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Jan. 27, 2022

Ep. 69: The Winchester Mystery House

In 1886, Sarah Winchester - widow of William Winchester, the son of the founder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company - took her $20 million inheritance ($550 million in today's money), moved from Connecticut to California, and began a project that...


In 1886, Sarah Winchester - widow of William Winchester, the son of the founder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company - took her $20 million inheritance ($550 million in today's money), moved from Connecticut to California, and began a project that would only end with her death in 1922.

Winchester began to build a house...a house that would defy explanation. This house at its peak comprised 7 stories, 24000 square feet, and 161 rooms including 40 bedrooms and dozens of stairways and fireplaces. The strangest part of the house's construction, aside from its never-ending nature, is the architectural oddities that litter the mansion. These include stairs and doors to nowhere, windows overlooking other rooms, and strange angular design choices that seem to make no sense. So, why did Winchester do this?

Legend goes that the Winchester family was cursed by the dead killed by the Winchester repeating arms guns, including the famous "Gun That Won the West". Sarah Winchester just may have been building this endless home to hide from the spirits, believing they were the cause of the deaths of her husband and infant daughter, and perhaps trying to appease them into not claiming her life as well.

We explore the strange story of Sarah Winchester and her mystery house, along with the reputed hauntings that draw paranormal shows to investigate the home to this day.
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Transcript

Back in the days of my youth, I used to watch all the creepy-themed Travel Channel shows my dad could find in the TV Guide, and one place that would always come up in their roundups of the strangest and most haunted places in America was the Winchester Mystery House.

This week, we’ll be investigating the odd story of Sarah Winchester, her family, and the possible curse that prompted her to erect a house that she never stopped building…right until her death.

The Winchester family originally lived in New Haven, Connecticut, just a little while away from where we sit recording this podcast today. Patriarch William Wirt Winchester was the son of Winchester Repeating Arms Company founder Oliver Fisher Winchester, and worked as treasurer of the company. Winchester Repeating Arms was a prominent American maker of repeating firearms - meaning that they helped pioneer the concept of a gun that could be shot multiple times without reloading. Back in the day, you would have to reset your gun after every single shot, but now, you could take multiple without a pause. In fact, the Model 1873 Winchester rifle was commonly known as the “Gun that Won the West”. 

Because of this, the Winchesters were bonkers rich…but as they say, money can’t buy you happiness. Or health, especially in the 1800s. William Winchester and his wife, Sarah Pardee Winchester, had a daughter named Annie in 1866. Annie, tragically, was born with a complication that made her unable to process calories, and she died of malnourishment just 6 weeks after her birth. The Winchesters were devastated by this, but it wouldn’t be the last of their ill fortune. They had no other children, and William would also die in March 1881, this time after a long battle with tuberculosis. Sarah was the last inheritor of William’s 50% stake in the company, and she netted $20 million in the day’s dollars…which today would be worth approximately $550 million. Like I said, bonkers rich, and that was only half of the worth of Winchester. Shortly after William’s death, Sarah gave some of her money to create the WInchester Chest Clinic at Yale New Haven Hospital, and picked up to start anew in California, where some of the extended family lived. By the way, the Winchester Center for Lung Disease still does exist at Yale New Haven, in case you come down with any tubercular issues.

In 1886 Sarah Winchester bought a 40-acre plot of land with an unfinished farmhouse on it in San Jose and began her work to not only reinvent the structure of the house, but make sure it never stopped growing. But why did she do it?

The legend goes like this: drowning in her grief soon after William’s passing, Winchester visited a medium in Boston, hoping to contact her dead husband and daughter. The medium apparently did not connect to any Winchester family members, but did find that Sarah and the Winchester family were indeed haunted by spirits…the spirits of American Indians, Civil War soldiers, and others who had been killed by Winchester rifles. The medium told Sarah that William and Annie’s deaths were caused by these angry spirits, and Sarah was the next victim in line. 

The medium offered a solution: move west and appease the spirits by building a great house for them. As long as construction on the house never ceased, Sarah would not be in danger.

So Sarah decided to do just that. Again, it’s not completely certain whether the Boston medium story is true to Sarah’s experience, but it’s become the common accepted answer for why she undertook such a strange hobby. She certainly had the money for it - her wealth gave her an income of roughly $27,000 PER DAY in today’s money, plus an additional 777 shares of stock in Winchester Repeating Arms. She was one of few people who could afford to build a never-ending house. Initially it was named Llanada Villa, or House on Flat Land, but it’s come to be known today as the Winchester Mystery House. 

Carpenters were hired to work around the clock on the construction, and Sarah directed the additions herself, rather than employing an architect. This may be the reason why the home has a number of strange oddities in the construction - doors and stairwells that go to nowhere, windows overlooking over rooms,  . While it could be because of Sarah’s lack of architectural know-how that these strange building touches exist, many think they were added to purposefully confuse the angry spirits plaguing the Winchester family, and make it difficult for them to find Sarah within the maze-like home. 

Winchester seemed to be a kind woman, despite her introversion. She was generous with her employees, employing 13 at a time and paying three dollars a day when the going rate was $1.50. She gave anonymous contributions to orphanages and many other local charities. She would also welcome neighborhood children to play on the grounds of the Winchester estate, even inviting them in to eat ice cream or play the piano. However, she was also seen as an eccentric. She wore a dark veil over her face at all times, and there were stories of her firing servants if they caught a glimpse of her face. Tales spread of Winchester’s odd behavior, and its for this reason we can’t quite know nowadays what is true and what wasn’t.

For instance, it’s said that neighbors would hear a bell ringing at midnight and 2 AM, which according to lore were the times for the arrival and departure of spirits at the home. Some stated that Winchester never slept in the same bedroom two nights in a row so as to confuse any evil spirits attempting to seek her out; indeed, the home has an incredible 40 bedrooms across its total of 161 rooms, meaning she could spend each evening in a different bedroom every single night for a month and change before she’d have to repeat a room. 

At the very center of the Winchester house is the Blue Room, which was said to be Sarah’s seance room. Legend has it that she would go every night to commune with the spirits, wearing one of 13 specially-colored robes to receive guidance from various spirits for her construction plans. As these spirits were not architects either, maybe THIS is the true reason for all the architectural oddities in the home. It’s a fact that there is an obsession with the number 13 in the house - aside from the 13 workers always laboring away on the construction, there are little touches like closets having 13 hanger pegs and halls having 13 ceiling panels. There is also a spider web motif repeated throughout the house, as in a spider web window that featured both the web design and the repetition of the number 13, making it the spookiest window we’ve talked about so far on the podcast.

In 1906 the coast of California was struck by a major earthquake, reaching an extreme 7.9 magnitude. Before this point the house had been 7 stories high; today, it’s only 4 stories. Winchester was trapped in the Daisy Bedroom, one of the many rooms in the home, and had to be freed with a crowbar after the quake. Along with much of the north wing of the home, the eye-catching tower to the right of the front of the house partially collapse, leaving its remaining structure unstable. Eventually, all traces of it were moved. 

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Sarah moved to her houseboat in the mudflats of Burlingame, her spirits dampened by the damage to her home and the project that consumed much of her time. This houseboat, by the way, was known as “Sarah’s Ark”, and was reputedly kept there as insurance against Sarah’s alleged fear of a second great flood, like the Biblical one. House historian Janan Boehme said, “She didn’t tear it down, but she never restored it to what it had been. She did what was necessary to make the structure safe and water-tight, then stopped.” When she did return, she stayed mostly in the west wing, never fully repairing the north wing’s damages. 

Here are the stats for the Winchester Mystery House, as follows: 

24,000 square feet
20,500 gallons of paint required to paint the house
10,000 panes of glass
2,000 doors
160 rooms
52 skylights
47 stairways and fireplaces
17 chimneys
13 bathrooms
6 kitchens
3 elevators
2 ballrooms
2 basements
Cost: $5 million dollars in 1923 / $71 million today


Sarah Pardee Winchester died on September 5th, 1922 of heart failure at the ripe old age of 82. Perhaps she hadn’t moved around enough that week, because she did happen to pass away in one of the Winchester bedrooms. She was eventually interred in Evergreen Cemetery beside her husband and child back in New Haven, Connecticut, and left a will - divided into 13 sections - which she signed 13 times. In her safe nothing was found but 2 locks of hair, and the obituaries of her deceased husband and infant daughter. Today, the home is open for tours to the public and hosts Halloween events each year…and the stories continue to be told.

We’ll discuss the strange legends and possible hauntings surrounding the house even today…after the break.


[BREAK]


The mystery encompassing the Winchester Mystery House didn’t die with Sarah Winchester. In fact, stories about the possible hauntings in the Winchester house are still spreading today, thanks in no small part to the very same Travel Channel-type ghost shows that first turned me on to the legend of Sarah Winchester back when I was a kid. The house also seems open to the tales as well, inviting the Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures crews to investigate and reporting that psychics have experienced many strange things within the house, such as the phantom playing of an organ coming from one of the ballrooms. Which, yes, has an organ in it - but it doesn’t work. So where is the music coming from?

The strangeness of the house’s construction can contribute to the “off” feeling one gets in the house - in psychology today, Frank T McAndrew PhD theorized that the house has a lack of what environmental psychologists call “legibility” - “the ease with which a place can be recognized, organized into a pattern and recalled.” Due to the confusing layout of the home, we may get lost or feel like we can’t escape, and I imagine that creates sort of a claustrophobic feeling. Some paranormal investigators, such as Dr Jeff Dwyer, believe the house contains one or more portals or vortexes that connect to the spirit world. This can be felt by the so called effects of electromagnetic energy, which spirits are supposed to be comprised of, that can cause nausea or dizziness. 

Who is it that might be in the house? Well, there are of course the spirits of those killed by Winchester guns that Sarah was either running from or consulting with in the construction of the house - confused ghosts of Native Americans and Civil War soldiers cut down by those with a Winchester in their hands. Then there’s Clyde - a former caretaker of the home that’s said to still wander the halls to this day. Some employees and visitors have reported seeing a mustachioed man pushing a wheelbarrow in the basement or repairing the Ballroom fireplace. Visitors generally first believe Clyde is an actor wearing period dress - white overalls and a Victorian boater hat - only to be told that the home doesn’t employ any costumed actors. Clyde will sometimes gently tug on someone’s shirt or skirt during tours, and once, according to longtime house maintenance worker Denny, has been heard as a pair of footsteps in the off-limits water tower. Denny followed the footsteps all the way to the roof, and there the search ended, because there was no one in sight. 

Human-shaped apparitions and shadow people have been spotted in the house, around corners and even peering out of windows in photographs. According to Insider, one guest, identified as NR, told Winchester Mystery House staff that “Outside in the front gardens of the mansion, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was what appeared to be a bushy-haired woman staring out of one of the windows on the second floor. As soon as she saw me, she turned and walked away. I originally thought nothing of it, but a few weeks later I learned that when photos were taken with these specific second-floor windows, sometimes a bushy-haired woman had appeared in the background.” Orbs have been seen in the stables and various rooms, and captured in a variety of photos. An employee, identified as NB, told fellow staffers that "I was going to clock out for the day and on the way, I saw a small woman dressed in black near the picnic gardens. It put me a little on edge, so I hurried to clock out. On my route, back through the estate, the woman was not there anymore. The woman looked like Mrs. Winchester.”

The story of the Winchester Mystery House has inspired all different kinds of art, including a musical called The Haunting of Winchester commissioned by the San Jose Repertory Theater for its 25th anniversary season in 2005, short films like Sarah Winchester, opera fantome, and the film Haunting of Winchester House, produced by The Asylum - infamous creators of such shlock features as Sharknado, The Da Vinci Treasure, Titanic II, and the bewildering The 9/11 Commission Report. It appeared in the 100th episode of American Horror Story, was the setting for gothic horror comic House of Penance by Dark Horse and inspired the setting of Stephen King’s Rose Red, and of course was the inspiration for the 2018 horror film Winchester, starring Dame Helen Mirren as Sarah. 

[ASKING ABOUT MOVIE] Synopsis: 
Sarah Winchester is the widow of famed gun manufacturer William Wirt Winchester. Her husband's sudden death and the previous death of their child Annie have left her in grief. Having received more than twenty million dollars in inheritance, Winchester convinces herself she is cursed by the ghosts of those who died at the hands of Winchester firearms. After seeking advice from a medium, she begins building an enormous, seemingly never-ending mansion in San Jose, California that would eventually be named the Winchester Mystery House. The house is under constant construction and Sarah's relative Marion Marriott (Sarah Snook, from Succession) lives in the house with her son Henry. At night, Henry is possessed by a mysterious entity. Dr. Eric Price is summoned to the house to assess Sarah’s well-being, and discovers Sarah is building a prison for hundreds of vengeful ghosts, and the most terrifying amongst them have a score to settle with the Winchesters.

*Winchester’s niece did live in the house for 15 years until she married in her 30s*

You might not know this, Sean, but it even inspired Walt Disney’s creation of the Haunted Mansion at Disney World, too. 

And, as we mentioned, it’s been host to several paranormal lockdowns, like the aforementioned Ghost Adventures and Hunters, the Buzzfeed Unsolved boys, Ghost Brothers, MythBusters, and Most Haunted. 

Our favorite Ghost Adventures fellas visited the house twice, and it was in their more recent “Return to Winchester house” episode that they experienced their most explosive evidence. 

Zak finds himself shaken almost immediately: 
[3:18 - 3:41]

Later, the team goes to Sarah’s seance room to try and contact some spirits of their own. There, they see a figure pop up in a chair via their wireframe camera and eventually request their tech Billy to go sit where the figure is.
[16:20 - 16:49]

It’s here that the wireframe figure starts teabagging Billy.
[16:54 - 17:03]

Awhile later, Zak joins the fray to try and communicate with the spirits. He’s pushed on the stairs - the same stairs where, years earlier, Dr Jeff Dwyer told him he felt the presence of a spirit portal - and tries to get to the bottom of who did it.
[40:52 - 41:37]


So Sean…what do you think about the strange and spooky Winchester Mystery House?

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NEWS 

It’s Lizard People, Big World.

This week, the CIA has reported its determination that a foreign country is probably not mounting a global attack aimed at U.S. personnel who have reported painful and sometimes debilitating physical symptoms centered around the location of Havana, Cuba - hence its name, the Havana syndrome. Which is also an amazing cold war spy novel, I would assume.

Personnel have been reporting strange symptoms including dizziness, blurred vision, memory loss, and headaches in the US Embassy in Havana since 2016, totaling over 1,000 cases of so-called “anomalous health incidents” assessed by the CIA in its recent investigation. The Washington Post reported this week that, “The majority of cases could be attributed to a preexisting medical condition or environmental or other factors, the senior official said. ‘A few dozen’ of those incidents, which the official called ‘the toughest cases,’ could not be explained and will receive further scrutiny, the official said. ‘Our work is continuing, and we are not done yet.’” Canadian diplomats have also reported being affected by the syndrome. 

It has been theorized by government workers as well as a report from the National Academy of Sciences that the symptoms, strange noises, and odd sensations could be the result of “directed, pulsed radio frequency” energy pointed at the Embassy workers by or at the direction of a foreign power. This might be Russia, which has denied responsibility, or perhaps another anti-US government. A senior CIA official, in response to this theory, stated “We have assessed that it is unlikely that a foreign actor, including Russia, is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign harming U.S. personnel with a weapon or mechanism.”

President Biden along with Congress signed into law this year a bill to address the needs of those affected, as in the past year alone reported cases of Havana syndrome at or near the Embassy have skyrocketed. Though the CIA feels that it’s not the result of targeting in a deliberate attack, they did not provide a different solution for the issue, which has impacted a variety of people in a variety of environments. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the CIA report in a letter to State Department employees Thursday, saying “These findings do not call into question the fact that our colleagues are reporting real experiences and are suffering real symptoms,” but also not endorsing the CIA’s conclusions, continuing, “We are going to continue to bring all of our resources to bear in learning more about these incidents, and there will be additional reports to follow. We will leave no stone unturned,” he wrote.

We’ll be sure to update you if any concrete answers come forward.

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END

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