A creepy house, stairways to nowhere, fake doors, séance rooms, and tales of mysterious spirits; you may be thinking that this sounds like a visit to the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland, but California has its own original haunted mansion in San Jose; the Winchester Mystery House.
I have known about this famous mansion since I was a child. Many years ago, a publishing company put out a series of books that featured cut-out paper models of various haunted, mysterious houses. I took the time to meticulously put together a model of the Winchester Mystery House. I even remember that one of the windows had Sarah Winchester peering out from behind a curtain. I often wondered what it would be like to visit the real home. Almost fifty years later, I had the opportunity to do that with my daughter.
The United States has many unique roadside attractions throughout the country that focus on the strange and unusual. Mysterious houses designed and constructed by eccentric owners are featured in almost every state. Each of these homes is a mixture of history, folklore, and P.T. Barnum. There is the Lizzie Borden House in Massachusetts, Craig-E-Clair Castle in New York, the Asa Packer Mansion in Pennsylvania, the House on the Rock in Wisconsin, Coral Castle in Florida, and the actual home of P.T. Barnum in Connecticut.
But, at the top of any list of creepy homes in the United States is always the Winchester Mystery House. I genuinely enjoy visiting and seeing places that have become a part of American folklore. I often find that they have an interesting back story and often reveal a great deal of cultural history.
The story of the Winchester House usually focuses on the eccentricities of its builder, Sarah Winchester. Sarah Lockwood Pardee became Sarah Lockwood Winchester in 1862 when she married William Wirt Winchester, the treasurer of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and the only son of its founder Oliver Winchester.
In 1866, Sarah and William had one daughter, Annie Pardee Winchester, but she died only one month after her birth. William Wirt Winchester died at the age of 44 of tuberculosis soon after the death of his father and mother. Sarah’s inheritance was said to be more than 20 million dollars and included a 50 percent stake in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. In 1881, Sarah was one of the wealthiest women in the world.
A few years after the death of her husband, Sarah left her home in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1885 to relocate to San Jose, California. Most likely, she moved west to live in a drier and warmer climate due to problems with rheumatoid arthritis, an illness that plagued her all her life. Here she purchased an eight-room farmhouse and ranch in 1886, which she called Llanada Villa. This would eventually become the Winchester Mystery House.
Over her lifetime until she died in 1922, Sarah expanded and renovated her home until it grew in size to 24,000 square feet and featured 160 rooms. Most of Llanada Villa was built in the Queen Anne Revival style, but some sections featured Victorian, Gothic, and Romanesque features. Originally, Sarah hired the services of two architects but eventually dismissed them and drew up many plans for her home herself.
She died on September 5, 1922, of heart failure. Most of her wealth was donated to charity and her niece, who inherited the contents of her home, which she quickly auctioned off.
The legacy of the Winchester Mystery House is embedded in its many unusual architectural and interior design novelties. Today the home is known for its maze-like labyrinth of rooms, walled-off exterior windows, doors to nowhere, stairways that end in a ceiling, trap doors in the floor, unfinished spaces, a bell tower rebuilt many times, ghostly music, architectural features that appear 13 times, stairways with 3-inch risers, and spider-web motif windows.
The legend of Sarah Winchester and her unusual mansion was propagated soon after her death. Whether true or not, the mystique surrounding Sarah Winchester and her home has grown to include supposed hauntings, frequent séances, and claims of obsessive superstitions. Coincidentally, the period in which Llanada Villa was built coincided with the popularity of spiritualism in the United States. The mysteriousness of séances, speaking with the dead, and ghostly encounters captivated the fascination of many Americans during the early 1900s. It is not surprising that the uniqueness of the Winchester House became associated with the legacy of these practices.
Today, a deeper dive into the current research on the home questions the truthfulness of many of the mysteries and attributes much of the notoriety of the Winchester House to exaggeration, misrepresentation, and overly sensationalized promotion.
Knowing very few details about the history of the Winchester Mystery House, my daughter, Liz, and I booked a weekday noon tour and drove from San Francisco to San Jose. The Winchester Mystery House is just off Highway 280 and across the street from Santana Row.
We joined a group guided tour that included 12 other people. Our tour guide was entertaining and energetic as she led us on a 65-minute scripted tour of the mansion. Along the way, we encountered a lot of unusual spaces, strange-looking rooms, quirky construction features, and stories of peculiar behavior by the mansion’s owner. Our guide also enhanced the strange and unusual parts of the home with corny jokes, intriguing ideas, and spooky suggestions. Even though it seemed a little too well rehearsed at times, all in all, it was a lot of fun.
In many ways, the house was not what I expected. The first part of the home took us through the later construction in the back of the house. The rooms appeared to be an eclectic collection of fully and partially constructed spaces. The quality of the construction did not seem mansion-like to me in that the rooms did not display wealth or exceptional architectural features.
On the other hand, the front and older parts of the home had a traditional mansion feel to them and featured some well-furnished rooms for entertainment. We saw a ballroom, formal dining room, sitting rooms, organ, stained glass windows, chandeliers, and rooms finished to impress visitors. This part of the mansion displayed wealth and taste.
The most notable date in the construction of Llanada Villa was April 18, 1906, when the great San Francisco earthquake caused tremendous devastation throughout the region, and Sarah Winchester’s home suffered severe damage. The house was forever changed when chimneys collapsed, a wing was destroyed, and a prominent seven-story tower toppled down. Damage from the earthquake can still be viewed at the property even today, and the mansion was never restored to its former prominence.
After the dwelling was returned to a livable condition in 1910, Sarah did very little work on her residence in San Jose until she died in 1922. Amazingly, the Winchester House became a tourist attraction shortly after Sarah’s death. With the quarters in much disrepair, a group of investors purchased the home and leased it to John and Mayme Brown. They immediately turned the structure into a tourist attraction and eventually purchased the property in 1931. Even Harry Houdini visited the structure in 1924, and it’s remembered that he suggested promoting the dwelling as a mystery house. Later owners of the dwelling began to insinuate rumors, enhance stories with exaggerations, and propose links to the supernatural to create the mystique of a mysterious haunted house.
My daughter and I agreed that the house undoubtedly felt creepy, but not scary. Many of the rooms were dark, unremarkable, and surprisingly small. We did feel like we were walking through a maze as we took a spiraling tour that included various ups and downs, but is also possible the route we followed was intended to create this effect.
For every claim about the mysteriousness of the home, there has been research to indicate that much of the legacy of the property was the result of exaggeration, conjecture, and over-promotion. Historical research has revealed there is little evidence that Sarah suffered from guilt from the money she inherited from the gun business.
The tale that she believed she had to keep building or she would experience death is not backed up by the actual construction record of the building. There are no records of séances being held in the house and staff members claimed that Sarah had no interest in them. Sarah’s relatives did not back up the claims of her being superstitious and her reclusiveness may have been due to her many physical ailments. It is also likely that the labyrinth construction of the home may have been the result of making the home functional after the earthquake. Furthermore, there are very few actual recorded incidences to back up the claims of the home being haunted by spirits.
If you are in or near San Jose, you should investigate the Winchester Mystery House for yourself. Today, a private company called Winchester Mystery House, LLC manages the home on behalf of the Brown family that purchased the home back in 1931. The home is open daily except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
On most days, two types of tours are offered, the Guided Mansion Tour and the Walk with Spirits Tour. The Mansion Tour takes guests around 110 of the 160 rooms and provides visitors with background information on Sarah Winchester and the construction of her home. The Spirits Tour invites guests to look beyond the ordinary by experiencing a wake in the parlor of the house, taking part in a Victorian-era séance on the third floor, and ending in the dark, spooky basement of the home.
All tours are 1 hour and 5 minutes in length. In addition to daily tours, guests are encouraged to stroll around the property by taking the self-guided Sarah’s Garden Tour. In true roadside attraction fashion, all visitors exit through an extensive gift shop featuring a variety of souvenirs.
Throughout the year, the Winchester Mystery House organization also hosts seminars and special speaker programs that focus on the supernatural. Of course, Halloween is a big deal at the mansion. From late September until the end of October, the Mystery House has a special guided night-time haunting experience called “Unhinged: Housewarming” that centers around the story of a Hollywood couple who purchase the house. The spooky evening begins with a garden party and progresses through a haunted tour of the premises. Halloween tours are very popular and book up quickly.
So what is the truth about the Winchester Mystery House? It would be difficult for anyone to give a definitive assessment of the motivations of Sarah Winchester since she was a private person who did not reveal much to the public. Her home was probably a reflection of her personality. What I do know is that she left us with a mystery and an unusual home as an artifact.
The Winchester Mystery House is in many ways the perfect American roadside attraction in that it is a combination of history and folklore built around the eccentricities of a mysterious, private person. It is everything we love in a great story.
My daughter and I found visiting the Winchester Mystery House to be an entertaining way to spend an afternoon. Overall, the presentation about Sarah Winchester was informative and intriguing while the home offered a view into the history of the early 1900s in California.
At the end of the tour, I could not decide whether the legacy of the home was the tale of an eccentric person, over-the-top promotion, or a misrepresented widow trying to find purpose in her life. I don’t think anyone will ever know, but I suspect that the truth, like most things in life, lies somewhere in the middle. The Winchester Mystery House is a great piece of American history and folklore, but even more so, it’s a fantastic and captivating story worth experiencing!