The Winchester Family
The Winchester Family of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company ,bears the honour of the peculiar Winchester Mystery House. Initially William Wirt Winchester and Sarah Winchester (nee Pardee), and for a short time, their daughter Annie Paradee Winchester, who died only a few weeks after her birth, lived in an elegant manor in New Haven, Connecticut. Sarah spoke four languages and played piano beautifully. Sarah fell into a deep depression following the death of her daughter, and the couple had no more children. In March 1881, William died of tuberculosis, giving Sarah approximately 50 percent ownership in the Winchester company and an income of $1,000 a day. (This amount is roughly equivalent to $22,000 a day in 2008.)
The Curse of Death
According to the legend, she felt her family was cursed, and sought out spiritualists to determine what she should do. The deaths of her husband and daughter had a traumatic effect on her psyche from which she never fully recovered. A Boston medium told her that the Winchester family was cursed by the spirits of all the people who had been killed by the Winchester rifle, and she should move west to build a house for herself and the spirits. The medium is claimed to have told Sarah that if construction on the house ever stopped, she would join her husband and infant daughter. You know those psychics; it’s all silly guess-work and no actual results. Sadly, vulnerable Sarah took this ridiculous advice and began her fevered construction on what would be known as the Winchester Mystery House.
In 1886, Sarah moved west to California and purchased an eight-room farmhouse from John Hamm. Then, she began to build. One of the first tasks of the gardeners was to plant a tall cypress hedge surrounding the house to ensure seclusion. She kept her face covered with a dark veil at all times, and there are stories of her firing servants who caught a glimpse of her face by accident. Sarah began spending her $20 million inheritance by renovating and adding more rooms to the house, with work continuing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for the next 38 years. She was fascinated with the number 13 and worked the number into the house in many places. As a result, there are thirteen bathrooms, windows have thirteen panes, thirteen chandeliers. In the 13th bathroom (the only one with a shower), there are 13 windows. One of the sinks has 13 drainage holes. There are 52 skylights, and the Grand Staircase has 13 steps. Thirteen palm trees line the driveway. As a final gesture, Sarah’s will was divided into 13 parts and signed 13 times. If you’re counting that amount comes to…something I can’t add because I am terrible at math.
The 7-11 Staircase
Two other numbers Sarah favoured were 7 and 11, possibly because she liked a good game of craps. Haha.There is one stairway in the
house which has 7 steps down and then 11 steps up. Personally, I call it the 7-11 Staircase (not to be confused with the 7-11 convenience store where you buy a slushie and a newspaper). The balcony in this picture on the left is toddler-sized and stands above the 7-11 Staircase. Due to constant construction and the lack of a master plan, the house became very large and quite complex; many of the serving staff needed a map to navigate the house. The house also featured doors that open into walls, staircases that led nowhere, a cupboard that has only 1/2 inch of storage space, and tiny doorways and hallways just big enough for Sarah (who was 4’10“) to fit through. Some other interesting features of the house included 10,000 windows, 47 fireplaces, and a beautiful garden. It also possessed chimneys that ended mere inches before a ceiling and had no functional use (such as the one pictured on the left). At midnight every night, the bell in the Bell Tower was rung to summon the spirits. At 2 AM, it was rung again as a signal for the spirits to depart (I had no idea they were on a schedule). The Tower was approachable from the outside by climbing onto the roof of the mansion using a ladder. The bell was hung at the top of the tower, with a long rope hanging down a sheer, unclimbable wall (those of you with vertigo and a fear of heights need not apply). The rope was reached through underground tunnels, the precise layout of which was known only to the bell ringer and his assistant.
The Switchback Staircase
Mrs. Winchester had other oddities constructed, including a staircase that descended seven steps and then rose eleven. Some critics suggest that the architectural oddities may have practical explanations. For example, the Switchback Staircase, (yes, they have names, too) which has seven flights with forty four steps, rises only about nine feet, since each step is just two inches high. Mrs. Winchester arthritis was quite severe in her later years, and the stairway may have been designed to accommodate her disability. Frankly I think the stairway was designed to accomodate her schizophrenia. The Switchback Staircase derived its name by the design that permitted a person to climb up one side of it, step around a bannister, and switch direction to climb back down again (that’s the staircase pictured above).
The Hall of Fires and the Seance Room
The miles of twisting hallways are made even more intriguing by secret passageways in the walls. Mrs. Winchester traveled through her house in a roundabout fashion, supposedly to confuse any mischievous ghosts that might be following her. She went faithfully every night to the Seance room (yes, the rooms have names, too) to visit spirits that told her what she should build. Because of the mansion’s immense size, it contained forty-seven fireplaces and seventeen chimneys. One rambling section in particular, the Hall of Fires, was designed to produce as much heat as possible – perhaps to ease Mrs. Winchester’s extreme arthritis. In addition to many windows that let the sunlight stream through, the three adjoining rooms have four fireplaces and three hot air registers from the coal furnace in the basement. Imagine the heating bill.
The Grand Ballroom
Mrs. Winchester’s elegant Grand Ballroom was built almost entirely without nails. It cost over $9,000 to complete at a time when an entire house could be built for less than $1,000! The most curious element of the Grand Ballroom are the two leaded stained glass windows, each inscribed with a quote from Shakespeare. Probably the more significant of the two are from Richard II (V:5:9): “These same thoughts people this little world.” The imprisoned Richard means that his thoughts people the small world of his confinement. Nobody knows for certain what these lines meant to Mrs. Winchester, but I can make an educated guess:
- Sarah refers to the imprisonment of her own mind
- that of the spirits
- and/or that of the house.
Sarah had specific pathways she took to her many rooms. After traversing a labyrinth of rooms and hallways, she would push a button, a panel would fly back and she would step quickly from one apartment into another. Then she opened a window in that apartment and climbed out onto the top of a flight of steps that took her down one store,y only to meet another flight that brought her right back up to the same level again. This was supposed to be very confusing to evil spirits who are suspicious of traps, of course. God only knows who she talked to in the Seance room since none of the spirits could follow her there. Ugh.
Contemporary scholars dispute the veracity of the claim that construction work continued, except for brief periods, after the 1906 earthquake. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Sarah was trapped in her bedroom for several hours. However, when she got out, she told the construction crews to stop working on the nearly completed front part of the house and had her carpenters board it up, leaving most of the extensive earthquake damage unrepaired. Again according to the legends, she thought the spirits were angry with her because she was spending too much time decorating and working on the front rooms (Really? Only 38 years?…How unreasonable of them). Construction resumed on new additions and remodeling the other parts of the structure. Sarah Winchester’s full-time address from the earthquake until her death was in Atherton, California. She visited the ranch and house in San Jose only periodically. Construction stopped on the Winchester Mystery House when, on September 5, 1922, Sarah died in her sleep of heart failure at the age of 83 from climbing too many weird staircases. Just kidding. When Sarah died, the word spread throughout the house, and there are spots visible where the workers stopped hammering the nails halfway in. After her death, all the furniture in the house was auctioned off. It took 8 weeks (6 truckloads a day) to remove it all
There are two theories as to why Mrs. Winchester built such an unusual house. The first is by far the most popular and states that she built the house to confuse the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles. The second, much less popular, is that while Mrs. Winchester was an exceedingly wealthy woman and could build her house any way she wanted, she had no architectural training at all, so some of the oddities could be simple design error. During the early years of construction, this resulted in some awkward and impractical concepts such as columns being installed upside down – though some suggest this was done deliberately to confuse the evil spirits. But this is how the Winchester Mystery House™ became known as “the house built by the spirits.”
The Curse of Mental Illness
Rather than the curse of death or the spirits, I believe poor Sarah suffered from a mental illness, probably paranoid schizophrenia, and responded to voices in her head telling her to continue her haphazard construction on the Winchester Mystery House. She was a highly superstitious woman where death, ghosts and spirits were concerned, as was usual for many Victorians. They even kept a “memorial photography” in their homes: they dressed and posed cadavers of family members to photograph and keep in what must have been a heartwarming family photo album. Naaaasty. However, ongoing construction within a house for 38 years, where over 600 rooms were built and then torn down so that only 160 rooms remain, suggests to me a lot more than superstition. You know how middle and lower-income class people ask themselves the stupidest question about wealthy people ever, “yes those people have a lot of money, but do you think they’re happy?” Well, where Sarah Winchester is concerned, I’d have to say that question is valid. Since Mrs. Winchester’s death, hundreds of wild stories have appeared about this mysterious woman and the sprawling mansion. You’re kidding. Who knew? None of her relatives or employees ever contradicted these stories, despite that fact that some of them lived more than forty years after Mrs. Winchester’s death. Perhaps they felt threatened by talking about her due to the supernatural myths surrounding the house, or, out of loyalty, they guarded her secrets even after death.
The House is open for tours daily. Tour guides wisely advise visitors not to separate from the group or they could get lost for hours, map or no map. Perhaps the maps are to confuse the spirits and the tourists simply get in the way. Meantime, this picture is an incredible replica of the Winchester Mystery House made entirely of Gingerbread. This hobbyist deserves an award.