Building a Mystery

Winchester_Mystery_House_San_Jose_CA_C31107

Halloween may be over, but my mind is still firmly focused on the bizarre and the mysterious.  So, today’s post is brought to you by the Winchester Mystery House. Never heard of it? Well, sit back, relax, and let me tell you a story…

There once was a man named William Winchester, whose family owned The Winchester Repeating Arms Company, the very same company that manufactures, among other weaponry, the famed Winchester brand of rifles. William married Sarah Lockwood Pardee in 1862, and the two settled down to begin their life together in New Haven, Connecticut. A few years later, Sarah gave birth to a little girl, Annie, who tragically died only one month later. After Annie’s untimely death, the couple led a childless existence until William’s death from tuberculosis 15 years later. Sarah was literally left a fortune, inheriting 50% ownership in her husband’s firearms company, and more than $20.5 million dollars (approximately $30,000 per day by modern standards). But she simply could not allow herself to enjoy it, believing the wealth had come at the expense of others, specifically, those who had died as a result of Winchester firearms. So, although money couldn’t buy her happiness, she resolved that it would at least buy her peace of mind.  At the suggestion of a Boston medium, she packed her bags and moved all the way across the country to San Jose, California to begin building a new house, the construction of which was meant to appease the spirits of those who had died as a result of her husband‘s wealth. There was just one requirement – the spirits could only be made happy if construction on the house never ceased, which meant that once it began in 1884, it would continue non-stop until her death thirty….eight…years…later.  Good thing she had a lot of money. By today’s standards, the cost of 38 years’ worth of construction lands it somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 million dollars.

Originally built to stand 7 stories tall, damage from the 1906 earthquake relegated the house to only 4 stories, which may be the only normal aspect of the structure, as the finished product was the very definition of “peculiar”. With such extensive construction for such a long period of time, and without the benefit of an architect (Sarah refused to employ one), the floor plan could have confused even M.C. Escher, with its seemingly endless maze of secret passageways, windows that looked into other rooms, doors that opened onto brick walls and stairways that led into ceilings.  And for as much as was spent on the continuously random architecture, just as much was spent on modern amenities of the time because, apparently, these spirits could not be appeased without parquet floors, gas lights, indoor plumbing, heated water, elevators, and stained glass windows, to include one designed by none other than Tiffany, himself. All of this work, attention to detail and modern convenience should have made the house worth a veritable fortune.  Not so much.

After Sarah’s death in 1922, the house was appraised and determined to be virtually worthless as a result of damage from the earthquake, not to mention the absurdly random and impractical layout. It sold at auction for a mere $135,000 to a couple who opened it to the public for tours only 5 months later (Harry Houdini even once famously toured it).  In later years, the house served as inspiration for various novels, television shows (including, unsurprisingly, an episode of “Ghost Hunters” and an episode of “Mythbusters”) and even a video game.  A much more extensive history of the house, as well as touring information, can be found on its official website (http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/).

Although the reclusive Sarah Winchester was said to have passed from this world in her sleep, it isn’t known whether she ever gained the peace in life she so desperately paid to find, or if she ever satisfied her ghostly companions.  Perhaps they now roam the halls of the mansion together.  It is, indeed, a mystery…

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