The Winchester Mystery House is a mansion in San Jose, California, with a strange and sinister history: it’s said to be haunted by the spirits of people killed by Winchester rifles over the centuries. It was constructed by Sarah Winchester, the widow of the millionaire firearms director William Wirt Winchester.
The house took some 38 years to build, supposedly inspired by the advice of a psychic, and construction went ahead without an architect or plans. The result is a haphazard, labyrinth-like structure full of odd features, such as corridors to nowhere and doors that don’t open.
Shrouded in mystery and reportedly the site of eerie goings-on and ghostly visitations, the structure is said to be one of the most haunted sites in the world.
Here are 10 facts about the Winchester Mystery House, which many consider to be America’s first haunted house.
1. It was built by the widow of a firearms magnate
William Wirt Winchester was the treasurer of the Winchester Repeating Firearms Company until his untimely death in 1881. His widow, Sarah, inherited his vast fortune and 50% ownership of the company. She continued to receive profits from the sales of Winchester firearms throughout her life. This newfound money made her one of the wealthiest women in the world at the time.
2. Legend has it a medium told her to move to California and build a new house
After both her young daughter and husband died in quick succession, Sarah supposedly went to visit a medium. Whilst she was there, she was apparently told she must move west and build a home for herself and for the spirits of those who had been killed by Winchester rifles over the years.
Another version of the story says she believed her inheritance was cursed by the spirits of those killed by Winchester firearms and that she moved to escape them. The more prosaic theory suggests that after a double tragedy Sarah wanted a fresh start and a project to keep her mind occupied.
3. The house was under continuous construction for 38 years
Sarah purchased a farmhouse in California’s Santa Clara Valley in 1884 and set to work building her mansion. She hired a stream of builders and carpenters, who were set to work, but did not hire an architect. The haphazard nature of the building schedule and lack of plans mean the house is something of an oddity.
Prior to 1906, when the house was damaged by an earthquake, it had 7 stories. Odd features such as uneven floors and stairs, corridors to nowhere, doors that don’t open and windows that overlook other rooms in the house contribute to the eerie feeling inside.
4. Some think it was designed to be a labyrinth
No one knows exactly what Sarah’s plans for the house were or why she pursued certain ideas or architectural features. Some think the winding hallways and labyrinthine layout were designed to confuse the ghosts and spirits she supposedly thought were haunting her, allowing her to live in peace in her new home.
5. Sarah spared no expense in fitting out her new mansion
Within the 160 rooms (the precise number is still debated) are 47 fireplaces, 6 kitchens, 3 lifts, 10,000 windows and 52 skylights. Sarah also adopted new innovations including an indoor shower, wool insulation and electricity.
She even had bespoke windows designed, including one by the prestigious artist (and later jeweller), Louis Tiffany, which would have refracted the light to cast rainbows in the room had it been installed in a room which had natural light.
6. The number 13 is a motif in the house
It’s unclear why the number 13 was deemed so important by Sarah, but it recurs repeatedly throughout the construction and design of the house. There are 13-paned windows, 13-panelled ceilings and 13-step flights of stairs. Some rooms even have 13 windows in them.
Her will had 13 parts and was signed 13 times. The significance of the number to her was clearly immense, although whether it was out of superstition or simply a troubled woman’s fixation remains unclear.
7. Her will did not mention the house at all
Sarah Winchester died in 1922 from heart failure and construction on the house finally stopped.
She was buried with her husband and daughter, back on the east coast. Her detailed will made no mention of the Winchester House: the possessions inside it were left to her niece and took several weeks to remove.
The conspicuous absence of the house in her will has puzzled many. It seems appraisers viewed it as virtually worthless because of earthquake damage, the erratic and impractical design and its unfinished nature.
8. It was bought by a couple called John and Mayme Brown
Less than 6 months after Sarah died, the house was bought, leased to a couple called John and Mayme Brown and opened up to tourists. The house is owned by a company called Winchester Investments LLC today, which represents the interests of the Browns’ descendants.
9. The house is said to be one of the most haunted places in America
Visitors to the house have long been troubled by unexplained phenomena and the feeling of an other-worldly presence. Some claim to have seen ghosts there. The third floor, in particular, is said to be a hot spot for eerie goings-on and supernatural occurrences.
10. Winchester Mystery House is a national landmark today
The house has been owned by the same family since 1923 and has remained open to the public almost continuously since then. It was designated a National Landmark in 1974.
Guided tours of 110 of the house’s 160 or so rooms run regularly, and much of the interior is extremely similar to how it was during Sarah Winchester’s lifetime. Is it really haunted? There’s only one way to find out…