Imagine a house with spider web-shaped windows, stairs that lead to a wall, trap doors, and hallways that go in circles. It sounds like something out of a horror movie, right? Well, this house actually exists. It is called the Winchester Mystery House and it’s in San Jose, California.
You can thank Sarah Winchester, a woman who was once the child prodigy of her town. Throughout her tragic life, she felt haunted by the victims of her husband’s business. Learn why one woman created the creepiest, most labyrinthine house in the world.
It All Began With Sarah Pardee
Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1839. Her father was a carpenter, and her family lived comfortably. Her parents, Sarah Burns and Leonard Pardee, were progressive. They encouraged free thinking in their household and were staunch abolitionists.
Sarah thrived in this environment. By age twelve, she knew four languages. She also attended the Young Ladies Collegiate Institute at Yale. At only 4’10”, she was tiny but beautiful, eventually earning the nickname the “Belle of New Haven.”
Enter The Love Of Her Life, William Winchester
Sarah’s life changed when she met William Winchester. The Pardees and the Winchesters were well-acquainted, as they both attended the same First Baptist Church. Sarah also went to college with William’s sister, Annie.
However, William got to know Sarah more when he attended an arm of Yale College, the Collegiate and Commercial Institute. The two had the same curriculum, and they bonded over a fondness for Shakespeare and Sir Francis Bacon. It seemed like a love meant to be.
The Winchesters Were Infamous For Their Business
Sarah knew William for a long time before college. They were both upper-class New Haven residents who had many family members in Freemasonry. However, William’s family was also famous in both New Haven and the rest of America.
His father, Oliver Winchester, had recently taken over the Volcanic Arms Company. In 1866, he renamed it the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. It was wildly successful and, arguably, forever changed the history of the Old West.
Many Died As A Result Of The Winchester Repeating Arms Company
The Winchester Repeating Arms Company was best known for the Winchester Model 1873 rifle, nickname as “the gun that won the West.” Wild West outlaws Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley praised the Winchesters, as did President Theodore Roosevelt. This was all thanks to its owner, Oliver.
But that was only the tip of the iceberg. The Winchester Company sold over 700,000 weapons between 1873 and 1916. In fact, the company still exists today, although it is now owned by Olin Corporation.
William Was The Heir To The Company
Although Oliver Winchester was the owner of the business, his son, William, was scheduled to be the next boss. When Sarah dated William, he was running a shirt company. However, Sarah knew that William would eventually take over the family business, as he was Oliver’s only son.
It is not known how Sarah felt about the family business. But we do know that the child prodigy wanted to marry William, regardless of her interest (or lack of interest) in firearms.
When They Married, Everything Seemed Perfect
Sarah and William Winchester married on September 30, 1862. Sarah then became Mrs. Winchester. The two lived a comfortable life, as they earned plenty of money from William’s shirt industry.
Eventually, William switched careers and worked as a treasurer for his father’s business. Sarah did not mind, as this made the couple even more wealthy. The two dreamed about starting a family together in New Haven. However, this plan would not go as smoothly as Sarah expected.
Tragedy Struck Their First And Only Child
Four years into their marriage, Sarah became pregnant. She gave birth to their first and only daughter, Annie Pardee Winchester, on July 12, 1866. Unfortunately, the child was not born healthy.
Annie had a disease called marasmus, which destroys the body’s ability to metabolize proteins. In other words, the child was constantly malnourished, and doctors were not equipped to handle the condition. Only forty days after being born, Annie passed away. Sarah and William were devastated at the loss of their only daughter.
When Oliver Winchester Died, His Son Inherited The Family Business
In 1880, four years after Annie’s death, Oliver Winchester passed away. This made William the heir and sole owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Everyone in the company expected this; however, there was something sinister happening behind the scenes.
William was not healthy when he entered the position. He was suffering from tuberculosis, which was very common in the 1800s. About 25% of Americans died from tuberculosis during this era. To make matters worse, a cure would not be invented until 1949.
Then, Sarah Lost William, Too
In 1881, only one year after taking over the family business, William Winchester died. He was 43. Sarah felt overwhelmed by the loss of both her daughter and husband. Now, she was all alone.
Sarah was now in possession of the Winchester’s family fortune. She inherited $20 million, which is equivalent to about $500 million today. But Sarah preferred not to take a position in the business. Why she chose not to take over remains unknown.
Set For Life, But With No One To Spend It On
Believe it or not, Sarah Winchester did not just have $20 million. She also held a 50% equity in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company stock. Every day, she received $1,000. She would continue to earn thousands daily for the rest of her life. In 2019 money, that would be the equivalent of earning $26,000 every day.
Although Sarah was practically drowning in wealth, she had no one to spend the money on. She felt lost and lonely and needed a new mission in life.
Her Escape: Traveling Around The World
According to her friend Ralph Rambo, Sarah Winchester embarked on a three-year world tour between 1881 and 1884. An 1886 issue of The New Haven Register stated that Sarah had “removed to Europe,” but where she went and why remains a mystery.
We do know one thing: Sarah began second-guessing her inherited business. In particular, the Winchester rifle could fire multiple rounds without reloading. Sarah did not like the idea that their rifles could cause so much death.
According To The Story, Sarah Visited A Medium
In some versions of the Sarah Winchester story, she eventually visited a medium in Boston. She told the medium that she felt extreme guilt over the lives lost through her husband’s business. According to the medium, Sarah would continue to feel terrible until she appeased these spirits.
Historians have not confirmed this medium story. It might not have happened. Regardless, at some point, Sarah Winchester began to think about the great beyond, which eventually lead to her famous mansion.
To Appease The Spirits, Sarah Moved To California
In 1884, Sarah Winchester packed her bags and left her childhood home of New Haven. She moved to the Santa Clara Valley, which is now known as San Jose. On the surface, Sarah moved to be closer to her Pardee relatives, who traveled to California during the 1849 Gold Rush.
But privately, Sarah had her own reasons for moving. She wanted to appease the spirits that, she believed, suffered at the hands of her family business.
She Bought A Humble Home To Renovate
Instead of purchasing a large mansion, Sarah Winchester bought a 40-acre plot of land. The San Jose plot included an eight-room farmhouse which was relatively dilapidated. But Sarah had a goal in mind.
When she arrived, she hired a team of 20 carpenters to rebuild the house. These employees thought that Sarah would simply refurbish the old farmhouse. Little did they know that this project would continue for 38 years, right up until Sarah Winchester’s death.
What Was Her Goal?
Sarah Winchester was not trying to make a comfortable home. She was trying to “outrun” the spirits. Believing that the victims of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company were following her, Sarah wanted to avoid the haunting for as long as possible. Apparently, the medium had warned her that if she stopped construction, she would die.
As a result, her home became a labyrinth. She was constantly afraid of a haunting, and visitors could hardly navigate her home without getting lost.
No Architect Wanted To Work On The House
Unsurprisingly, Sarah could not find an architect willing to work on her house. No one wanted to have a bizarre ghost mansion on their resume. Not willing to be deterred, Sarah decided to become her own architect.
With her team of 20 carpenters, Sarah decided on every change and all layouts. Nobody was around to veto her decisions. The result was a house that appeared insane and nonsensical; it’s a surprise that some of the employees stayed!
Creating A Labyrinth
Rumor has it that Sarah’s employees worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. Every time they finished a project, Sarah would change some feature to keep the spirits “confused.”
Stairs that lead to nowhere, windows that opened into rooms, upside-down pillars, circular hallways, and doors that dropped down several floors–Sarah Winchester’s home became a nonsensical labyrinth. For decades, construction continued, with new projects appearing as soon as one was finished.
The House Had Creepy Architectural Oddities
Although Sarah’s home contained upper-class luxuries, it also had some odd design choices. For instance, the house had trap doors and skylights on the floor. One staircase has 44 steps and only goes up one floor.
Other decor choices are straight out of a horror movie. Windows have spider web panels, cabinets open into walls, and a ruler was permanently attached to the wall to measure Sarah’s height. The mansion even has more windows than the Empire State Building!
…But It Was Also Livable
Believe it or not, Sarah Winchester also invested money to make her spirit mansion livable. She bought the most technologically-advanced luxuries that money could buy. These include forced-air central heating and hot running water.
Her house even had electricity, wool insulation, a sewage drainage system, and indoor showers. In the 19th century, many homes in San Jose did not have those installations. Although Sarah’s home was a bizarre haunted house, it was still a luxury mansion.
The Number 13 Was Everywhere
For some reason, Sarah Winchester seemed obsessed with the number 13. Throughout the house, you’ll see 13-paned windows, 13-step staircases, and her 13th bathroom with 13 windows inside. Sarah even divided her will into 13 parts and signed it 13 times.
Although 13 is often considered to be unlucky, the number also has positive associations. It is the number of people at the Last Supper, the number of full moons in a year, and a number often placed on good luck charms.
The Mansion Was Luxurious, Too
The farmhouse was transformed into the style of Queen Anne’s Victorian mansions. Sarah installed crystal chandeliers, parquet flooring, ornate curtains, and gilded doorways. She even hired Tiffany & Co’s first design director, Louis Comfort Tiffany, to handcraft stain glass windows.
Although Sarah felt guilty about the Winchester Company, she was still using the money from it to make her life more comfortable. She was an upper-class lady at heart, and she included many features that mirrored her New Haven home.
She Also Had A Seance Room
By now, you probably won’t be surprised to know that Sarah Winchester had a seance room. The room was right in the center of the home, and legend says that Sarah invited mediums to perform seances there.
Although this seems odd, it was common at the time. According to historian Janan Boehme, spiritualism rooms were popular in the Victorian era. Guests gathered to practice seances and even play with the Ouija board, which was invented in 1890.
Did Sarah Bring Occultists Into Her House?
According to rumors, Sarah Winchester frequently invited mediums into her house. They used the seance room to contact her late husband and keep spirits away from the house. On top of that, Sarah also had relatives who were interested in the occult.
Her relative, Enoch H. Pardee, was a prominent physician and politician in Oakland. But he and his son George were also well-known occultists. They were members of Yale’s Skull and Bones Society and the Freemasons, which might be where Sarah got some of her influence.
Sarah’s Obsession With Sir Francis Bacon
Anyone who knew Sarah Winchester understood her love for the English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon. Some of the details in her home reflect this, such as Shakespearian windows, fantastical iron gates, and a hidden ballroom.
Sarah subscribed to Baconian philosophy, which viewed the universe as something that was “ever building.” She was also heavily interested in symbology, theosophy, and codes. All of these passions would work their way into her view of the afterlife and ever-changing mansion.
She Owned Other Homes, Too
Believe it or not, Sarah Winchester owned several other homes while she was working on this mansion. Four years into the mansion’s construction, Sarah bought a 140-acre patch of land in what is now Los Altos, California. She often traveled from her San Jose home to her Los Altos home.
Sarah also helped her Pardee relatives. She purchased another patch of farmland near her Los Altos home for her sister and brother-in-law. Although she lost her immediate family, Sarah, fortunately, had family nearby.
Sarah Winchester’s “Ark,” Her Houseboat
Along with her inland homes, Sarah Winchester also owned a houseboat. The boat sat in the San Francisco Bay and was known as “Sarah’s Ark.” According to legend, Sarah thought that an Old Testament-style flood would occur in the future, and she wanted to prepare for it.
In reality, the houseboat was most likely a status symbol. In the early 20th century, many wealthy people owned boats. As someone who grew up in a high-class society, Sarah understandably bought one of her own. Sarah’s Ark was destroyed in a fire in 1929.
The San Francisco Earthquake Destroyed Three Stories
In 1906, one of the most devastating earthquakes in history occurred in San Francisco. The Great Earthquake also reached the Winchester mansion in San Jose. The shaking toppled the mansion’s seven-story tower and crushed the upper three floors.
Sarah Winchester also got caught in the earthquake. She ended up trapped in the Daisy Room, named after its floral windows. Servants had to dig her out of the rubble. After this, Sarah decided not to add any more stories to the house, expanding outward instead.
Although Sarah Was A Recluse, She Wasn’t Alone
Despite the loss of her husband and child, Sarah Winchester was not alone throughout her life. She had 18 servants, 18 gardeners, a constant team of construction workers, and a foreman. She also visited her Pardee relatives who lived nearby.
Rumors say that Sarah frequently spied on her servants. However, historians have found no evidence to back up this claim. The mistress’s paranoia seemed to stem from the supernatural, not her employees, family members, or neighbors.
In 1922, Sarah Winchester Passed Away Peacefully
Sarah Winchester had a restless life, filled with tragedy, death, and paranoia. But fortunately, her passing was peaceful. She died in her sleep on September 5, 1922, after heart failure. A memorial service was held in Palo Alto, and her remains were buried in her childhood hometown of New Haven, Connecticut.
The house went to her secretary and niece, Marian I. Marriott. Understandably, the woman did not want to live in the bizarre labyrinthine house. She had to decide what to do with it.
All Of Her Belongings Are Lost To Time
First, Sarah’s niece decided to auction off the furniture. Marian took what she wanted and transported the rest to a local seller. According to her, it took eight trucks to empty the house of its belongings.
The auction did not list where they obtained their furniture. As a result, historians have no idea what furniture Sarah used in her home. They assume that it was Victorian style because the house was Victorian, but the original Winchester furnishings are lost to time.
The House Immediately Became A Tourist Attraction
Marian then decided to auction off her aunt’s home. She sold it to the highest bidder, a couple named John and Mayme Brown. In 1923, they bought the house for $5 million, which is the equivalent of $71 million today.
Only five months after Sarah’s death, people were already touring the house. Residents had heard about the “crazy” woman who tried to outsmart ghosts and wanted to see the result of her 38 years of construction. The owners let them see it in order to make some extra revenue.
It Became A National Landmark
For decades, the Winchester house was passed down to the descendants of the Brown family. They made a few minor changes, after all; when Sarah died, the construction workers abandoned their projects and left nails sticking out of the walls. However, the spirit of the house remains the same.
In 1974, the house became a California Historical Landmark and was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It has gone down in history as one of the strangest architectural experiments in the world.
The Winchester Mystery House Today
Today, Sarah Winchester’s mansion is known as the Winchester Mystery House. It has 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens, and only one shower. It also contains 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, 40 staircases, two basements, and three elevators.
For a long time, nobody knew how many rooms the mansion held. After Sarah passed away in 1922, new owners kept counting the rooms and coming up with different numbers. It seemed that the layout confused even future owners.
Over 12 Million People Have Visited The House
Since the Winchester mansion opened in 1923, it has seen over 12 million visitors. Tourists can pay for a guided tour of the house. If they try to navigate it on their own, they will get lost!
The mansion has also updated to include virtual tours with guides explaining the history of the home. The home also hosts gardens, meetings, history classes, and axe throwing. It even hosts weddings! The Winchester mansion has fascinated people for over 100 years.
The Winchester Home Has Many Ghost Stories
As you might imagine, the Winchester Mystery House has gained a reputation as the most haunted place in California. Many visitors have claimed to see ghosts there. Apparitions of Sarah’s former servants are said to roam its halls.
The most famous specter is “Clyde,” a mustached man who is often seen pushing a wheelbarrow in the basement or fixing a fireplace. While some tourists do not see a ghost, many have heard footsteps, voices, and the sounds of distant construction.
It Even Inspired A Movie–Which Was Inaccurate
The story of Sarah Winchester has inspired many fictional stories. The most recent one is the 2018 Australian-American film Winchester, starring Helen Mirren as Sarah. The movie tells the story of Sarah Winchester and the experiences that made her build the house.
However, viewers should take the movie with a grain of salt. The writers embellished much of the story, such as when they added a demonic possession that never happened during Sarah Winchester’s life.
Sarah Winchester Went Down In History
The woman who was once the child prodigy of New Haven became known for her paranoia and obsessions with ghosts. Sarah Winchester has fascinated historians for decades. And in turn, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company became infamous for creating a haunted mansion.
Many people debate over whether Sarah was mentally ill or if she was actually being haunted. Either way, she used her extensive wealth to build an international sensation. The Winchesters will continue to scare, inspire, and captivate people for centuries.