Intrigue Persists at San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House

The Winchester Mystery House. Courtesy/Jane Lidz/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, 571113
The Winchester Mystery House. Courtesy/Jane Lidz/Library of Congress, Prints &
Photographs Division, 571113

The Winchester Mystery House has long been full of fascination – and now, yet another room has been located within the 161-room mansion located in San Jose. The house was built by Sarah Winchester in the early 20th century.

In 1862, Sarah Lockwood Paradee was married to William Wert Winchester, who invented the Winchester repeating rifle and was Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut. In 1866, their infant daughter, Annie, died of a childhood illness, and Sarah Winchester fell into a deep depression, which she never came out of. Her husband died of tuberculosis 15 years later and her depression worsened.

Winchester sought the help and advice of a medium in Boston. She was told, sources say, that she was being haunted by American Indians, Civil War soldiers and others, who had died as a result of Winchester rifles. She was told, it was those spirits that killed her daughter and husband and she was further advised that she would be next. The medium told her to move west, and that the spirits might be pacified if she built a large mansion for them. If she did, she may be spared.

Turning Depression into Action

She moved to the Santa Clara Valley late in the 19th century and began work on an old farm house, which she purchased in 1884. Money was not a problem, she had plenty of it through shares of stocks in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, as well as millions of dollars in cash left by her husband. She received even more shares of the company following the death of her mother-in-law. She earned $1,000 a day, according to various sources.

Winchester was said to be generous to her employees, as well as donating to local charities. Yet, she became a recluse, had a tall hedge planted around her property, and kept her face covered by veil. She fired employees if they had caught a glimpse of her face. She hired carpenters, who worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, turning the eight-room farmhouse into a seven-story mansion.

During the 37 years living in San Jose, prior to her death at the age of 82, 161 rooms with 13 bathrooms and six kitchens, and some 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways and 47 fireplaces had been built. The latest find, the 161st room in the attic, is said to have boarded up since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The story goes that Winchester had been trapped in the room following the quake, which she thought was the work of evil spirits. The Mystery House preservation team found a pump organ, Victorian couch, dress form, sewing machine and paintings in the room. This attic room has now been added to those available for viewing by the public.

Eccentric . . . Maybe

To say that Mrs. Winchester was a bit eccentric and odd may be an understatement. The true reasons for her continuous work on her mansion may never be known. Following her husband’s death and her move to California, she was never interviewed. She did not keep any sort of journal, at least to date nothing has been found. Any stories were brought to light by the families of the workers who developed the mansion, and of those with whom she sought guidance in maintaining the spirits that haunted her.

In the center of the house is the Blue Room, where Winchester supposedly went nightly to commune with the spirits. It is said that she never slept in the same room two nights in a row, as to confuse the evil spirits haunting her. Those who lived close by claimed they would hear bells ring at midnight and again at 2am, every night, which may have been the timing of the arrival and departure of spirits.

Winchester died of heart failure in 1922. Her massive fortune and properties were left to her niece, Mrs. Marian Merriman Marriott. However, the mansion and surrounding farm were not mentioned in the will. It was purchased, at auction, by a local investor for more than $135,000, and then leased for 10 years to John and Mayme Brown. The Brown’s eventually purchased the house, and the house was first opened to the public five months after Winchester’s death. Mayme Brown was the first tour guide. In 1924, Harry Houdini visited the mansion, and the newspaper account of his visit, called it the Mystery House – the name stuck. The Winchester Mystery House is now owned by Winchester Investments LLC, a private company representing the descendants of the Browns.

The oddities of the house are great, such as staircases that lead downward only to then ascent to higher floors. The number 13 looms large with a candelabra that was originally made to hold 12 candles, but altered to hold 13; a web-patterned stained glass window which is colored with 13 different stones; and the multitude of 13 clothing hooks in various locations throughout. There are secret passageways, hidden doors and trap doors. There are also doors that open to brick walls, and stairways that lead to nowhere.

Visiting Facts

The Winchester Mystery House is located at 525 S. Winchester Blvd. in San Jose. Access to the mansion is by tour only and there are a variety of tours available, costing $22 and up. The Halloween Candlelight sells out early, but some tickets may still be available. Tours last from 45 minutes to 2 ½ hours, depending upon each tour. Friday the 13th of any month is always a special day. No photography is allowed in the house, however is permitted in the garden area.

There have been numerous reports of paranormal activity within and surrounding the Mystery House, by guests and employees. There are three spirits currently residing in the mansion, according to psychics.

A new film is in the making, a thriller titled “Winchester,” starring Oscar-winner Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester. The Winchester Mystery House is a California state landmark, San Jose landmark and is listed on the National Archives of Historic Places. It is only a few hours from the South Valley by car.

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