A common description of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California is, “Bizarre but Beautiful!” I found this to be undeniably true while visiting this unique mansion not long ago.
The story behind this property is as intriguing as the mansion itself. In the mid-1800’s, Sarah Winchester, widow of William Winchester, son of the manufacturer of the Winchester Repeating Rifle Company, fell into a deep depression and moved from Connecticut to California. While in California Mrs. Winchester purchased a six-room farm house (which would become known as the Winchester Mystery House) after the death of her infant daughter. Shortly thereafter, her husband passed. After the death of her mother-in-law, she was left with a $20M fortune. To put that into perspective, twenty million dollars in the mid-1800’s was equivalent to over half a billion dollars today.
Because she had unlimited finances, she began construction on the farm house by hiring help that worked around the clock. Part of her reasoning for the 24/7 construction was that she was convinced that evil spirits, those that were killed by the rifles made by the company she inherited, were following her throughout the house. By maintaining construction at all times, it made it difficult for the spirits to come around. Construction continued 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 38 years…until her death in 1922. By the time Sarah Winchester passed away, she had grown the property from a six-room farmhouse, to a 160 room mansion on six acres of land that contained 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 6 kitchens and 13 bathrooms!
Mrs. Winchester was eccentric, to say the least. Throughout the remainder of her life, she continued to wear a dark veil every day (another “challenge” for the spirits to see her) and live a life of seclusion until her death. Even her staff, many of whom lived with their families on the property had never seen her face. She incorporated peculiar things in the house to detour the spirits, such as the door leading to nowhere, flights of stairs that suddenly and drastically dropped off, and the giant bell that was rung at midnight and 2:00am to try to capture the spirits and get them to vacate. She even had one room designated to spirit communication. She never slept in the same bedroom two nights in a row, and she had a switchback staircase installed, one where each step is only two inches high to accommodate her severe arthritis.
The history and details of this peculiar mansion is something you won’t soon forget. There have been hundreds of “ghost” or “spirit” sightings over the years, especially on the tours—everything from children to adults, construction workers to Mrs. Winchester herself! Photography is strictly prohibited inside the mansion, with the unannounced exception of the Grand Ballroom. It sits just outside the “no photography” zone, but many people don’t catch this until they’ve made their way past it…like I did.
The tour guides tell numerous stories of the spirits that “appear” regularly. They told us to keep our eyes and ears open because the ghosts like to pop in and give a friendly little scare. Everyone in our group was diligently watching for something or someone to appear. The only thing we heard on our tour was some of the other guests saying, “Did you hear that?” They said they heard a crying baby. I faintly heard the sound of it, and when word of the sound got to the tour guide, she said, “Oh, yes, that baby spirit cries all the time!” Then she shouted, “Would somebody feed that baby already?!” The crying quickly stopped. I’m not one to be too spooked by stuff like this, but I will admit, I was a little scared!
When we were wandering through the gift shop after our tour, we overheard a man telling a young couple about his “sighting” while in the hallway during his last visit. He said he’d seen a young girl in a black dress, he turned away for just a moment, then when he looked back, she was gone. He was a local from San Jose who holds an annual pass and visits the Winchester Mystery House frequently just to see if he can see something exciting!
As you approach the property, it seems quite strange that this museum was once out in the middle of nowhere. This beautifully preserved monument is now surrounded by the massive city San Jose, in the heart of downtown.
There are three Winchester Mystery House tours choices to choose from:
- The Mansion Tour that takes you through 110 of the 160 rooms in the mansion as well as the grounds. This tour takes about two and a half hours to complete.
- The Grand Estate Tour takes just under an hour and tours much of what makes the mansion run smoothly. It’s a bit daunting when the tour guide tells you to stay close to the group and do not get detached because if you do, it could take hours for someone to find you. After taking the Mansion Tour, I believe that to be true!
- Behind the Scenes Tour adds another dimension to the mystery that surrounds Sarah Winchester’s estate while simultaneously offering both a glimpse at an earlier lifestyle and showing the elegance of a lost but gracious era. The highlight of the Behind-the-Scenes Tour is a journey down into the basement which houses the original coal-burning furnace from the Herendeen Company of Geneva, New York and also demonstrates the floating foundation the mansion was built upon. Tour stops include the stables, fruit drying shed, plumber’s workshop, aviary, garage, greenhouse, unfinished ballroom, and the basement. This tour is about one hour long.
We were originally going to take the Grand Estate Tour, mostly because we were on somewhat of a timeline, but as we stood in line discussing it, the couple behind us told us they had been there before and that the Mansion Tour was the way to go. For the few extra dollars, you see so much more of the estate on this tour, plus it takes you through the beautiful garden then down into the basement of the mansion where you’ll find the coal burning furnace and an original hydraulic cargo elevator! Again, this property was constructed in the late 1800s, so pretty innovative.
I was pleased to see the Video Access Tour which is a wonderful option for those who are unable to climb stairs. The parking is ample and there is plenty of handicapped parking. Pricing for all tours range from $22 to $44. They also have flashlight tours of the aforementioned that take place after the sun sets, if you’re brave enough to endure it.
If you’ve ever been to the Winchester Mystery House, please leave a comment below and share your experience.