Glory Days' resident ghost hunter, Claire Gormly, gets spooked at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose but lives to tell the tale...
When I was a little girl I had a friend with a huge farmhouse. It had secret passageways and was great fun to play hide and seek in, but it was also was a little scary! Fast forward 35 years and I had déjà vu in a big way at The Winchester Mystery House. The house is spectacular in and of itself, but it also comes with one hell of a story.
Sarah Pardee was a wealthy, well educated woman when she met her husband to be William Winchester. They lived a happy life together funded by the money from William's share of the Winchester gun fortune.
They were very much in love and overjoyed when they had their daughter Annie, but things were about to go horribly wrong. Annie was born with fatal condition that meant she only lived a short time and Sarah and William never had any more children. 15 years later, William died of tuberculosis and Sarah was devastated.
In Victorian times there were no psychiatrists to help with mental health issues, only spirit mediums, and it is said that Sarah consulted one to help her through her grief. She was allegedly informed that she was cursed and haunted by the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles, that her money was blood money, and the only way to appease them was to build a house.... and never stop.
Sarah found a piece of land in San Jose and did just that. She employed carpenters to work around the clock, to build to her own plans and specifications, exactly what she wanted. This turned out to be a never ending collection of rooms and passageways. She had no end of money, and no end of ideas. She would build, rebuild, build over and tear down room after room.
Every night at 12, a bell would ring and Sarah would retire to the seance room in the middle of the house - a room with a secret entrance and a precipitous drop into the kitchen on one side. She would take out one of her thirteen robes and sit at a small table. The spirits would arrive and tell her exactly what she needed to do next to the house.
Although she courted them for their building advice, Sarah didn’t want them hanging around and so the house is full of spiritually significant features such as chimneys that don’t reach the ceiling to stop spirits getting in, very few mirrors, and the number thirteen everywhere. There are thirteen windows in the 13th bathroom, thirteen palm trees in the garden, thirteen stairs in the main stairway.
Because of the spirits contrary nature, or maybe because Mrs Winchester was not an architect, the house is odd to say the least. Doors to nowhere, cupboard doors into another room, stairways that go up, then down, then up again, windows that look into walls.
She was a tiny 4 foot and suffered from arthritis, so there are switchback stairways with loads of tiny steps. She was also an innovator, coming up with many ingenious features including one of the first showers, dust catchers built into stairs and a watering system for her gardeners that conserved water.
The tour of the house is guided as it is apparently rather easy to get lost and people were stealing bits and pieces from the rooms. The guides are very good and the stories are so interesting that any feeling of it being twee doesn’t last. Everything about the house is intricate and exquisite, even down to the door latches. There are rare examples of wallpaper and priceless stained glass.
Personally, her bedroom where she died was the most moving room for me and the seance room was the most spooky.
As for ghosts, there are lots of stories, but this chap on the far right of the photo below was so devoted to Sarah that apparently he still pushes a wheelbarrow around the basement.
The overiding feeling you get about Sarah is that she was an incredible woman, a scholar, an inventor, a conservationist, a generous employee and a visionary. She may or may not have been a medium and/ or a little mad, but anyway you look at it, she built something unique and incredible that was her legacy to the world. I do hope the spirits are happy.
Read more about the Winchester Mystery house at www.winchestermysteryhouse.com