The Strangest House in America

Kamie Berry | April 29th, 2017

In San Jose, California, near United States’ capital of technology and innovation, sits a house that represents innovation of a completely different kind. Known today as the Winchester Mystery House, this mansion has an interesting history, which fits in well with its bizarre floor plan.

The story of the house begins some years before its actual construction, when its owner, Sarah Winchester, experienced the first of two tragedies that would go on to haunt her throughout her life. Sarah was the wife of the gun magnate, William Winchester, owner of the famous Winchester Repeating Arms Company. In July of 1866, she gave birth to a daughter that they named Annie. Sadly, Annie died a little more than a week after her birth due to a strange illness that caused her to waste away. This death shattered Sarah, who never mentally recovered and who was never able to have another child.

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Disaster struck again in 1881 when William died from tuberculosis. Though Sarah was now an incredibly wealthy woman, the loss of her family made her deeply unhappy. A friend suggested that Sarah seek the aid of a Spiritualist medium, which was a popular practice in those days. The medium told her that a curse had been placed on her family by all the spirits of the people who had been killed by Winchester rifles, which is why her child and husband had died. She was told she should sell her property in New Haven (where she then lived) and move out west.

Sarah followed this advice and moved to the Santa Clara Valley area of California in 1884. There, she bought a six-room home that was still under construction, along with the 162 acres it sat on. She then set about building the strangest house the country had ever seen.

For 36 years she added onto her house, hiring workers to build 24 hours of every day of each year. All the plans for the house came from Sarah’s mind; she never used an architect. She would simply meet with her construction foreman every morning to discuss what her current building plans were.

Eventually the home reached seven stories tall and had over 500 rooms, though only four stories and 160 rooms remain. There are stairs that lead straight into the ceilings above them, doors that open onto brick walls, and even some doors that open onto nothing at all, save a drop several floors below. There are also trap doors and a blind chimney that doesn’t even reach the ceiling. Some of the bathrooms have glass doors on them, allowing anyone to see into them, and all the stair posts were installed upside down.

Wherever possible, the number 13 was incorporated into the house. Most of the staircases had 13 steps. Most of the rooms had 13 windows, each with 13 panes of glass. The drain covers on the sinks have 13 holes in them, and all the clothes hooks on the walls are placed in multiples of 13. She even had an expensive imported chandelier modified so it could hold 13 candles, instead of the usual 12.

Everything in the house was state of the art for its day. She had forced-air heating and push-button gas lights. She also had all indoor plumbing and a shower that provided hot water, both rare in that time. The house also had three elevators. Every furnishing, wall covering, light fixture, and flooring choice was the best that money could buy, including several stained-glass Tiffany windows.

More odd than the house’s architecture and use of the number 13, is the reason why Sarah Winchester had her house built this way. Some accounts say that the home’s luxury was not for her enjoyment alone. She made her house so nice in order to please the friendly spirits who were around her, and who she often consulted in a special séance room. As for the oddities, such as the doors and stairs to nowhere, were put in the house to confuse any of the evil spirits who sought to cause her harm. They were to serve as a maze for these vengeful ghosts.

Sarah died in her sleep in the home at the age of 83, after holding a séance. She left everything to her niece, but much of her fortune had been spent on the house. Eventually, the house was sold, and it is now a tourist attraction and a California Historical Landmark. You can still visit it today and decide for yourself if you think it is haunted, as many of the tour guides who work there have claimed.

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