- Episode 6: Winchester Mystery House (Primary)
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- Type: Sound Created on: 2018 Creator: Neil Silberman and Angela Labrador
- Coherit Associates Publication date: 2018
- Copyright - All Rights Reserved
- social outcasts
- spirits (supernatural beings)
- rich people
Can I have your attention, please? Ladies, gentlemen, boys, and girls—everyone holding a ticket for the 2:30 tour? It’s my pleasure to welcome you to the world famous Winchester Mystery House, featured in USA Today, CNN, and The Travel Channel, and in a new feature film starring Academy Award winner Helen Mirren that was shot right here, at the “most haunted house in history” …
Please stay together right behind me, folks. It’s easy to get lost when we enter the house. And if you get separated from the group… in any of the hundreds of rooms we’ll visit… you may never find your way out… And please remember, no photographs permitted inside. The spirits that haunt this place don’t like having their pictures taken… (tone of mock threat) and who knows what they might do to anyone who violates the rules…
Watch your step, folks, as we enter what we call the $25,000 Room. It’s still filled with the expensive, imported rolls of wallpaper, carved wooden moldings, and stained glass windows all ready to be installed, just as the spirits instructed, on the night Mrs. Winchester died in 1922.
You see, Mrs. Winchester believed that ghosts swarmed all around her and if she ever stopped expanding and renovating the rooms of this house, those ghosts would come for her. So over the 38 long years she lived in this house, it grew from eight rooms to a hundred and sixty! They even say that she remodeled some of the rooms 600 times! All on the instructions of ghostly spirits! What do you think of that, folks? And if you hear strange sounds or feel a cold draft during this tour, don’t be surprised or too frightened. Many of the staff at the Winchester Mystery House have actually felt the presence of the ghosts that are still here…
Next we’ll move down the hall to take a look at the…
Welcome to Places of Legend, a podcast that digs into places with stories. Stories that are shared in schoolyards, on sidewalks, in urban legends, age-old superstitions, and internet memes. Let’s call it Cultural Heritage with a weird and unexpected twist. The legends can be scary. They can be hilarious or grotesque, and the truth behind them is almost always hidden. Places of Legend will offer up stories that pull back the curtain at famous historic sites around the country—historic places with very different stories to tell.
I’m Angela Labrador and with my colleague and author Neil Silberman, we hope to turn your ideas about America’s places of legend upside down. In this episode, our Place of Legend is the Winchester Mystery House just south of San Jose, California, which has been a popular and spooky tourist attraction since it opened to the public in 1923. By now the story is familiar to the thousands of visitors who experience the otherworldly thrill of exploring its labyrinthine halls, staircases that bizarrely lead to nowhere, hidden compartments, and, of course, a closed chamber in the middle of the sprawling mansion that is billed as the “Séance Room.” Some guides report that after dark, long after closing time, they have heard eerie footsteps approaching down the Victorian mansion’s countless hallways and disembodied voices whispering unrecognizable names.
The mysterious personality behind this house of fright was Sarah L. Winchester, a wealthy eastern heiress who came to the Santa Clara Valley of California to escape a life of grief and sadness that she had left behind in Connecticut. Only rarely appearing in public, and even then dressed entirely in black with a widow’s veil covering her face, Sarah Winchester is said to have harbored a bizarre premonition that if she ever stopped designing and expanding her mansion, she would die.
But here is the scariest part of the story: The spirits, the curse, and never-ending hauntings of the famous mansion are all part of a carefully constructed, money-making tall-tale. But that is not to say that the Winchester Mystery House has no historical value. Its existence as a tourist attraction was a brilliant stroke of imagination and public promotion. In fact, the story we’re about to tell is about how the Winchester Mystery House became the model for “haunted houses” at amusement parks and Halloween “fright houses” all over the United States.
Winchester. That name should be familiar. It was the company that manufactured the rifle that “won the West.” It was a lever operated repeating long gun, famous for its rapid-fire action that made it a deadly weapon against buffalo, Native Americans, and all manner of desperados and lawmen in the boom and bust towns of the Old West. Little wonder it became a familiar sight in images of frontiersmen and sharpshooters like Annie Oakley, and of course in the classic Western movies of the 20th century. In fact, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven, Connecticut shipped almost three quarter of a million Winchester ‘73s westward between the 1870s and the early 20th century.
The company was an enormously profitable enterprise and was the source of Sarah Winchester’s immense wealth. Yet her life was also plagued with grief and sadness. Her only child, Annie, died in infancy, and her beloved husband, William, heir to the Winchester fortune, wasted away and died of tuberculosis in the prime of his life. Sarah never fully recovered from the grief of these losses. After the death of her husband in 1881, she donned a somber black veil and widow’s clothing that she would continue to wear for the rest of her life.
After traveling for two years on a Grand Tour through Europe to take her mind off her sorrows, she returned to New Haven to realize that she could not bear to live amongst the sad reminders of earlier years. So Sarah Winchester took an unusual step for a wealthy heiress from New England. In 1884, she moved her entire household—servants, top-hatted carriage driver, and all—all the way across the country to the fertile but still largely undeveloped Santa Clara Valley of northern California to begin a new life for herself.
Sarah Winchester must have seemed a bizarre Yankee newcomer in her veil and black dress riding in the backseat of her elegant carriage down the country roads of the Santa Clara Valley—among its scattered vineyards, wheat fields, cattle ranches, and vegetable farms. Despite later nasty rumors about her grasp on reality, Sarah had a shrewd sense for sizing up real estate and identifying properties that would appreciate in value. Over the course of the next four decades she would purchase choice lots on the outskirts of the steadily growing metropolis of San Francisco, supervising the construction of houses for all the members of her extended family, and profitably selling the houses they outgrew.
But the property she would always be most attached to was a simple 8-room farmhouse in the middle of the Santa Clara Valley that she found during her first house-hunting trip. It was love at first sight and she paid the—then—outrageous sum of $12,500 for the house and 45 adjoining acres of farmland. Though that farmhouse was modest, she gave it the grandiose name of “Llanada Villa,” wistfully recalling the charming valley of Llanada Alavesa in Basque country that she had visited with her departed husband some years before.
It was going to take a great deal of work to make that simple 8-room farmhouse worthy of its exotic new title, but if there was one pursuit that Sarah Winchester loved, it was architectural design—and supervising the carpenters and plumbers to make sure the work was completed properly. This was an activity she cherished as it brought back pleasant memories of working with her late husband on the construction of a grand mansion for his parents back in New Haven.
Together they had designed graceful arches and soaring towers and turrets; ordered the finest materials and elegant stained glass windows; and if these elements didn’t harmonize, they didn’t hesitate to tear them out and start all over again. But now in distant California, she worked alone, making up in intensity for what she now lacked in matrimonial companionship. The 8-room farmhouse became her fixation and steadily grew larger and larger, with corridors, annexes, and gingerbread verandas and castle-like towers expanding the original structure ever outward, until it was completely engulfed in a vast Victorian labyrinth.
Despite her indomitable will, Sarah Winchester had never been a commanding presence. Standing less than five feet tall, she grew weaker and frailer as the decades passed. Increasingly debilitating arthritis slowly gnarled her once dainty hands and caused her increasing pain. With ever increasing difficulty she was helped into her carriage to leave the ever expanding Llanada Villa or even to walk through its maze of corridors, much less climb its countless flights of stairs. Add to that the loss of most of her teeth as she grew older, making her widow’s veil less a sign of sorrow than a cosmetic necessity. So she increasingly remained in seclusion in Llanada Villa—even on that terrible day in 1906 when the San Francisco Earthquake struck.
At just after 5am on the morning of April 18, 1906, Sarah Winchester and her large household staff and crew of gardeners were awoken by the sound of a frightening rumble and then violent shaking that gradually subsided during the day. Even in the middle of the Santa Clara Valley, a full 50 miles southeast of San Francisco, the damage was catastrophic; many homes and farm buildings were destroyed.
More than twenty years of constant work on the Llanada Villa was ruined. The highest point of the mansion, the seven-story main tower was toppled. Many of the interior walls collapsed and more than a dozen of the mansion’s chimneys were shaken loose, sending bricks flying in all directions. But most devastating of all, the upper floors—so carefully designed by Sarah Winchester—collapsed downward onto the lower floors, leaving a bizarre architectural ruin, with staircases leading to nowhere, broken plumbing pipes twisted in all directions, rooms and closets jumbled together, and doors opening to blank walls—or even to the open air.
And while the other residents of the Valley soon began to rebuild and to resume their lives after the disaster, Sarah Winchester had no strength to repair what she had exerted so much effort in building. After ordering the collapsed debris to be hauled away, she left Llanada Villa in its ruined condition, spending most of her remaining years in seclusion at her niece’s house in Atherton, a posh enclave in San Mateo County.
And that was more or less the end of the Llanada Villa story and Sarah Winchester’s part in creating it. Upon her death in 1922, the executors of her estate tried everything in their power to find a buyer, but its sheer size and its questionable condition made it less like a “fixer-upper” and more like a money pit. According to the documents found by Sarah Winchester’s biographer Mary Jo Ignoffo, the collapsed ruins of the Llanada Villa was “appraised as of no value.” Yet the farmland around it was quite desirable for agriculture. It was soon purchased by a consortium of San Jose real estate investors, who had no problem reselling the acres of fields and orchards around the house. But only a single potential buyer could be found for the damaged residence: an eccentric character, newly arrived in California. And with the lease and eventual purchase of the Villa Llanada by John H. Brown, the truly bizarre tale of the “Winchester Mystery House” began.
In order to understand why Brown saw an enormous financial opportunity in the ruined residence, we have to back up a bit to the later years of Sarah Winchester’s life. She was among the first of many wealthy heiresses to discover the mild climate and peacefulness of the Santa Clara Valley. During the Gilded Age many other mansions were constructed, and attendance at the yearly round of elegant dinner parties, holiday receptions, and charity galas became the sign of membership in the valley’s High Society for Old Money and the nouveau riche alike. Railroad, business, and mining tycoons—were the leaders of the local elite. But Sarah Winchester—as wealthy as any of them—kept to herself and preferred not to participate.
Naturally enough, nasty rumors began spreading to account for the refusal of the Winchester heiress to properly behave as a member of the upper class. As early as 1895, some of this malicious gossip found its way into the local social columns. An item in the San Jose Evening News speculated on why she so obsessively and continuously enlarged her mansion, suggesting that Sarah Winchester was either superstitious or mad. The writer even repeated an idle speculation that she feared that if she ever stopped building, she would certainly die.
Then came the ridicule directed at the source of the Winchester fortune—again spread through the chatter of local elite who grew more and more contemptuous of her. Though the other tycoons hardly had reason to throw stones by accusing others of making money from human suffering, the scorn they directed toward Sarah Winchester and her reclusive ways was especially venomous. Some half-jokingly speculated, that her behavior was influenced by supernatural sources. Since her wealth came from guns which had caused the deaths of countless people, surely it was their angry ghosts who haunted her house and forced her to create what they all considered an architectural monstrosity.
So by the time of Sarah’s death, a thick web of unsubstantiated rumors hung thickly about her house and her memory. Of course, no one in the Santa Clara Valley really believed them, but they made for amusing after dinner stories and blackened her reputation. This was all perfect grist for the imaginative mill of the new occupant of the Winchester residence, Mr. John H. Brown.
When he signed the lease with the option to buy the wreck of a mansion, John H. Brown had already led an unconventional life. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he was a natural born mechanic and tinkerer with a flair for sensationalism. His most famous invention, US Patent Number 762022, registered in 1904 was for a unique kind of “Pleasure Railway,” an early rollercoaster that ran both forwards and backwards, more widely known as the “Backety-Back Scenic Railway.” In 1909, Brown was paid the then enormous sum of $50,000 to construct one at the popular Crystal Beach Amusement Park, just across the Canadian border from Buffalo. The Backety-Back was an enormous success with park visitors, at least until the following year, when a 17-year-old girl was killed in a fall from one of the speeding cars. From 1910 to 1922, little is known of Brown’s movements, except that he remained in the amusement park business, and eventually turned up in California, still intent on creating attractions that would fascinate the public—and that they would be willing to buy tickets to see.
How Brown first learned of the Winchester House and all the ghostly tales that had begun to cling to its misshapen structure is a mystery, but it was precisely mystery and ghoulish stories that he was determined to sell. By April 1923, he had established “The Winchester Amusement Company” and on May 20, “The Winchester Mystery House” was opened to the public. Brown had devised a tour, that, while entirely fictitious, was just spooky enough to delight the visitors. A special highlight of the tour was an otherwise nondescript room, which Brown had dubbed the “Séance Room” where, it was said, Mrs. Winchester communed with the spirit of her dead husband and received instructions from the ghostly victims of Winchester rifles as to which new turrets, towers, and secret chambers she should build.
In 1924, the great magician and escape artist Harry Houdini came to visit. By then he had gained a national reputation as a passionate debunker of spiritualist frauds, but he found the Winchester Mystery House to be a genuine portal to the next world. He even claimed to have sensed the presence of Sarah Winchester’s spirit. The stories told during Brown’s tours had absolutely nothing to do with the facts of Sarah Winchester’s life. But the roadside attraction was profitable enough to support the Brown family, and by 1931 they had saved enough to end their lease arrangement and purchase the house.
The Winchester Mystery House today remains one of San Jose’s main tourist attractions, having welcomed—according to its management’s own estimates—more than 12 million visitors since its opening in 1923. Tightly scheduled sixty-five minute tours are conducted every day of the year except Christmas, taking visitors throughout the mansion and characterizing its most famous owner on the Winchester Mystery House website as “a grieving widow who continuously built (and built and built) onto her initially small, two-story farmhouse to appease the spirits of those killed by the guns manufactured by her husband’s firearms company.”
The Winchester Mystery House is a place where history and legend have become hopelessly jumbled. In fact, the legend is now officially acknowledged as part of our nation’s historic record. In 1974, it was declared a California Historic Landmark and was approved for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the United States' official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects deemed worthy of preservation for their historical significance.
Each National Register nomination form contains a “statement of significance.” The Winchester House’s statement of significance mentions the tragic deaths of Sarah Winchester’s daughter and husband. However, it goes on to tell the legend of Sarah’s supposed visit to a spiritualist medium who told her that the victims of Winchester guns had cursed her and to appease them, she must move west and ceaselessly build a home for them. In this instance, legend looms large in the cultural significance of the historic site.
The 2018 feature film, “Winchester,” goes even further in spreading the myth of Sarah Winchester’s life and work. Helen Mirren, in the starring role, plays a stone-faced Victorian widow and proprietor of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. She is subjected to a psychiatric examination by the company’s board of directors who wish to remove her. Her ensuing obsession with the ghost-victims is a thinly veiled morality play concerning today’s gun control debate.
But there is no historical evidence whatsoever that Sarah Winchester’s life was ruled by either guilt or supernatural forces. Her wealth, her tireless passion for architectural experimentation, the San Francisco earthquake, and some creative marketing by an amusement park inventor, make the Winchester Mystery House what it is today – not ghosts. As for Sarah herself, in strict accordance with her own instructions, she now lies peacefully next to her husband and daughter in the historic Evergreen Cemetery in her hometown of New Haven, Connecticut.
The legendary Sarah is the real ghost of the story—the main character of a malicious fable directed at a nonconforming woman that was transformed into popular entertainment. Its paranormal aura is a figment of the imagination, forever trapped in a roadside tourist attraction, and disguised as history by its Victorian gingerbread trimmings. Perhaps the hidden mystery of the Winchester House is not so much Sarah Winchester’s guilty conscience, but John H. Brown’s. After all, he was the one who fled Canada after a teenager fell to her death from his Backety-back roller coaster. Perhaps it was her screams that haunted him as he tirelessly transformed the old Victorian into a ghoulish fright house.
Could it be that in an age when the spectre of death is such a hidden and unacknowledged reality we have transformed that terror into a dark kind of entertainment, in which the frights and mysterious glimpses of the afterlife have no consequences but a temporary thrill? Indeed the Winchester Mystery house has served as the model for “haunted house” roadside attractions all over the country. Its bizarre architecture and ghost stories even inspired one of the most famous spooky attractions of all: the “Haunted Mansion” at Disneyland, Disney World, and at Disney theme parks all over the world. What does it say about us that we are attracted to places whose stories – true or false - speak of death, grief, and even madness? Is it just morbid curiosity? Or is there a deeper desire to connect with the human experiences of fear, guilt, and dying alone? In one light, the Winchester Mystery House may appear as an amusing roadside attraction that serves up a tall tale to dupe its paying customers. But, in another light, we can appreciate the site as a momento mori – a poignant opportunity to reflect upon what it means to live a good life – and how difficult it may be, in this day and age, to rest in peace.
We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Places of Legend, a podcast in which we explore historic sites where the forgotten and unexpected meeting of past and present offers a new kind of heritage experience. Our aim is share our curiosity about out-of-the-way places and forgotten events. And we invite you to visit our website at placesoflegend.com where you can find maps, photographs, and links to further information about the sites we explore.
In our next episode, we’ll travel to the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, the site of the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln, savior of the Union and one of our greatest presidents. There we’ll tell the story of how a gang of bumbling counterfeiters from Chicago, plotted to steal the assassinated President’s body and hold it for a cash ransom and a full pardon for one of their imprisoned comrades. As we’ll discover, this ghoulish plot became a comedy of errors, largely forgotten in the annals of American history.
Until then, thanks for listening. And we look forward to joining you in discovering more places of legend, available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and on our website at placesoflegend.com.