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The Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California, USA

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No trip to Silicon Valley is complete without a visit to this strange Victorian house set in a beautiful garden, right next to three giant, domed movie theatres. The Winchester Mystery House has drawn millions of visitors since it was made a public attraction in the 1930s. The history of this mansion is as strange as its dead end staircases, the windows that look onto on brick walls and the doors that open to 20 foot falls.

The Ghosts Follow the Money

The Winchester Repeating Rifle may well have been the main reason the American West was taken from the native peoples who had been there for centuries. The lever action rifle had been around for years, but Oliver Winchester had developed the means to mass produce it. The company grew rich as the gun became a favourite of cowboys, lawmen, outlaws, the plains tribes and the army. Among the biggest fans of the rifle were President Theodore Roosevelt and General George Custer.

Mrs Winchester

William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver, was named the Vice-President of the Winchester Company in 1871, and when Oliver died in 1880, he became the owner of 48.9% of the Winchester Company. In 1862, William had married Sarah Pardee. The couple had a daughter, but disease took her away from them a few weeks later. William died of tuberculosis in 1881, leaving Sarah in mourning for the rest of her life.

A Visit to the Medium

Shortly after William's death, Sarah made a trip to Boston and visited a medium. The medium claimed to have contacted her husband and informed her that there was a curse on the family because of the thousands of people who had been killed by the Winchester Rifle. The medium told Sarah to 'Head towards the setting sun', which Sarah took to mean move west. She chose the Santa Clara Valley, an agricultural area of Northern California.

The House

Sarah found a six-room farmhouse under construction just outside San Jose. She bought the house and the 162 acres it sat on and hired the best carpenters, orchard workers and gardeners in the Valley. Since she paid more than twice the going rate for help, she ensured that she got the best. And by paying at the end of every work day, she could fire anyone at any time, something she did quite frequently.

Once Sarah Winchester arrived in San Jose in 1884, the original plans for the modest farmhouse were scrapped and Sarah began drawing up plans for expansion that would lead to continuous building for the next 38 years.

The House Grows

The six rooms of the original farmhouse were quickly remodelled, though the original hay loft and back stairs remain in much the same style as they were when originally built. Rooms were added and remodelled according to drawings Sarah had done by hand. There was no grand scheme for the house, though every morning Sarah met with the foreman to go over plans and come up with ways of dealing with conflicting designs. There were hallways with no doors that went to dead-ends, doors led would lead to drops of many feet, and the famous staircase to the ceiling. Often, the solution to one problem was to build another room around the original, or to make another staircase, which led to the house needing a complex system of bells and signals so that servants could locate Mrs Winchester.

Theories about the Building

Though many think that the strange designs were a product of her lack of training in architecture, others believe that they were designed to confuse ghosts. Mrs Winchester rarely stayed for two consecutive nights in the same bedroom, and is believed to have done the drawings for the building in the seance room late at night. Many say that this shows Sarah's fear of the ghosts that haunted her, and that the designs were purposely done. Sarah also took great care to use many different, confusing paths to get to various parts of the house that she visited frequently. This may have been done to confuse the spirits trying to follow her.

After Sarah

Sarah Winchester died in 1922, leaving her estate to her niece. Removing all the furniture took more than a month. All the furniture was sold at auction and no records were kept of buyers, so none of the furniture currently in the house is original, with the exception of the organs that Mrs Winchester had installed. Much of the furniture in the house today was donated over the years by locals who had period pieces, and there is some belief that the donor of the bed currently in the room where Sarah Winchester died may have been from the Winchester House in Connecticut.

In the 1920s, a company began offering tours of the house, and it was soon to become a full time gig. Much of the acreage, which had once produced apricots, plums, figs and many other fruits, was sold over the years, with many acres being sold to Syufy Enterprises. Syufy built three large movie theatres on the land, each with a large dome that is visible from the 280 Freeway below. A town and country mall was built across the street, getting a lot of traffic from both those locals going to the movies and the tourists visiting the House.

A Tour of the House

The tour begins in a small carriage house on the ground floor. The door then proceeds through a store room with various quantities of old cut glass, Lincresta Wall covering and other items, and then as you walk to the old hayloft, you are invited to poke your head in and see the stairway to the ceiling. Along the way, you'll see the room where Sarah was trapped during the 1906 earthquake (and you can still see the crow bar mark from when they opened the door), two unfinished ballrooms, one with cryptic Shakespearean quotes on stained glass windows, and through rooms with incredible expensive inlaid floors that were boarded off in 1906.

The tour meanders along, passing all sorts of oddities and telling a story of Sarah Winchester as an eccentric widow with too much money and a strange hobby. On regular tours, there is little or no mention of the ghosts that haunted Sarah or the ones that have been seen since her passing. The flashlight tours, that take place several times a year, mention more about ghosts and are given in the darkened house with each participant given a souvenir flashlight.

Perhaps the most interesting theme of the tour is the number 13, with baker's dozens of instances of the number: in the number of sections of panelling on the ceiling, in the number of holes in a drain and even in a standard 12-candle chandelier with an extra candle glued onto the centre post. Other themes that occur around the house include the Daisy (which traditionally has 13 petals) and the spider web.

The Ghosts

While Sarah Winchester is said to have seen or communicated with many spirits in the house while she was living, there are only two active spirits known in the house today. One is a carpenter working diligently on various parts of the grounds. He has never really taken notice of people who encounter him, and is most frequently seen by tour guides on their end of the day rounds in the basement. The other frequently seen, and more often heard, spirit is Mrs Winchester herself. Not only has she been seen in the halls of the house by several tour guides (again, usually at the end of the day), but she has been seen wandering the grounds. Employees of the Century 23 movie theatres have seen Sarah walking through their parking lot late at night. Many times, there are reports of the sound of an organ being played or of a bell ringing late at night, both of which were things Sarah would frequently do.

Though millions of photographs have been taken in the House, few show anything out of the ordinary. There have been photos of things that look like they could be Sarah over the last several years, including one of a very interested reflection in a window in a closed off room. However, no clear photo has ever been taken of any spirit in the house or grounds. There is a story of a couple who took a video of the door of the room Sarah was trapped in in 1906, and that a ball of energy was taped gathering in the doorway.

When You're There...

The Winchester Mystery House is located in San Jose, California, USA, at the intersection of the 280 Freeway and Winchester Boulevard. The House is available for tours every day, with flashlight tours given several times a year, on Friday the 13ths and every Halloween weekend. There is plenty of free parking (both at the Winchester house and across the street at the Century Theatres) and tours leave every 10-15 minutes. Arrive early in the day as tours frequently sell out by 1pm. The tours cost US$15.95 for the standard tour (at time of writing), and US$22.50 for an extended tour. You can buy tickets in advance through ticket master or at the gift shop of the house.

Also on the grounds are a gift shop, a small arcade (featuring the Simpsons video game and other older classics), a firearms collection and lovely gardens. There are bunches of places to eat in the vicinity, including Chevy's across Winchester and Flames one block down.

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