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As the story goes, a Boston psychic told Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester Repeating Rifle fortune, that she was haunted by the spirits of those killed by the guns manufactured by her late husband’s firearms company. The psychic also told Winchester that she needed to move to California and build a house. But, the psychic warned, the building could never be completed, because a house with many rooms would provide a safe haven for protective spirits, while the sound of hammering would scare away ghosts who meant to do Winchester harm. Beginning in 1884, Winchester’s San Jose, Calif., house was continually under construction until she passed away 38 years later.
The story of Winchester and her house has even recently been made into a supernatural thriller starring Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren; it opens in theaters Feb. 2.
Today, visitors can tour 110 of the 160 rooms in the mansion now known as Winchester Mystery House, as well as some of the building’s more peculiar features, including a window built into the floor, stairs leading to the ceiling and a door to nowhere. Some say these strange structural anomalies are the result of Winchester’s lack of formal architectural training, but others believe she was intentionally trying to trick the harmful spirits and make it harder for them to find her.
“Mrs. Winchester built the home one day at a time without using any blueprints,” explained our guide, Carroll, as she led our group on the 65-minute Mansion Tour. “Legend has it that every night, she would go into the seance room located in the exact center of the house — the heart of the home — and communicate with the spirits to receive the building instructions for the next day’s work.”
Because Winchester’s height was only 4 feet and 10 inches, she also built the house according to her size, with low doorways and unusual “easy riser” staircases, such as the “Switchback Stairway” that leads from the carriage house to the hay loft. The staircase consists of 44 steps that travel 100 feet in length but rise only 9 feet to the second floor above. In addition, Winchester’s favorite spiritualistic motif — the spiderweb — can be seen throughout the house, as can her obsession with the number 13, particularly noticeable in the house’s 13th bathroom, which is accessed by 13 stairs and contains 13 windows.
Other aspects of the home gave additional hints about its mysterious creator.
“Mrs. Winchester used the daisy so much to decorate her house that we think it was her favorite flower,” Carroll said. “Did you know that the perfect daisy has 13 petals?”
Two particularly unique areas of the house are three adjoining rooms known as the “Hall of Fires” because they contain seven sources of heat — four fireplaces and three hot-air registers — and the “Seven Eleven Staircase” from the bedroom of Mrs. Winchester’s niece and secretary, Marian Marriott, which accesses three different levels of the house.
“If you go down the first seven steps and back up the next 11 on the other side, you are still technically on the second floor — but you are 3 feet higher than where you started,” Carroll said. “But, if you go down those first seven steps again, make a right turn and go down six more — making 13 stairs — you’d find yourself on the first floor.”
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused a large amount of damage to the front portion of the house. According to Carroll, Winchester had never experienced an earthquake before, so she took it as a sign from the spirits that she was spending too much time and money on the front part of the house, which was nearing completion — something she was not allowed to do per her psychic’s instruction. In response, Winchester had the front 30 rooms boarded off, and they were not opened again until after her death. Carroll explained to our group that this is the reason that the front of the house still has visible earthquake damage while the back rooms have been repaired.
Whether there were really spirits helping — and haunting — Winchester remains one of the house’s greatest mysteries. However, visitors and guides alike have reported seeing the ghost of one of the carpenters tending the fireplace in the grand ballroom or pushing a wheelbarrow down a corridor in the basement, which is how he received the nickname “Wheelbarrow Ghost.”
“Winchester Mystery House is a must-visit attraction for families visiting the Bay Area,” said Walter Magnuson, general manager of Winchester Mystery House. “It's a wonderful part of California history for families to learn about while experiencing some truly mysterious oddities through the labyrinth that is the most beautiful and bizarre home in America."
The Mansion Tour costs $39 for adults and $20 for children ages 6 to 12. For visitors who want to see the house from the basement to the rooftops, there is a 134-minute Explore More Tour available; the cost is $49 for adults and $20 for children (kids under 10 are not permitted on this tour). In addition, Halloween Candlelight Tours will be offered on select nights in September and October, and Friday the 13th Flashlight Tours will be given this year on April 13 and July 13.