This month’s Romance Wanderlust features a place that I’ve actually been to. The Winchester Mystery House is romantic in the sense that the owner, Sarah Winchester, seems to have been devoted to her husband, and it’s romantic in the sense that if you go on a candlelight tour then you can clutch each other in terror. Otherwise, it’s not so much as romantic as it’s just strange and unusual. You can’t stay at the Winchester Mystery House, nor would you want to (I assume) but it makes for a lovely outing in a beautiful part of California (assuming that it doesn’t all burn down, blow away, or fall over by the time this column is published).
Gather round, children, and I’ll tell you the story that has freaked out Californian children for lo these many years. Once upon a time, there was a woman named Sarah Winchester. Her baby died, her in-laws died, her parents died, and her husband died. She inherited a huge fortune that came from the sales of Winchester rifles, the “gun that won the West,” but she was miserable. So she consulted a medium, who explained that she was cursed by the spirits of all those who had been killed by Winchester weapons. The only way to appease the spirits was to build them a house, and the construction would have to go on 24/7 and not stop until Sarah died. In order to prolong the construction, the house was built with odd features like steps that go nowhere. In order to please the spirits, the house was also built with repetition of the number 13.
Alternate ending that scared my pants off in first grade: the building went on until Sarah left town for a day and because she couldn’t yell at the workers they stopped working and took the day off and she dropped dead the minute they all stopped.
The interesting thing about this story is that the first version is presented as gospel truth at the Winchester Mystery House and online and all over California. The legend has it that Sarah was a sad and mentally ill woman who compulsively made her house not only as large, but as strange as possible. For a biography that contests this story, try Captive of the Labyrinth by Mary Jo Ignoffo.
Here is what’s known, more or less. Sarah Winchester was indeed a widow who inherited a vast sum of money from the Winchester estate. She moved to San Jose, California, in or around 1884, purchased a farmhouse, and began adding on. She was not an architect but she loved design and woodwork and she designed the house herself. Part of it fell down during the 1906 Earthquake but most of the house and the gardens around it remain. The house is owned by a private company that does daytime tours as well as special candlelight tours. These tours play heavily on the legend and on the idea that the house is haunted.
My teen daughter and I went on the extended tour, which meant that we got to see some of the main parts of the house as well as one of the attic rooms and the basement. I’m going to sound pretty warm and fuzzy about most of the house, but let’s get this out of the way. The basement is creepy. I’m quite certain that many murders were committed in it despite a total lack of any evidence. Indeed, one of the only claims NOT made about the house is that it’s a murder site. However, I’m calling it – someone used this basement as a torture chamber and incinerated the bodies in the furnace. I’m standing by this and I will never ever go in that basement again because I WATCH MOVIES AND I KNOW HOW THIS ENDS.
Most people feel pretty creeped out, or at least very sad, about the rest of the house. It’s easy to see why. It’s pretty weird. There are indeed steps that lead right up to the ceiling and then stop, and a door that opens onto thin air (it is, inconveniently, located on the second floor). For the most part the house is unfurnished although someone thoughtfully left a Creepy Doll lying around and someone else donated an organ (the kind you play, not a body part) to the ballroom. Did I picture the creepy doll waltzing in the dead of night while ghostly organ music plays? Yes I did, and so would you.
However, I actually felt quite at home in the Winchester Mystery House. Like me, Sarah was short (she was 4’10” and I’m 4’9”). Since it was her house, she had all the fixtures (like bathroom sinks) built to her height, which everyone on my tour seemed to think was eccentric but I found to be delightful. She also, like me, had arthritis (she had rheumatoid arthritis which was very severe, and I have moderate osteoarthritis). She built special low-rise stairs with switchbacks so that she could get around (she also had elevators). Again – the stairs, which have a lot of switchbacks so that they can fit into a small space, are touted as a house oddity and I LOVED them. In my future, all stairs will be just like those and I’ll be able to get my exercise without my kneecaps flying off into space. Sarah and I are as one, clearly.
Sarah lived to be 83, so she must have done something right. While we all thrill to the legend of the spirits, I’m fond of the theory posed in Captive of the Labyrinth that says that Sarah built stuff because she liked building stuff. She had aptitude, money, and time, so why not? And since she wasn’t an architect, and she learned as she went, so there’s some weird stuff. Additionally, she built for her own comfort.
Usually people leave the Winchester Mystery House in a discomfited state, but I felt nothing but great fondness for Sarah, my short, arthritic sister. You can book tours at www.winchestermysteryhouse.com. Just don’t go in the basement.
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