The famously strange and hauntingly storied past of the Winchester Mansion is widely known the world over, though few people know the real history of this tragic tale. The force of the ages, money, fame, power, love, passion, and the loss of a child and lover, these are the elements that lead to the legend of Sarah Winchester and the unending construction of her home in southern California.
Originally from the New Haven, Connecticut area, Sarah Winchester embarked on a journey of inspiration and construction that would last for 38 years. The Mansion in question, located in San Jose, California, was built at the behest of the widow following the death of her husband, the famed William W. Winchester in 1881, and of their young child, Annie, in 1866.
One would think nothing particularly strange about a grieved widow commissioning the construction of a new home, perhaps in an effort to get away from so many domestic memories in their matrimonial home; though in this case her motives were a slight bit more ambiguous than grief.
The story behind Sarah Winchester is just as mysterious as the house itself, though the house continues to defy logical examination. As with any story of this sort, there are more than a few versions, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll stick to the two most credible and oft repeated.
It is said that following her husband’s death, Sarah Winchester fell into a deep coma (many believe this detail to be false, as there seems to be no reason for such an ailment, for Mrs. Winchester lived a long and healthy life, with no apparent illnesses aside from arthritis); upon recovering from this period of illness, she either sought out or was encouraged to visit the now famous Boston Medium (Mina “Margery” Crandon). This part of the story is widely debated, and unless my math is wrong, it seems unlikely that Mina Crandon ever had opportunity to meet with Sarah Winchester, since Crandon was only six years old or so at the time that this meeting is supposed to have taken place.
In any event, The Widow Winchester sought the advice of a medium in an effort to quell her deep seeded grief and feelings of guilt at the deaths of both her child and husband. What that medium told her, whoever it was, is what sparked her nearly four decade long project.
It is said that the medium held a séance and successfully contacted the late William Winchester’s spirit in the hereafter, and through the medium, Mr. Winchester is believed to have warned his beloved that she must build a new home, and that, should she never complete the home, she will live forever. This account is somewhat less popular among paranormal enthusiasts, but is supported by commentary presented by the remaining Winchester family.
The more popular version of this tale goes something like this: having been directed to this mysterious medium, Sarah Winchester was warned that her family was cursed. You see, William Winchester was and is a famous man, especially in that particular era. He was credited with being the man who developed and made available the gun that won the west, the American made Winchester Lever Action Rifle. In light of this and of the apparent assumption that this gun was responsible for a great many deaths, the medium demanded restitution from the Widow on behalf of the many hundreds and even thousands of lives that were lost at the end of a Winchester rifle. The form of that penance was to be in the continual construction of a home for the spirits, and some even claim that the medium even dictated the exact location for the home in San Jose.
Now, this version of the story, while being much more glamorous and memorable, isn’t really based in fact either. The Winchester Rifle, while being a popular brand, is mistakenly thought to be the actual brand of gun that did in fact “win the west”, this is not necessarily the case however. In any event, the Winchester rifle is no more infamous for murder and mayhem than say the Colt brand, so attributing such a curse to one gun maker seems a little grandiose.
One thing the various accounts of this story do hold in common, is that in 1884, the widow Sarah Winchester sold her New Haven home, moved to San Jose, California and began construction of her famed mansion.
In the death of her powerful and wealthy husband, Mrs Winchester inherited more than $20 million dollars, an amount that would now be in excess of $500 million, and an amount that was, at the time, well more than sufficient for funding her 38 year construction project.
Once the home was constructed to a point where she was able to reside there full time, Mrs. Winchester seldom left the property, which at the time was a vast 161.9 acres. She commissioned a team of workers who toiled on the property day and night, seven days a week for the entire 38 years.
While the Widow’s demanding schedule was strange enough, the actual structure of the building is the real strange part. The mansion boasts 160 rooms, 40 bedrooms and two ballrooms, 47 fireplaces, 10,000 window panes and three elevators. Aside from the opulence of solid gold and silver chandeliers and the like, this is the only known house to have purposely built stairways that lead to nowhere, it has doors that open into nothingness three and four stories off the ground, it has windows that look to nothing but the interior walls.
All of this seemingly random design and construction was done by professional craftsmen at the direct guidance of Mrs. Winchester, who, it is widely known, demanded these odd elements as a means of warding off evil spirits and demons.
Because of her wealth and the largely reclusive lifestyle she lead, no one is truly certain of what the Widow’s motives really were, or whether or not she suffered from any form of mental illness (though the question begs to be asked).
Today the house is owned and maintained by the Winchester Investments (LLC) corporation and is held as a tourist attraction in San Jose. Now thousands of people a year tour the house, marvelling at the insane or ingenious construction and design, and positing wild guesses about what it all means.
Some who visit the site claim to have had ghostly encounters and experiences, though nothing has been documented to date, and in large part, those reported experiences tend to be explained away as a sort of vertigo cased by the illogical and strange angles, doorways and windows throughout the house. It does stand to reason though, that since the widow Winchester’s passing on September 5, 1922, also marked as the day construction on the house finally stopped, any spirits or ghosts that may be found there, could well be the walking soul of Sarah Winchester herself.
For more information about the Winchester Mansion and tour prices etc, visit the Winchester Mystery House website.