Mrs. Winchester Builds a House

sarah-lockwood-pardee-winchesterSarah Winchester was born Sarah Lockwood Pardee on Sept 1, 1837 in New Haven, Connecticut, the daughter of a successful carriage manufacturer. She enjoyed all the advantages of a cultured upbringing, including an education at the best private schools, played the piano proficiently and spoke a number of languages. Sarah was popular, and moved easily among New Haven society, and on Sept 30, 1862 she married William Wirt Winchester, the only son of Oliver Winchester, Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and manufacturer of the famous Winchester repeating rifle.

Their only child, Annie Pardee Winchester, was born on June 15, 1866, but died after a few weeks on July 25, 1866 from a little-understood childhood disease known as marasmus, a severe form of malnutrition caused by inadequate absorption of nutrients. Sarah fell into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. Then, in 1880, her father-in-law Oliver Winchester died, quickly followed in March 1881 by the death of her husband from tuberculosis.

Because of the limited medical knowledge of the time, alternative theories were popular, and one that was enjoying a resurgence in the 1880s was spiritualism. After the dual deaths, Sarah decided her family was cursed. She sought out spiritualists to determine her next move, and after a few false starts, she found a Boston medium she trusted. The medium divined that her family was being haunted by the spirits of American Indians, Civil War soldiers, and others killed by Winchester rifles, and added that the untimely deaths of her daughter and husband were also caused by these spirits. She also implied that Sarah might be next. However, the medium told her there was an alternative. Sarah was instructed to move west and build a house big enough for the spirits. As long as construction of the house never ceased, the spirits wouldn’t bother her.

In his will, William left his wife close to a 50 percent ownership in the Winchester company (worth $20 million dollars) and an income of $1,000 a day. (This translates to an equivalent fortune of $423 million 2014 dollars, with a daily income of $23,400, all this in the years before the IRS and income tax.)

Sarah took the medium’s advice to heart, and in 1884 she moved west to California with her sister and her niece, In 1884 she purchased an unfinished, eight-room, farm house sitting on 161 acres of land in a heavily wooded area in what is now San Jose. Immediately, she began renovating and adding more rooms to the house, the work continuing unabated 24 hours a day, every day, for the next 38 years.

The house as it looked before the ’06 quake. The temblor damaged the top three floors, and Sarah decided to leave the damage as it was and build over more of her property.
A contemporary view of the entire estate.

During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Sarah was trapped in one of her bedrooms for several hours. After she was rescued she told the construction crews to stop working on the nearly completed front part of the house and board it up. She thought the spirits were angry with her because she was spending too much time decorating and working on the front rooms, so she left the damage as it was and instructed the workers to start building more rooms covering more land. After the quake, she moved her primary residence to her home in Atherton, and only paid periodic visits to the San Jose property.

The constant construction and the lack of a master plan led to the house becoming very large and complex; many of the serving staff needed a map to navigate the house. The floor plan was done on purpose to confuse the resident ghosts, and to further flummox them, Sarah slept in a different bedroom each night.

Sarah was fascinated with the number 13. Many windows have 13 panes, and there are 13 bathrooms, with 13 windows in the 13th Bathroom. There are also 13 wall panels in the room prior to the 13th Bathroom, and 13 steps leading to that bathroom. The Carriage Entrance Hall floor is divided into 13 cement sections. Plus, there are 13 rails by the floor-level skylight in the South Conservatory, 13 steps on many of the stairways, 13 squares on each side of the Otis electric elevator, 13 glass cupolas on the Greenhouse, 13 holes in the sink drain covers, 13 ceiling panels in some of the rooms, and 13 gas jets on the Ballroom chandelier. (Mrs. Winchester had the thirteenth one added.)

There were staircases that went nowhere, doors that opened onto a 20-foot drop to the pavement, and doors that opened to a blank wall.

Then there were occurrences that defied explanation. Neighbors would hear a bell ring at midnight and 2 a.m., which according to ghost lore are the times for the arrival and departure of spirits. At the very center of the house is the Blue Room, where Mrs. Winchester supposedly would go every night to commune with the spirits. This room consisted of a cabinet, a table with pen and papers, a closet, and a Ouija board used to communicate with the spirit world. Legend has it that she would wear one of 13 special colored robes and receive guidance from various spirits for her construction plans.

On September 5, 1922, Sarah died in her sleep of heart failure at the age of 83, and construction on the Winchester Mystery House stopped. She left a will written in 13 sections, which she signed 13 times.

At the time of her death, the unrelenting construction had spread over six acres. The sprawling mansion contained 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. Carpenters even left nails half driven after they learned of Mrs. Winchester’s death.

It took movers eight truckloads a day for six and a half weeks to empty the entire house of furniture. Because she was such a private person, no known interior photographs were taken leaving the exact furnishings a mystery. Following her death, the home was auctioned to the highest bidder who then turned it into an attraction for the public; the first tourists walked through the house in February 1923, five months after Sarah died.

The street running in front of the house, once called the Santa Clara-Los Gatos Road was later renamed Winchester Boulevard, and today, the house is open to the public year round except for Christmas Day. Tours are available of both the house and the grounds.

The ¼”=1′ Gingerbread Mystery House took 400 hours to complete. Builders used 84 cups of gingerbread flour, 34 cups of icing, 217 ounces of individual candy pieces, several bags of pastry icing, and some ice cream cones for the turrets.

There are a lot of images of the house on-line. Just do a web search on Winchester Mystery House and select Images.

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2 Responses to Mrs. Winchester Builds a House

  1. Keith Charleston says:

    Interesting reading but confused over where Sarah lived. It says, “After the quake, she moved her primary residence to her home in Atherton, and only paid periodic visits to the San Jose property.” Then, “The floor plan was done on purpose to confuse the resident ghosts, and to further flummox them, Sarah slept in a different bedroom each night.” One can only assume she died in the Winchester house and not in Atherton.

    • admin says:

      Well, you got me. When I saw your comment, I checked the State of California Death Index, and ran into death certificates for two Sarah L. Winchesters, both of whom were born on the same day in the same place, and both of whom died on the same day. The problem is that one of them died in Santa Clara County, and one in Palo Alto. So far as I am aware, her primary residence was in Atherton, but she spent enough time in San Jose to have possibly died there.

      However, according to the State of California, Mrs. Winchester apparently died in two places.

      If anyone can help with this, we would appreciate it.

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