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, and with that different perspective, I noted some things that aren't as well known.
First, the History (What you might already know) 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 the original mediums, believed to possess the ability to contact the dead. The medium Mrs. Winchester visited confirmed her fears, that the spirits of people killed from the Winchester guns were haunting her and killing the people she loved. According to the spiritualist, Mrs. Winchester's only hope to appease the dead was to build a house and never stop, not even for a moment.
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 her efforts is the San Jose mansion, which contains curiosities, like doors that lead to nowhere, rooms within rooms, twisting corridors, and stairwells that lead to the ceiling. That's just to name the most popular few.
Why was the result so nonsensical?
Some say Mrs. Winchester simply went insane after so many losses.
Others say she built the house in such a way to confuse the spirits haunting her. Still more say, she built a house that only made sense to the spirits who were directing her each night from the medium table (one of my favorite theories).
Yet, more theories abound. Others say the quirks are the product of a woman who had stopped caring about what others thought. If the stairs became impractical, she just walled them off and built more practical stairs. Finally, many of those who have visited and who work at the house argue it was her life's work, her form of expression, a way to make meaning out of chaos. And isn't that a poetic quest? Was she truly haunted by ghosts or by the memories and regrets that haunt many of us in this world?
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, which is Spanish for "house on flat land," but no one knows why she chose it.
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!
Where the World Turns Upside Down.
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 such as 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.
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 in the 13th bathroom there are 13 windows. 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 was buried in. I imagine 13 wasn't available.
Unique Architectural Elements and Design.
Upside Down Columns. 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 Lloyd Wright thought so too, so not everything she did was all batty.
The Crystal Bedroom is a room kept private from tours for preservation. Crushed mica in the wallpaper glitters when light hits it.
The Seance Room, where Mrs. Winchester went to commune with the spirits, had three exists but only one entrance. This was achieved via doors with knobs on only one side. The tour guide described this room as being hidden within the house, but I felt like it was the center of the house. A simple and small room, with 13 hooks for hats.
Light Wells. 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.
Crystal Window. 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 symbolic decision? I tried but could not find a picture of this online, and when I toured the mansion, staff strictly prohibited photos. If anyone has one and can share, comment it up!
The Witch's Cap is a unique part of the house that looks like the interior of a witch's hat. Intentional or not, the shape of the roof causes a unique manipulation of sound, so if you stand in the center and speak, it sounds like your voice is all around you.
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 historians are still uncovering new rooms. According to ABC News, the most recent was around 2016 when they discovered the Daisy Room, named such because the glass windows in the room have daisies on them. Further, when I toured the mansion, our guide showed us a room of people wearing white masks and gloves sifting through new finds.
Mrs. Winchester Trapped ... Literally
Winchester lived a rather isolated life, but during the 1906 San Francisco quake, she found herself trapped in the Daisy Room.
The windows in the Daisy Room 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 and took their optical distortions as a sign that the house would never be finished. After her rescue, she blocked off that entire section of the house.
Early Handicap Accessibility
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 its own. Many of the servants lived on the land, and it had at least one servant's house. It even had its own orchards and fruit drying house. A gravity system carried water throughout the house from the top down, while a special boiler pushed heat from the basement up. Due to her many innovations many tour guides say Mrs. Winchester was ahead of her time in conservation and sustainability. Who would have guessed that?
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 a gorgeous house. It's only once you go inside that you see the potential for the freaky.
The Ballroom Inspired Another Ballroom You Already Know ...
The room they call the ballroom was probably not a ballroom at all as it's far too small. Rather, it was more likely a place for entertainment. At the turn of the century, it was popular for the affluent to hire musicians and theater troops to perform in their own homes. Still, this room has such a presence, it inspired the look of Disney's Haunted Mansion ballroom.
Mysterious Shakespearean Clues
Mrs. Winchester incorporated two Shakespearean lines from two different plays in the Tiffany glass windows found in the ballroom. You can see the two tall windows at the back of the photo above. My tour guide, as well as others who have visited the house think that these two quotes hold some sort of hidden clues or an answer to the mysterious house.
The first line 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, deposed as king, King Richard tries to create a world within his cell using only his imagination.
This almost makes sense within the context of the 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. What? 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 not the order she chose.
It also seems like if you read the quotes without understanding the Shakespearean context, but taking the context of our current questions about the mystery house, it kind of works. However, could Mrs. Winchester have that much forethought? Or did this ghosts? Who knows? It's a mystery.
The Ballroom Safe
Another mystery discovered in the ballroom - a hidden safe. Those who found 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.
How Does this Help Writers?
The Winchester Mystery House has already inspired artists and writers. In fact, the Winchester inspired a similar house in the magical realist novel The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende. The house was featured in the novel, not the movie.
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 Winchester's 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.
And tell me what do you know about the Winchester that can be included in this list?