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The Most Mysterious Mansion in America

historical landmarks | June 8, 2018

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 05: A general view of the house and the atmosphere on the set at 'Winchester' Mystery House on May 5, 2017 in San Jose, California. (Photo by C Flanigan/WireImage)

If you’ve ever been to Southern California, you may have had the chance to tour the infamous and mysterious Winchester mansion. Shrouded in mystery, it has over 160 rooms spanning 24,000 square feet that covers over six acres. There are 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 fireplaces, 40 stairways, 13 bathrooms, six kitchens, three elevators and two basements.

The Queen Anne Style Victorian house was built in 1884 and is situated at 525 South Winchester Blvd., in San Jose, California. For decades, this mansion has been the source of many rumors, both of hauntings and mental illness. So much so that a movie about it was just released in February of 2018, called simply, Winchester, and brought in $38.7 million at the Box office. Sarah Winchester lived in that mansion.

Sarah Winchester in a carriage.

Who was Sarah Winchester?

She was the widow of the billionaire gun manufacturer, William Wirt Winchester and the heiress his fortune. William died in 1881 from tuberculosis, leaving Sarah Winchester with more than $20.5 million, which is said to be over $520 million today and also roughly half the ownership of the Winchester repeating Arms Company.

Through this inheritance money and also part ownership, Sarah had an income of around $1,000 per day, which by today’s calculations would be over $25,000 per day. During this time, Sarah also suffered emotionally from the death of her infant daughter caused by a disease called, Marasmus. 

Source: History of San Jose

Obviously distraught by the deaths and overwhelmed by her fortune, it is believed that Sarah sought the help of a physic from Boston. This physic told her she must move West leaving her home in New Haven and build a house there where she could appease the ghosts of those killed by the guns her husband. Sarah took the advice of the physic and moved to Southern California. Maybe she thought the move and change of scenery would be beneficial for her, however, others claim that Sarah believed she was being haunted by the spirits that met their fate from the guns.

It was in 1884 when Sarah bought an unfinished farmhouse in the Santa Clara Valley of California and began the building of the now infamous Winchester house. The construction began and didn’t stop until Sarah Winchester died on September 5, 1922. It was through her direction that the builders would continue building everywhere and anywhere in the house without stopping. The floor plans had no structure or design. There were staircases, sometimes made with strange and unequal risers leading to nowhere, stopping dead at a wall, interior windows looking into other rooms of the house. According to accounts, the carpenters Sarah had hired were not architects, just carpenters who would build diligently on the house around the clock. Eventually the little unfinished farmhouse that Sarah had bought became a seven-story mansion. 

In order to confuse the spirits, there was only one working toilet in the house and she also slept in a different bedroom every night.

Today the house remains at only four stories high whereas prior to the earthquake of 1906, it reached seven stories. The interior of the house was made mostly of redwood because that’s what Sarah preferred. However, not liking the color, she insisted that it be painted over with a stain of a different color.

Being a woman of high-priced taste, she could afford anything she admired to decorate the house. The Tiffany Company created many of the stained-glass windows used throughout the house and she also designed some herself.

She had a fascination about the number 13 that would appear in some of the designs and other oddities around the house. One example is that of a chandelier that was modified to house 13 candles instead of 12 as it had been intended originally. The stain-glass windows had 13 stones, the sink drain covers also had 13 holes.

Sarah Winchester’s niece and personal secretary were given all of her possessions, but not the house upon her death. The house wasn’t left to anyone in Mrs. Winchester’s will and those who came to appraise the house claimed it to be worthless due to the impractical design construction. John and Mayme Brown leased the house from an investor that had bought the home and finally acquired the house after leasing it for 10 years.

The Browns had the idea of opening the house to the public and giving tours. Mayme Brown served as the first tour guide in February 1923. It’s been said that Harry Houdini toured the house in 1924. According to the local newspaper story of his visit called, he called it the Mystery House.

Today, the Winchester Mystery House is privately owned by Winchester Investments, LLC, a business that represents the ancestors of John and Mayme Brown. It’s also been designated as a California historical landmark with a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. 

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Marion Wijnberg

Writer

Marion lives in Ohio and has two grown children and one grandson. As well as loving the time she gets to spend with them, she also enjoys rescuing animals. Marion currently has 2 cats and a dog. She also loves to travel, read, play tennis and go horseback riding."