Winchester’s name has been attached to everything from firearms to clothing in its illustrious history, but one item you’d never expect the brand to be associated with is a haunted house. The company has never been officially connected with the building, but thanks to a widow, several million dollars, and a Boston medium’s deceitful advice, it will forever be associated with a mansion in San Jose, California.
Intrigued? Read on—it only gets weirder from here.
The Winchester Mystery House, as it’s known today, was built over a span of 38 years by the widow of William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Winchester and the company’s longtime treasurer. When he died in 1881 he left his wife, Sarah, $20.5 million. She also retained 50 percent ownership in the company, amounting to a whopping $1,000 a day in dividends—$23,255 in 2015 currency.
With that amount of money, she could have lived out the remainder of her days in absolute luxury. But the death of her husband was too much for Sarah to bear, the couple having lost their only child, a daughter named Annie Pardee, nine days after her birth in 1866. With William’s death came an even deeper level of depression for Sarah, leading her to consult a Boston medium for guidance.
Legend has it that Adam Coons told Sarah to leave New Haven, Connecticut, and head West, where she should forever build a home for herself and the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles. The family was cursed, he said, and if she ever stopped building she would join her husband and daughter in the afterlife.
Sarah, unfortunately, believed the “psychic” and followed his directions to the letter, traveling to San Jose and beginning a construction project that would last for the remainder of her life.
Construction began in 1884, but reports differ on whether work actually took place every second of every day after that. Sarah did continue to add onto the home for 38 years, but at least one biographer says she took several extended breaks, dismissing the work crews for months, even years at a time as her “need for rest” required.
Located at 525 South Winchester Blvd., the Queen Anne-style Victorian home is well known for its size, architectural features, and, strangely, lack of a master building plan. The Winchester Mystery House’s website calls the structure an “elegant maze,” said to have 2,000 doors and dozens of staircases—several of which go nowhere, opening to blank walls or leading to the ceiling, respectively.
Today a California historical landmark, the Mystery House’s nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places reads, in part:
The Winchester House is the only and, therefore, most significant of a type in its unique structure. Although it is basically Victorian, the structure has overtones of a Midwestern or Eastern Victorian home, with its mixture of shingles, sidings, bric-a-brac, cornices, and appurtenances, which show traces of definite Eastern influence in design not found in local craftsmen. It is an outstanding example of Victorian construction, complete with the inevitable accidents of unrestricted and unchecked growth.
What exactly constitutes an “inevitable accident?” Winchester is such a strange building that its own preservation team just discovered a hidden attic room that had been closed off from the rest of the home for more than a century.
Sarah decided to board up the room after becoming trapped in it during the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Already superstitious about the house, Sarah decided that the attic room was especially spooky. Legend claims that she told workers to wall off the room from the rest of the house—earthquake damage and all—to appease the ghosts, who were reportedly displeased with her for spending so much of her effort to decorate other areas of the house.
Sarah didn’t even wait long enough to remove items from the attic room. The preservation team found it exactly as she and the earthquake had left it on April 18, 1906.
Visitors can now explore the recently discovered room and the 160 other ones via guided tours. The house was purchased after Sarah’s death in 1922 and is still privately owned. It is open to the public 365 days a year, with special Halloween candle tours, and—bizarrely—”Spirit of Christmas” events held each year. The house also hosts children’s birthday parties, if you’re so inclined.
The home and its creator are famous with tourists, but perhaps even more so with Hollywood. Television shows like “Ghost Hunters” have walked Winchester’s haunted hallways, various movies and songs have referenced the mansion and its maker, and Academy Award winner Helen Mirren is in talks to play Sarah in the upcoming supernatural thriller, Winchester.
The Winchester Mystery House is an unusual facet of the Winchester legend. Whether it’s actually haunted is up for debate, but its builder’s ghosts were all too real. Hopefully she is resting in peace now, reconnected with her loved ones in a mansion properly constructed.