The Winchester Mystery House
The tale of the ‘Winchester Mystery house‘ is an intriguing one that plunges into the heart of the mythology of the Old West. It is also unusual in that the subject of this article is not just in itself haunted but rather was built (allegedly) because of a haunting.
Sarah Winchester was the wife of William Wirt Winchester, widowed when her husband fell victim to Tuberculosis in 1881 and therefore heiress to his vast fortune and a significant number of shares in the company that manufactured the Winchester rifle. The story goes that the grief of losing both her husband and daughter (who died in 1866) led to her consulting a medium who informed her that her family was haunted by the ghosts of all the Native American and Civil war soldiers who had been killed by the Winchester rifle. The medium’s advice was to travel to California and build a house ‘to house the spirits’ in order to appease them. So long as the house kept being built they would leave her in peace.
So, in 1884 she acquired an unfinished farmhouse and hired workmen to begin to convert it into a mansion. And they kept going, adding more and more rooms* to the house right up until Sarah died in 1922 at which point the workmen are said to have stopped work immediately – the to extent of leaving nails half driven into the wood**. The ‘completed’ house is a bizarre entity with a maze of random rooms with no apparent plan and stairs that confused explorers by leading nowhere. This layout was the reason why it took more than six weeks to clear the furniture out after the death of Mrs Winchester, though the sheer size of the property was probably responsible there too.
At this point we have some differing tales about the house. Naturally, being incredibly wealthy and linked to such a well known family, Sarah Winchester attracted rumours of eccentricity. It is hard to determine what tales of her are actually true and which are fabrication based on rumour. Tales such as her always wearing a veil and never letting anyone see her face, sleeping in a different room each night to confuse evil spirits out to harm her and rumors of a bell being heard ringing each night at midnight and 2am – which is believed to have been linked to her conducting séances***. There are even tales of a missing gold dinner service that was supposed to have been used to entertain visiting spirits and is believed to be still locked in a safe somewhere in the myriad rooms.
Though by far the most interesting theory I have read about Sarah Winchester has to be the one that claims she was a Rosicrucian. The evidence is based on there being certain elements to the design and decoration of the building which hint at occult symbology. These include the central room (the Blue room) which is often referred to as her séance room but which, according to Richard Allen Wagner the originator of the theory, could also be described as a Rosicrucian meditation chamber****. There are also 13 panes of glass in every window and there are other Kabbalistic ciphers to be found. Wagner largely poo poos the stories of ghosts and her eccentricity as stories made up by the early tour guides (citing an anecdote from a conversation with a tour guide from his own visit there) and considers a focus on the occult architecture to be the more interesting aspect of a visit there.
Whatever the truth about Sarah’s life, it cannot be denied that this is an intriguing story which goes beyond a basic haunted house. In fact, I spent so long talking about the other elements of this story there is barely time to look at the rumours of hauntings that surround the place – a selection of the typical signs that a place is infested with ghosts such as strange noises and cold spots. Personally, like Wagner, I am sceptical about these and attribute them more to tour guide exaggeration than actual occurrences but am fascinated by the architecture and the psychology/belief system that led to someone building this bizarre structure. Was she building this house out of the belief that it would appease the spirits of the dead her husband’s business had wronged? Or was it because she was exploring the symbolism of the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians? Or had the medium she consulted decided that the best way to help this poor widow overcome her grief was to suggest she had a change of scene and a project to keep her mind occupied in a piece of ‘headology‘ that would likely impress Granny Weatherwax herself?
Whatever the truth, Winchester house remains a fascinating folly.
*Approximately 160 rooms were built in the end, though an official count is not available as each count comes up with a different number.
**Though some accounts claim the workmen stopped working for years at a time at Sarah’s request, so she could get a rest from the noise.
***Midnight is the traditional time spirits arrive in this world, 2am is the time they leave according to some sources but other sources suggest that this ‘Witching hour’ actually extends to 3am, which is the polar opposite to the time Jesus died on the cross at 3pm. Though the ‘Witching hour’ has previously been said to start at 3am
**** I guess the fact she never told anyone she was involved in the order is also evidence since, according to Umberto Eco (author of Foccault’s Pendulum) anyone who claimed to be a Rosicrucian most likely wasn’t 🙂