The Enigma of the Winchester Mystery House
The Enigma of the Winchester Mystery House

The Winchester Mystery House is an unusual 19th-century mansion in San Jose, Calif., which contains numerous oddities including doors leading nowhere, 2-inch-high steps, windows overlooking other rooms, and an obsession with the number 13. The peculiar residence was once home to Sarah Winchester, the widow and heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. For over a century, rumors have been circulating about the reasons for Sarah’s odd architectural choices, but the story of San Jose’s most mysterious estate is a riddle that may never be solved.

Sarah Lockwood Pardee Winchester was born in 1837 in New Haven, Conn. In 1862, at the height of the Civil War, she was married to William Wirt Winchester, heir to the vast wealth of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The company had developed the Henry Rifle, the first true repeating rifle – a popular choice among the Northern troops at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Hand-tinted ambrotype of Sarah Winchester taken in 1865 by the Taber Photographic Company of San Francisco, 1865. (Wikimedia Commons)

Hand-tinted ambrotype of Sarah Winchester taken in 1865 by the Taber Photographic Company of San Francisco, 1865. (Wikimedia Commons)

The couple had one daughter in 1866, but at just a few weeks old, the baby tragically died of disease and Sarah fell into a deep depression. In 1881, another tragedy struck—William fell ill with pulmonary tuberculosis and died, leaving Sarah with over $20 million dollars and an income from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of about $1000 per day (equivalent to about $30,000 by today’s standard).

It was soon thereafter that the grieving Sarah moved to California’s Santa Clara Valley and purchased an unfinished farmhouse where she threw her energy into its never-ending expansion and renovation, transforming it into the mysterious mansion we see today.

Construction of the Mystery Mansion

Sarah Winchester commissioned an army of tradesmen to begin construction on the house, and directed the entire project herself. She never consulted an architect, and features were added to the building in a haphazard fashion. Over time, the farmhouse expanded into an enormous mansion with 150 rooms, 2 ballrooms, 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, 2 basements, 3 elevators, and over 10,000 panes of glass.

The Winchester Mystery House, San Jose. (Roxanna Salceda/Wikimedia Commons)

The Winchester Mystery House, San Jose. (Roxanna Salceda/Wikimedia Commons)

But it wasn’t its size that attracted the most attention. The home became known for its numerous strange features. Columns were installed upside down, doors opened onto walls or three-story drops, stairways ended up at the ceiling, large, fully furnished and decorated rooms were walled off, and the number 13 and spider web motifs were incorporated throughout the house—there are doors with 13 panels, windows with 13 panes, staircases with 13 steps, and even sink drains were custom made with 13 holes.

A door in the Winchester Mystery House opening out onto a three-story drop, now labelled "Door to Nowhere." (Lisa Jacobs/Flickr)

A door in the Winchester Mystery House opening out onto a three-story drop, now labelled “Door to Nowhere.” (Lisa Jacobs/Flickr)

Tormented by Spirits

Following Sarah Winchester’s death in 1922, numerous stories began to circulate regarding the reasons for the perpetual construction of the house and the inexplicable features she had installed.

Some of the mansion’s characteristics may have practical explanations. For example, there is a staircase with 44 steps that rises only 9-ft because each step is just 2 inches high. One reason for this may have been her debilitating arthritis that made it difficult to climb higher steps. However, other features are less explainable, and the most popular account attributes the oddities to her belief in ghosts.

According to one version, Winchester consulted with a medium in Boston who told her that she must build a large home to accommodate the spirits of all those who had fallen victim to Winchester rifles, and that she would be bothered by the spirits unless she continued to build upon the house. Legend says that Winchester believed she could confuse the ghosts by building strange features into the house and that this would keep her safe from their haunting.

A file photo of old guns. (Juan R. Velasco/iStock/Thinkstock)

A file photo of old guns. (Juan R. Velasco/iStock/Thinkstock)

 

Staircase to nowhere in Winchester Mystery House. Did Sarah construct these features to confuse the unsettled spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles? (Wikimedia Commons)

Staircase to nowhere in Winchester Mystery House. Did Sarah construct these features to confuse the unsettled spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles? (Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that Winchester suffered from mental illness following the tragic deaths of her baby daughter and husband. Still, none of these explanations can be verified as Winchester did not leave behind a single journal or diary, and she was never interviewed about her project. Sadly, this means that Winchester’s true motivation for devoting the second half of her life to building what is now known as the Winchester Mystery House remains elusive and we may never know the real story behind this enigmatic building.

April Holloway is an editor and writer with Ancient-Origins. She completed a Bachelor of Science degree and currently works as a researcher. 

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