The Winchester Mystery House
the death of her husband, Sarah Winchester
would begin building a house unlike any other in 1886.
One whose construction continued all the way until her death on September 5 1922
Who Was Sarah Winchester?
Born Sarah Lockwood Pardee in 1839, New Haven, Connecticut, the 5th of 7 children. While today mostly remembered for her construction of this house and her marriage to William Wirt Winchester, she was a fascinating character all on her own
Acclaimed to be a child prodigy akin to Francis Bacon. It's said that by age twelve she was fluent in: Latin, French, Spanish and Italian, had a great interest in the classics (particularly Homer and Shakespeare) and was a remarkable musician. This on top of her natural beauty, the New Haven Society would come to know her as "The Belle of New Haven"
At an early age, she was admitted to Yale's only female scholastic institution known as the "Young Ladies Collegiate Institute". She grew up surrounded by scholars, philosophers and Freemasons, both in her family and her school
Among Sarah's friends, were her schoolmates Susan and Rebecca Bacon (No relation to Francis Bacon). During their attendance, their aunt Delia would attract considerable fame for her startling conclusion that Francis Bacon was actually responsible for the works of Shakespeare. Go back to our first episode if you want to know more about that
With her connection to the Bacon family and passion for Shakespeare, this idea would take root and she remained a staunch Baconian for the rest of her life
It's also believed that Sarah would later become a Theosophist. Theosophy is a religion that was founded in the late 19th century
Theosophy is known to only have one mandatory tenant "to form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color"
She also adhered to the theosophical perspective held by Rudolph Steiner: Steiner viewed the universe as a vast, living organism in which all things are likened to individually evolving units or cells that comprise a greater universal, synergistic body that is "ever building.". Trust me, you'll understand why this is interesting soon
On September 30 1862 Sarah would become Sarah Lockwood Winchester, marrying the heir of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, William Wirt Winchester.
The two had their first child, a daughter named Annie on July 12 1866, unfortunately the child would die 40 days later of marasmus (a severe form of malnutrition due to the body's inability to metabolize proteins)
In 1880 Oliver Winchester, father of William dies, passing the company on to his son
Three months later in 1881 Sarah's husband would die from tuberculosis leaving her with staggering inheritance of $20.5 million dollars (about $550 million in 2020) and she received nearly 50% ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. This left her with an income of roughly $1,000 a day, or about $27,000 a day in 2020
The Between Years
Little is known about what Sarah did between the death of her husband and the purchasing of the land where the house would be built
According to Ralph Rambo, a friend of Sarah's, she went on a 3 year world tour. One theory is that she went on a masonic journey. The freemasons traditionally don't allow women to join their lodges, but there are documented cases that go back as far as the 18th century of head-strong women making their way into the ranks
There was a movement in France called Co-Freemasonry which allowed for female membership that was underway when Sarah arrived in the country. With Sarah's education, family history, social status and her own personal interest in the masons, it's not a far stretch to imagine that she may have sought to join one of these lodges and even likely succeeded
Other thoughts are she may have just explored Europe and became inspired by the beautiful architecture
Returning from her trip she would move out west, selling her New Haven home. It is thought that she settled in the San Francisco Bay area as much of her family had come out west during the 1849 gold rush
In 1884 she purchased an unfinished farmhouse in Santa Clara Valley and began to build her mansion. She hired a crew of 20 carpenters and worked on the house day and night. With Mrs. Winchester as its' only architect, the house gradually mushroomed outward and upward, reaching a height of 7 stories in some places, and encompassing an estimated 500-600 rooms.
The house was originally known as Llanada Villa but now goes by the Winchester Mystery House
It's said that Sarah gave day-to-day guidance for the construction that proceeded around the clock, some say without interruption until her death, at which time work immediately ceased
But Sarah's biographer, however, says that Winchester "routinely dismissed workers for months at a time 'to take such rest as I might'"
The house is almost made entirely of redwood, as it was her favorite, though she disliked how it looked, therefore she had all of the wood refinished with a faux grain and stained. It's estimated that 20,500 US gallons / 78,000 liters of paint were required to paint the house.
In 1888, Sarah's favorite niece Marion "Daisy" Merriman would live with her aunt for the next 15 years leaving when she married in 1903
She was kind and generous with employees and even let neighborhood children play on the grounds as she played the piano for them.
In 1906 an earthquake did incredible damage, reducing the seven story house to 4 stories. The only reason it wasn't destroyed completely was because of its floating foundation. Carpenters were hired to repair the house, but Sarah refrained from venturing any higher than the remaining four stories
In 1910, Sarah would buy second home in Atherton, to be closer to her niece and she spends a lot of her remaining years here.
The Mysteries of the Mystery House
As of today the house features...
- Roughly 161 rooms
- 40 bedrooms
- 2 ballrooms (one unfinished)
- 47 fireplaces
- 10,000 panes of glass
- 17 chimneys (with evidence of 2 others)
- the Winchester estate was virtually self sufficient with its own carpenter and plumber's workshops along with an on-premise water and electrical supply, and a sewage drainage system.
- 2 basement levels
- 3 elevators
- The prime numbers 7, 11 and 13 are repeatedly represented throughout the house, whether it be the number of windows in a room or the number of stairs on a staircase. These numbers were very important to Sarah and Francis Bacon
- Chandeliers of gold and silver
there is a door which opens into a solid wall
upside-down pillars can be found all about the House
rooms within rooms
- There are tiny doors leading into large spaces, and large doors that lead into very small spaces
- The home's conveniences were rare at the time of its construction
- steam and forced-air heating
- modern indoor toilets and plumbing
- push-button gas lights
- Mrs. Winchester's personal (and only) hot shower from indoor plumbing
- The most precious thing: A hidden safe was discovered in the ballroom. Found inside were two locks of hair -- of Winchester's deceased daughter and her husband
On Sept 5 1922, Sarah passes away in the house due to heart failure. In accordance with her twelve page 13 part will (signed by her 13 times), Sarah had her entire estate divided up in generous portions to be distributed among a number of charities and those people who had faithfully spent years in her service
Her favorite niece and secretary, Marian Marriott, oversaw the removal and sale of all of Sarah's furnishings and personal property. Roy Lieb, Mrs. Winchester's attorney of many years, had been named in her will as executor to her estate
It supposedly took six trucks working eight hours a day for six weeks to remove all of the furniture from the home, an account disputed by Winchester's biographer
Sarah made no mention of the house in her will and appraisers considered the house worthless due to damage caused by the earthquake, the unfinished design, and the impractical nature of its construction. It was sold at auction to a local investor for over $135,000, and subsequently leased for 10 years to John and Mayme Brown who eventually purchased the house.
In April 1923 the Browns would move into the house and public tours would begin not long after with Mayme Brown serving as the first tour guide. In 1970 restorations would begin on the house and the rooms would furnished with period appropriate furniture
The thing that has puzzled researchers and enthusiasts for decades is why was the house built this way? With all the strange rooms, doors, stairs and windows? And who continues to build a house for 38 years?
The mystery around Sarah Winchester grew all the more intense thanks to the unusually close-knit bond she shared with her staff. Winchester spent an unusual (for the time) amount of money on making sure her servants lived in comfort, with claims that she paid them twice the average wage they would receive elsewhere, she also reportedly treated them almost like family. In return, the staff gave her unquestioning loyalty and never spoke to journalists about their unusual boss's habits or motivations. On the day she died, Sarah Winchester's servants walked away from the property-and, in a move that would be unheard of in today's era of tell-all book deals, never spoke a word about what went on in the house.
As with any such mystery, in a vacuum of actual details, rumors grew like weeds
Sarah was a very secretive person and a lot of what is out there is gossip from "the national enquirer" a tabloid newspaper that's still going today. Richard Allan Wagner of thetruthaboutsarahwinchester.com says that on a tour of the house a senior tour guide informed him that :
"In the old days, the tour guides were encouraged to make up stuff just to give some spice to the story."
The Most Common Narrative
The story I've told those far is pretty much grounded in reality and fact, but this is far from the most popular account that goes like this:
In 1881 a distraught Sarah sought the advice of a famous Boston medium known as Adam Coons. Coons performed a séance and told Sarah that because of the number of people that have been killed by Winchester Rifles she was cursed by the Winchester fortune. He said that the angry sprits demanded she move to California and build them a house
Upon moving to California, Sarah began to hold séances every night at midnight, wherein she would receive the instructions for building the next day. These seances supposedly come complete with Ouija boards and 13 colored robes. Every night at midnight she would ring an alarm bell to tell the spirits it was séance time, and then she would ring it again at 2am, signaling it was time for them to depart
To appease the angry spirits, Sarah had to keep the construction going 24/7, 365 days a year, never stopping, because as soon as she stopped, she'd die
All the strange stairs to nowhere? Doors that open to walls? These oddities were all supposedly to confuse the spirits.
Other ways Sarah supposedly warded off malevolent spirits:
- There was only one working toilet for Winchester; it has been said that "all other restrooms were decoys to confuse spirits"
- She also slept in a different room every night as an extra measure to throw the spirits off her trail.
- The number 13 and spider web motifs found in the house are thought to be protective symbols
There is no record of Sarah ever meeting Adam Coons, nor is there any evidence to support the idea that she was a spiritualist or had any inclination to believe in communication with the dead. Her closest companion and nurse of many years, Henrietta Severs firmly denies that Sarah had an spiritualist leanings
And was lady Winchester haunted by the idea of the lives her husband's business had taken? Winchester house historian Janan Boehme dismisses this theory:
"People back then didn't have a massive guilt complex over guns. They were a useful tool, something that people needed for survival."
Other Rumors and Conclusions
I'm going to talk about some other rumors and conclusions now
Patented Architectural Features
Tour guides at the house often make claims of Sarah Winchester having patented various architectural features of the house, but a simple search of the US Patent and Trademark Database produces zero patents assigned to her
In 1924 Harry Houdini would visit the house on Halloween night seeking to debunk the paranormal stories. He leaves with more questions than answers, and famously referred to it as "The Mystery House."
When Sarah would move to California, she had a relative named Enoch H Pardee who had been a highly respected physician and had become Governor of California. This is only of interest as Enoch and his son were both considered "prominent occultists" and Knights Templar Freemasons
Not just that, but Enoch was apart of the Bohemian Club. In 1903 another member, President Theodore Roosevelt would come to California to ask Enoch to run as a his VP candidate in the 1904 national election. Enoch turned him down. During this trip Roosevelt also attempted to visit Sarah and was turned away
Does this mean anything? Who knows!
Of course, we have to talk about the hauntings
Over the years staff and visitors have reported a variety of different encounters, from hearing footsteps, banging doors, mysterious voices and the sound of someone running across the rooftops. There have been reports of doorknobs turning on their own, strange bobbing lights floating through the building and windows that bang so hard they shatter. And of course cold spots
There are couple specifics:
- The Handyman: reporting to continue his repair on the fireplace in the grand ballroom, is a black haired man known as the handyman. He is sometimes seen pushing a spectral wheelbarrow, but many just report feeling a presence in the ballroom and the chandelier swinging by itself
- The Daisy Bedroom: located near the front of the house is said to be haunted. This is the room that Sarah was supposedly trapped in during the 1906 earthquake. Staff and visitors report hearing heavy sighs coming from this room, seeing a dark figure, reporting camera malfunctions and even photos featuring a strange white rippling mass
- The Hall of Fires: called so because of several fireplaces is another area in the house that is considered ripe with spiritual activity. During a restoration project, man had been working in the hall when he felt a tap on his shoulder, he turned to find nothing and continued working, at which point he felt a hand pressing hard against his back. He promptly left the hall after that
- Clyde: Another spirit is said to reside in the basement. Known as Clyde, he appears near the old coal chute.
- The lady in black: one staff member has reported seeing a small woman dressed in black who is thought to be Sarah wandering the grounds
- The Window Lady: In one of the second story windows there have been reports of a translucent bushy-haired female spirit
Many visitors claim that the house feels haunted, but environmental psychologists have theorized that the odd layout itself contributes to the feeling of the house being haunted
If Sarah truly was sane and there were no ghosts, why the heck is the house built that way?
The real Sarah Winchester was aware how her building project looked to outsiders. In a 1906 letter she wrote after the earthquake destroyed a third of her work, she confessed that the house looked like a crazy person built it
Well there is another theory that supposedly answers that and hurts my brain but I will try and summarize it as simply as I can.
Numerology and the Freemasons
Francis Bacon was known for his use and creation of cyphers, this combined with Sarah's theosophic views and masonic background we get an intelligent woman with unique interests and perspectives. The house is thought to represent the masonic journey, that all who enter are to be considered initiates and that they will only truly understand Sarah and the house if they look past the obvious
Numerology appears to be used all around the house along with encrypted phrases using Bacon's cypher and hidden in plain sight.
Honestly, some of
the things that I see presented to support this theory I can buy, some windows with Shakespeare
quotes that refer to Francis Bacon's favorite passage on resurrection. I buy
that. Sarah was a clever woman with an obsession with Bacon and Shakespeare. There are things that can be easily seen as clear homages to
those things that she loves. But then we get into the numerology and the supposed coded message that
the entire house is trying to tell, my eyes start to glaze over and immediately start thinking of Jim
Carrey in that movie The Number 23
I'll be honest I know very little about numerology and it's something we'll have to do
a deep dive into at some point, but I
have always had the perception you can twist any numbers
to get whatever answers you're looking
for. Does the number of windows not make your equation add up? Why not use the number
of nails instead. How many letters are in the name of the color of the walls?
This theory comes from the site thetruthaboutsarahwinchester.com, and it's where I got a lot of the details of Sarah being a normal, but motivated and intelligent human being. But when I hit the last 10,000 words that's where the numerology came into things it definitely had my questioning things
Sure enough, the guy that runs the site, Richard Allan Wagner also runs thetruthaboutshakespeare.com and is an author of several novels that immediately make me think of a little more genre-adventurous Dan Brown
He is also a mason, not that should count against him, but worth mentioning as one of his articles is titled "breaking the masonic code of Shakespeare's sonnets" just saying
Rumors continue to grow year over year, further obfuscating the more "boring" truth of who Sarah was. We have no evidence that she was a paranoid woman that talked to ghosts, but that's what most people know about her if you ask. This misinformation is further compounded by the highly effective marketing of the house as a tourist attraction. A "Mystery house designed by Spirits". I doubt this is the legacy that Sarah had in mind, but if the bizarre mythology is what keeps the house standing, I think it's worth it and we all love to speculate
Today the house has been designated a California historical landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues be a popular tourist attraction
Originally the property had been about 162 acres, but today the estate has been reduced to 4.5 acres, the bare amount needed to contain the house and its outbuildings
Today the house is owned by Winchester Investments LLC a privately held company representing the descendants of John and Mayme Brown.
For the most part the house has been preserved as it was made, but renovations are a consistently ongoing task (large sections of the home were never repaired after the earthquake). The Winchester Mystery house has also made a few improvements and additions
- In 2016, it was announced that another room with period furniture was built in the courtyard: an attic space that contains a pump organ, Victorian couch, dress form, sewing machine, and paintings. This room was made available for viewing by the public and features a shooting range game.
- In 2017, the Winchester Mystery House debuted their first new daytime tour in 20 years, the "Explore More Tour". This tour takes guests through rooms never before opened to the public and explores the rooms left unfinished at the time of Sarah Winchester's death
The tour company is still finding things in the house they never knew about. According to a blogger named Nym, who worked as a tour guide, they found two wells in 2016!
Additional attractions have been added over the years:
- Victorian garden
- Axe throwing
- Arcade games
There's even a Houdini themed escape room that's in the works
While the house was closed through some of the pandemic it appears to be open again. Closed only on Thanksgiving and Christmas, the house is otherwise open all year round 10am-5pm during the week and 10am-7pm on the weekends and can be found at 525 s Winchester Blvd, San Jose
They have a couple different tour options:
- Mansion tour: an hour long tour through 110 of the 160 rooms and the garden. Tickets are $42 per adult with reduced rates for children and seniors
- Garden Only tour: $20
- ADA Tour: a wheelchair accessible tour, that's a 45 minute video exploration of the house and gives access to the garden and gift shop $20
- Axe Throwing: does not include a tour $24
Or! If you're super lazy or live far away you can get unlimited access to a 360 tour of the house for $9
The house has had a fairly large cultural impact, here are some ways it's commemorated:
- It is featured as a setting or used as inspiration in the novels: Vanishing Point, Earthquake Weather, House of Suns
- The house has been featured an variety of television shows: Mythbusters, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Brothers, Buzzfeed Unsolved, American Horror Story
- It appeared on the British paranormal TV investigation show "Most Haunted" where they conducted a 7 hour live TV investigation of the house for the Travel Channel on Monday October 19th 2007, making it television history, as it was the first ever 7 hour live TV paranormal investigation.
In 2017 the movie, Winchester starring Helen Mirren based on the Sarah's story would do some filming in the actual house. The Winchester Mystery House closed its doors to the public for a whirlwind 72-hour film shoot of exteriors, aerials and a few interior rooms. The rest of the filming was done in the director's home country of Australia. Lead actress Helen Mirren did extensive research and visited the estate privately to better understand Sarah's story and immerse herself in her world.
Mirren spent a great deal of time in the house, trying to capture the mindset of the late lady Winchester. When asked by Vanity Fair if she thought it was haunted, she had this to say "If it is haunted, l feel it is haunted by something very benign. I feel sort of a great . . . I feel a sweetness in the house, not a horror. There is a sweetness in it. It is haunted by something sweet. If it's haunted."
So what do we make of all this? A woman teetering on the edge of madness haunted by the victims of the rifles whose name she bore? An eccentric obsessed with secret societies, messages and codes?
Janan Boehme has her own theory. See, when Sarah and William lost their daughter, they had poured themselves into building the family home in New Haven together.
"I think Sarah was trying to repeat that experience by doing something they both loved," Boehme also suspects that Sarah was just an ardent-albeit eccentric-philanthropist who used her family fortune to purposefully employ the San Jose community. See from March 1879 to 1896 is a period known as the long depression, the greatest recession before THE great depression in the 1930s. Many people in this community may not have had jobs if it were not for her hiring them. She had a personal staff estimated at 36, but that does not include all the laborers she hired to work on the house nonstop
While by the time she was in her 20s, her family was well off, during her childhood her parents were part of the working class. She knew more than anyone the hardships that come for a family surviving paycheck to paycheck. By never ceasing construction, she got to continue doing what she enjoyed and experimenting, the house itself its own work of art, but it was more than that.
"She had a social conscience and she did try to give back," Boehme offered, noting the hospital Sarah built in her husband's name. "This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all."