Geek Travel: ‘Winchester Mystery House’

What would you do if you found out that countless restless spirits were determined to haunt you for the rest of your days? If you were an eccentric widow with more money than you know what to do with, you take care of those ghosts with the power of architecture. Thus was the strategy of Sarah Winchester, who in 1862 married William Winchester, inventor of the Winchester rifle. However, their joy together was short lived as they lost their only daughter shortly after she was born in 1866 and William would pass away in 1881 leaving Sarah a lonely and bereaved woman in the matter of a few short years. Hoping to find solace in the spiritualist movement of the era, she would turn to a medium who delivered grave news to the widow. The souls of all those who had lost their lives to her husband’s creation were seeking vengeance upon her. Lacking a proton pack, Sarah Winchester opted to battle these ghosts with the power of confusion. She moved west to San Jose, California and began construction on a mansion unlike any other.

Naturally it was a massive structure, but beyond size this house would have a labyrinthian design in order to confuse malevolent spirits looking to torment Sarah from beyond the grave. Under her watch construction never ceased, with new rooms, hallways, and doors (some leading nowhere) were always being added. Today the Winchester Mystery House is a nationally recognized historic landmark complete with guided tours, and there are those who claim it is still haunted, not only by the souls who tormented Sarah but the residual energy of the period of construction. On a recent trip to California I was able to to this tour and see firsthand the mad genius of the Winchester Mystery House. Given the spooky nature of the site it currently hosts a number of Halloween themed events, this means I got the added punch of seeing an already strange and eerie site with festive decor in time for the season both within the mansion and on the grounds outside.

Whereas most tours end in the gift shop, this tour begins and ends in the gift shop. Given that the tours depart every hour or so this is not a bad idea as it gives you something to do before it is time to join your party. Once the tour properly begins, no time is wasted before you get a small taste of the beautiful strangeness of the mansion. In a furnished and fully enclosed carriage house, so that the frail and aged Sarah could board her coach in indoor comfort, is a door that the tour guide proudly swings open to reveal….the wall. On a side note, one of the reported paranormal occurrences of the Mystery House is the sound of construction from over a century ago, but on the day I went that was negated by the sound of construction at the hotel across the street. From there you are taken up a series of shallow narrow stairs that will force you to confront any claustrophobic feelings you may have before entering a room fill with beautiful stained glass showcasing Sarah Winchester’s design tastes centered on spider webs and the number 13, not ominous at all. Projected onto an ornate glass fixture we see a short film about Sarah Winchester’s life and the construction of the house. As far as introductory films at historic tour sites go, this easily ranks among the best I have seen largely due to the unique presentation.

In the house proper you see that beyond all of the tales of creepiness and weirdness the Winchester Mystery House is truly a stunning work of beauty. Sarah’s wealth was put to incredible use furnishing each of the many rooms in such way you can not help but marvel at. The furniture is a combination of the works from the finest local craftsmen in addition to expensive imports. In addition to this the lamps at chandeliers are bound to make you wish you could install something similar in your own home. But it is not long before Sarah’s tastes for the spooky comes back into the fold as the tour leads directly to the Séance Room. In life this was a room only Sarah herself was allowed in. At midnight she would have the belltower rung to summon the good spirts who would give her further guidance on the house’s construction and at 2am it would ring again to bid them a farewell back to the other side. As far as exiting the room goes there are three options: the door you came through; a door the leads to a drop several feet down onto the kitchen sink; but the one the tour takes is a hidden passage built to Sarah Winchester’s own tiny size.

Shortly after leaving the Séance Room we are led to my favorite room on the tour, the Conservatory. True there was a spectral statue for the seasonal decor, but there was also an ingenious system of keeping the plants watered. In fact a common theme throughout the tour was the brilliant engineering features of the Mystery House. From an advanced irrigation system under floor tiles to kitchen sinks that conserve and recycle water for future use there are elements of this mansion beyond their time. Sadly there is no surviving records to show if these were the ideas of Sarah herself or of the contractors she worked with or maybe even the ghosts she communed with every night. Part of me hopes one day the truth behind it all will be discovered, but until then it does add to the mystery of the Winchester Mystery House.

Through a sprawling kitchen that has both massive “pantry” that leads to the carriage house and a small “pantry” that opens onto a wall the tour continues. There is an off mish-mash of posh furnishings and the creations of an eccentric wealthy widow. Perhaps the most memorable past of the tour is the room where Sarah found herself trapped during the grand 1893 earthquake which features a door that opens to the outside and a three-story plunge. Was Sarah Winchester truly haunted by countless ghosts or was she simply a woman who snapped under the weight of tragedy? Who truly knows? But the house she left behind truly is a marvel to behold.