By Stephanie Long and Diana Doty

Have you thought about visiting the Winchester Mystery House? Here is a detailed history of the house, along with what you can expect when you visit this spooky site!

History of the Winchester Mystery House

Following her husband’s death in 1881, Sarah Pardee Winchester left New Haven, CT, and moved to San Jose, CA. She purchased an eight-room farmhouse, which grew into the Winchester Mystery House. 8 rooms was nowhere near enough for Sarah, and she continuously renovatec it up until her death. Allegedly, Sarah built the home to appease spirits, specifically of people whom a Winchester rifle had killed. Sarah’s father-in-law formed the Winchester Repeating Arms company in 1866. Her husband inherited the company 4 months before his death from tuberculosis, leaving Sarah a wealthy widow with some incredibly unfortunate karma.

Winchester Mystery House
Winchester Mystery House, Photo courtesy of Travel + Leisure

The Haunting

Legendary magician Harry Houdini stopped by the Winchester Estate during his 1923-1924 tour. He wanted to disprove Spritiualism by debunking the lore that surrounded the recently-deceased Sarah Winchester’s massive, mysterious mansion. His visit elicited more questions than answers. New since Diana’s visit, there is now a Houdini-inspired escape room on the Estate: Houdini‘s Spirited Escape! We hope we can review it for you soon.

Since Houdini’s visit, subsequent investigations of the Winchester Mystery House read like a list of who’s who in the paranormal world, including Zak Bagans from Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, renowned psychic Sylvia Browne, and famous medium James Van Praagh.

Some sources make the wild claim that the Winchester House is “Certified as Haunted by the US Department of Commerce.” This tale probably originated from a brochure aimed at promoting foreign travel to the US. The US Travel Service, part of the Department of Commerce, published it abroad in the late 1960s. Called ‘Who’s Whooooo‘, the brochure gave details of several allegedly haunted locations in the US, including the Winchester House.

Less officially, both visitors and employees have encountered some ghostly sightings. Per the Winchester Mystery House’s website, “a number of employees—and a few visitors—claim to have crossed paths with ‘Clyde,’ a mustached man sometimes seen pushing a wheelbarrow in the basement, or trying to repair the fireplace in the Ballroom.” Guests have said “We really like the actor who was ‘repairing’ the ballroom fireplace, wearing white overalls and a Victorian boater hat!” To which the staff reply “huh? We didn’t hire an actor.” You might feel Clyde tug on your pants or shirt as you’re winding through the tour.

Some of the tour guides refuse to use the 3rd floor corridors after dark, as they have heard footsteps or a voice calling their name, even when they are completely alone.

Winchester Mystery House

These Are The Facts from the Winchester Mystery House Website

The Winchester Mystery House® is an architectural wonder and historic landmark in San Jose, CA. It was once the personal residence of Sarah Lockwood Pardee Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester and heiress to a large portion of the Winchester® Repeating Arms fortune.

From 1886 to 1922, construction seemingly never ceased. The original modest farmhouse grew into the world’s most unusual and sprawling mansion, which currently, at 24,000 square feet, has:

  • 10,000 windows
  • 2,000 doors
  • 160 rooms
  • 52 skylights
  • 47 stairways and fireplaces
  • 17 chimneys
  • 13 bathrooms
  • 6 kitchens

Still, Literally, A Mystery

What Sarah Winchester left behind is still a mystery. Before she passed away, rumors circulated that a wealthy and eccentric woman was building a mystereous, sprawling estate. Did a psychic tell her to build it? Was she haunted by the ghosts of those felled by the “Gun that Won the West”? Did she want construction to ever finish? Built at a price tag of $5 million in 1923 ($71 million today), there had to be a good reason for Sarah’s contruction fever. But none of the living can say with absolute certainty what those reasons are.

Winchester Mystery House, still under construction.
STILL under construction!

A speculative view into one theory was produced into a major motion picture in 2018. Titled simply Winchester, the movie starring Helen Mirrin shows what might have motivated the widow: a spectacular haunting. In the film, set in 1906, Mrs. Winchester’s niece and nephew come to visit, only to live out a horror story. At the same time, the Winchester Repeating Rifle Company board commission a disgraced psychiatrist to declare the widow mentally unfit. The board will use the declaration to relieve her of her controlling financial interests. The movie was a classic ghost story period piece. It contained nothing too shocking or at all gory. You’ll probably enjoy it even if you normally don’t enjoy horror films. Just prepare to jump a few times. 

Visit the Winchester Mystery House

With all of the immersive views of the actual house, it is shocking to learn that ALL scenes and footage shot at the actual mansion wrapped up after just 72 hours of filming! In fact, mainly only the outdoor scenes were actually filmed on-site, meaning…

Taking the Tour of the Winchester Mystery House

Taking the tour may be your only way of seeing inside the mansion. This is because tourists may not take photos inside the house. On the tour, Diana learned that at least 1 bit of the film was undeniably true. The 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake did cause part of the house to crack literally in two. It also destroyed most of the 4th floor, and a 7-story observation tower. One of these rooms was never repaired nor torn down. The strange bifurcation caused by the quake over a century ago was disorientingly fun to observe on the tour.

Diana did both tours in 2018. This included the normal mansion tour, clocking in at just over an hour, and 110 of the 160 rooms. Most of the rooms on the classic tour are museum-esque. There is ample free time to read placards and admire artifacts. You’ll get to see many of the parts of the mansion featured in the film, like Sarah’s seance room, the staircase to the ceiling, the earthquake damage, and Sarah’s bedroom. The 8-room farmhouse Mrs. Winchester originally purchased is a fascinating part of the tour because of its relative tininess. It was mind-boggling to see the appliances, plumbing, and other luxuries available to the insanely wealthy at the turn of the 18th century. Most ordinary folks wouldn’t even realize these things existed for decades to come.

Winchester Mystery House
It looks especially haunted when backlit.

What’s this…ANOTHER Tour?

110 may sound like a lot of rooms (although at its most prodigious, the house had about 500 rooms!). But we all know that, if you want to witness the paranormal part, you’ve gotta go beyond what’s normal. So, after a quick break, Diana donned the required hard hat and lined up for another hour + tour. This second tour, the Explore More Tour, is a pretty new offering. It is considered an add-on, so make sure you take the other tour first to gain your historical orientation.

The vibe of the Explore More Tour was completely different. It was obvious this was the tour the paranormal enthusiasts were really here for. The tour guide definitely played that up. Every description rings with tragedy, sadness, or outright ghosts, both from the lore and from modern staff and tourist experiences. Diana got to visit areas that were unfinished, dilapidated, and under construction (thus the hard hats). This tour also ventured into the creepy cellar, where there miiiiiiight have been a light staged to flicker out just as we passed by for effect (at least, Diana hopes it was staged). Her favorite part was the Witch’s Cap, a tower spire which creates a perfect echo while standing in its center. It was a spooky, attic room that simply felt haunted.

Diana shadowed by the costume worn by Helen Mirrin in Winchester
The only room inside the house we were allowed to photograph at least had a creepy mannequin.

The Halloween Tour

EVERY haunted place should have a special Halloween event. The Winchester Mystery House has recently realized this universal truth, and added a seasonal haunted attraction to their lineup! This new special event, All Hallows’ Eve, is offered on select nights from Sep 10, 2021 to Oct 31, 2021. This year, All Hallows’ Eve features the Lost In The House Tour, an indoor theatrical paranormal investigative adventure! Scaredy cats can stay behind to take the family-friendly Jack O’ Lantern Trail through the Victorian gardens and watch the light show.

Tickets

Prices for each tour at the time of this writing run $41.99 per adult, $19.99 for kids 5-12, and $34.99 for seniors over 65, military, and EMT/firefighters. But, by taking both tours back-to-back, the second tour was only $23. Kids under 6 aren’t allowed on the Explore More Tour, because of the inherent safety issues of these unfinished rooms. Diana purchased tour tickets in the gift shop right before the tour, where she also played this exciting arcade game:

Exciting antique arcade game at Winchester Mystery House.
Why yes, I think I’d better try it again, that doesn’t sound right…

Accessibility

From Diana’s experience, the Winchester Mansion is not hospitable to those who use a chair or have difficulty with stairs. Keep in mind it was all built before 1922, by a woman who was pretty petite. Strangely, Mrs. Winchester suffered from debilitating arthritis, and so some of the later additions to the house feature random half-height stairs. If you happen to be a petite person with knee problems, you’ll have to let us know if these actually provide any sort of increased accessibility. For Diana, the oddly short-yet-long winding staircases felt more difficult to descend, rather than less. There are 3 elevators on the property, but with the winding, sprawling nature of the house, these won’t take you to every location on the tour.

If you want to explore the grounds, there is still plenty to see, and the outdoor areas are very accessible. Also, free! In the courtyard just past the cafe, you’ll find the main restrooms. You’ll also do a double-take at this gem of a play shooting gallery to rival those of even famous theme parks, but with a haunting x Winchester Repeating Rifles theme:

A skill game that’s spooky AND cheesy? Take my quarters…

Diana spent quite a lot of time wandering through the beautiful flower gardens, admiring the gingerbread design. She tried to take photos of her favorite rooms from the outside, since there were no photo ops inside. In vain, as it turns out; it’s pretty impossible to tell what’s going on inside from the outside. With one notable exception: the Door to Nowhere dangles open, clearly labeled, for a Kodak moment you can risk if you aren’t afraid of some clumsy tourist falling out of it onto you.

if you take it, there will be a new ghost on the property…

Visiting the Winchester Mystery House at Halloween

The following photos were submitted by Kristen Stafford, producer of the Halloween Art and Travel podcast

Spooky decoration on the mansion’s grounds
Ghost decoration in the home’s turret
Spooky projection onto the front of the Winchester Mystery House
One of the famous spider web windows within the mansion
The Winchester Mystery House as it stood prior to the 1906 earthquake, recreated in gingerbread by Christine McConnell

What do you think motivated Sarah Pardee Winchester?

Until next time, have a spooky day!