Sarah and the Winchester Mystery House

The Winchester Mystery House is a 160-room mansion in San Juan, California. It has 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 staircases, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. Extravagant, sure, but where’s the mystery?

I toured the Winchester Mystery House in May 2015. Some of its mysterious features include:

  • secret passageways in the walls
  • miles of twisting hallways
  • rooms within rooms
  • staircases that lead to the ceiling
  • a skylight in a floor
  • doors that open on to brick walls
  • dozens of windows, each consisting of exactly thirteen panes of glass
  • and a tiny, windowless séance room.

But the real mystery is in the story of the home’s owner. She gave no interviews and left not a single scrap of a journal entry, but here’s what we think we know about Sarah Winchester.

Sarah Winchester, a Woman Destroyed

Born sometime between 1835 and 1845 to well-to-do parents, Sarah Winchester was the ‘Belle of New Haven’. A beautiful, well educated, well-read, and cultured woman, Sarah spoke four languages, played the piano, was gifted in architecture and design, and had exquisite taste.

When Sarah was twenty-six she and her husband, William Winchester, lost their only child. Annie was unable to digest food and she starved to death at the age of six weeks. Annie’s death was followed by the deaths of  Sarah’s parents and father-in-law. The final blow came with William’s death from tuberculosis at the age of forty-three.

A Woman Cursed

Sarah was an Episcopalian and, like many of her time, also a spiritualist. She believed that she had been cursed by the deaths resulting from Winchester rifles.

A psychic told Sarah that she could end the curse, and enjoy everlasting life. She needed to build a home where friendly spirits would feel welcome and evil spirits could be misdirected. Sarah was instructed to leave her home in New Haven, find some land in the west, start to build, and never stop.

Construction Begins… and Never Ends

Sarah found an old, unfinished six-room farmhouse. She hired carpenters to work in shifts and she kept them busy 24 hours a day, every single day for 38 years until her death.

Every night at midnight, Sarah would go to her séance room to gain protection from bad spirits, and to receive help with the building plans. Every morning, she would meet with the construction foreman to review the plans and changes for the day.

And changes there were aplenty. Estimates are that between 500 and 600 rooms were actually built, but with all of the changes and revisions only 160 rooms remain. We won’t ever know for sure because there were no blueprints and no building inspectors.

Room Designs in the Winchester Mystery House

Sarah designed all but one of the rooms herself, and she designed quite brilliantly.

Some examples include:

  • There’s a morning parlour and an afternoon parlour. Each parlour offers the best natural light at the appropriate time.
  • The house sits on 161 acres of orchards and exotic plantings Sarah brought in from one hundred different countries. She had a zinc trough installed under a removable floor in her home to water indoor plants. The angled trough sends runoff water outside through a system of pipes to water exterior plantings.
  • Sarah suffered from severe, crippling arthritis and needed the relief that all-encompassing heat can provide. So she designed a hall that included three fireplaces, natural sunlight and vents from a coal furnace in the basement.

The Grand Ballroom is the only room that Sarah didn’t design. It cost $9,000 to build the one room, $8,00 more than it cost to build an entire house at the time. The walls and floors are made of mahogany, teak, maple, rosewood, oak, and white ash.  Legend has it that one craftsman worked for 33 years doing nothing but installing and tearing up parquet floors arranged in elaborate mosaic patterns.

Entertaining and Eluding the Spirits

Many of the home’s mysterious design elements had to do with either welcoming good spirits or evading bad ones. For example, Sarah would try to confuse evil spirits that might be waiting for her by never sleeping in the same bedroom two nights in a row, and by taking roundabout routes through the house via the maze of twisting hallways and secret passageways.

Doors opening on to brick walls and staircases leading to the ceiling may also have been attempts to misdirect evil spirits, or they may simply have been errors arising from the nonstop construction.

Apparently, spirits vanish if they see their reflections and they don’t like shadows because they can’t cast their own. To help the good spirits feel welcome, Sarah therefore decreed that there would no more than three mirrors in the house, and she kept all rooms brilliantly lit.

The Great San Francisco Bay Area Earthquake of 1906 severely damaged the Winchester Mystery House, trapping Sarah in her favourite bedroom near the front of the mansion for several terrifying hours until the servants rescued her.

Sarah considered the earthquake a message from the spirits that she had spent too much money on the front section of the house. She ordered repair of the structural damage. Then she had the front thirty rooms sealed,  including her favourite bedroom and the Grand Ballroom which had never been used.

Wealthy, Generous and Frugal

As is undoubtedly evident by now, Sarah Winchester was massively wealthy. She inherited $20 million when her husband died,. Co-ownership shares in the Winchester Rifle Company netted her a further $1,000 a day every day for the rest of her life. And, Sarah’s lifetime predated the introduction of income tax.

While she could be frugal, perhaps because the spirits told her to be, Sarah was also incredibly generous.

display of tiffany art glass in Winchester Mystery House
Photo credit: fumi via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

She employed 16 servants, including eight gardeners and two nurses, paying them double the going rate ($3/day instead of $1.50) and covering their meals, their accommodations in the mansion, and their medical costs. She made generous donations to orphanages, local charities, and medical institutions battling the tuberculosis that took her husband.

Sarah also appreciated beauty and was happy to pay for it. Freight cars full of gold and silver plated chandeliers, exotic woods, and beautiful furniture made their way to San Juan. It took six trucks running for six weeks to cart the furniture away to auction after Sarah’s death.

Sarah bought many pieces of art glass from the then fledgling company, Tiffany. Selected pieces of her now priceless collection are on display in a single room in the house.

A Life in Seclusion

Sarah welcomed neighbourhood children to play on the grounds and enjoy ice cream in the mansion. But she never saw them. Sarah lived her life in seclusion, avoiding virtually all visitors. We can speculate that Sarah was embarrassed by the way arthritis disfigured her face and hands. She was known to wear a dark veil over her face at all times. But it is equally likely that Sarah shunned people because she was drowning in grief and depression at a time when those weren’t recognized as treatable conditions.

Sarah died at age 82 of heart failure. Her executors broke into her triple safe–a safe within a safe within a safe. Given her wealth, the executors were anxious to see what she had protected so carefully. They found only three things in the innermost safe–William’s obituary, Annie’s obituary, and a lock of Annie’s hair.

 A Fascinating Woman in a Fascinating House

Many find the Winchester Mystery House fascinating because of the connection to ghosts. Time magazine considers the Winchester Mystery House one of the most haunted places in the world. There are reports of spirit sightings to this day.

I, on the other hand, find the Winchester Mystery House compelling as the outward expression of a complex woman–generous and frugal; educated and superstitious; capable of appreciating and creating great beauty in the midst of crippling grief and depression.

Helen Mirren will play the role of Sarah in a supernatural thriller that will be filmed in the Winchester Mystery House. I can’t wait to see what an actor of her calibre does with this role.

Winchester Mystery House Photo credit: bryanh via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

What interests you about the Winchester Mystery House or its’ reclusive owner? Let us know in the comments section below. 

 

 

 

 

5 comments

  1. I find all of it fascinating, both the house and the owner. I had read stories about this years ago – it must have been wonderful to see it in person. What is really amazing were the beliefs of people back in those days regarding spirits and what was and was not considered treatable conditions.

    Can you imagine a modern day Winchester House? There is no doubt in my mind that there are celebrities and other very wealthy people who could bankroll such a project even today. However, I think that era produced a unique mix of people’s sensibilities, beliefs and acceptable behavior that made something like the Winchester House possible.

    1. What an interesting perspective, Susan! It hadn’t occurred to me to imagine a modern day Winchester House. That’s really fascinating. I do think you are right – it was that era that made the Winchester House possible. Still, wouldn’t it make a great novel to imagine a modern day Winchester House and the kind of person who would be building it and the reasons why? Hmm. Food for thought.

      1. Hmm, that is food for thought indeed. I will be jotting that idea down in my notebook that I keep for the purpose of writing prompts. Who knows one day I may just turn that idea into a novel. 🙂

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