The Winchester Mystery House Will Freak You the Freak Out

It's 40 bedrooms of WTF right in the middle of San Jose.

Copyright Image used with permission by Winchester Mystery House, LLC For 38 years, 24 hours a day, a team of craftsmen toiled away to create a labyrinthine Queen Anne boondoggle. 

Once upon a time, there was a woman who thought she was cursed, and that the only way to escape this curse was to build a house, room by room by room ... by room by room by room, to the haunting spirits' specifications. And so she did. 

It sounds like the plot of the latest Hollywood shockbuster, but the story of the Winchester Mystery House is all too true. Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born in Connecticut in 1839, and married William Winchester, the heir to the Winchester rifle company, in 1862. But as charmed as her life seemed, the death of her infant child and then, 15 years later, of her husband left her one of the wealthiest women in the world — and decidedly emotionally off-kilter.

It was common, at the time, to hold seances to contact the dead; Sarah Winchester fell under the thrall of one Adam Cooms, who told her she was cursed by the spirits of everyone killed by a Winchester rifle. The only remedy, he told her, was for her to move to California and build a house for the spirits.

Moving out to San Jose, Sarah bought a farmhouse and began a project that would consume her for the next 38 years. She had money galore. Between her inheritance, her stock in the Winchester company and her previous investments, she had a constant and huge income; with it, she employed 18 servants, 13 carpenters, and 10 gardeners and field hands.

There was no master plan. According to legend, nightly seances would provide the directions for the next day's building, resulting in a totally haphazard construction. Sarah's faithful right-hand-man, John Hansen, would receive his orders from her and, however unusual her orders, have them carried out by the crew. Install the columns upside down? Yes, ma'am. Build stairs that run right into a wall? Why not. Chimneys? Meh, some can go through the roof, some can just stay inside.

Sarah also amassed an immense collection of decor and furnishings, most of which never saw the light of day: art glass designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany himself; hand-embroidered linens and cloth collected from around the world; exquisitely carved wooden built-ins and furniture. If it weren't so spooky, the house would be celebrated just for the workmanship and rare collections. She also made sure she had the most up-to-date technology, including radiant heat, an elevator and electric lights.

Contemporaries saw Sarah Winchester as eccentric, but not a total weirdo. Upon her death in 1922, she was generous to family members, charities and hospitals — and didn't seem to give a hoot about the mansion, which went unmentioned. It was sold off at auction for a pittance by an investor who opened it as a tourist attraction the very next year; Harry Houdini was among the first visitors.

One could say that Sarah Winchester was finally devoured by the house that so obsessed her, becoming one of the very spirits that haunted her so. You could also just say she was an eccentric lady with too much money and a weird hobby. Either way, the Winchester Mystery House is a terrific slice of Bay Area lore and a terrific day trip from the city. Daily tours of varying lengths and spookiness are given each day — if you dare.


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