Monday, October 31, 2011

The House Built For Spirits

If you’ve ever lived in an old house, you may know the feeling of being trapped in an endless cycle of repairs – paint jobs, leaky roofs, and ancient plumbing. But what if you built a house with no intention of ever finishing it? And what if the reason for your construction frenzy was rooted in a fear of ghosts? If so, you’d have something in common with Sarah Winchester, heiress to an empire based on the “gun that won the West,” the Winchester repeating rifle.

Born in 1840, Sarah was 22 when she married William Wirt Winchester, whose father perfected the Winchester rifle and amassed a fortune in producing and marketing the gun. But tragedy plagued Sarah’s marriage. Her infant daughter died of a mysterious illness, and William succumbed to tuberculosis fifteen years later. As a result of her losses, the widow fell into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. In her despair, she turned to the occult for help.

A spiritualist told Sarah that the spirits of the Native Americans, Civil War soldiers, and others who had been killed by the Winchester rifle were responsible for the untimely deaths of her husband and daughter – and Sarah might be next on the ghostly hit list. The spiritualist advised the distraught woman to construct a house with architectural features designed to foil these evil spirits – and to never stop building it.

Left with plenty of time on her hands and even more money to burn, Sarah set to work. (She’d inherited several million dollars plus shares in the Winchester Repeating Rifle Company on her husband’s death and eventually ended up with more than 20 million dollars.) In 1884, Sarah bought an unfinished farmhouse near San Jose, California, and hired carpenters to work in shifts round the clock, paying them twice the customary wages of the time. The frenzied pace of construction continued for the next 38 years, right up until the day Sarah died. At that point, the work stopped so abruptly that the carpenters didn’t even bother to finish pounding in their nails.

Switchback Staircase
Mrs. Winchester designed the house herself, or rather, she told the carpenters what to build and where to build it. She never worked from a plan and created a seven-story mansion that sprawled across six acres of land. By the time the work ended, the complex had 160 rooms; 2,000 doors; 10,000 windows; 47 staircases; an equal number of fireplaces; 13 bathrooms; and 6 kitchens. All to accommodate a single resident.

In addition to her never-ending construction work, Sarah Winchester also heeded the spiritualist’s other piece of advice: to incorporate architectural features designed to foil the angry spirits. Sarah built stairs that led nowhere, installed windows that opened into walls or were set in the floor, and constructed chimneys that stopped short of the roof. The house had twisting hallways with secret passages accessible through doors hidden in the paneling so Sarah could move quickly through the vast house and escape a ghost who might be in hot pursuit. She kept only two or three mirrors in the mansion, believing that they provided gateways to the spirit world.

But not all of Mrs. Winchester’s ideas were eccentric. In an era when electricity was a new invention, she had gas lights that were operated by pushing an electric button. She designed a one-piece porcelain laundry tub with a molded-in soap tray and washboard. It’s been rumored that she patented this invention, though no patent has ever been found. Sarah patterned a widow catch after a Winchester rifle trigger and trip hammer (though you’d think such a design might be tempting fate in a house filled with the ghosts of the people the rifle had dispatched). She installed brass corner plates on the stairs to make them easier to clean. (Imagine a male architect of the day coming up with that particular idea.)

So was Sarah Winchester really a crazy lady with too much money to burn or just a really bad architect? Her interest in the occult and reclusive habits certainly fueled the gossip mill and helped create her legend.

Yet some of the house’s features had plausible explanations. The Switchback Staircase, for instance, has seven flights and 44 steps. But because each step is only two inches high, the entire staircase rises only nine feet. Maybe that construction was intended to frustrate the spirits so they’d leave Sarah alone, but the design could also have been aimed at accommodating the widow’s arthritis, which she suffered in later years.

Window in the floor
Sarah never explained her eccentricities or left behind a diary, so we will probably never know the real reason behind her building fervor. But she was superstitious and believed that the number thirteen, while unlucky, also warded off bad luck. The house is filled with thirteens: some windows have thirteen panes, the house contains thirteen bathrooms, and the thirteenth one has thirteen windows. What’s more, Sarah’s will is divided into thirteen parts, and she signed it thirteen times. Maybe she hoped this auspicious number of signatures would prevent her money from falling into evil hands.

The mansion today goes by the name of The Winchester Mystery House and is open to the public. Guided tours run daily and include a nighttime flashlight tour every Friday the 13th and on Halloween. But visitors are not allowed to roam freely through the house. The official explanation is that they will likely get lost and never find their way out again. But who knows? Maybe some of Sarah Winchester’s evil ghosts remain trapped in the mansion’s labyrinth of rooms, corridors, and staircases, lying in wait to spook an unsuspecting tourist.

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