The Creepy (and Inexplicable) Details About the Real Winchester Mystery House
'Tis the season for haunted houses, creepy characters, and spooky stories — and one former residence of the rich and famous in San Jose, CA, has long offered quirky and spine-tingling tales to those who dare visit the Winchester Mystery House. And thanks to the recent introduction of the first all-new tour in two decades, which welcomes guests into rooms never before open to the public, including the eerily named Witch's Cap, and an upcoming paranormal period piece starring Helen Mirren as homeowner Sarah Winchester that shot on location, there has never been a better time to look for ghosts at the Winchester Mystery House.
The 24,000-square-foot American Queen Anne Revival mansion is one of the most peculiar and sprawling estates in the world with its nine kitchens, 52 skylights, 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, and 10,000 windows. It sits across a very busy street from San Jose high-end retail and dining destination Santana Row. It's known for its abnormal architecture, like stairways to nowhere, a window in the floor of the south conservatory, a room without a ceiling or floor, doors that open into walls, a cupboard with a half inch of storage space, the recurring spider web motif, and curious instances of the number 13, like the baker's dozen of hooks on the walls in the séance room. (Oh, and yeah, Winchester created a room just for convening with spirits.)
Perhaps the strangest thing about the Winchester Mystery House, which in Winchester's day was called Llanada Villa, is why the widow built it this way after she moved to the Bay Area in 1885 following the death of her husband and child. It started out innocently enough as a two-story, eight-room farmhouse surrounded by commercial orchards she operated (the savvy businesswoman also owned a number of investment properties), but the heir to the rifle fortune believed she was being haunted by all the souls ended by her family's guns, including the model nicknamed "The Gun That Won the West," and that the only way to appease them was to keep adding on.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the Winchester Mystery House is why the widow built it this way.
This is why construction never ceased, with a brief exception after the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake, for 38 years. At one point, the house, built without any blueprints, was seven stories tall and featured the latest and greatest technology, including first residential electric elevator on the West Coast. The price tag for her structural penance was more than $5 million, then an astronomical sum, but after her death in 1922, it was valued at a mere $5,000 and sold at auction for $135,531.50.
The new owner started offering tours the following year, and since then, more than 12 million people have wandered through the dark corridors, elegant rooms, and unfinished quarters. The aforementioned new experience, the Explore More Tour, which is only available in tandem with the basic Mansion Tour for people over the age of 9, opens up areas of the house that have either always been off limits or which have been closed for decades, like the front porch, the fanciest north turret bathroom, the aviary, the north wing above the ballroom, the elevators, balconies, her personal hideaway, a vertigo-inducing cross bridge, a boiler room, the registration hall, the Crystal Bedroom, and various unfinished spaces where work stopped when Winchester passed away. Participants also get to sign the guestbook, a practice that hadn't been done in ages, and enter through the ornate front doors, a first for groups. Even Winchester eschewed the formal entry.
Also important to note, given that this add-on will cost most adults an extra $47, Explore More guides are better versed in the history, lore, and alleged ghost activity than the standard ushers. Because each session is limited to 12 people or less, it is a lot easier to ask questions. The most recent docent we were assigned had been at work when the production for Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built, due to hit theaters in February 2018, came to town and she regaled the group with spoilers from the shoot (i.e., at least one scene takes place in a library which doesn't exist in real life, an action sequence was filmed on the roofline, and Mirren rang the bell in the tower to signal the completion of the last shot). Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Everest), Sarah Snook (Black Mirror), and Angus Sampson (Mad Max: Fury Road) join the Oscar winner in the thriller inspired by Winchester, the house, and real events.
While the new offering dives deeper into the supernatural sightings than the basic option, those who want to focus on all the reasons Time labeled it one of the top 10 haunted places might be better served by the after-dark Halloween Candlelight Tour. Offered through Oct. 31, a demented caretaker will take you through with only a few flickering candles to light the way. With any luck, the former handyman with jet-black hair and a spectral wheelbarrow will stop tinkering with the ballroom fireplace long enough to say hello.
The repairing revenant is just one of the many phantom residents and unexplained phenomena reported on a regular basis by visitors and employees alike. Scroll through the slides for more on the property's possible poltergeists and reasons to make a Winchester Mystery House call before pumpkin spice lattes are out of stock.
The Gardens at Halloween
Even the grounds surrounding the Winchester Mystery House aren't free of accounts of freaky and unexplained visions. One employee reported seeing a small woman dressed in black, who looked strangely similar to the estate's bonkers benefactor, chilling in the picnic area.
Video footage of a recorded tour in the stables captured unseen floating orbs. The front yard also gives visitors the best vantage point of the second-story window, where a translucent bushy-haired female was spotted by onlookers and captured in a photo during an official Facebook shoot last Spring.
Sarah Winchester Around 1900
This is the only known photograph of Sarah Winchester. It was taken at the mansion with her longtime driver Frank Carroll at the reigns of her carriage. (One can be viewed as you walk through the carriage house.) Legend has it, she did not allow photos to be taken of her, but an employee hid and snapped this pic without her knowledge. Winchester eventually owned three cars: a 1909 French Renault, a 1917 Pierce Arrow Limousine, and a 1916 Buick truck for use on the farm. One of the innovations found in the house is an ingenious carwash built for the limo. It used heated water and a hose attached to a 360-degree rotating pipe in the ceiling to enable easy access to all of the car. She also owned a houseboat called The Ark.
Helen Mirren Re-Creating the Lonely Sarah Winchester
Mirren will portray the rifle heiress, who moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast after a Boston psychic said she was cursed by all of the people killed by Winchester firearms and that the only way to keep them at bay was to continuously construct a house. Inspired by true events, Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built is a supernatural thriller in which Jason Clarke plays a San Francisco psychiatrist sent to evaluate Winchester's mental state. He quickly discovers her nonstop remodel might not be crazy after all.
The Daisy Bedroom
The Daisy Bedroom, known as such because of the floral motif in the windows, was allegedly where Winchester was trapped during the 1906 quake. A guide heard heavy sighs and saw a dark figure in the hallway after she began her spiel on the lady of the house's supposed favorite place to lay her head. Another worker reported camera malfunction while photographing the space and some of the photos feature a bizarre white rippling mass. The room also features one of the infamous doors that open into a wall.
Winchester's Main Bedroom
Winchester died in her sleep of heart failure at 83 in this bedroom in September 1922. She was buried next to her husband and child in New Haven, CT. She left a will written in 13 sections and signed 13 times. (Just one example of the unlucky number in her life.) She left almost everything to her niece, Marian I. Marriott, who auctioned off a lot of it.
As Winchester also didn't allow photos to be taken of her interior designs or belongings, the furnishings on display are not original. That doesn't stop her spirit from stopping by occasionally. One source recalled standing in the bedroom and hearing noises from the nearby dressing room. Upon investigation, the previously closed heavy cabinets were wide open with no one in sight.
The Front Entryway
The Explore More Tour starts on the front porch and allows guests to enter through the decorative front door, which was originally installed without an outside door handle. It is believed that Winchester and the carpenters who put it in were the only ones who ever passed over the threshold.
Hard Hats Required
Hard hats must be worn for part of the Explore More Tour, as it takes visitors through spaces that were damaged by the 1906 earthquake or still under construction when Winchester shuffled off her mortal coil. They also protect precious skulls from low ceilings, tight doorways, and pointy fixtures.
The Explore More Tour travels through the unfinished north wing, which serves as the resting place for finials or other gingerbread ornamentation that was salvaged from the wreckage of the seven-story observation tower destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. Recently, a man wandering around the third floor became so cold that he turned blue in the face even though no one else in his group was cold and there were no open windows. He immediately warmed up after going downstairs.
Some Facades Remain Forever Unfinished
Exterior areas with woodwork painted black indicate portions of the house that were never finished because Winchester died. It takes over 20,000 gallons of paint to cover the labyrinthine mansion. By the time the crew finishes, they basically start again.
The Grand Ballroom
The elegant gold and silver chandelier in the grand ballroom swings by itself on occasion. The exquisite ballroom, with its organ and polished inlaid parquet floor, is also where many people have reported seeing the handyman fixing the fireplace.
The Main Staircase
Employees have heard footsteps ascending the main staircase, which is part of the Explore More Tour, on more than one occasion. Brass fittings in the corners of each stair keep dust from accumulating, which is one of many innovations utilized in the National Historic Landmark.
The public can see the Witch's Cap, one of the most unusual spaces in the mansion, for the first time with an Explore More ticket. It is unknown what Winchester used the space for, although it is suspected it was simply attic storage. The conical ceiling causes a weird acoustic effect. If you stand in the center and speak, the sound surrounds you as it bounces back like an echo.
A Top Floor Hallway
Winchester never had a master set of blueprints, but she did sketch out individual rooms on any paper that was handy, including napkins and tablecloths. The only real blueprint is for the installation of the electric Otis Elevator, but even then the "approved" box was never checked. Phantom footsteps and tours are often heard in hallways like this or running across the rooftops.
The $25,000 Storeroom
The storeroom displays many of antique art glass windows Winchester purchased during her lifetime. At the time of her death, the collection was valued at $25,000 (about $350,000 today) and is estimated to be worth millions. Many pieces feature nods to nature like flowers, insects, birds, spiderwebs, and sunbursts, which are common motifs in aestheticism. That school of design adapts and blends the decor of multiple cultures and puts an emphasis on nature. They also believed strongly that functional items like radiators could be beautiful. Historians think Winchester learned about aestheticism at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.
The Most Expensive Window in the House
This Tiffany window, one of 10,000 windows in the home, cost $1,500. Winchester was only earning $1,000 a day from her stake in the rifle company. The room also features the deeply embossed Lincrusta wall treatment, which was invented by the same British man who patented linoleum. Lincrusta is used all over the mansion and was also a splurge in Winchester's day. Another room has wallpaper that gets its shine from real bits of mica.
The Roof at Sunset
Looking out at the jagged roof with its many skylights and levels allows visitors to truly appreciate the consequences of constant remodeling and additions without blueprints. It is also where you might notice one of the oddest features of the house.
There are only 17 chimneys for the 47 fireplaces. But for all of its strange characteristics, the Winchester Mystery House was also very high tech in its heyday. An annunciator allowed Winchester to summon her servants and indicated to them where in the maze she was calling from. It had central heating, a self-sufficient sewer, a telephone, a wool wall, a needle shower (a very early version of a shower with directional jets), a dumb waiter, electric lights serviced by the estate's own gas manufacturing plant, and a conservatory whose drip pans and zinc subfloor directed plant-watering runoff down to the garden.
The Door to Nowhere
This is one of the mansion's weirdest features. Located on the second floor near the front of the house and the Daisy Bedroom, this door opens directly to the outside and a two-story drop to the sidewalk.
One of Many Useless Staircases
As previously mentioned, the house has 40 staircases. Some, like the 7-11 staircase, which was built in the shape of a Y and which enabled servants to get to three different levels quickly, are incredibly functional. Others, like the one pictured, climbed into walls, useless corners, or ceilings. A green, vaporous hand was caught on camera at the base of one of the ceiling sets on the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures.
Not everything Winchester did was for her ghosts. She had the switchback staircase with its two-inch-high risers installed because she suffered from terrible arthritis. She would also light the four fireplaces in the Hall of Fires simultaneously to warm her aching joints. The Hall of Fires is also a hotbed for spiritual activity. One laborer felt a tap on his shoulder while working on a ladder, but turned to find no one there. When he turned back to his task, he felt a hand pressing hard against his back. This time he took the hint and hightailed it out of the room.
Window in the Floor
The view from the window in the floor is actually terrible. No one has any clue why this was added.
After hearing all the ghost stories and Winchester's history, it is hard not to see horror in every inch of 150 acres. Even standard garden tools seem ominous.
With the introduction of the first all-new tour in decades, Winchester Mystery House also brought back the old guestbook tradition. Once again, visitors can log their visit, just as people did when tours first started in 1923. Not sure if Harry Houdini signed in when he came to the house after her death to try and disprove that the house was haunted and that this was a case of spiritualism run amok. (The management claims he failed.)
The site also features a historic firearms museum, an arcade shooting gallery like the one at Disneyland, a products display from the era after World War I when demand for guns was down and Winchester became a popular mail-order catalog, a gift shop, and a cafe.