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Monday, October 10, 2011

The House That Fear Built: The Winchester Mystery House

The Winchester Mystery House, San Jose California 2011
     Many of you may be familiar with the story of the vast and bewildering Victorian style Winchester Mystery House, a mansion once inhabited by Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Winchester, inventor of the Winchester repeating rifle, but if not, I would like to introduce you! (Readers, mansion. Mansion, readers.)

     In September 2011, I had the chance to spend some time in the lovely Bay Area of California, and the one of  first things I did was visit this house in San Jose. They call it a "house," but as the main building has over 160 remaining rooms (500 to 600 were built over the years and later remodeled), "house" is an understatement. Photography is not allowed/highly discouraged anywhere inside the building itself, so please click on the links I have provided to go to the official site for pictures and more background.

     The story behind the family, the house, and the spirits that many say still inhabit the Winchester Mystery House could fill a novel-sized volume, but here is a summary:

     Mrs. Sarah Winchester lived with her daughter and husband in New England during the mid-1800's. They held a distinguished position in high society there due to the immense profits (totaling $20,000,000) which Mr. Winchester had gained in part from the manufacture of his reliable and very useful technology, the 1873 Winchester repeating lever action rifle. (Repeating means that the rifle held multiple rounds of ammunition, and the lever action cocking mechanism made for fast shooting without the need to load a round every time one wanted to shoot).
     Tragedy struck the family when both the daughter and then the husband died fifteen years later of tuberculosis.  Distraught, Sarah consulted a spiritualist in Boston  who advised her to move out west and begin building a home there to appease the spirits of those killed by the Winchester repeating rifle.  Mrs. Winchester believed that the spirits of the American Indians, Civil War soldiers, and others killed by the Winchester rifle were responsible for the deaths in her family. The catch to dealing with the spirits was that she must keep the workers constructing or otherwise changing the mansion twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to keep the spirits from killing her, as well. This she did, starting in 1884, designing the everything herself; for over 38 years she also held nightly seances to enlist the aid of friendly spirits for guidance in the building plans and for protection.

From the Winchester Mystery House gift shop.
     The house is amazingly opulent and very well-constructed.  I bravely faced room after room of ornate brass accoutrements, gold paint, rich red textured fabric wallpaper, and exotic wood paneling (not to mention the glorious Victorian furnishings that were not original to the house but made me drool anyway) and managed to resist the urge to photograph any of it. *sigh*  There are currently 160 rooms, a fraction of which are open to the public today (some were damaged in the 1906 earthquake); 500 to 600 rooms were built over the years but were often dismantled, built around, or sealed up, which helps account for the bizarre layout of the building, some of which was intentional, to confuse the bad spirits.
     Examples of Sarah's obsession with the number thirteen and spiderwebs appear throughout the house in the design of the windows, the number of bathrooms, and even the number of stairs.  Mrs. Winchester believed that incorporating the number thirteen throughout the mansion would help ward off the tortured souls that might do her harm. Just a few more examples of this include that there are thirteen wall hooks in the seance room, thirteen holes in the sink drain covers, and thirteen windows in the thirteenth bathroom.
      One of my favorite parts of the tour was the room that displays the unused windows and doors that Mrs. Winchester ordered made in Austria and imported by Tiffany's of New York; pictures do not do these creations justice.  The crystal bevels and glass in these pieces shimmer with the colors and intensity of diamonds! As a stained glass artist, I could tell that the construction of these pieces was exquisite and probably well worth what Mrs. Winchester paid for them.

      Unfortunately, these now priceless doors and widows do not appear in the official photo gallery of the mansion, but it is well worth it to take a look at the photos of the other windows, the stairway to nowhere, the bell tower, the furniture, and many of the other curious features of the house.  The site even has a section with first-hand accounts and a graph of the numerous ghost sightings which have occurred in the most psychically active rooms and continue up until very recently.  Here is a short History Channel video of the house, which does include footage of the windows and so much more:

These videos explain the history of this place more thoroughly, and are each about 9 minutes in length:

     If you would like to be kept abreast of :
  • All the latest Winchester Mystery House™ news, as well as streaming video clips and photo galleries.
  • Weekly polls, fun facts, contests and historical milestones.
  • Insider-only discounts on special events, and helpful hints on travel and entertainment.
  • Behind-the-scenes sneak peaks about the upcoming feature film and more.

then you may wish to subscribe to the Winchester Mystery House Newsletter, "The 13th Hour".

     I hope the story behind this wonderful structure and its' unusual inhabitants will entertain and chill you as much as it did me.  Enjoy!


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