The most beautiful thing we can experience
is the mysterious... - Albert Einstein
There was an old woman who lived in a maze
She constructed her house for days and days -
'til the moment she died, the hammers would pound
At one point the house rose seven floors from the ground!
No one knows for sure why she built such a home
She claimed it was where the spirits did roam
Many thought she was crazy, many thought she was mad
Her tale's not simple...either way, though, quite sad...
Pay attention to these facts, and open your ears
About this sad monument to one woman's fears
Then you decide if this house has been haunted
Or if this poor woman simply lived a life taunted...
This so-called "crazy woman" was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in September of 1839 by the name of Sarah Pardee. She grew up over the years and became quite a well rounded young lady...charming, musically talented, versed in several foreign languages, and although she stood at only four feet, ten inches tall, she was still considered quite the beauty. One boy finally caught her attention, though, and on September 30, 1862, Sarah married Mr. William Wirt Winchester, heir to the infamous Winchester Repeating Arms Company (maker of the Winchester rifle also known as "the gun that won the west"). Four short years later, she gave birth to a baby girl, Annie Pardee Winchester. The first of several tragedies in Sarah's life occurred a short time thereafter, however. Baby Annie contracted "marasmus", a children's illness in which the body wastes away...she died shortly after her birth. This event sent Sarah into a deep depression. She blamed herself for the death of her daughter. It took nearly a decade before she returned to any bit of normalcy. Unfortunately, though, the couple would never have the chance to conceive another child together.
Tragedy number two struck Sarah only a few short years after she recovered from the loss of her baby daughter. Her husband, William, contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. He died on March 7, 1881. Immediately upon his death, Sarah inherited $20 million...an extremely large amount of money at that time. She also acquired 48.9% of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and an income of about $1000 per day, which was not taxable until 1913. Sarah again retreated into grieving...almost sent into madness at this second major loss in a relatively short period of time. A close friend of hers finally suggested she seek answers through a psychic medium, so together they went to Boston for the reading. Upon sitting down with the medium, Sarah was told, "Your husband is here." Skeptical at first, Sarah soon believed the psychic to be telling the truth upon the woman's thorough description of William Winchester. "He says for me to tell you that there is a curse on your family, which took the life of he and your child. It will soon take you, too. It is a curse that has resulted from the terrible weapon created by the Winchester family. Thousands of persons have died because of it and their spirits are now seeking vengeance," the medium continued. It was suggested that Sarah immediately sell her home in Connecticut and "head towards the setting sun." She was told that once she arrived out west, she would recognize her new home as soon as she saw it. "You must start a new life," said the medium, "and build a home for yourself and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon, too. You can never stop building the house. If you continue building, you will live. Stop and you will die."
Sarah returned home and began making plans. Her house went up for sale the next day and with the inheritance her husband left her at her disposal, she headed west as instructed. She believed her dead husband would guide her to her new home. She didn't find her final destination until she reached the Santa Clara Valley in 1884. The medium told Sarah that she'd know her new home as soon as she saw it and that's exactly the way it happened. She came upon an eight room farmhouse under construction which belonged to a Dr. Caldwell and knew immediately it was where she was destined to live. She entered into negotiations with him and soon convinced him to sell her the house and the 162 acres upon which it rested. Shortly thereafter, the immense project was underway. She purchased the house and threw out the proposed plans Dr. Caldwell had had for the farmhouse. Instead, she began building whatever she was in the mood for that day and continued to do so for the next 38 years. She kept as many as 22 carpenters at a time busy, year round, 24 hours a day. They built and rebuilt, altered, changed, constructed and demolished one section of the house after another. She also kept a full staff consisting of 20 domestic servants and 18 gardeners and field hands constantly busy. It was rumored, however, that if one of her workers saw her face, then they were immediately dismissed.
Before long, 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, known then as "Llanda Villa", became a full-fledged Victorian mansion. It grew quickly to include 26 rooms. It grew so fast, in fact, that the carpenters ran out of the local stockpile. Building materials had to be ordered and brought in via train. Railroad cars were even switched onto a nearby line just to bring in what Sarah needed...everything from lumber to imported furnishings. Through all this, though, Sarah claimed to have no master plan for the structure. She met each morning with her foreman and they would go over her hand-sketched plans for the day's work. The plans were often chaotic, but showed a real flair for building. Sometimes, though, her plans would not work out the way she'd hoped, but Sarah always had a quick solution. If this happened, they would just build another room around an existing one.
The house continued to grow and grow. Rooms were continually added to rooms and then turned into entire wings. Doors were joined to windows and levels turned into towers and peaks. Sarah, being eccentric, had her home reflect herself. She added many interesting, odd, and downright unexplainable features to her home as she went along. Some of the stranger ones include countless staircases which led nowhere, a blind chimney that stops short of the ceiling, closets, doors, and cabinets that opened to blank walls, trap doors, double-back hallways, skylights that were located one above another sometimes placing one of them in the floor, doors that opened to steep drops onto the lawn below, self-intersecting balconies, and one door that even opens to an eight-foot drop to a kitchen sink! And those are just a few of the oddities, there are dozens more!
Sarah was intrigued by the number 13 and she included her interest in the number (or its multiples 26, 39, 52) into every aspect of her ever-growing mystery house. For instance, nearly all of the windows contained 13 panes of glass and some of the rooms had 13 windows. The walls and ceilings all had 13 panels and many of the wooden floors contained 13 sections. The greenhouse had 13 cupolas and 13 tall, slender palm trees shaded the driveway. Thirteen lights blazed atop every chandelier (a twelve-light gas chandelier was modified to thirteen lights), sink drains all had 13 holes, curtain rods have 13 rings, and the Blue Room (also known as the Seance Room) had 13 coat hooks on one wall. Every staircase but one had 13 steps, but this exception is unique in its own right for it is a winding staircase with 42 steps, which would normally be enough to take a climber up three stories. In this case, however, the steps only rise nine feet because each step is only two inches high. Sarah even had her will divided into 13 sections with 13 signatures! The symbol of the daisy (which in it's perfect form has 13 petals) can also be seen throughout in rugs, chandeliers, windows, and on walls. She also included many spider web motifs in her home because they, too, were supposed to be "lucky". This isn't far removed American Indian "dream catchers" which supposedly filter out the frightening moments from nightmares, a belief held long before Mrs. Winchester's time.
While all this may seem like madness to most, it made perfect sense to Sarah. Winchester House was designed for one reason and one reason only...it was designed by ghosts for ghosts. (Sarah truly believed that beings on the "other side", including her dead husband, supervised the design of the house. She held seances every night so she would know what the ghosts wanted before she gave the carpenters "their" plans the next morning.) Sarah believed she could control the spirits who came to the house for evil purposes or those who were outlaws in their past life. The house was designed specifically to confuse and discourage "bad spirits", which would explain the maze-like construction. To help avoid the evil spirits even further, Sarah, after coming up with plans for the next day in the Blue Seance Room, would retire to a different room to sleep in each night...presumably to confuse any spirits that might wish to do her harm.
As the mansion grew in size and beauty, it also began to attract many visitors. Sarah, though, being not only eccentric, but also a private person, turned them all away. In 1903, then president, Theodore Roosevelt was passing through San Jose and actually stopped at the mansion on the way. However, when Sarah heard he was calling, she told her servant to let him know that "the house was not open to strangers." (President-schmesident! Good for her, I say!)
By 1906, the mansion had grown to an astonishing 7 stories tall! Sarah loved the house and was proud of what had been accomplished. However, in that same year, the third tragedy came upon her. The great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 struck. She was asleep in the Daisy Room that night when intense tremors shifted the walls of that wing of the house, causing the fireplace to collapse and the door of the bedroom she was in to jam tightly shut, trapping Sarah inside. It took the confused servants 7 hours to locate her since they weren't sure which room she'd chosen to sleep in that night. Once they found her, they used a crowbar to pry open the door and free their shaken mistress. (The pry marks from the crowbar can still be seen on the door today.) Upon examination, they discovered that major portions of Winchester house were in ruins. The top three floors of the seven story wing had completely disintegrated and would never be rebuilt. Sarah quickly became convinced that the earthquake had been a sign from the spirits who were furious that she had nearly completed the house. In order to insure that the house would never be finished, she decided to board up the front 30 rooms of the mansion for two reasons: so that construction would never be complete and so the spirits who fell when that portion of the house collapsed would be trapped inside it forever.
Over the next several years, the workmen toiled to repair the damage done by the earthquake. (The mansion, though, had fared far better than most of the buildings in the area with only a few of the rooms badly harmed and the highest floors and several cupolas and towers toppled over.) Sarah, meanwhile, busied herself to create a memorial for her late husband. She began the Winchester Fund for treatment of tuberculosis at New Haven Hospital, donating more than $2 million. (The William Wirt Winchester Tuberculosis Sanitarium was completed in 1918 in West Haven on the site of the present VA Hospital.) She also spent a good amount of time inventing practical contraptions. Some of her unusual innovations seen around Winchester house include a shower specially designed so the diminutive Sarah could wash without getting her hair wet, an elaborate servant call system, a conservatory room designed to save water, and a patented laundry room sink with built-in
scrub-board and soap holders.
Once the damage from the earthquake had been repaired, expansion began once more. The number of bedrooms increased from 15 to 25 then finally to 40. Several inoperable chimneys were installed throughout the house. (Some believe that perhaps they were added because the old stories say that ghosts like to appear and disappear through them.) It has also been documented that only 2 mirrors were installed in the entire house because Sarah believed that ghosts were
afraid of their own reflection.
By 1922, the house contained the following: 40 bedrooms, two ballrooms, 10,000 window panes, 17 chimneys, two basements, three elevators, five-six kitchens, five different heating systems, 40 staircases (with a total of 367 steps), 52 skylights, 13 bathrooms, 2,000 doors and one shower. 20,000 gallons of paint were required to paint the house. (Due to the sheer size of the house, by the time the entire house was painted, the workers would have to start repainting all over again.) The total cost of construction as of 1922? $5.5 million! (Today, that amount of money translates to about $55 million, but let's face it, if you were to try to build the same home now in California, it would be WAY more than $55 million. Not to mention that back then Winchester house sat on 162 acres of land and not the mere 6.5 acres it sits on now. Try finding 162 acres to build a mansion on in San Jose today for $55 million! I dare ya!)
Now that the history of the house has been divulged, the ongoing debate can be discussed...Winchester House: is it, or is it not, haunted? Many think it is. Sarah Winchester herself experienced several unexplainable events. One night when she was dining with her secretary, they decided to enjoy a little wine with dinner. Sarah went down to the wine cellar (to which she possessed the only key) to retrieve a bottle of her favorite wine. She was horrified to discover a large black hand print on the stone wall of the cellar. She locked the cellar back up immediately and retired to the Blue Seance Room to contact the spirits. It was told to her that the hand was the print of a demon's hand. Sarah took this as a warning against alcohol and had the cellar walled up so carefully that, to this day, the liquid treasure has yet to be found.
Sarah normally retired to the Blue Seance Room every night before bed between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m. This is when the spirits would "help her" put together plans for the next day's expansion of the mansion. Often during these two hours (between the bells that sounded...the first at midnight welcoming the spirits, the second at 2 a.m., ushering them out) strains of organ music could be heard from the street. There were several organs in the house, for Sarah was once a fine musician, but as the years passed, arthritis severely crippled her hands, to the point where she could no longer play. It was said that the affliction had become so intense that she could barely hold the pencil with which to make the building plans she was constantly creating and changing. If that's the case, then who was the phantom organist?
On September 4, 1922, after her nightly conference in the Blue Seance Room, Sarah retired to one of the bedrooms for the night to sleep. Sometime during the night, she passed away quietly in her sleep at the age of 83. The news of her death spread quickly throughout the house the next morning. The carpenters, who were working away as usual, stopped their hammering and cutting as soon as they learned of her passing. In fact, you can still see the half-driven nails protruding from the walls, which clearly indicate that the carpenters immediately stopped working upon hearing the news of her death.
Sarah's niece, Frances Marriot, was quickly contacted. She had been handling most of Sarah's business affairs and had been left all of her possessions. Ms. Marriot would soon discover that Sarah's once large bank account had dwindled considerably. In fact, other than the house, Sarah didn't leave much behind at all. There were rumors that there was a safe located in the house that contained many items like expensive jewelry and a solid-gold dinner service with which Sarah had entertained her ghostly guests. Her family forced open several safes, though, and all that was found was old fishlines, socks, newspaper clippings about her daughter's and her husband's deaths, a lock of baby hair, and a suit of woolen underwear. In the end, the furnishings, personal belongings and surplus construction and decorative materials were removed from the house. It took eight truckloads a day for six and a half weeks to remove everything...not only because there was so much to remove, but also because the floorplan was so confusing that the movers kept getting lost! The mansion itself was then sold to a group of investors who planned to use it as a tourist attraction. One of the first to see the place when it opened to the public was Robert L. Ripley, who featured the house in his popular column, "Believe it or Not." The house was initially advertised as being 148 rooms, but so confusing was the floor plan that every time a room count was taken, a different total came up! The rooms of the house were counted over and over again and five years later, it was estimated that 160 rooms existed..... although no one is really sure if even that is correct. Today, the house has been declared a California Historical Landmark and is registered with the National Park Service as "a large, odd dwelling with an unknown number of rooms."
So, back to the question...is Winchester House really haunted? Most would say that such a place must still house at least a few of the ghosts who came to reside there at the invitation of Sarah Winchester. Of course, some believe that perhaps no ghosts ever walked there at all...that the Winchester mansion is nothing more than the product of an eccentric woman's mind and too much wealth being allowed into the wrong hands. Over the years, though, employees and visitors have had experiences that they can't explain. There have been a number of strange events reported at the Winchester House that continue to be reported today. Dozens of psychics have visited the house over the years and most have come away convinced that spirits still wander the place. One psychic, Jeanne Borgen, visited in 1975 and it was reported that she took on the appearance of Sarah Winchester for a short time. Authors Richard Winer and Nancy Osborn spent the night there in 1979 while researching a book and were awakened by footsteps and organ music. Nationally recognized psychic Sylvia Browne was asked to make contact with Sarah Winchester. As TV lights gleamed and cameras whirled, Sylvia went into a deep trance and came up with a message from Sarah herself: "Who are these people and what are they doing in my house?"
In addition to the ghost of Sarah Winchester, there have also been many other sightings and odd happenings such as footsteps, banging doors, mysterious voices, windows that bang so hard they shatter, cold spots, strange moving lights, random organ music, doorknobs that turn by themselves, book pages turning on their own, security alarms being triggered from inside the house, and even the smell of chicken soup wafting from an empty kitchen. A longtime employee of Winchester House, Jack Stubbert, claims he saw a ghost many years ago in a hallway. He says, "(The ghost) turned around and he looked at me. And he - you know, it was the type of image that was like, looking through a fog." Did Sarah Winchester know something we don't? Well, Jack Stubbert now thinks she did. He says he never believed in ghosts until he saw one.
Another first hand account of a sighting came from a boy who actually stayed in the house at one time. His grandfather managed the property for a number of years and his mother had grown up in the house. They lived in a portion of the original house set aside for the manager and his family. He remembers spending holidays at the Winchester House with his grandparents on several occasions. One Christmas Eve in particular, he remembers being asleep on a couch in the main living room and awaking to see Sarah Winchester's body floating around the room. He began screaming loudly, and even though his family didn't know what to make of his encounter, he swears he'll never forget her image. "It is truly a mysterious, foreboding house, full of life and energy to this day!" he says.
Kate, from the Paranormal Investigators Network, remembers something that happened to her when she was 12:
"My cousin had gotten a job there and they give you a flashlight and a cell phone and say "find your way back" to teach the guides their way around. They let me go because I flat out begged and I guess they figured two lost people were better than one) I think (I'm not sure). Sarah Winchester was milling around in her bedroom. The rocking chair was rocking and her favorite book was out beside it. I was told that many staff have witnessed it, and it is ALWAYS the same book. If you read aloud from the book, she will read aloud with you and finish sentences. My cousin and I turned around to leave and the door slammed shut in front of us (hitting me) and the room got really cold. When we opened the door, the hallway was like it was originally and a servant passed by us, but when we blinked it was gone. We found our way back really fast!"
So is the Winchester House haunted? I suppose each person must decide that for him/herself, but there is certainly A LOT of evidence and many experiences to suggest that there is something going on within the mansion. Did Sarah invite the ghosts in herself? Does she now reside at Winchester House as one of the myriad ghosts upon whom she used to rely? Or is this entire tale just the product of a mad woman's overactive imagination? These questions, unfortunately, will never truly be answered. However, no matter what conclusion you may come to, you must admit that it is one mysterious house filled with endless possibilities...and let's not forget endless exploration!
All photographs used by permission; photographs shown here are the