The Winchester Mystery House is one of the most haunted places in the United States, if not the world. Starting in 1884 and continuing until Sarah Winchester’s death on September 5th, 1922, under her instructions to her lead foreman, John Hansen, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and other tradesmen built, tore down and rebuilt hundreds of rooms. Money was no object, as Sarah had inherited $20.5 million and almost half of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company when her husband William Wirt Winchester passed away in 1881.
The architectural eccentricities of the house are only part of what make it unique. Yes, there are 160 rooms, including forty bedrooms, thirteen bathrooms, 950 doors, forty-seven fireplaces, ten thousand windows, and only three mirrors. But the various reports detailing why and how Sarah Winchester became obsessed with incessantly adding to the house are even more fascinating. One report stated that she was instructed by a medium to continually build the house or she would die: “Build a home for yourself and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon, too. You must never stop building the house. If you continue building, you will live forever. But if you stop, then you will die.” Another was that her late husband contacted her through a medium and told her that as long as she built, she would live: “Sarah dear, if our house had not been finished, I would still be with you. I urge you now to build a home, but never let it be finished, for then you will live.”
The number thirteen played a major role in the construction of the house. Each window had thirteen panes and, as I mentioned, there were thirteen bathrooms. In that thirteenth bathroom, there were thirteen windows. The carriage entrance was made up of thirteen cement sections. There were thirteen hooks in the séance room, supposedly for the many different colored robes she wore. Her will had thirteen parts and was signed thirteen times. Every Friday the 13th, the large bell that resides on the property rings thirteen times at one in the afternoon–the thirteenth hour.
It was said that Sarah would go each night at midnight to her “Séance Room” to receive instructions on how and where to build next. There were never any blueprints, only sketches done by Sarah according to what she believed she was instructed to do, which she passed on to Hansen. These include The Switchback Staircase: seven flights of forty stairs that only ascended forty feet because each step was only two inches high to accommodate Sarah’s arthritis.
Other strange features included doors that led out to the open air with no balconies or stairwells beneath them, stairs that led into the ceiling, sliding panels that Sarah could close behind her as she went from one part of the house to another, stairs that descended seven steps and then went up eleven, and a stairway on the outside of the house that descended, then ascended into another part of the house and ended on the same floor it started at.
Some say the house was constructed to keep the spirits of the victims of Winchester rifles at bay by confusing them in the labyrinthine mansion. Others say the lack of mirrors was to allow the friendly spirits Sarah communed with (most notably her husband and daughter) to wander freely through the house because she believed a spirit would vanish upon seeing its reflection. Her staff had to carry their own personal mirrors or not use any at all. She also had thousands of electric and gas lights because she believed spirits were self-conscious about not casting shadows. The elaborate roundabout routes Sarah designed, including several secret passages, were intended to confuse any malevolent spirits that might have been following her – if they were not watchful, they would lose track of her. It was also her belief that spirits were wary of getting caught in traps. This has led to several tourists getting lost for hours when they wandered off the tour path.
Hundreds of visitors have reported contact with apparitions, disembodied voices, and other paranormal activity both malevolent and benevolent. Some people have reported a calming feeling that made them feel as though the house was full of good spirits, while others have felt a heavy feeling in certain parts of the house that depressed and terrified them. People have reported hearing screams, cries, music, and polite pleasantries. Are these examples of their minds playing tricks in a house built by an extremely wealthy woman who was desperately lonely, and maybe a bit insane? Or are the reasons behind the activity in the house really what Sarah Winchester feared: wandering spirits of those killed by Winchester weapons, seeking to terrify the inhabitants of the house?
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Patrick Rahall lives in Massachusetts with his fiancée and is a member of the New England Horror Writers. He has published two novels and a collection of short stories. You can follow his blog at http://pjrahall.blogspot.com