Ward is interested in all things travel and runs the Castles in America website. He's also currently working on a fantasy novel.
In San Jose, CA, at the heart of Silicon Valley, there’s a mega mansion unlike any other mega mansion. At 24,000 square feet with 40 bedrooms and 13 bathrooms, the Victorian home, done in the Queen Anne style certainly fits the standards of a mega mansion. There’s a water tower on the property, still in use today, a small belltower, and the gardens and statuary grace the home year round. But it’s the bizarre interior and even more bizarre history that carves its place as one of the greatest and most mysterious homes in America. No one ever said the owners of these mega mansions had to be normal!
Inside this Victorian mega-home, there’s 40 staircases but some go nowhere — one even goes up to the ceiling for some reason. 10,000 windows including a number made of rare Tiffany art glass adorn the mansion but some face the wrong direction and don’t let in light. There’s a skylight not on the roof but on the floor, a closet with a definitely not luxurious ½ inch of storage space, doors that open to blank walls, a front entry way no one was allowed in, and a second story door that opens to a drop outside. In fact, it’s built like a maze. You’re supposed to get lost in there.
Even the rooms of the Winchester are odd. The Grand Ballroom complete with organ seems pleasant enough but the two leaded stained-glass windows there bear the cryptic messages “Wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts” and “These same thoughts people this small world,” lines apparently taken from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Richard II. The Grand Ballroom also never held a ball.
Even more unsettling, the rooms of the Winchester has a consistent theme: the number 13. Many of the stairs have 13 steps, many of the windows with 13 panes, 13 bathrooms, 13 gas jets on the Grand Ballroom chandelier, 13 windows in the 13th bathroom and 13 steps to get to it … yeah, the lady who owned this place had a thing for 13. Then there’s the creepiest of the creepy. While other castle-like mansions tout their luxurious spas and theaters, this mega mansion doesn’t care and instead has a séance room. There’s one entrance to this room with three exits; one’s a secret door that looks like a wall panel, one door with a door handle only on the séance room side, and one that leads to a dizzying drop one floor below to the kitchen.
The houseguests weren’t your average high society houseguests either; they were said to be spirits, spirits conjured by the owner of the home. She was named Sarah Winchester, and though incredibly wealthy, she had a life not to be envied.
Her only daughter, Annie, died as a newborn due to a disease called marasmus, which left Sarah devastated. Already born into high society, she married into more wealth to a Mr. William Wirt Winchester, the inventor of the Winchester Repeating Rifle who had died suddenly from tuberculosis fifteen years after Annie’s death. At this point, Sarah was convinced she was cursed and consulted a medium. The medium said to Mrs. Winchester that all the spirits who died at the hands of the Winchester rifle were after her and advised her to move west and build a grand home for them or else she would meet the same fate as her late husband and daughter.
Mrs. Winchester did as she was instructed. She moved west to California and bought an unfinished eight room farmhouse in San Jose, and the construction of the Winchester Mystery House began, construction that did not cease until the day she died. Her only company during those 38 years were her carpenters and servants who toiled in her mansion night and day. She paid handsomely but would fire anyone at the slightest annoyance because perhaps, her mission was so dire. She had to make sure only the good spirits reached her and the bad spirits had to be fended off.
Mrs. Winchester’s workmen had built for her an even grander mega-home than what we see today. Winchester rose seven stories with a great central tower that towered over the home, but the Great 1906 Earthquake came and toppled the top three stories. The earthquake proved to Sarah that the spirits were not appeased and doubled her effort to build even more. She ordered the front parts of the castle home, including the Grand Ballroom, to be boarded up, and she retreated to the back portions of the mansion.
It seems grimly fitting that Sarah died of heart failure in 1922. Her substantial fortune was distributed to her family members including her favorite niece. Her will, which of course had 13 parts and signed 13 times, did not include the Winchester Mystery House and was promptly sold off. Today, a company, a certain Winchester Mysteries LLC, owns the mega mansion and is one of the most famous tourist attractions in the Bay Area.
No surprise that the Winchester Mystery House is said to be haunted. Ghosts and spirits are said to roam the halls with tourists to Winchester regularly seeing sightings. TV shows like Ghosthunters regularly make a pilgrimage to the Mystery House and on TV right now, there might be a television special about the famous ... or infamous Winchester Mystery House. As for Sarah Winchester, she’s buried far away from the home that bears her name in her hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, where we all hope, she can finally rest in peace.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 25, 2020:
You've written an interesting article about an intriguing house. It sounds like a very strange building. I'd love to visit it.
Ivana Divac from Serbia on October 24, 2020:
Such an interesting read!