So far, life had been very good for Sarah Winchester. Born in the late 1830s in New Haven, Connecticut, she had been raised by a well-off family and was always much-liked by the townspeople throughout her upbringing. She was charming, attractive, musical, and spoke several languages. In 1862, she married the only heir of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co., the company responsible for the Winchester rifle. In 1866 Sarah gave birth to a baby girl, Annie.
But a series of tragedies was to befall her. Her daughter died in infancy; she had no other children; and Sarah was devastated and driven almost to insanity by the loss. Then, in 1881—only a few years later—William succumbed to tuberculosis. Sarah received about 50% ownership of the company, and was awarded $20-million, an amazing amount of money for the 1880s. But it was little consolation. Very much distraught, the widow began to believe that her family was cursed. She went to Boston to seek help from an old friend, one believed to be a medium.
This friend confirmed her suspicions by telling her that yes, she was being haunted—by the spirits of all those killed by the Winchester rifle over the years. The medium suggested that she move far away and build a house. The key, the medium added, would be to have the house in a perpetual state of construction. If Sarah were ever to complete the house, it would leave her vulnerable to the curses of the vengeful spirits.
Frightened and still grieving, Sarah Winchester believed every word. In 1884 she moved to what was then a rural area near San José, California. There, she purchased an eight-room farmhouse on more than 160 acres of land. Very shortly, a work crew began a perpetual construction project which would ultimately last for nearly forty years.
Construction was continuous, with a team of 16 men always at work and well-paid. There was no plan for the house overall, although Sarah Winchester had sketched plans for a number of the rooms individually.
Once the expansion was underway, more of Sarah’s deeply-rooted superstitions began to surface. She had strange quirks built into the house—among them a door leading to a wall, and a stairway leading to a ceiling. She had the builders incorporate the number 13 all over (in a candelabra, in rows of trees, in numbers of bathroom windows, and so on). Additionally, she never slept in the same room for more than one night – perhaps tying into her conviction that the house was haunted. Nightly she took her pick of the eventual forty bedrooms of the house, and she then spent the time between midnight and 2:00 AM conversing with spirits.
The house is notable not only for its eccentricity, however, but for its startling modernity for the time it was built. It is lit by a system of button-operated gas lights – not quite electricity, but as close to the light switch as possible without it. There are full steam-heating and plumbing systems, with indoor toilets and showers. Inside the house are three elevators, one of them a unique design for the house.
The San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906 destroyed the three upper floors of the house. Sarah Winchester was unharmed; however, for several hours she was trapped in the room that she had been sleeping in, and her construction crew had to pry the door open with a crowbar in order to free her. Fearing that the entire disaster had been the work of the spirits she claimed to be in frequent contact with, she had the front half of the house closed off in order to keep it even more incomplete.
Sarah Winchester died in September 1922 in her early eighties. When her loyal construction team found out, the building immediately ceased. Even now, there are unfinished rooms, walls, and even nails in the house; aside from maintenance and regular repainting, it remains largely unchanged from then.
The house’s immediate surroundings are a different story. In the years following Sarah Winchester’s death, the tightly-packed suburbs of San José have crept up around her house. The once-rural mansion is now a startling anachronism in the middle of one of the most modern areas in the world: Silicon Valley.
To this day, the 160-room house is a popular tourist site. It has gradually become known as the Winchester Mystery House. Some visitors and site staff members believe that it is still haunted; often there are reported various strange sounds heard and sensations felt around the house. There are special flashlight tours offered on Halloween and any Friday the 13th.