The Winchester Mystery House – San Jose, California - Atlas Obscura
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San Jose, California

The Winchester Mystery House

A peculiar mansion built by the troubled heir to the Winchester gun fortune. 

In 1886 an eccentric woman named Sarah Winchester travelled from New Haven, Connecticut, to San Jose, California, to start a new life. She purchased a small eight-room farmhouse and started a small renovation project that would take 36 years and $5.5 million (in the money of the time), only stopping when she passed away in 1922.

By the time she was done, the Winchester Mansion was a modern marvel with indoor plumbing, multiple elevators, a hot shower, and central heating. It had over 160 rooms and 40 bedrooms, 10,000 windows, and even 2 basements. Of course, that’s not all that’s unique about the house. Not all 2,000 doors can be walked through—one leads to an eight-foot drop to a kitchen sink, another to a 15-foot drop into bushes in the garden below. Staircases lead straight to ceilings, expensive Tiffany stained-glass windows were installed in places where they would get no light, and there are more secret passages than Narnia. A particularly odd delight is a cabinet that, when opened, extends through thirty rooms of the house.

No one is quite sure why Mrs. Winchester demanded constant changes to her very large house. Of course, there are stories.  

The most prevalent story is that Mrs. Winchester was being haunted by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle, which her late husband’s company had invented. After her husband passed away, a psychic told her that to evade the spirits, she would have to move out west, buy a home, and build nonstop—some theories say she believed that as soon as construction was complete, she would die, while other theories suggest she built the house like a maze in order to keep her paranormal tormentors at bay and lost in the many intricacies of the building. As the theory goes, to avoid them she would sleep in a different bedroom every night and take labyrinthine paths through her own home.   

A massive earthquake struck the Bay Area in 1906 and toppled the top three stories of the house, damaging the other four stories along with it. Sarah took this as a sign from the spirits that she was too close to completion and ordered the unfinished front half of the house to be boarded up—though open now, signs of damage from the earthquake are still clearly visible. 

In response to the ongoing claims of ghostly encounters and other paranormal phenomena on the property, in the early 1990s the Winchester management had Parapsychologist/Paranormal Investigator Christopher Chacon conduct a full-scale scientific assessment of the property. The month-long, 24-hour-a-day investigation included interviewing over 300 people regarding their experiences on the property and used state-of-the-art technology that analyzed every aspect of the environment for any unusual phenomena.

A Mansion Tour, Garden Tour, and “Behind the Scenes” tour are all available. (Behind the scenes tour not available for children under nine.) There are also Flashlight Tours around Halloween and every Friday the 13th. The Winchester Antiques Products Museum and the Winchester Firearms Museum are also housed nearby.

The house and Sarah’s story are featured in the 2018 film Winchester. Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren was tapped to play Sarah.

Update 2016: Multiple news sources have claimed that a new room, “Sarah’s Attic,” was found.  This is not the case—”Sarah’s Attic” is a new shooting gallery in the courtyard.