Due to the Covid-19 virus, many famous sites are closed – such as the Winchester Mystery House. But now for a limited time, you can take a video tour that is pretty much the same one an actual visitor gets when they visit.
The Winchester Mystery House is located in San Jose, California – and has a much storied past. It’s mostly known for it’s sprawling, confusing, and often ghost-rumored history. There was even a recent ghost movie called Winchester.
I’ve taken a tour of the house myself, and found it to be less a den of mystery and ghosts than the somewhat sad reality of a house that was under constant re-construction by a reclusive, eccentric woman that had the very common and superstitious spiritualists beliefs of her era. Combine this with decades of self-ascribed ‘ghost hunters’ and mystics with … shall we say ‘inventive’…re-interpretations of Sara and her house, and you have something that takes a life of it’s own.
The architectural oddities can almost all be attributed the constant additions and renovations – as well as to her health and superstitions. The outside of the house is much more beautiful than the often spartan and sometimes unfinished interiors. The real, original house is the front section, and it was expanded, re-expanded, changed, re-worked, sections torn out, and expanded again. A number of rooms were simply never fully completed – some even sitting with bare plaster lathing. Shockingly, this is especially true in those original front rooms damaged during the great San Francisco earthquake. She got trapped in her room when the door was pinched shut and she simply boarded up the rooms out of fear of going back in them. They sit today with broken, exposed plaster lathing.
Other oddities are very simply explained as modifications when her failing health required changes – like tearing out steep stairs and replacing them with easier stairs. For example, changing out a simple staircase to a long winding one that had 7 bends and 42 steps. This becomes easy to understand for an older woman that’s 4 feet tall and has advanced arthritis. There is an elevator, but the old technology meant it went terribly slow (a minute or more to go one floor). Today people would put in a ramp or a lift chair. Other oddities simply came about from the constant re-construction and whims of a woman that didn’t always finish projects before a new one began.
The famed ‘staircase leading to nowhere’ was often described as being built to confuse spirits. This is pure conjecture by modern ghost hunters as there is nothing in Sara’s writings or stories to suggest that was her goal. Sadly, I think like many things, you get a lot more press from shock value than actual truth. The real truth is that it abuts a garage and was likely part of the carriage house/garage reworks.
But most of all, Sara Winchester was a spiritualist -a superstitious fad popular with many early 1900’s era middle and upper classes. A spiritualist convinced her to keep building her whole life – which lead to a building that was constantly being built, torn down, rebuilt, and put together more like a patchwork quilt than one with any kind of plan. Today, most people would call these beliefs superstitious and the people charlatans; their tricks were much explored and discredited by people like Harry Houdini himself. With all the resources at her disposal, one wonders what good she could have done helping the living over spending those decades following superstitions and hiding from ghosts. Her memory might be completely different today – much like the Gates foundation or the Carnegie libraries that were provided to untold generations.
The fact she added things on wherever and whenever was convenient explains much of the rest. Anyone that’s seen farm out buildings or software projects built this way can tell you that finding doors into walls, stairs that got cut off and go to the ceilings, or exterior windows that now find themselves turned into interior windows are common in these kinds of hap-hazard constructions. And these oddities are very much the exceptions rather than the rule. The majority of the rooms are well constructed and at least partially complete.
While the house is very empty for tourists today – with only a few rooms with furnishings surviving – when she died, it took 8 truckloads a day for 6 1/2 weeks to empty all the furniture and items from the house. Today, we might call this kind of thing ‘hording’.
While definitely a good tour and worth a visit, I think a lot of the ‘mystery’ is generated from conjecture and quacks as there is very little proof of their claims. I honestly left the house feeling quite sad for her and what good she could have done in the world. Instead of a robust life, she lived one of fear, isolation, and superstition.