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America is full of strange, unusual, and out-of-the-way places. From record-breaking balls of twine, to castles built along unnamed lakes in undeveloped forests, there are all kinds of weird things lurking in the corners of the country. Sometimes, though, the stories behind these unusual places is even more bizarre than the place itself.
Even when it comes to big-league weirdness, though, the Winchester Mystery House is gold medal macabre through and through.
Madness, missing fortunes, hauntings, guns, and stains left by the bloodiest war in the nation's history... this house is a uniquely American story. If you like creepy vacation destinations run through with equal parts tragedy and insanity, don't forget to also check out The Gardens of Bomarzo, also right here in my Wander archive. And for more than just travel, take a look at my full Vocal author profile!
Born In Blood and Strife
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 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 spirits 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 Construction Starts
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. According to Mysterious Trip, 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 officially dedicated to the constant stream of need the projected possessed.
This went on for 38 years, according to The Wrap. Rooms would be built around other rooms, doors opened to vertical exterior drops like something out a cartoon, 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 metamorphosed 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 moving 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 for them. 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 six weeks just to remove the furniture, because the place was so difficult to navigate. The 160+ 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 madwoman, and built with a fortune earned with blood and bullets.
Just How Much of This is Hogwash and Hokum?
This story goes down pretty neat, especially for people who are used to the smoothness of American tall tales. However, there are a few things that are worth mentioning that might throw a little water onto this particular fire.
For example, as Country Living points out, Sarah Winchester may have simply been trying to relive happier times in her own, particularly unusual way. She'd overseen the building of her former home before her husband died, and such an activity could have given her purpose, and made her feel involved in something, even if it appeared nonsensical on the surface. It's also possible that the building was a secondary concern, and that she wanted her money to go into the pockets of workers perfecting their craft, as Sarah paid wages far better than those of her contemporaries, and ensured a steady string of workers had regular, gainful employment.
As to the bizarre nature of the home's interior, Biography has shed a light on an alternative explanation than the commonly told ghost story. That 1906 earthquake that trapped Sarah Winchester in her home did damage to the structure, that's on the record. In the biography Captive of The Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to The Rifle Fortune written about Sarah Winchester, history teacher Mary Jo Ignoffo says that the heiress simply sealed off those parts of the house. Thus when they were later opened, you found hallways that went nowhere, stairways collapsed into ceilings, etc. While that wouldn't explain away all of the home's strangeness, it does paint a very different picture.
This book also refutes many of the accepted parts of the home's canon, such as Sarah's reputation as a woman driven mad by grief, or that she had no overall plan for what she was doing. An educated woman who had overseen this sort of work before, it was unlikely that she displayed the sorts of behaviors and eccentricities that make her such an unusual figure in her own story.
Lastly, it's important to remember that, like it or not, the Winchester Mystery House is currently a business. It's been a tourist attraction for decades, and part of what a tourist attraction sells is its story. While the home itself is strange and unique, and there are facts woven into the narrative, generations of sensationalism blended into the tours to sell tickets that has married the home's real history to a great deal of speculation, and more than a little outright invention along the way.
Because when you have the choice between the myth and the facts, most people buy their tickets for you to tell them the myths.