Ghost in the Mansion
The story of Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, begins with a death. In July 1866, almost to this very date, Sarah Winchester, the wife of a gun magnate named William Winchester lost her infant daughter Annie, just over a week old then, to marasmus. Two decades later, in 1881, William too tragically died, leaving behind a devastated widow with an inheritance of $20 million, which she had no interest in. That worked out to an allowance of $1,000 a day (not taxed until 1913) – a princely sum for those times!
Grappled with grief, it is said that Lady Winchester sought solace in a seance ritual, where a spiritual medium convinced her that she was cursed by the spirits of the people that died because of the terrible weapon (the rifle) that her husband sold. Absolution was only possible if she moved far west (towards the setting sun) and built a new life, in a new home, for both herself and the spirits who had fallen from the “terrible weapon”.
And so, in 1886 Sarah Winchester arrived from New Haven to San Jose with a vast fortune at her disposal. She identified a six-room cottage that was under construction (and 162 acres around it where the Winchester House sits today), threw away the blue prints and began constructing her mansion according to the wishes of the spirits that spoke to her. Sarah kept close to 22 carpenters and 12 gardeners (who were quite handsomely paid, we are told) working on the house, round-the-clock, every day, until 1922, when she eventually breathed her last.
By 1906, the mansion was over seven stories tall, but the earthquake that year caused considerable damage. While the mansion today is only four stories tall, it has an astounding 160 rooms (110
of which are for public viewing), a bird house, a carriage house and a bell tower still standing.
13 reasons why
As we walk up and down the unevenly built rooms of the mansion (during the course of a little over two hours), our chirpy guide points out the bizarre elements of the house.There are details that are seemingly designed to confuse — like a window built into the floor, chimneys that serve no purpose at all, doors that open into walls, stairs that lead to ceilings and the ‘always chilly’ seance room. But a recurring theme around the house we are told is 13, a number that Sarah Winchester was obsessed with. Nearly all the windows have 13 glass panels, wooden floors have 13 sections, chandeliers were created in a way that they could hold 13 candles, ceilings have 13 panels, some rooms have 13 clothes-hooks and others 13 windows. Most staircases that have exactly 13 steps. There are even 13 bathrooms in total, with the 13 windows in 13 bath-rooms. Legend has it that Sarah Winchester's will was divided into 13 parts, and she even signed it 13 times.
Windows to the world
The drama of the house, much like its owner, doesn’t stop there. The house teems with mysterious symbolism and encryptions. Not one to cut corners on expenditure, Sarah went all out to make sure that the house was architecturally beautiful. The stained glass windows, in particular, are striking, most of which were created by Tiffanys. While some of the windows were designed by Sarah herself, others were designed specifically for her. A window, designed by Tiffany himself for Sarah hangs in one of the rooms, so perfectly placed that when the sunlight hits the prismatic crystal on the glass, a rainbow is cast across the room. That apart, the most significant ones are the two glass windows in the grand ballroom.
Located right next to safes (where she kept not money, but personal possessions of her husband and daughter along with her will), the windows have stained glass panels with lines from Shakespeare. One, in particular, poignantly sums up the disturbed Lady Winchester’s life. It is from the prison soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard II — “These same thoughts people this little world” — the idea of creating a world within the cells of a prison, populated only by imagination and ideas.
Sarah Winchester left all her possessions (except the house) to her niece and secretary, who took everything she owned and privately auctioned off the rest. Save a few wardrobes, most of the furniture displayed at the Winchester House today are all donations. The house, not mentioned in the will, was eventually bought by local investors John and Mayme Brown, whose company Winchester Investments owns it today. Currently, a film based on Sarah Winchester’s life titled Winchester, featuring Helen
Mirren is being filmed on the property. The film is due for release next year.
The Winchester Mystery House offers two kinds of tours, the Mansion Tour and the Explore More Tour. Prices start from $20 upwards. Tickets available online or at the gift shop at the venue.The writer was at Winchester Mystery House on invitation by Visit California. At 525 S Winchester Blvd, San Jose, California. For details visit: wmhonline.winchestermysteryhouse.com