Sarah Winchester’s 24,000-square-foot mansion is one of America’s most fascinating architectural feats — and one of the most haunted.
Legend says the heiress was driven mad by the victims of “the gun that won the west.” Do those spirits linger there today, or is there something else haunting this labyrinth of a house?
Born in 1839, Winchester grew up in New Haven, Connecticut — the daughter of a successful carpenter who allowed her to study foreign languages, music, math, and science.
Her intelligence and beauty gave her the pick of eligible bachelors in town, and on September 30, 1862, she married William Winchester.
At the time, he was poised to take over his father’s textile factory; however, William had grander plans. In 1866, he founded the Winchester Repeating Arms company.
That’s when the trouble started.
In June of that year, Sarah gave birth to their first child: A little girl named Anne. But something was wrong. Anne’s little body wasn’t processing nutrients, and she died six weeks later, having slowly starved to death. The couple was devastated.
William found his business to be a welcome distraction.
Between 1873 and 1916, the company sold over 700,000 Winchester rifles. Able to fire 15 shots in a row, the Model 73 was a killing machine, earning it the nickname “the gun that won the west.”
But William’s success was cut short. He died of tuberculosis in 1881, leaving Sarah a 50% stake in the growing company.
After donating a large sum of money to a hospital in New Haven, the grieving widow took the rest of her money to San Jose, California, where she purchased 40 acres of land.
The land included a modest, eight-room house.
Over the next 36 years, Sarah transformed her California cottage into a massive, seven-story Queen Anne Revival.
There was no master plan, no architect. Changes were made on a whim, and sometimes entire wings were constructed only to be torn down again.
Construction went on constantly between 1890 and 1900. The larger the house became, the more people talked.
Who was this mysterious, wealthy widow? Why was she spending all of her time building a massive mansion in the middle of an economic depression? She had no children. The only other person who lived in the house was her niece.
It didn’t help that Sarah was a private person, opting to stay at home rather than rub elbows with the California elite. And her staff were fiercely loyal. No one uttered a word about what happened in that house, even after her death.
So the public gossiped and the newspapers published stories.
The San Fransisco Chronicle claimed “the sound of the hammer is never hushed” because Winchester believed the end of construction would bring about her death — but most people believed the heiress was trying to appease the vengeful victims of Winchester rifles.
They say she visited a medium before leaving Connecticut. The woman told her the Winchester family had blood on their hands, and that she would suffer the same fate as her husband and daughter if she didn’t make amends.
“Go west,” the medium said. “Continuously build upon a house to keep the spirits at bay.”
The medium piece has never been proven, but we know Winchester held seances in the mansion late at night, often emerging with new plans the following morning.
Was she communing with angry ghosts, allowing them to guide her? Or was she contacting her long-dead husband and daughter?
Spiritualism was in fashion then, used to cope with the immense grief caused by disease and war. And Winchester was known to be superstitious.
Regardless of whom or what she was contacting, she may have opened a portal to the spirit world — one that remains open today.
The Winchester Mystery House is Born
Winchester died of heart failure in her sleep on September 5, 1922. She was 83.
When the news broke, all construction on the house ceased — the decades-long project finally finished.
Sarah left the majority of her fortune to charity. The rest went to her beloved niece, Daisy.
But the house, which wasn’t mentioned in her will, was auctioned off to the highest bidder: A former roller coaster designer named John H. Brown.
Brown and his wife, Mayme, opened the mansion for tours a mere five months after Sarah’s death. It had been such a secretive place for so long, the public was eager to pull back the curtain — but the tours resulted in more questions than answers.
There were staircases that led nowhere, doors that opened to frightening drops, rooms without floors, and a recurring theme: 13 hooks, 13 drains, 13 windows in the 13th bathroom.
Every twisting hallway and dark corner presented a new, odd feature, and the rumors surrounding the house only grew.
In fact, the legend of the haunted mansion became so popular that Harry Houdini stopped there on a nationwide tour to debunk spiritualism.
He was, after all, an expert illusionist. He could easily identify a trick of the light or sleight of hand. And he wanted to prove that mediums were nothing more than con-artists cheating grieving women out of money.
But — after visiting the seance room at midnight — Houdini admitted that even he couldn’t explain away the oddities. He called it “a house full of mysteries,” and the name stuck.
Nearly a century after Houdini’s visit, the public is still enamored with the Winchester Mystery House — and its resident spirits.
Lights flicker on and off. Visitors and tour guides have felt phantom tugs on their clothing and heard footsteps where no one is walking.
There’s a famed “wheelbarrow ghost” that pushes a wheelbarrow full of coal around the basement, and a spectral figure of a worker named Clyde.
But the most commonly seen ghost doesn’t have a name. It’s just a shadow, peering through one of the mansion’s many windows. One blink and it’s gone.
Could it be Sarah Winchester, still overseeing her passion project? Or is it one of the vengeful spirits that haunted her while she was alive? Maybe it’s something else entirely — something trying to keep the public from discovering its secrets.
In 2016, the preservation team discovered a new room. It had been sealed off following the Earthquake of 1906, which destroyed a portion of the home and trapped Sarah in the process.
The room was filled with perfectly preserved Victorian furniture, clothing, paintings, and a very creepy doll. Who knows what other secret passages are hiding in the walls of this maze-like mansion?
Over 12 million people have passed through the Winchester Mystery House since it opened. Ghost hunters, mediums, skeptics, and historians alike have attempted to make sense of it.
They’ve all come up short.
For now, the mansion’s secrets remain buried with its mistress — private in both life and death. The rest of us can only marvel at her legacy.