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Mingling with ghosts at the Winchester Mystery House | Bartell's Backroads

The Winchester Mystery House has been at the center of ghost stories and other legends for more than 100 years

SAN JOSE, Calif. — In the belly of Silicon Valley is an out of place home sitting in the shadows of high-rise buildings and palm trees. 

For more than 100 years now, neighbors and passersby have spread rumors and haunting lore about the reclusive homeowner who earned the curious dwelling its nickname: Winchester Mystery House.

“People are going to find unusual things in this house that you don’t normally find,” said tour guide Susan DeLance. “I can say I’ve had some experiences that I can’t explain.”

The oddly designed estate was owned by Sarah Winchester, widow of rifle manufacturer William Winchester. The details are fuzzy but following the death of her husband and a series of other family members, Sarah left Newhaven, Connecticut, for sunny San Jose.

“The popular story says she went to a medium and the medium told her that her family was taken by spirits taken by the Winchester rifle, and the only way to appease them was to move west and build a house, then continually build on it,” said DeLance.

The additions to the house were not only continuous but very puzzling. There are doors leading to nowhere, stairs leading to the ceiling and a long list of other odd features.

“There’s 160 rooms, 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases, 13 bathrooms, six kitchens, three elevators and only one shower,” said DeLance.

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Some of the home’s construction was a little more practical, like the home’s rear staircase. Sarah Winchester was just 4’10” and so there are shorter steps with gradual rises.

“Mrs. Winchester suffered crippling arthritis and could only lift her feet a couple of inches,” said DeLance.

Things get a little creepy upstairs. Secret doors lead to rooms with only one entrance and three exits.

“This is one of her séance rooms,” said DeLance of a small, candle lit space. 

Because so many of her loved ones died before her, Winchester had a constant yearning to contact them. It's believed she had many séance rooms where she invited psychics and mediums to perform rituals. One popular room is called the Witch's Cap, which for some reason distorts the sound of your voice.

Just in case you are wondering, yes, DeLance has experienced some unexplainable events. 

“I just finished changing a light bulb, turned around and felt a little tug,” said DeLance, while touching the hair at the nape of her neck.

There have been so many strange happenings in this house that inspired the 2018 feature film Winchester, starring Helen Mirren.

“Very beautifully done and they did film here for several days,” said DeLance.

The heyday of construction happened between 1880 and 1900. The home got to be seven stories tall until a massive earthquake hit the Bay Area in 1906.

“It shook the Winchester house very hard,” said DeLance. 

The earthquake reduced the Winchester home to just four stories. Repairs were made, but construction was never completed after her death in 1922.

“It was kind of neat. That way we constantly have debates about what we think this room was for,” said DeLance.

After her death the Winchester home was sold and turned into a tourist attraction. For 100 years now visitors have learned that although Winchester was different, she wasn’t necessarily crazy.

“Happiest moments on a tour were at the beginning of a tour. A man said she was crazy but by the end he said, 'she was anything but crazy. She was brilliant,'” said DeLance.

The Winchester Mystery House celebrated 100 years of tours in June 2023. The home is open for daily viewing and reservations for tours are recommended.

MORE GHOSTLY FUN ON THE BACKROADS: Ghosts, shootouts and parties. Experience a night at the Niles Hotel.

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