In San Jose, California, there exists a house of legend, built in 1884. The house was under construction for 38 years. It’s called the Winchester House, named after the woman who had it built, Sarah L. Winchester, widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester. Both its past and present are shrouded in mystery.
The legend began in 1862 when William Wirt Winchester married Sarah Pardee in New Haven, Connecticut. Four years later they bore a daughter, Annie Pardee Winchester, who died from a children’s disease known as Marasmus five weeks later. They would never have another child. Annie’s death was particularly hard on Sarah, and even harder once William died in 1881. When her husband died, Sarah inherited over $20 million and nearly half of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
But millions couldn’t ease her suffering. Sarah was a lonely grieving widow searching for solace in a world which offered none. After speaking with a spiritualist, Sarah was encouraged to move towards the setting sun and to appease those spirits who were killed by the Winchester rifle.
According to the spiritualist, those spirits had put a curse on the Winchester family, so Sarah was instructed to build a house for them, a house that must never be completed or else the curse would take Sarah as well. So when she found a six room house resting on 162 acres of property in California, she bought it. She then scrapped the house plans and began anew, employing twenty-two carpenters around the clock.
The Winchester House grew larger and larger by the day, eventually reaching seven maddening stories. It had 47 fireplaces and three elevators. In addition to the house being massive in scale, it was full of all sorts of oddities including closets that opened to walls, chimneys that led to a dead end in the ceiling, double back hallways, trap doors, and upper level doors that opened to mid air with no steps beneath them. Sarah Winchester also had an odd fascination for the number thirteen. There were thirteen sections in almost all the windows, thirteen panels in each wall, and all but one staircase had thirteen steps. With such strange characteristics, in Sarah’s mind, the Winchester House helped control the spirits which caused her so much grief.
In 1906, the San Francisco Earthquake struck, destroying portions of the Winchester House. Three of the top floors fell in and never were rebuilt. The room Sarah was sleeping in also caved in, trapping Sarah inside. She believed the spirits were upset because she’d almost completed the house. She again vowed that the construction of the Winchester House would never be completed and she remained true to her word.
Sarah Winchester died in her sleep, inside the house, on September 4, 1922, at the age of 83. By the time of her death the house had eaten up most of her bank account, but there were rumors that a fortune in silver was hidden inside somewhere. But none was ever found. Since her death, the Winchester House has found its way into legend and infamy. It was featured in Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and it’s become a popular tourist attraction. Stephen King’s Rose Red was also inspired by the tale of the Winchester House.
But is the Winchester House really haunted? The jury is still out. Sarah Winchester clearly believed it was, and so have many of the psychics and ghost hunters who’ve visited the house since. Some have even claimed to see the ghost of Sarah Winchester herself, keeping company with the ghosts who haunted her in life. Whether it’s haunted or not, the house illustrates how strongly a person’s life can be influenced by the mere idea of being haunted by ghosts. If Sarah Winchester was not haunted by actual ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifle, she was haunted by the idea that her family’s name was synonymous with a weapon used for murder. That haunting idea alone triggered her to create the monster mansion we know today as the Winchester Mystery House.
Source: The Haunting of America: Ghosts & Legends of America’s Haunted Past by Troy Taylor. White Chapel Productions Press. 2001