The Winchester house is perhaps the most bizarre and mysterious mansion in the united states. Built by the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, the house has inspired macabre mythology and decades of folklore. It’s a warren of hidden passageways, stairways that lead nowhere, and doors that open into mid-air, but it’s also reputed to be a haunted hotbed of paranormal phenomena.
Today, we’re going to try to find our way through the rumors, myths, and legends associated with the real-life haunted mansion now known as the Winchester mystery house.
The Winchester house is a mansion located in San Jose, California, but it started out as a small farmhouse purchased along with the property in 1884 by Sarah Lockwood Pardee Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, who was heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. Sarah immediately began to renovate the house into a Queen Anne style Victorian mansion.
The widow Winchester had a curious passion or compulsion for construction. The property was under constant renovation, virtually 24 hours a day for the entire time she lived there, and she lived there for decades. Winchester would hire construction crews on a staggered schedule, so they had no idea what the other crews were doing. She was reclusive and anti-social, had no close friendships with any of the townspeople, and remained a mystery to her neighbors who could only speculate why she would dump so much money into her house. Over nearly 40 years, Sarah Winchester was busy building a mysterious mansion that stands to this day.
She passed away on September 5, 1922, at which point the construction immediately stopped. You may wonder why Sarah Winchester would buy a house and then spend the rest of her life renovating it.
Some believe it’s because she was convinced the house was haunted or perhaps, more precisely, that she was haunted.
Ghosts Of Times Past
Sarah Winchester inherited a vast fortune when her husband died, a fortune built by the rifle that tamed the west. Sarah was appalled by the deadly legacy of the gun and was convinced that she was being pursued by the ghosts of everyone who had ever been killed by a Winchester rifle.
She believed that the only way to stay a step ahead of the ghosts that haunted the property was to build an elaborate maze-like structure through which only she knew the correct path. Perhaps this is why she was so secretive and non-traditional about her home-building projects. At one point, the house was seven stories tall, each with numerous traps, fake exits, and hallways that led nowhere.
However, this version of the mansion was damaged in the 1906 earthquake. Convinced that there were otherworldly powers at play, Sarah took it upon herself to re-imagine what her building process would entail. She went back to the drawing board.
By 1906, the widow Winchester had spent millions of dollars and nearly two decades of her life working on the house, but she was worried that this earthquake and the ensuing damage were a sign from God, so she contracted twice as many construction workers and had them start disassembling the seven vertical stories. Her plan was to expand out instead of up, immediately commencing construction on new wings of the house.
The mansion quickly evolved into a sprawling catacomb of hallways, rooms, and doors. Today, the house has taken on a mythology all its own. Some believe the Winchester mystery house is haunted. Others say the property is psychically charged with negative energy. Still, others say the mansion is just a strange woman’s 30-year performance art piece. Whatever the true origins are, the building has a network of stories surrounding it that are almost as complicated as the hallways themselves.
Today, the Winchester mystery house is an officially designated historical landmark. It is privately owned but is run as a tourist attraction, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely safe, not by a long shot.
As we touched on earlier, Sarah Winchester inherited roughly $20 million when her husband passed away of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1881. This, coupled with her daughter dying of a disease known as marasmus, in which a child’s body literally wastes away, caused Winchester to seek the counsel of a medium. This woman informed her that she needed to travel west and continuously build a home for herself and the victims of the Winchester rifles.
The grieving heiress was completely convinced by the story the medium told her and began what at that time was an arduous journey to the west coast. Upon reaching California, Sarah purchased land that had a small farmhouse on it. She started small with minor additions and augmentations.
However, as she found more and more contractors, the expansion plans grew and became increasingly more elaborate. Many of these initial contractors reported odd happenings, strange noises, and cold spots all over the property.
One night crew even reported seeing what appeared to be an old woman holding a candle out in the darkness watching the work into the wee hours of the morning. When they asked Sarah about the old woman as they were leaving the next day, she responded, there’s no old woman on this property.
Workers weren’t the only ones to report strange phenomena. Over the course of her life on the property, Mrs. Winchester herself had numerous run-ins with ghosts. Even today, there are local legends that surround the property, tall tales of the spirits that live within and around the Winchester house.
One such legend is that of a spirit named Clyde. He’s a mustachioed specter with kind eyes that seemed to twinkle and laugh when he works. He’s often been spotted wearing a cowboy hat and pushing a wheelbarrow. He’s known to most as a very friendly ghost, although the origins of his name are unclear. It’s assumed that Clyde is a worker or farmhand who died on the property in the 1800s.
Many guests on walking tours of the grounds have reported encountering Clyde some have even commented to the Winchester staff later how friendly the groundskeeper is, only to be met with blank stares.
These days, Clyde is often spotted by tourists and newly hired employees of the Winchester house doing yard work. Other common remarks include seeing him pushing wheelbarrows, fixing a door hinge, or trying to repair a hose. There are said to be many other specters lurking on the property, sad, confused spirits trapped in the limbo between this life and the next, or anguished souls perpetually crying out for help.
Are these the ghosts of people who died violently riddled with bullets fired from a Winchester rifle?
visitors have reported seeing native American warriors, a priest, multiple cowboys, and an English gentleman while touring the grounds.
Oddities Of The House
As mysterious as the hauntings of the Winchester house are the logistical complexities of a never-ending construction project. Records show the house had 16 carpenters and a veritable army of other laborers working in shifts around the clock. It’s estimated that Sarah Winchester poured $5 million roughly, $71 million in today’s dollars, into her never-ending building project, and that was only a fraction of her vast wealth.
If you enter the building without a guide, you’ll likely get lost and spend hours looking for a way out. There is a myriad of rooms, leading one to the next without a discernible exit.
The house is crammed with trap doors, secret passageways, bizarrely faced skylights, including one on the floor, spiderweb windows, and staircases that lead nowhere. The doors also seem to intentionally deceive and confuse. Some large doors open onto small rooms. Small doors lead into massive ballrooms. There’s no way to tell where you going or what the experience will be like.
Additionally, some of the doors open into blank walls. One door even opens into mid-air, no floor, balcony, or room, just a two-story drop. If that’s not weird enough, the supposedly cursed number 13 is everywhere in the house. There are many 13 paned windows, 13 paneled ceilings, and a bathroom that contains 13 windows, and nearly every inch of the house is covered with adornments, as was the fashion during what we now refer to as the aesthetic movement at the turn of the 20th century.
Nearly every square inch of space in the house has been festooned in filigree and asymmetrical artistic designs influenced by Japanese, greek, Italian, and nordic motifs. Sarah Winchester was also obsessed with the idea of pushing innovation and state-of-the-art science, which in the late 1800s had a very different meaning than it does today.
The Winchester house had what at the time was considered cutting-edge features, such as indoor plumbing and a shower. Every room was insulated, and the home was lit by electricity.
Despite these amenities, when Sarah Winchester died in 1922, there was little to no interest in buying the property. It carried a stigma and was viewed as the bizarre pastime of a disturbed old woman. Eventually, a local aristocrat purchased it for a paltry $120,000 and decided to open it as a tourist attraction.
At this point, many of the strange tales and ghost sightings took on a life of their own. People claimed to witness Sarah Winchester herself haunting the grounds, along with seeing many of the other apparitions.
It became such a popular attraction and mystical talking point that harry Houdini, on his 1924 anti-medium skeptics tour, stayed in the house as a means of proving that it was not haunted. No real evidence was uncovered one way or another during his stay, but the mystery and reputation of the Winchester house continued to grow and spread over the ensuing decades.
In the 1990s, noted skeptic Christopher Chacon stayed in the house for more than a month to see for himself what all the fuss was about. He didn’t report any paranormal activity during his time there.
Even television ghost hunters act big and stayed in the mansion, but nobody’s been able to fully quash the tales of otherworldly happenings there.
In 2018, the story of the Winchester house was adapted into the film Winchester– the house that ghosts built the house the ghosts built directed by Michael and Peter Spierig and starring Helen Mirren. In broad strokes, the film follows the Sarah Winchester origin story.
Her husband and daughter die. She moves out west and builds a home. That’s where the film diverges. The screenplay follows a Winchester employee, who’s also recently suffered a family loss, coming to the mansion to ascertain whether or not Sarah is mentally capable of running the company any longer.
The movie features quite a few ghostly encounters but takes a divergent tone from the true-life events and hauntings that have happened in the house. Yet, it still preserves the core of the mystery that surrounds Sarah and her sprawling house of oddities. The Winchester house also served as the basis for the 2017 comic book house of penance, published by dark horse and illustrated by Ian Bertram.
The comic focuses on Sarah Winchester’s hell-bound goal of washing away the blood of her rifle fortune by building the house. Today, the Winchester house occupies a very singular place in the cultural landscape. It’s a terrifying testament to personal ambition, unresolved guilt, inner trauma, and quite possibly paranormal phenomena.
The very fact that the house still stands is both impressive and rare. Many haunted houses or cultural oddities have been raised, torn down, erased from the landscape. But thankfully, the Winchester house remains protected and will be available to be experienced for generations to come.
So what do you think? is the Winchester house truly haunted, or is it just the random and rambling product of a scared and grieving woman with more dollars than sense? did the spirits of people who were killed by a Winchester rifle haunt and torment the widow Winchester to her grave, and does her ghost still roam the mazes of corridors and climb the stairways to nowhere? would you be brave enough to spend a night alone trying to find your way out of the Winchester house?