Running from Spirits

One of the places I’ve always wanted to visit is the Winchester Mystery House, a mansion unlike any other in the world.

Sarah Lockwood Pardee married William Winchester in 1862. Winchester was the sole heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms fortune, built primarily through sales of the company’s famous Model 1873 which has often been referred to as “the Gun that Won the West.”

Their marriage was quite happy until Sarah lost her only daughter after a few weeks to a rare childhood disease. She fell into a general malaise, but had her doting husband to lean on. But, fifteen years later, when she lost her beloved husband to tuberculosis, she fell into a deep depression.

Trying to find meaning in these losses, and some sense of peace, she sought the help of spiritualists. One spiritualist from Boston revealed to her that she and her family were, in fact, cursed as a result of the tens of thousands of Native Americans and Civil War soldiers who lost their lives to bullets fired from the Winchester rifles. The psychic instructed her to move West and build a great house, but also revealed that, as long as construction never ceased, she would escape the clutches of the spirits chasing her.

So that’s exactly what she did for the next four decades, and the result is the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose.

We arrived early and opted for both the 55-minute Grand Mansion tour which takes you through 110 of the house’s 160 rooms and the approximate 30-minute “Behind the Scenes” tour.

When she purchased the Victorian style farmhouse in 1844, it had only eight rooms, but after 38 years of non-stop construction – literally 24 hours of construction, everyday for 38 years – she had added 40 bedrooms, 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, two ballrooms and three elevators. The tour highlights some of the core oddities that make this home world renowned including a séance room, stairs that climb straight into the ceiling, posts installed upside down, doors that open to walls as well as crazy stairs that are only a few inches tall but meander back and forth through seven levels to move you up just nine feet to the next floor.

Sarah never had a “master plan” and had no architecture or construction training and it is said that the plans came to her in dreams or sometimes from the spirits during her nightly séances. Some claim the oddities in the home were due to her lack of formal training. The popular thought however is that she actively designed the home to confuse the spirits – stairs that go nowhere, one entrance to the séance room but three exits and many unfinished rooms. The tour guided also referenced the regular occurrence of the number 13 throughout the house, but we think that’s more hype than reality.

The Behind the Scene tour was a guided tour of the grounds and the basement. We had just completed a self-guided tour of the grounds which matched pretty closely the “behind the scenes” guided tour. We did see the basement but it was not noteworthy. There have been some ghost sightings in the basement but only at night and since we toured during the day, we should’ve gotten ½ off our ticket.

This house tour was definitely worth it for me but much of what the tour guide explains is conjecture, since Sarah was very secretive and as a result, very little information is known about this peculiar woman. For more information click here.