Sarah L.Winchester (1840 – 1922) was the wife of Winchester Repeating Rifle heir William Wirt Winchester, and upon his untimely death in 1881, was convinced the ghosts of those killed by Winchester munitions were seeking to punish the family. To combat and confuse these spirits, a superstitious, eccentric, and fabulously wealthy Winchester adopted an inventive strategy to extend her life indefinitely by endlessly changing and renovating her San Jose, California, estate. This lavish endeavor—suggested to her by a spiritualist medium—included designing hidden rooms, stairs that went nowhere, ornate fireplaces that were not functional, and windows that opened into interior walls. Construction workers labored at the estate twenty-four hours a day from 1884 to 1922, and approximately 600 rooms may have been completed in the main house. Many of these rooms were eventually torn apart again and reworked in the barrage of constant renovation, however, and today only 160 rooms remain in the 24,000 square foot (2,230 square meter) mansion. The estate is also said to be haunted by the ghosts of former servants who continue to protect Mrs. Winchester’s privacy. One of my favorite paranormal travel destinations, The Winchester Mystery House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and visitors can tour the home and grounds.
Winchester Mystery House archivist Michele Winn answered a few questions about her unusual workplace, below. Learn much more about this amazing site and register for one of this year’s special Hallowe’en Candlelight Tours (starting tomorrow, September 29!) at http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/.
Riley Mitchell: What are a couple of things about the Winchester Mystery House that are underappreciated or often overlooked by casual visitors?
Michele Winn: Unless your tour guide points them out on the tour, you might miss the array of gadgets and gizmos that Mrs. Winchester customized and had built into her home. Everything from ornamental window latches to a rotating car wash hose to small brass inserts in each corner of the steps on several of her staircases, meant to ease the job of sweeping by preventing dust bunnies from finding shelter in the recessed corners of the stairs. Our tour guides wouldn’t have enough time to point out each of these fascinating points in the house, so we often highlight some of them in our blog, The Annunciator: http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/blog/
RM: Are there any unusual challenges associated with curating archival collections at the Winchester Mystery House?
MW: The main challenge I’m currently working to resolve is that of proper storage. Any archivist knows that in order to house your artifacts with longevity and preservation in mind, you need to implement climate control measures. A Victorian home in Mrs. Winchester’s time was heated by a coal furnace and fireplaces in winter and cooled with open windows and fans in summer, which unfortunately just isn’t sufficient for housing archival papers and photographs. We certainly have plenty of room here, but we have to do some modern upgrades in order to store our collection properly.
RM: Mrs. Winchester preserved meticulous records regarding her home and property, but is there any indication that she wrote much social correspondence to relatives or associates? Is there evidence that she kept a diary?
MW: In Mrs. Winchester’s day, a letter was the best way to communicate with one’s social circle, and she most certainly wrote with frequency to her relatives, in-laws, friends, lawyers, and everyone she left behind in New Haven, Connecticut, when she relocated to San Jose, California. Fortunately many of these letters have been preserved at various institutions such as History San Jose (the local historical society and archives) and the Connecticut Historical Society. As for a diary, it’s entirely possible, but to this day we haven’t uncovered one. That would be an incredible find, and might unlock some of the mysteries in her home that we continue to puzzle over today.
RM: What is your favorite photograph or letter in the Winchester Mystery House archives?
MW: I have too many favorites to name, and recently we’ve uncovered some interesting photographs that I’m in the process of scanning and that I hope I can reveal soon. One letter that stands out to me in the collection is from a man by the name of Angus Caldwell. Mr. Caldwell writes to the owners of the house in 1939 to inform them that he was born on January 1, 1868—in the original eight-room farmhouse that would later become Mrs. Winchester’s mansion!
RM: Do you have a wish list of items that you would love to have represented in the Winchester archival collection but are not currently?
MW: The amount of items we have that actually belonged to Mrs. Winchester are very few. After she died, she left the house and all its contents to her niece. The family took some pieces, but most were sold at auction. We would love to be able to track down some of that furniture and have it “come home” so to speak. Mrs. Winchester was also notoriously camera-shy. There are only a few photographs of her in existence. It would be nice to stumble across some more photos of the lady herself, but those probably do not exist and never did.
RM: If you could ask Mrs. Winchester any two questions, what would they be?
MW: Mrs. Winchester was an accomplished musician, spoke several languages, was incredibly well-read and well-traveled, and obviously had a passion for architecture and building. I’d love to find out what her favorite book or piece of music was. As for a second question, I think I’d have to approach the paranormal question. Was she truly communicating with spirits every day? We have had mediums visit the house and detect spiritually active sites or have affirmed that séances were held in certain rooms, but I would love to hear the particulars from Mrs. Winchester herself. Unfortunately, I think that if Mrs. Winchester were with us today, she was and would be incredibly private and wouldn’t open up about her ghostly communications. This is what makes the house all the more mysterious!
[Photo Credit: Winchester Mystery House – Looking Northwest. From Survey HABS CA-2107, Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress).]