she had passed away—a fact confirmed In 2016 when a secret attic was discovered (unbeknownst to anyone) revealing items like a Victorian-era couch, sewing machine and paintings. Who knows what other mysteries still remain…

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