Thanks to my son while on our road trip out west, we visited a remarkable landmark in San Jose, California. On the way there Matthew told me we were going to visit a mansion, unlike any other. He explained that the homeowner had been a paranoid, but very rich widow. Apparently, the place at one time or another, had ghosts, ghouls, and other worldly inhabitants. I was feeling a bit anxious. I’m not one who easily gets scared but….
My imagination led me to think we were going to see a monstrous house in hideously disrepair. You know, the kind of house you’d see at the end of a block with knee high weeds, boarded up windows, spider webs, sagging roof, and peeling paint. And once inside I imagined we would hear chains dragging across the floor and feel mysterious drafts that give us chills. After all, there’s bound to be some unspeakable spirits lurking in one of the rooms of a haunted house. Right?
However, when we reached the parking lot, I was quite surprised. The impressive Queen Anne-style Victorian house was more of a castle. It was really quite something to see. The size was very impressive. And it was beautiful. One of the first things I noticed, which turned out to be my favorite thing about this house, wasn’t actually in the house. It was the enchanted gardens, with meticulous landscaping. In fact, Matthew took a snapshot of me while I was photographing roses. This photo is one of my favorites. It’s used on my website page.
Matthew was looking out for me when moments before our guided tour began. My big-hearted and thoughtful son spoke to someone about my hearing. He asked if there were any visual notes I could read from. I love that about my son. I was given a pamphlet so I was able to follow along with the tour guide. The information in this blog comes from the tour guide at Winchester House and Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. My son and I learned that Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born in 1840. She enjoyed a privileged upbringing. She obtained the best education at the best private schools. She spoke four languages and was an accomplished piano player. In 1862 she married William Wirt Winchester the only son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and the original owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. They had a happy marriage. Sarah gave birth to a beautiful baby daughter named Annie. But in 1866 tragedy struck when their infant daughter was unable to process calories and died malnourished at six weeks old. Mrs. Winchester was said to have struggled to come to terms with her daughter’s death and suffered for many years. (Believe me, I understand what child loss can do to a person.) Following the death of Annie, Sarah suffered from deep depression. The couple had no more children.
But unfortunately, tragedy struck her life, once again. Sarah’s husband died fifteen years later from tuberculosis. Egads! Another terrible loss! It was understandable that she felt the loss of her loved ones very deeply. However, legends states that she apparently began to believe that her family was cursed, so she sought out a psychic to help her determine what she needed to do.
The story goes that a Boston Medium told Sarah that her family and fortune was indeed haunted and cursed by the spirits of all the people killed by the Winchester rifle, specifically the American Indians, Civil War soldiers, and others. She was told that the death of her family members was caused by these spirits and it was implied that she might be next. The medium was claimed to have told Sarah she should move west to build a house for herself and the spirits. The medium also supposedly told her if construction on the house ever stopped, she would join her husband and infant daughter in death. But if construction did not stop, she could be sure she was not in any danger.
So, about two years after her husband’s death, Sarah purchased an unfinished eight room farmhouse on a huge plot of land. Today we use the term “fixer-upper.” She believed that she was sharing her home with spirits. There was no need for Sarah to grill the neighbors, “Excuse me, I realize I’ve never properly introduced myself, but I was wondering if you happened to notice any supernatural goings-on in my home? Ah, I mean, have you heard inhuman wailing every Wednesday at 12 a.m. on the dot?” Or, “You haven’t happened to hear doors slamming or rattling windows by any chance, have you?”
There was no need to consult her neighbors because legend is that Sarah had the bell in her bell tower rung at midnight to summon the spirits to her séance room (or the Blue Room). Sarah would visit this room nightly to commune with the spirits who gave her instructions for designing her home. The bell rang again at 2 a.m. to release the spirits. The séance room was off-limits to everyone but Sarah herself. In this room, there is one entrance, but three exits. The first is the door that Matthew and I entered through. The second was the door on the left which exits to a hallway. But the door on the right led to a kitchen…eight feet below! Yikes!
Sarah spent nearly half of her life overseeing a team of thirteen dutiful carpenters who would continue endlessly across the next 38 years in shifts—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Money was never an issue. Sarah had a $20 million inheritance, plus nearly 50% of the Winchester Arms stock which, in turn earned her approximately a $1,000 a day. (The average daily wage back then was $1.50.) The result made her one of the wealthiest women in the world. Every morning she would meet with John Hanson, the foreman, to discuss new changes and plan new rooms for the house. Firmly believing in the spirits that haunted her, she began to implement perplexing designs within her home to confuse the bad spirits and fit lavish interiors within certain rooms to welcome the good. The home is now quite something to behold. It has been transformed into a sprawling mansion that meanders across 6 acres of beautiful farmland, full of stunning gardens and orchards of plum, apricot, and walnut trees. The house has 160 rooms. There are 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 47 fireplaces, 47 staircases, 52 skylights, 6 kitchens, 3 elevators, 2 basements, and 13 bathrooms. The 13thbathroom has 13 windows and 13 stairs leading up to it. From the outside you could mistake this house for a dream luxury home but take a closer look and you will see its creator’s past holds a terrifying secret with its bizarre interior layout. This house with its history makes a very intriguing story indeed. Stairways that lead to ceilings, doors that open to brick walls, and endless mysterious designs like hidden passageways in the walls, leave many unanswered questions about its history. Some think this is the reason for blocked passageways and others say it was a deliberate plan to confuse the spirits
Parquet floors spread throughout the entire house made up of beautiful rosewood, mahogany, oak, teak, maple and white ash mosaics. Imported Tiffany glass windows, gold plated chandeliers, Swiss moulded bathtubs, silver and bronze inlaid doors and endless other luxuries completed these rooms. But, perhaps the most luxurious room of the entire house was the elegant grand ballroom, which cost around $9,000 at a time when an entire house could be built for just $1,000. Two beautiful leaded stained glass windows were a focal point, each inscribed with a Shakespeare quote and the interior was made up of the best that money could buy. This room was sealed off after the earthquake of 1906 which left the house severely damaged and in need of repair. Mrs. Winchester saw the earthquake as a sign from the spirits that she had spent too much money building the front section of the house, so once the damage was repaired, she immediately had this section of the house sealed off, the grand ballroom included.
The homeowner, as legend has it, wore a dark veil to cover her face wherever she went. According to rumors, Sarah was known to fire her staff if they caught a glimpse of her face. She never slept in the same room two nights in a row through fear of the spirits and ran a ritual every night of weaving through the hidden passageways and staircases before settling for the night, in order to confuse the angry spirits.
Throughout in her later life, Mrs. Winchester had suffered with very painful arthritis. She died in her sleep of heart failure September 5, 1922 at the age of 83. In her will, she left generous cash sums to her favorite employees and family members, and a substantial sum to the Winchester Clinic of the General Hospital Society of Connecticut, intended for the care and treatment of tuberculosis patients. The personal property including all of the luxury furnishings within was left to her niece Mrs. Marian Merriman Marriott, who auctioned it all for a grand sum.
Sarah never kept a journal or had a documented interview, but her story remains as one of great curiosity. Throughout her grief stricken state and with her belief in the medium, this interesting mansion was created. Prior to the pandemic this fascinating place was open to the public to view and to be used for special events. Matthew’s ticket cost $39; mine was $32.
Our tour guide warned us tourists not to wander from the group as some have been known to be lost for hours in the maze of corridors, in the baffling layout. Matthew pulled me aside, once, or twice, to tell me not to wander off. He knew I was known to mosey behind. But, for good reason. I wanted to take photographs. I wanted pictures without a bunch of tourists in them. And yes, a couple of times, I indulged my curiosity. I opened one door that opened onto a brick wall! And another door that opened to a second story drop straight to the ground!!! This explained why my son kept an eye on me.
Anyways, word is that travelers have flocked from all over the globe to witness this bizarre home in which this strange and extraordinarily wealthy woman whose married name appeared on these firearms made it her mission to provide displaced sympathetic ghosts with a place to call “home sweet home.” Mrs. Sarah Winchester spent her years lovingly creating her masterpiece.
And what a home it was!!!