In Winchester, one of the many new scary-looking horror movies coming out this year, Helen Mirren will play a woman named Sarah Winchester who spent her fortune building a mansion for ghosts. Crazy, yes, but crazier still is that Sarah Winchester was a real woman who really did build a mansion for ghosts, or at least a mansion that people thought she built for ghosts but maybe just built for herself. Before you see the movie, read on for a history of the real thing.
Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born in 1840 in Connecticut, and in 1862, she married William Wirt Winchester, son of the owner of Winchester Repeating Arms Company. They had one child together, Annie, who died just over a month after she was born. William’s father died in 1880 and William died in 1881, leaving Sarah as the heir to their $20 million rifle fortune. In 2018 dollars, that equates to more than $450 million.
Sarah bought the property that would become the Winchester Mystery House in 1886 and continued construction on it until her death in 1922. There are various theories as to why she continued working on the house for so long, but one of the most popular involves her interest in spiritualism. According to one legend, Sarah believed that her daughter and husband’s untimely deaths were retribution for all the people killed by Winchester rifles, especially after a medium told her that her blood fortune was cursed. Espousers of this theory believe that she made the house so large so there would be room enough for all the souls of Winchester victims; she also switched bedrooms within the house so any alleged ghosts would have a more difficult time finding her.
Though that’s certainly the spookiest explanation, some historians believe that the house was just a strange means of philanthropy. Janan Boehme, who worked as a historian at the house for 40 years, thinks she may have built the house as a way to keep so many people in the area employed. “She had a social conscience and she did try to give back,” Boehme told the Los Angeles Times last year. “This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all.” After her husband’s death, Sarah did fund a tuberculosis clinic at Yale University which still exists today as the Winchester Chest Clinic.
Sarah’s mysterious motivations for building it aside, the house is objectively nuts. Sarah didn’t hire any one architect to oversee construction and added rooms and features haphazardly, so there are lots of weird elements to the house – staircases that lead to nowhere, doors that lead to nowhere, and windows that look into other rooms. It was seven stories tall and had more than 200 rooms before parts of it were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906; it is currently four stories tall and has 160 rooms. At one point, Sarah actually built over another room that she’d forgotten was there, and according to legend, she could not actually find the house’s original eight rooms.
Those who prefer the paranormal side of things think Sarah built all these rooms and misleading passageways to confuse the ghosts who were tailing her, and whether that’s true or not, she did have some unusual décor predilections. She incorporated the number 13 throughout the house — 13 panes in a window, 13 steps in a staircase, etc. — and also had spider webs included on various window panes. In the ballroom, there are stained glass windows with quotes from Shakespeare, and there’s a room called the Witch’s Cap that’s so oddly shaped it causes a weird acoustic effect akin to surround sound.
If ghosts are a thing, then the Winchester Mystery House would be the place for them to set up shop. The house’s official website claims that staff and visitors have experienced “strange phenomena,” and according to one tour guide, an apparition named Clyde often appears in the basement near the coal chute. Ghost Adventures filmed an episode at the house in 2011 and had some creepy encounters, and Janan Boehme has shared a handful of stories with the Bay Area newspaper Mercury News. Staff have reported seeing a spectral handyman fixing the fireplace and hearing a woman sigh near one of the bedrooms.
Parts of the house are open to the public, so if you find yourself in San Jose you can explore the property for around $40. The house also offers Friday the 13th flashlight tours on Friday the 13th for those of you really hoping you’ll see a ghost, and hosts private events like weddings on the grounds. Now please excuse me, I have to go see about canceling a deposit.