Words by Adam Sullivan
The late 1800s were rough for Sarah Winchester. She lost her daughter at 6 weeks (marasmus), and her husband a few years later (tuberculosis). Any dreams of a long, happy life with her family were gone. On the bright side, she had married into the Winchesters that made Winchester Rifles, and so inherited $20 million. In the 1800s.
Grief-stricken and desperate, she visited a spiritual medium in Boston who told her she was “haunted” by everyone who’s ever been killed at the hands of a Winchester rifle. What’s more, the only escape was to head west, buy property, and build a house. Oddly specific advice, sure, but it gets even weirder: In order to appease these angered spirits, she was told she could never cease construction on this new house. And that’s exactly what she did: A 6-room house on an avocado farm in the heart of the San Jose valley. She began construction immediately, and kept contractors working around the clock, until she died in 1922, all alone.
The design of the house itself appeared to be a by-product of her affliction. There’s the staircase that leads all the way up to the ceiling. The door that opens to a three-story drop into the garden. The “switchback staircase,” hundreds of slow-rising steps, twisting and turning up, inches at a time—a painfully elaborate design, where a simple staircase would have worked just fine. At one point, there’s even a window built into the floor. Nearly every book I could find considered her eccentric at best. Haunted or not, eccentric was an understatement.
It bears mention that these biographies came from some fairly dubious “sources.” There’s not a lot written about Sarah Winchester, and what little there is reeks of skepticism and vested interest. Most of the books are filled with ghost stories, hyperbole, and conjecture. But there’s money to be made in ghost stories. One biography in particular contains actual quoted conversations between Winchester and the psychic—a conversation that had supposedly taken place 100 years prior. It didn’t help that the biography’s author was an “ordained minister of the religion of spiritualism,” and that the majority of the book was dedicated to outing the aforementioned psychic as a bad apple through whom we shouldn’t condemn the entire profession of “spirituality.”
Today, when you arrive at the Winchester estate, the view is still majestic. A beautiful Victorian mansion, nestled snugly in between an IMAX theater and a Chevy’s Fresh Mex Grill. When you enter into an elaborate, yet obligatory gift shop, you have a choice—there’s the daytime-only mansion tour, or the “Haunted” tour that takes place in the evening. I opted for the more secular, fifteen-dollars-cheaper option and tried my best to keep an open mind, but they weren’t making it easy.
It was our tour guide’s first day on the job. More than once, she had to look up statistics in a pamphlet. In between apologies, she’d offer up some architectural quirk as evidence of ghosts. We were told Winchester designed her house like a labyrinth specifically to confuse the ghosts that were haunting her. It worked. In fact, the layout of the estate, and its many quirks, have kept people—actual, living people—guessing for close to 100 years. She explained how Sarah took a different path to the séance room each night—not very difficult, she had plenty of options. She’d duck and weave, skulking around corners and into secret passageways to ditch the ghosts who were tailing her. But in the very next room, our guide explained that Sarah was in fact heading to the séance room in order to lay out the following day’s blueprints. With the ghosts.
So many of the mysterious elements of the house were presented as the work of a lunatic, but even a cursory look was enough to realize it was more method than madness. In fact, several supernatural selling points were debunked by our very tour guide. The slow-rise steps? The Widow Winchester suffered from a painful bout of arthritis, so retrofitting the steps made sense. The great earthquake of 1906 collapsed the 7-story bell tower, hence the staircase that disappears into the ceiling. The secret chambers, the door that opens to nothingness—one by one, the mysterious quirks began to lose their mystique. Disappointment notwithstanding, the tour was entertaining, and worth the money for the history alone, but haunted? It was a leap of faith I just couldn’t make, even if they kept insisting I should. To me, it all read as happy coincidence, repurposed as evidence of the afterlife. And once you start chipping away at the foundation, the rest of the building begins to crumble.
Desperate people can be driven to desperate measures. Sarah Winchester lost her only daughter at 6 weeks, and her husband a few years after. The weight of that grief must have been tremendous. It’s a small wonder she sought out unconventional guidance, and it’s no surprise at all that she ran. And once she got to California she stopped running, and began hiding. She shut everyone out—family, neighbors, even President Roosevelt. In the late 1800s, the science of mental illness was in its infancy. Depression was just becoming identifiable, labeled “affective disorder.” Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder didn’t have a name until the 1970s, though it had been around for much longer. In fact, we were only a few years past using leeches for bloodletting “bad humors.” This Boston-based psychic was operating just five years after the last of the Salem witch trials, a grey period between science and the supernatural.
Obsession, by nature, narrows your view until you can no longer focus on anything else. Sarah Winchester’s universe shrank until it was no more than a pinhole of light, everything else falling into nonexistence—friends, family, normalcy. The advice she sought was bizarre and ostentatious, and yet she was the one person who could—and would—carry out the instructions to a “T.” She shut everyone out and promptly veered off course, and there was no one to help her find her way. Day after day she would build, and night after night, she’d convene with the very spirits who haunted her. If her goal was to build and build, keeping the armies of apparitions at bay until at last she joined them, then maybe—just maybe—she found peace. We will never know.
In fact, the list of things we do know is very limited. We know Sarah Winchester lived and died all alone. We know the estate was then sold at an auction. And we know that the Winchester Mystery House was opened for business, just five months later.