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Winchester Mystery House
photos by Adrienne Hill

Pop Culture

My (differing) tours of the Winchester Mystery House

Fun, but not so mysterious.

Tour guides at the so-called Winchester Mystery House, located in San Jose, California, which opened as an attraction only nine months after Sarah Winchester’s death in 1922, have been telling ever-growing spooky tales about the place ever since. The house was the inspiration for the Haunted Mansion Disney ride, was the main setting in Michaela Roessner’s 1993 science fiction novel Vanishing Point, appeared in Tim Powers’ fantasy novel Earthquake Weather, and influenced Stephen King’s 2001 miniseries Rose Red.  The 2018 film Winchester, listed as a “biography” and “inspired by true events” on IMDb, starred Helen Mirren as Sarah, who was portrayed as the usual paranoid, eccentric, crazy woman haunted by spirits.

According to friends, family, and staff, Winchester, widow of the treasurer of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, was not superstitious at all, but was kind, generous, intelligent and a pioneer in architecture and finance. Most of the myths surrounding her have been refuted by investigators such as Joe Nickell, Brian Dunning, and historian Mary Jo Ignoffo. In 2010, Ignoffo published an informative biography of Winchester called Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune.

I eagerly visited the Winchester Mystery House on January 7 with a group of 20 people, and participated in two tours: the “Walk with Spirits Tour” and the “Guided Mansion Tour.” There were similarities in both, but also some notable differences.

Both tours commenced with a brief overview of Winchester’s life, though neither mentioned the fact that she was commonly known as Sallie by those who knew her. Each tour guide had a different timeline for deaths in the family. The “spirit” guide said that Sallie had many losses within three years, whereas the “house” guide gave the historical timeline that aligned with Ignoffo’s book. Sallie’s daughter died in 1866, then her mother, father-in-law and husband died between 1880-1881.

Both guides described her visit to a Boston medium who recommended that Sallie move to California to build a home to house all the spirits of the people killed by the Winchester Repeating Rifle. There’s no evidence that Sallie ever visited a medium, though it’s possible, since the spiritualist movement was popular then, especially for women of her class. However, there is evidence that she moved to California because she had severe rheumatoid arthritis, and she had previous happy visits to San Fransisco with her husband.

Walk with Spirits Tour

On the Walk with Spirits Tour, we went to see all the spooky places in the Winchester Mystery House. One of our first stops was a room that had two blown-up photos, apparently showing ghosts. One, I thought, had a fuzzy, gray, blob-like shadow behind a person, but we were informed that it was thought to be Sallie’s ghost, because of its short stature. I tried hard to induce my own personal pareidolia, with no success. The other photo was equally unremarkable.

We climbed upstairs to many unfinished and damaged rooms that were poorly lit, having to don hard hats for protection from low beams and pipes. Here, we were introduced to “residual spirits,” which I thought would refer to imprints of dead souls that could be felt or seen in the house. But no, these were imprints of living people. I even asked if I was hearing correctly. “Did you just say that living people can leave these imprints?” The answer was a definite yes. Our guide said that other guides have heard his voice and seen him in the house on his days off.

Winchester Mystery House

photos by Adrienne Hill

Later we found ourselves in a makeshift séance space. I say “makeshift” because this wasn’t where Sallie allegedly conducted nightly séances. Positioned at the center of the dimly lit room was a sizable, round table. When we were invited to place our hands on it to participate in the séance, my excitement turned to disappointment when instead of the guide leading the séance, a prerecorded tape instructed us to close our eyes and summon the spirits. The brief “séance” concluded swiftly, and we were ushered out to explore more areas of the house.

In another dimly lit, curtain-hung room, a selection of William Mumler’s photographs adorned the walls. During the early 1860s, Mumler gained notoriety as the first photographer to assert his ability to capture spirits on film, exploiting the technique of double exposures facilitated by inadequately cleaned photographic plates. I feared an assertion of these images as evidence of ghostly phenomena, but while the guide did briefly detail Mumler’s methods, he finished by recounting his acquittal on charges of fraud, leaving the question of his purported ability to capture images of ghosts open.

One of the oddest parts of the Walk with Spirits Tour was when we entered a room where we were given some history on the spiritualist movement. On one side of the room hung a portrait of Sallie, and on the other was a portrait of Mary Hayes Chynoweth. The guide described in detail how Chynoweth was a psychic and mystic leader who started the True Life Church. We were led to believe it was possible that because Chenoweth and Sallie were peers, they were most likely friends and both believers in spiritualism.

According to Ignoffo’s book, the two had little to do with each other, and it was in the Chynoweth-run local papers that many of the unfounded rumors of Sallie’s superstitious nature emerged.  Ignoffo also made it clear that her staff, friends, and family had made multiple attempts to declare that Sallie was not superstitious and crazy but was intelligent, kind, and generous.

The Walk with Spirits Tour finished by passing through the Winchester Mystery House’s beautiful dining room. I couldn’t help but notice that there didn’t seem to be any tales of ghosts appearing in these finished, softly lit rooms, but only in the poorly lit, unfinished rooms. I asked the guide why this was, and he didn’t have an answer other than that’s where ghosts usually appear.

Guided Mansion Tour

Immediately following the Walk with Spirits Tour, we went on the Guided Mansion Tour, which spent most of the time in the lovely, furnished and finished rooms. Did Sallie endlessly build stairs to nowhere, have doors open to a wall or a two-story drop, and have unusually placed cupboards to confuse the spirits? According to the 100th-year anniversary Winchester Mystery House souvenir guide, “No one will ever know the answers,” although Ignoffo and Nickell have logical explanations for all these oddities.

The doors and windows leading to walls were likely the result of Sallie’s amateur architectural endeavors, a shared interest with her late husband, rather than deliberate attempts to confound spirits. The peculiar cupboards, though seemingly mysterious, probably served practical purposes that are now difficult to discern in their empty state. For instance, one particularly narrow cupboard could have housed a collection of souvenir spoons, but was presented as a grand enigma instead.

The stairs to nowhere hold no mystical secrets, either. When pressed, the guide conceded there was a rational explanation beyond mere ghostly confusion. In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake wreaked havoc on the Winchester Mystery House, destroying a seven-story tower, third and fourth-story additions, and an entire wing. Given Sallie’s declining health at the time, she opted to halt the home’s construction, clear away the rubble, and board up the gaps for safety. Following the earthquake, only minimal maintenance continued, as Sallie chose to live at her other properties.

Both tours intimated that non-stop construction occurred for 36 years. Ignoffo claims records show there were long breaks in construction over the years preceding the earthquake due to seasonal weather, Sallie’s ill health resulting in rest periods, and staff time off to attend the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Fransisco.

Our guide informed us that Sallie was fond of the number 13, and we were pointed to 13 drain holes in a sink (we didn’t have time to count them), 13 bathrooms (we only saw two), 13 windows in one of the bathrooms (the number of windows in the other bathrooms wasn’t mentioned), 13 hooks in the séance room (ignoring the five hooks in the previous room), one flight of 13 steps (ignoring the multiple flights we went up and down that were greater than or less than 13), and the music room’s custom-made, 12-candle chandelier that Sallie was purported to have sloppily added a thirteenth candle.

(According to carpenter James Perkins, who worked on the property for many years, the things appearing in 13s were later additions to the home after Sallie had died. The first mention of the number 13 in relation to the home appeared in print in 1929, seven years after Sallie’s death.)

In general, while the guides were polished and charismatic, I found both tours rushed, with little time for questions. I agreed with my friend Jane Selkie, who said the tours were trying hard to make something out of nothing, instead of including more history along with the ghostly lore. Spiritualism and the lore around Sallie and her house are important parts of her story, but the intelligent, kind, financially savvy woman needs to be brought to the forefront.  There shouldn’t be the ever-present false balance that the tours promote, where a downplayed plausible explanation is inserted into the ghostly lore, finishing with “you decide.”

To delve deeper into the life of this architectural trailblazer and her home, visit the Sarah Winchester and Winchester Mystery House Wikipedia pages, which I’ve updated to include reasonable explanations for her reclusive behavior and curious, maze-like house design.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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