Even before you follow the guide for your Winchester Mystery House tour, you have heard the stories. Sarah Winchester believed she was haunted by the ghosts of the people killed by her husband’s Winchester rifles. Countless soldiers, like Custer and Fetterman were killed by it, as were even more Indians, such as Black Kettle and Big Foot, and thousands of others. All the dead men, women, and children invaded her dreams, making her life a nightmare. So she embarked on a construction plan that was never finished, a plan designed to keep the spirits confused. Was she crazy, as some people suspected, or was she just a lonely widow keeping busy with a hobby that interested her?
As soon as you enter the house, you sense the phantoms of yesteryear. The floor boards creak, the air is dank and chill. Light barely filters through the stained glass windows. The guide begins the history of this bizarre house as you follow him on a tour that takes over an hour in time and over a mile of steps.
“Sarah Winchester was wealthy beyond imagination,” he begins. “She inherited twenty million dollars after the death of her husband, manager of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. She also collected a thousand dollars a day from her shares in the company, which allowed her to build from 1884 until her death in 1922.”
As you proceed, you find that some of the steps on the stairs are only a few inches high. This might have been to confuse the spirits, or because Sarah’s arthritis didn’t allow her to lift her feet very high. “Keep together,” the guide warns. “It’s easy to get lost. Sarah herself slept in a different bedroom every night and was often hard to find.”
The vast building project started after Sarah’s baby daughter died in infancy and her husband died fifteen years later. A Boston spiritualist told her she was cursed. She must move west, where the spirits were, and build a house to appease them. Furthermore, she would live for as long as she built.
We pass the seance room and the guide tells us that Sarah held nightly seances to ask the spirits what to build next. When she received the message, she either sketched the changes or memorized them. No blueprints or drawings were ever found.
At one point the house had seven stories and two basements and covered six acres, now reduced to four. There are one-hundred-sixty rooms, with forty-seven fireplaces, over ten-thousand windows, forty bedrooms, and thirteen bathrooms. The house has two ballrooms, and six kitchens. Twenty-thousand gallons of paint are needed to cover the exterior.
The Gun That Won the West
The Winchester curse began with Oliver Fisher Winchester, who made his fortune in the clothing industry in the early 1800s. He acquired a struggling arms factory in 1857 called the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, which manufactured the Volcanic lever action rifle of Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. Later it became the New Haven Arms Company and after Oliver Winchester bought it, he changed the name to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
His manager, B. Tyler Henry, improved the rifle and in 1860 it became known as the Henry Repeating Rifle. He also improved the Model 1866 “Yellow Boy,” which fired centerfire cartridges and had an improved magazine, adding a wooden forearm as well. Another popular model was rolled out in 1873 and these two rifle models came to be known as “the gun that won the west.”
The Model 1873 lever action sold 720,610 rifles over the next forty years. In 1883 the Model Hotchkiss Magazine Gun was introduced, the first Winchester with bolt action. The Winchester house boasts an extensive collection of Winchester firearms.
One of the Strangest Houses in America
Sarah originally began building onto an eight-room farm house in San Jose, California. As she built, she made some structural innovations. She used wool for insulation and built a gas-manufacturing plant on the property, which fed the carbide gas lights within her house. She added window drip pans under her second-floor conservatory so her plants could be watered, and the runoff directed to the garden below. She also had a series of “annunciators” installed for calling her servants.
Each day Sarah met with her foreman to dictate new changes and additions. She remodeled some of her rooms over and over for a reason only she could comprehend. This caused some odd effects, such as stairs that go nowhere and doors that open into walls. Some chimneys don’t even reach the roof.
As you proceed on the tour, you’ll find the number thirteen appearing everywhere. Even Sarah’s will had thirteen parts and she signed it thirteen times.
The Hauntings Explained?
Many of the residents who lived close to Sarah’s house remarked on the ghostly music emanating from the organ in her living room, which they heard in the middle of the night. Most likely it was Sarah playing because her arthritic fingers kept her awake. A bell in the belfry was often interpreted as a “nightly ghostly assembly,” but more likely it was a fire alarm or as a work shift signal for her laborers.
Other incidents cannot be so easily explained. One of the caretakers who lived in the house from 1973 to 1981, Brent Miller, reported hearing someone breathing in an otherwise empty room. He also swore he heard footsteps in the bedroom where Sarah died. Another time he heard the sound of a screw being unscrewed—even heard it hit the floor and bounce. After he searched the house, he found not a single stray screw.
In several incidents, photographers found that their new cameras malfunctioned in some rooms and not in others. One New Year’s Eve a friend visiting Miller took pictures inside the house. After the film was developed, one negative showed moving lights and a dim figure that looked like a workman in coveralls.
Other guests to the house felt icy air in rooms with no drafts and saw doorknobs turn by themselves. A modern spiritualist, Sylvia Brown, saw balls of red light in the bedroom where Sarah died, as well as two faint spirits dressed in 1800s clothing.
A flashlight tour is available on any Friday the 13th and Halloween. You can follow a guide with a flashlight, watch the light flicker on the stairs and around the rooms. If you catch a separate flash of light along the way, you might wonder: Was it a reflection from a mirror or window, or something other-worldly?
Whether or not the old mansion is truly haunted is something you might want to decide for yourself.