The Winchester Mystery House

Deeply saddened by the deaths of her daughter Annie in 1866, and her young husband in 1881, and seeking solace, Winchester consulted a medium on the advice of a psychic. The “Boston Medium” told Winchester that she believed there to be a curse upon the Winchester family because the guns they made had taken so many lives. The psychic told Winchester that “thousands of people have died because of it and their spirits are now seeking deep vengeance.”

Although this is disputed, popular belief holds that the Boston Medium told Winchester that she had to leave her home in New Haven and travel West, where she must “build a home for yourself and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon, too. You must never stop building the house. If you continue building, you will live forever. But if you stop, then you will die.”

The June 1937 issue of Modern Mechanix relates the story from then-current accounts as follows: “Winchester and the baby girl died suddenly and Mrs. Winchester, stunned by the tragedy, fell into a coma so serious that physicians despaired of her life.

“Finally she recovered and, at a friend’s suggestion, visited a medium. During a seance, according to those familiar with her story, she received a communication from her dead husband in which he said: ‘Sarah dear, if our house had not been finished, I would still be with you. I urge you now to build a home, but never let it be finished, for then you will live. . . .'”

Another version of the story says that after the deaths of her daughter and later her husband, she consulted a medium who told her that she must build a house and never cease building it, otherwise the spirits that killed her family members would come after her, too. After that she began construction on the maze-like house full of twists, turns, and dead ends, so that the spirits would get lost and never be able to find her.

Winchester inherited more than $20.5 million upon her husband’s death. She also received nearly 50 percent ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, giving her an income of roughly $1,000 per day, none of which was taxable until 1913. This amount is roughly equivalent to about $22,000 a day in 2010. All of this gave her a tremendous amount of wealth to fund the ongoing construction.

The house today

Prior to the 1906 earthquake, the house had been built up to seven stories tall, but today it is only four stories. The house is predominantly made of redwood frame construction, with a floating foundation that is believed to have saved the estate from total collapse in both the 1906 earthquake and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. There are about 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms and two ballrooms, one completed and one under construction. The house also has 47 fireplaces, 10,000 window panes, 17 chimneys (with evidence of two others), two basements and three elevators. Winchester’s property was about 162 acres (650,000 m²) at one time, but now the estate is just 4.5 acres (24,000 m²) — the minimum necessary to contain the house and nearby outbuildings. It has gold and silver chandeliers and hand inlaid parquet floors and trim. There are doors and stairways that lead nowhere and a vast array of colors and materials. Before the availability of elevators, special “easy riser” stairways were installed to allow Winchester access to every part of the mansion, to accommodate her severe arthritis. Roughly 20,500 gallons (76,000 liters) of paint were required to paint the house.

The house also has many conveniences that were rarely found at the time of its construction, including steam and forced-air heating, modern indoor toilets and plumbing, push-button gas lights, a hot shower from indoor plumbing and even three elevators, including one with the only horizontal hydraulic elevator piston in the United States.

Sarah Winchester made no mention in her will of the mansion, and appraisers considered the house worthless, probably due to the unrepaired earthquake damage as well as the impractical nature of its design. It was sold at auction to a local investor for $135,000 and in February 1923, five months after Mrs. Winchester’s death, the house opened to the public. Harry Houdini toured the mansion in 1924, and the newspaper account of his visit, displayed in the rifle museum on the estate, called it the Mystery House.

Today the home is owned by Winchester Investments LLC and it retains unique touches that reflect Winchester’s beliefs and her reported preoccupation with warding off malevolent spirits. These spirits are said to have directly inspired her as to the way the house should be built. The number thirteen and spider web motifs, which had some sort of spiritual meaning to her, reappear around the house. For example, an expensive imported chandelier that originally had 12 candle-holders was altered to accommodate 13 candles, wall clothes hooks are in multiples of 13, and a spider web-patterned stained glass window contains 13 colored stones. The sink’s drain covers also have 13 holes. In tribute, the house’s current groundskeepers have created a topiary tree shaped like the number 13. Also, every Friday the 13th the large bell on the property is rung 13 times at 1 P.M. (13:00) in tribute to Winchester.

Winchester Mystery House, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Winchester_Mystery_House&oldid=410931807 (last visited Feb. 1, 2011).

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