Upon entering the Winchester Mansion in San Jose, California, you may be tempted to wander off and explore its luxurious yet quirky décor. If you do, though, you may get lost in the miles of twisting halls and secret passages designed to confuse ghosts. At over 6 acres, this luxurious example of Victorian craftsmanship was once the USA’s largest private residence. Today, as the Winchester Mystery House, it is now a tourist attraction, and its surroundings have transformed, too. You’ll find this extraordinary estate between an eight-lane freeway and multiple mobile home parks. However, it started as an attempt by one woman to deal with human suffering through spiritualism and architecture.
From an 8-room house to a sprawling estate with over one hundred and fifty rooms, the Winchester Mansion has become an icon of American history – messy, complex, and incredibly personal.
Love and Loss
In September of 1829, Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born to carriage manufacturer Leonard Pardee and his wife Sarah Burns in New Haven, Connecticut. Through a strong cultural upbringing and private school education, the younger Sarah received every benefit. By her teens, she spoke four languages, played piano, and possessed dazzling charm, leading to her nickname of the “Belle of New Haven.” As she grew into womanhood, Pardee fell for William Wirt Winchester – the son of Lieutenant Governor Oliver Winchester.
In 1857, the older Winchester took on the assets of the firm behind the Volcanic Repeater rifle lever mechanism for loading bullets. Oliver saw his chance and used this improvement over muzzle-loading rifles to produce guns that could quickly and easily reload and fire. In so doing, he helped create the first true repeating rifle, a weapon used against Native Americans and in the Civil War, in particular. With rising profits from government and private sales, the company reorganized as Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and the family amassed a strong fortune.
Meanwhile, William and Sarah Pardee were wed in a lavish ceremony at the height of the Civil War in 1862. Four years later, she bore their only child, a daughter named Annie Pardee Winchester, but the girl soon wasted away from “marasmus” or severe malnutrition. The loss destroyed Sarah, who suffered a breakdown and never fully recovered. Then, in 1881, William died of pulmonary tuberculosis, and Sarah felt completely shattered again.
The Winchester Curse
Sarah grieved intensely for William, and a friend pushed her to consult with a spiritualist medium to talk to his spirit. She quickly fell under the medium’s thrall as she explained that a curse had been placed upon their family. According to the spirit of William Winchester, it was in payment for the many thousand deaths caused by the family company’s terrible weapon. To escape the spirits’ wrath, Sarah would have to sell her New Haven home and start over with a new home for herself and the restless dead out West. So long as she never finishing building it, the curse – and the vengeful dead – would not harm her.
While visiting her nice in Menlo Park around 1884, Mrs. Winchester found the ideal spot for the ever-expanding mansion in Santa Clara Valley, three miles west of San Jose. She could easily afford to buy the sweeping and serene property with her inheritance from William, including 777 shares of Winchester stock and an income of $1000 per day. Unlike her homes in Palo Alto, Los Altos, or Atherton, the mansion never stopped growing, and the estate itself fast spread over 160 acres of gardens, orchards, and farmland.
The Maze of a Mansion
From 1886 to her death in 1922, the widow would use local craftsman to perpetually build, demolish, and rebuild her home anew. In theory, her home’s constant renovations and maze-like design would help Sarah Winchester elude the vengeful spirits of people killed by Winchester rifles. The reality was a life of solitude and seclusion, from the dark veil she wore over her face to the cypress hedge that hid her home from view.
Yet, she found joy in her new hobby and showed a knack for design. Each morning, she would meet with her faithful foreman, John Hansen, to go over tower and addition plans sketched on napkins or spare paper. Her quirky planning led the Winchester Mansion to be dubbed “the house built by the spirits.” However, after her mother-in-law passed away in 1897, Mrs. Winchester’s wealth only grew, such that there was no budget, deadline, or limit to pay rates. So, it was very much up to Mrs. Winchester what would be built.
A Sign of Doom
The house rapidly grew to around two hundred rooms, and rooms fast turned into wings. Levels turned into towers, and, by 1906, the Observation Tower raised the mansion to seven stories, with countless fireplaces, staircases, skylights, trapdoors, and spy holes. However, the 8.3 San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 rocked the West Coast and knocked the Winchester Mansion’s top three floors into the gardens below. Mrs. Winchester was momentarily trapped in the Daisy Room, where she slept, when the fireplace shifted. Afterwards, she was utterly convinced that the quake was the vengeful spirits’ way of telling her to start over again.
After workmen repaired structural damage, Mrs. Winchester boarded up the front thirty rooms, including the Daisy Room. Then, the expansion of the mansion began in earnest, with the number of bedrooms rising quickly from fifteen to twenty-five and more besides. Over the mansion’s history, experts estimate that around six hundred rooms were actually designed and built. In contrast, only one hundred and sixty remain today.
Behind the turrets, towers, cupolas, and cornices of the Queen Anne Victorian exterior lays a great deal of hidden meanings, many of which will never be unveiled. Sarah Winchester was never interviewed and left no journals to explain her fascination with certain details. For instance, the number 13 is a repeating motif, with that number of panels in most walls, sections in most flooring, panes in glass, and much more besides.
In addition, the Grand Ballroom, which was built with almost no nails, features two Tiffany glass windows custom-designed with Shakespeare quotes. However, it remains unclear how the lines from Richard II (“These same thoughts people this little world”) and Troilus and Cressida (“Wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts”) are connected. Furthermore, multiple windows feature spider webs and daisies, but there is no record of the exact connection to Mrs. Winchester. Fundamentally, it remains unknown even why she named the estate as she did – “Llanada Villa” or “house on flat land.”
The Winchester Legacy
After decades of building and rebuilding her home, Sarah Winchester stopped in 1922 after she passed away from heart failure on the night of September 4th. Her body was laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven beside her husband and child. Meanwhile, her sister, nieces, and nephews were left to sort through her relatively chaotic estate of cash, trust funds, and donations. The mansion’s furnishings were left to her niece Mrs. Marian Merriman Marriot. Removing all of her aunt’s belongings took six trucks working for six weeks.
The land and buildings were sold and wound up being restored and promoted as a tourist destination. Since then, the Winchester Mystery House has been in a state of perpetual renewal not unlike it was during Sarah’s lifetime. Restoration is difficult because it requires custom materials like Tiffany glass or Lincrusta wall coverings, some of which are fortunately available on hand.
Legends of hidden treasure and ghosts have proliferated since Mrs. Winchester’s death. However, the only real lost bounty in-house may be her long-lost wine cellar of the finest alcohol in the world. Meanwhile, visitors and supernatural investigators have reported chills, phantom footsteps, locked doorknobs turning, mysterious lights, and even one case of temporary blindness. Although Sarah has passed on, it seems that the vengeful ghosts remain.
Today, the Winchester Mansion is an official Californian Historical Landmark registered as “a large, odd dwelling with an unknown number of rooms.” Its history reveals not only Sarah Winchester’s personal history but also that of an entire nation experiencing a revival in spiritualism and violence at the same time. All too often, though, the other side of Mrs. Winchester is ignored. She may have been a shut-in who communed with spirits, rang bells for the arrival and departure of spirits, and shifted beds to escape them. But she also welcomed neighborhood kids onto her estate, loved gardening, and had remarkable memory and piano-playing abilities.
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