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Winchester Thriller Home Is America’s Strangest, Most Attention-grabbing House

Staircases to nowhere. Doors that open into nothing. Rooms with no exit. Sarah Winchester’s home in San Jose, California certainly doesn’t fit with any modern or historical architectural conventions. And 101 years to the day since it became a public attraction—June 30 is the official Winchester Mystery House Day in San Jose—the mysteries still remain about America’s most unusual and inexplicable home.

Today, the Winchester Mystery House is a museum filled with period furniture and stories of Sarah Winchester and her family—and some say it’s also filled with ghosts. The house, which the museum says has drawn 12 million visitors since 1923, frequently appears on lists of haunted locations. Both tour guides and guests claim to have had brushes with the paranormal there.

The curious, four-story home has 160 rooms across its 24,000 square feet, with 10,000 windows (some facing inside), 2,000 doors (some leading to walls) and six kitchens (to feed the home’s lone resident and her staff). But it didn’t start that way.

Grieving over the death of her husband William Winchester, son of the founder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and having just inherited $20 million from William’s stake in the company, the widow moved from her New Haven home to the San Francisco Bay area. Once she landed in San Jose, Winchester commissioned a modest eight-bedroom farmhouse in 1884. Construction, though, never stopped. Over the next 38 years, until her death in 1922, she continually added to the house, eventually dismissing all architects and building according to her whim. When the 1902 earthquake caused significant damage to one wing of the house, she simply boarded it up and continued with construction in other areas.

The stories around Winchester Mystery House are legendary. Some say Sarah Winchester was driven mad by grief for her lost family (in addition to the death of her infant daughter years before, she lost her husband, father-in-law and mother in about a year) and guilt over the deaths caused by her family’s rifles. Those stories suggest she built her odd home as an unusual—and unusually expensive—way to stay safe. If spirits were roaming the labyrinthine house, they would be confused by its seemingly endless corridors and perpetually connecting rooms, and they would never find her.

The idea that Winchester was afraid of encounters with the supernatural became so pervasive that even the National Park Service, in its description of the house on the National Register of Historic Places, attributes the home’s construction to a spiritualist medium Winchester purportedly consulted.

“This medium informed Mrs. Winchester that the victims killed by the Winchester rifles her family manufactured were seeking revenge by taking the lives of her family,” according to the NPS. “The spiritualist also conveyed to Mrs. Winchester that the spirits had placed a curse on her, and that if she wished to live, she must appease them by moving out west and constantly, without ceasing, build a house for them night and day.”

But others dismiss the idea, saying rather that the reclusive Winchester treated the home’s expansion as a hobby, and that she continued growing its footprint as a way to keep laborers employed in difficult economic times. If a staircase ended up leading to a dead end, or if an exterior wall eventually became an interior wall and had a door that opened up to nothing but thin air, well, that’s just what happened. The woman had enough money to build whatever she pleased, and she did.

“She had a social conscience and she did try to give back,” Winchester Mystery House historian Janan Boehme told the Los Angeles Times in 2017, citing her donation of a tuberculosis hospital in New Haven after her husband died of the disease. “This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all.”

Regardless of why the Winchester Mystery House exists in its present state, the home is a marvel to behold, with its towers reaching into the sky, its Queen Anne Revival adornments, and its manicured gardens. It’s worth an exploration, whether during the day on the tour that goes through 110 of the home’s 160 rooms, or by flashlight at night. During Halloween season, and on a few dates throughout the year, the museum offers flashlight tours wherein, according to the tour description, “Guests will guide themselves through the mansion that is famous for its dizzying floorplan and lack of formal blueprints… while in the dark and alone with just a flashlight.”

Who you’ll find there is another one of the home’s great mysteries.

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