Winchester Mystery House - Atlas Obscura

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The Winchester Mystery House

A peculiar mansion built by the troubled heir to the Winchester Rifle Company fortune. 


In 1886, Sarah Winchester traveled from New Haven, Connecticut, to San Jose, California, to start a new life. She purchased a small eight-room farmhouse and started a small renovation project that would take 36 years and $5.5 million (in the money of the time), only stopping when she passed away in 1922.

By the time she was done, the Winchester Mansion was a modern marvel with indoor plumbing, multiple elevators, a hot shower, and central heating. It had over 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 10,000 windows, and even two basements. Of course, its size is not the only thing that is unique about the house. Not all the 2,000 doors can be walked through—one leads to an eight-foot drop to a kitchen sink, another to a 15-foot drop into bushes in the garden below. Staircases lead straight to ceilings, expensive Tiffany stained-glass windows were installed in places where they would get no light, and there are more secret passages than Narnia. A particularly odd delight is a cabinet that, when opened, extends through 30 rooms of the house.

Sarah Winchester was born in New Haven, where she was part of East Coast society. In 1862, she married William Wirt Winchester, the only son of Oliver Winchester, who founded the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Sarah and William had just one child, Annie Pardee Winchester, who died just a month after she was born in 1866.

In 1881, William died of tuberculosis, leaving Sarah with a $20 million inheritance and ownership in half of the Winchester company, making her one of the wealthiest women in the United States. Sarah’s mother and father-in-law died in the same year, after which she almost exclusively wore black mourning clothes. Just a few years later, she left Connecticut and embarked on a renovation project that would take the rest of her life.

No one is quite sure why Mrs. Winchester demanded constant changes to her very large house. Of course, there are stories.

The most prevalent story is that Mrs. Winchester was haunted by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle. After her husband passed away, a psychic told her that to evade the spirits, she would have to move out west, buy a home, and build nonstop. Some say she believed that as soon as construction was complete, she would die, while other theories suggest she built the house like a maze in order to keep her paranormal tormentors at bay and lost in the many intricacies of the building. To avoid them, she allegedly slept in a different bedroom every night and took labyrinthine paths through her own home.

A massive earthquake struck the Bay Area in 1906 and toppled the top three stories of the house, damaging the other four stories along with it. Some say Sarah Winchester took this as a sign from the spirits that she was too close to completion and ordered the unfinished front half of the house to be boarded up. Though it’s open now, signs of damage from the earthquake are still clearly visible.

In response to the ongoing claims of ghostly encounters and other paranormal phenomena on the property, in the early 1990s the Winchester management had a parapsychologist and paranormal investigator named Christopher Chacon conduct a full-scale scientific assessment of the property. 

The month-long, round-the-clock investigation included interviewing over 300 people regarding their experiences on the property, and analyzing every aspect of the environment for any unusual phenomena. In 2018, a horror film was made about the infamous house and the spirits said to live within.

Know Before You Go

You must purchase tickets to go inside the Winchester Mystery House. There are several tour options available, including a guided mansion tour, a Walk with Spirits tour, and a garden tour.

There are also Flashlight Tours around Halloween and every Friday the 13th. The Winchester Antiques Products Museum and the Winchester Firearms Museum are also housed on-site.

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