In 1840, Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born to wealthy carriage manufacturer Leonard Pardee and his wife Sarah Burns in New Haven, Connecticut. Sarah wanted for nothing, enjoying the best education money could buy at some of the finest private schools in the country. She spoke four languages, played the piano beautifully, and soon became known as the “Belle of New Haven”. Basically, she had more talent in her twenties than most of us will ever achieve in our lifetime, because we were all too busy watching YouTube videos of cats. Her charmed life appeared to go from strength to strength when, in 1862, she married the affluent gun magnate William Wirt Winchester. He was the son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, better known as the Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and mastermind behind the famous Winchester repeating rifle. After all, what could be better than marrying a man who always had tickets to the gun show?
Their life together was like a fairy tale, full of romance, opulence, and waspy dinners with New England’s elite. That was until 1866, when their infant daughter Annie tragically died of the childhood disease marasmus. And no, Marasmus is not some hip indie band, it’s a debilitating form of severe malnutrition. The couple were devastated, and Mrs Winchester swiftly fell into a deep depression that she never fully recovered from. In March of 1881, just fifteen years later, tragedy struck again when her husband died of tuberculosis. Having lost all of her immediate family in one fell swoop, Mrs Winchester’s grief led her into the arms of a spiritualist. Living proof that it is delusion, not love, that conquers all.
According to tabloid newspapers of the time, the most reliable news source on earth, Mrs Winchester consulted a Boston medium, who supposedly channelled her late husband and informed her that her family and fortune were being haunted by the spirits of American Indians, Civil War soldiers, and anyone who had been killed with a Winchester rifle. The medium then went on to claim that it was these spirits who had been responsible for the untimely deaths of her daughter and husband. This is the part of gun ownership the NRA fail to tell you about; the part where you get eternally harassed by the angry ghosts of gun crime victims. Bet that .44 Magnum doesn’t seem so glamorous now. The medium told her that the only way to escape the same fate was to travel West and appease the spirits by continuously building a house for them. So, in a sort of reverse Poltergeist, rather than removing the house, Mrs Winchester had to create one.
Now bear in mind that being the widow of one of the wealthiest men in the 19th century had its advantages. One of these being that, on William Winchester’s death, Sarah inherited more than $20 million and nearly 50% of shares in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which in turn provided her with a daily income of approximately $1,000 per day. In 2013, that would be the equivalent of earning about $23,000 per day. In short, she was the most successful accidental gold-digger to have ever lived. It was this inheritance that eventually allowed her to create the bizarrely impressive Winchester Mystery House, an architectural reflection of her own fractured psyche.
In 1884, she purchased an unfinished farmhouse just 3 miles west of San Jose, California and spent the next 38 years continuously constructing her retirement home for the recently deceased. By the turn of the century, this modest eight-room cottage had grown into a colossal seven-story Queen Anne Style Victorian mansion, covering over six acres of land and surrounded by a further 161 acres of farmland. She did not use an architect and never had blueprints drawn up for the property, instead choosing to add to it in a haphazard fashion depending on her moods and whims. This resulted in numerous oddities, such as doors and stairs that lead to nowhere, windows that overlook other rooms, and staircases with odd-sized steps. With her financial freedom, Mrs Winchester was able to accommodate any luxurious fancy that popped into her head, but these frequent additions were rarely to satisfy her.
According to local accounts, neighbours would regularly hear someone in the house ringing a bell at midnight, and then again at 2am. These were the exact times of the arrival and departure of spirits, according to ghost lore of the time. What those ghosts do in those two hours remains a mystery, although I’d like to imagine that they spend their time pushing drunken people down the stairs of various fashionable nightclubs. Every night, it was said that Mrs Winchester would head to the Blue Room or Seancé Room at the centre of the house to commune with the spirits. This room consisted simply of a cabinet, a table with a pen and papers, a closet, and a planchette board, which was used to transmit messages between our realm and that of Casper the Interior Decorator/Ghost. On these occasions, she would don one of 13 specially coloured robes and receive guidance from the spirits on how best to continue her bewildering construction.
In fact, the number 13 appeared to have some occult significance for Mrs Winchester as it frequently occurs in motifs throughout the house. Many of the windows have 13 panes; there are 13 bathrooms; the 13th bathroom has 13 windows; the wall prior to the 13th bathroom has 13 wall panels; and there are 13 steps leading to the 13th bathroom. Even her will contained 13 parts and was signed a staggering 13 times.
That being said, we wouldn’t recommend rushing into any of these 13 bathrooms in your time of need, so to speak. All of the restrooms bar one are decoys, designed to confuse spirits that might try to follow Mrs Winchester. The problem is they are also hugely successful at confusing real people, who have far messier toilet habits than incorporeal beings. There is only one working toilet in the entire house and it is attached to one of the many bedrooms. Yet, in her wily attempts to avoid those spiritual stalkers, she slept in a different room each night.
Yet the house’s design wasn’t all dedicated to evading evil spirits. When it came to making the house more homely to friendly ghosts, Mrs Winchester spared no expense importing some of the most lavish furnishings blood money could buy. The house was made almost entirely of redwood, as she preferred the feel of wood. But, since she didn’t like the look of it, she decided to have it all painted over, resulting in the use of 78,000 litres of paint.
Silver and gold chandeliers bedeck many of the rooms, parquet flooring made from rare woods such as mahogany and teak form dazzling mosaics on the floors, and stained glass windows designed by Tiffany himself fracture incoming light with a symphony of colour. Many of these Tiffany windows feature a spider or spider-web motifs, one of Mrs Winchester’s occult fascinations. And, more importantly, the house only contains three mirrors, as ghosts would supposedly become upset at their lack of reflection. Tragically many of these furnishings were never used and ended up in the fabled “$25,000 Storage Room”, the contents of which are now worth over $300,000.
The house’s interior beauty was matched only by its unusual gadgets, as several of the conveniences that it boasted were incredibly rare at the times of its construction. It featured indoor heating, modern indoor plumbing, push-button gas lights, a hot shower, and three elevators. If you’ve ever lived in a house with no indoor toilet, you’ll know how truly magical this must have felt to the people of the 19th century.
In 1906, a colossal earthquake hit the region and reduced the house to just four storeys. Unsurprisingly Mrs Winchester believed that this was a message from the spirits, warning her that she’d spent too much money on the front section of the house. She promptly had 30 of the front section rooms sealed shut, including the Grand Ballroom and her favourite Daisy Bedroom, and they remained that way until the house came into the possession of John and Mayme Brown in the February of 1923.
Though on her death many of Mrs Winchester’s belongings were bequeathed to her niece, her house was sold at private auction and was soon opened by the Brown’s as a tourist attraction. It swiftly became a sight of immense curiosity, even attracting a visit from the legendary Harry Houdini in 1924. Nowadays this structural behemoth is still open to the public and is made up of approximately 160 rooms (including 40 bedrooms and 2 ballrooms), 47 fireplaces, over 10,000 panes of glass, 17 chimneys, two basements, and three elevators.
It was not long after it was opened to the public that people began to report strange happenings in the house. Brent Miller and his wife, who had been the caretakers from 1973 to 1983, were convinced they could hear someone breathing in the empty rooms and the sounds of footsteps in the bedroom where Mrs Winchester died. One of Miller’s friends, who had come over for New Year’s Eve, took a few photos of the house with his new camera and one of them features moving lights with the ghostly figure of a man in coveralls standing in the background.
In its long history, visitors to the Mystery House have temporarily lost their eyesight, felt chill spots where they were no drafts, and seen locked doorknobs turn. When a group of paranormal investigators from the Nirvana Foundation decided to stay the night there, they used electrical equipment to try and record any supernatural occurrences. Their tape recorder picked up the sound of an organ being played and, as they walked through the house, several of them reported seeing moving lights. One of the investigators even claimed to have seen a man and a woman watching the group from across the room. Perhaps they were just looking for a working toilet, but I suppose we’ll never know.
Fascination with the Mystery House persists to this day, and game designer Shinji Mikami even cites it as an influence in his creation of the survival-horror game The Evil Within. Perhaps that would explain the game’s completely nonsensical storyline. So, regardless of whether you believe in the supernatural or not, the Winchester Mystery House has an undeniable mystique that is sure to attract visitors for years to come.