What You Don't Know About t the Winchester Mystery House

Taken from the Winchester Gardens. By Stephanie Carroll
If you like this post, you may also like The Most Useful Historical Details for Novelists from the Winchester Mystery House.  Or 10 Creepy Facts About a Real World Necropolis.

I recently visited a famous Victorian oddity, the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, but unlike most tour-goers my interests weren’t just in the historical quirks of a rich woman with an architectural addiction. I was interested in the ideas and inspiration, along with the historical details I could glean from a place like the Winchester.

The door to nowhere.
The History 

For those who don’t know, the Winchester Mystery House is a bizarre mansion built by the wife of the heir to the Winchester fortune (the gun that won the west). 

After a series of devastating tragedies that ended with her losing all of her dearest loved ones, including her daughter and husband, Mrs. Sarah Winchester turned to the popular Victorian world of Spiritualism.

Spiritualists were believed to have the ability to contact the dead and the one who Mrs. Winchester visited confirmed what she had already begun to believe, that she was being haunted by the spirits of people killed from the Winchester guns. The only way to appease the dead, according to the medium, was for Mrs. Winchester to build a house and to never stop building it, not for one minute.

According to The Smithsonian Magazine online, Mrs. Winchester had 16 shifts of workers (paid three times the normal wage) working 24-hours a day nonstop from 1886 to the time of her death in 1922. The product of that is the San Jose mansion, which has curiosities like doors that lead to nowhere, rooms within rooms, twisting corridors, and stairwells that lead to the ceiling. That's just to name a few.
By Stephanie Carroll
Some say Mrs. Winchester, who visited a medium table every day to determine the work of the next day, was crazy.

Others say she built the house in such a way to confuse the spirits haunting her.

Still more say built a house that only made sense to the spirits who were directing her (one of my favorite theories).

A woman shows how the Winchester stairs lead to the ceiling.
Then some say the quirks of the house are due to the fact that Mrs. Winchester, having lost her loved ones to the spirits, didn't care if their demanded penance work made sense. So if she didn’t want stairs, she just walled off the stairs without worrying about the fact that it looked bizarre to just have stairs going nowhere.

Finally, many of the people who have visited and who work at the house argue that it was her life's work, her form of expression, a way to make meaning out of the chaos. And in some way, isn't that a poetic query? Was she truly haunted by ghosts or by the memories and regrets that haunt many of us in this world?

How Does this Help Writers?
I think it goes without saying that the Winchester Mystery House is awesome for writers of the Gothic, Victorian, haunted house, ghost and magical realism genres. In fact I'm pretty sure the Winchester was inspiration for a similar house in the fabulous magical realism novel The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende. This house is featured in the novel, not the movie. I want to say I heard that in a note at the end of the Audible audio book, but I can't say for sure. If anyone knows, feel free to confirm or deny in the comments.

Writers take ideas from real life all the time and historical novelists thrive on using facts to inspire fiction. If you'd like to find out some of the architectural details that you can use in your work, check out my accompanying post on The Most Useful Historical Details for Novelists from the Winchester Mystery House. 

One of the many strange fountains and statues in the Winchester gardens.
By Stephanie Carroll
When Isabel Allende wrote The House of Spirits, the internet wasn't as big of a thing, and it wasn't as easy for people to know so much about everything, so if you just have a lady hearing spirits building a crazy house, it's going to be obvious that you are using the Winchester as inspiration (which is fine as long as you are up front about it with readers). However, what I think people really get a kick out of is when authors use details that are lesser known but are still based in fact.

So below you will find some of the lesser known things about the Winchester Mystery House that might be useful to you as inspiration or if you're just curious. Also, my accompanying post on historical details might also be of use: The Most Useful Historical Details for Novelists from the Winchester Mystery House. 

The Winchester Mystery House: 
What You Don't Usually Hear About.

Llanada Villa
Mrs. Winchester didn't call it The Winchester Mystery House. She called it Llanada Villa.

A Simple Farmhouse
At the core of the Winchester Mystery House is a simple 8-room farmhouse that Mrs. Winchester purchased several years before she began construction. She didn't tear down the house but just built up and all around it. You can still see remnants of the outside of the farmhouse inside the walls of the current house. Awesome!
By Stephanie Carroll

A Place Where the World Turns Upside Down.
I love the way Pamela Haag, Ph.D., author of The Gunning of America, puts it in The Smithsonian Magazine online article:

Details are designed to confuse. In one room, Winchester laid the parquetry in an unusual pattern: When the light hit the floor a particular way, the dark boards appeared light, and the light boards, dark. Bull’s-eye windows give an upside-down view of the world. Even these basic truths, of up and down, and light and dark, could be subverted.

Occult symbols and numbers.
Mrs. Winchester took the occult pretty seriously, so serious in fact that she incorporated symbols like spider webs and numbers like 7, 11, 13, and 52 in a variety of the architecture. Windows are the primary place where you will find the spider webs although they are also in gates, but the numbers are all over the place.

Spider web windows courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House.
There's a staircase in the shape of a Y that has one set of 7 stairs and two sets of 11, each one taking you to a different area of the house. There are 13 bathrooms, and 13 windows in the 13th bathroom. Many of the ceilings have 13 panels. She even signed her will 13 times and divided it into 13 parts.

The number 52 has to do with a deck of cards, each symbol having spiritual meaning. Also 13 x 4 is 52, which is the number of the plot she is buried in. I imagine 13 wasn't available.

Unique Architectural Elements and Design.
  • Mrs. Winchester knew a thing or two about architecture, but she liked to do things her way. For example, a lot of the pillars and columns throughout the house are upside down because she felt they were more structurally sound and load bearing that way. It turns out Frank Loyd Wright thought so too, so not everything she did was all batty.
  • The Crystal Bedroom is a room kept private from tours for preservation purposes. The wallpaper was made with crushed mica, so that it reflects light and sparkles when light hits it. 
    Crystal encrusted wallpaper from the
    Crystal Bedroom courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House.
  • The Seance Room, where Mrs. Winchester went to commune with the spirits, had three exists but only one possible entrance. If I remember correctly this was achieved through doors with knobs only on one side. This room is described as being hidden by tour guides, but to me it felt like it was the center of the house. It was super simple and small, but had 13 hooks for hats.
  • She also used light wells, which were like interior skylights, to bring light into lower parts of the house and to see who was at the front door, but the way she had them installed (like in the middle of the room) was just a little weird.
  • She had this one window installed that had special crystals in it, so when the light hit it, it glitters and shows beautiful coloration, but then she had a building put up to block the sun from ever shinning through, a seemingly symbolic decision. I tried but could not find a picture of this online, and when I toured the mansion, photos were prohibited. If anyone knows of one, comment it up!
  • The Witch's Cap is the part of the house that looks like a witch's hat. Whether it was intentional or not, the shape of the roof makes it so that when you stand in the center and speak it sounds like your voice is surrounding you. 
    The inside of the Witch's Cap
    courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House.
  • The upstairs conservatory has elevators and removable floors, so all the plants in the entire house could be brought to one room and watered all at once. The conservatory is gorgeous by the way.
    There are 161 Rooms Discovered ... So Far.
    Yep, historical excavation and preservation is ongoing at the Winchester. Mrs. Winchester did so much of walling stuff up that rooms are still occasionally uncovered. The most recent was around 2016 with the discovery of the Daisy Room, which I discuss more in the next point.

    Mrs. Winchester Trapped ... Literally  
    From the Daisy Room.
    Mrs. Winchester lived a rather isolated life in her house, but during the 1906 San Francisco quake, she was actually trapped in what has been termed the Daisy Room because there are daisies on the glass windows.

    In the "Daisy Room" the windows were made of Belgian optical glass, which makes everything outside look larger and distorted. According to servant stories, she looked out these windows while trapped took this as a sign that the house could never be finished and blocked off that section of the house after her rescue.

    This room was only recently discovered and opened to the public according to ABC News.

    Early Handicap Accessibility 
    Another Fountain in the Gardens
    By Stephanie Carroll
    Easy rider stairs were installed in various areas of the house because as Mrs. Winchester aged, she could barely lift her feet in order to climb the stairs. Easy riders have only a tiny bit of lift, which makes them easier to traverse for seniors. However, the small amount of rise per step requires far more distance for the stairs to rise up to a certain level. This forced workers to have these stairs zig-zag back and forth up and up to get to the destined floor. The effect is weird!

    The House was Self Sustaining
    The Winchester Mystery House isn't just a house, it was a self-sustaining world of it's own. Many of the servants lived on the land, and it had many other buildings, including at least one servant's house around it. It even had it's own orchards and fruit drying house. A gravity system took throughout from the top down while a special boiler pushed heat from the basement up. Many other innovations put into place has led tour guides to call Mrs. Winchester ahead of her time in conservation and sustainability. Who would have thunk it!

    Open to the Public
    Historically, the grounds of Winchester were open to the public who could come and enjoy the beautiful statues and gardens. For a long time it was like a park for San Jose. From the outside, the Winchester is actually a gorgeous place. It's only once you go inside that you see the potential for the freaky.

    The Ballroom Has Already Inspired Some
    The room they call the ballroom (which probably wasn't actually a ballroom as it's far too small - it was more likely a place for entertainment because Victorians often hired musicians and theater troops to perform in their houses) inspired the look of Disney's Haunted Mansion ballroom!

    The ballroom courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House.
    Mysterious Shakespearean Clues
    One of the things I found the most interesting were these Tiffany glass windows in the "ballroom" Mrs. Winchester had installed with lines from two separate Shakespearean plays incorporated into the glass. My tour guide, as well as others who have visited the house, suggest that these two quotes hold some sort of hidden clues or answer to the mysteries of the house. These are the tall windows you can see at the back of the photo above.

    The first from the window on the left reads:

    These same thoughts people this little world.

    According to The Smithsonian Magazine online, this is from the prison soliloquy in Shakespeare's Richard II. At this point in the play, the character King Richard was deposed as king and trying to create a world within his cell using only his imagination.

    Courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House.
    This almost makes sense within the context of the mystery house, but the second quote, not so much. It reads:

    Wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts.

    This quote is from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. According to Shmoop this line comes from the middle of a paragraph where Ulysses is basically calling a woman a slut after she flirts with a few characters. I'm no literary critic, but I don't see the connection. Perhaps, it had a personal meaning for Mrs. Winchester ... I feel like these quotes would make more sense if swapped to read: "Wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts." Then: "These same thoughts people this little world." But that's now the order she chose.

    Honestly, when you read the quotes without understanding the Shakespearean context, but taking the Winchester context, it kind of makes sense, but would Mrs. Winchester have that much forethought? Who knows? That's why it's a mystery.

    The Ballroom Safe
    A final mystery was discovered in the ballroom - a hidden safe. Those who discovered it expected riches beyond their wildest dreams, but all they found inside were two locks of hair, that of Mrs. Winchester's deceased daughter and her husband.

    Regardless of the various mysteries, theories and legends surrounding the Winchester Mystery House, one cannot deny that Mrs. Winchester was a fascinating example of a character and artist of her time. Her form of finding solace or meaning will inspire and creep people out for who knows how long, and we as fellow artists can take a few notes from her and use them to inspire our own work. So authors and artists, maybe even some architectural students, have at it!

    By Stephanie Carroll
    Don't forget to check out my corresponding post The Most Useful Historical Details for Novelists from the Winchester Mystery House. 

    And tell me what do you know about the Winchester that can be included in this list?


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