San Jose, CA: The Bizarre Winchester Mystery House

Winchester Mystery House adds to our growing list of fabulous, weird properties we’ve visited around the country. Why is this place so weird?  Well, its construction was driven by a psychic medium advising a very, very wealthy woman, with nothing but time and money to blow on its strange, 40-year progression. 

Sarah Winchester, wife of Winchester Rifle magnate William Winchester, was distraught over the early passing of loved ones.  She felt that perhaps her husband’s death from TB, and a young daughter’s death from a rare illness, were divine retribution by the ghosts of all those who had been killed by Winchester rifles over the millennia.  

She visited a medium in Boston in 1884 who advised that she must leave the East Coast and build a house.  But not just any house: a house that could never be completed, so that the sawing and hammering of construction would scare the ghosts away.  These three pictures show the gradual progresion from simple farmhouse to eye-popping, seven-story, 150+-room monstrosity.

Furthermore, the psychic felt this bizarre mansion should include baffling features that would confuse and deter any spirits from bothering her.  This took the form of a labyrinth floorplan that is impossible to figure out while inside, including secret passageways and other crazy features.

“Crazy” doesn’t even begin to summarize things like stairways that lead to nowhere, boarded up pantries, windows that open to interior walls, doors that opened to nothing but air, and wondrous features that even the most eccentric person would find puzzling.

Following the instructions of “the spirits” was her obsession throughout her lifetime. Every night at midnight, the church bell would toll and she would get up and go into her seance room to meditate with them until 2 AM, when the bell would sound again and she’d go back to bed. The small seance room had three doors, including one that if you went through it, would drop you straight down into the kitchen sink.

Sarah Winchester was a tiny woman who suffered from arthitis, so staircases like this “Switchback Staircase” were made with half-sized Easy Rider steps to ease her passage.

The crazy rooflines from above give only a hint of what is going on down below, which included bizarre features like upside-down columns, doors that open onto three-story drops, two ballrooms which were never used — not even once — and more. The current owners believe there are secret passageways within, which still have yet to be found.

Contractors worked around the clock, day and night, 24/7/365 for 40 years, installing 10,000 window panes, 2,000 doors, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, three elevators, and two basements … continually adding, adding, adding, meaning windows met doors met hallways met ceilings met empty spaces … and yet they just kept adding. A large section of the house was even fully furnished and decorated, then boarded up and walled off.

She had an obsession with spiderwebs and the number 13. There are 13 hooks in some closets, 13 ceiling panels in the Entrance Hallway, 13 windows in the 13th bathroom, flights of stairs with 13 steps, custom-made drains in the sinks with 13 holes, and 13 blue and amber stones in this special window she designed.

The house is so big that when it came time in the 50’s to install over 7-1/2 MILES of fire sprinklers, it took almost 4 months to map and install them. At one time, the property was up to seven stories tall, but the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 took care of the top three floors, knocking down the towers, shifting walls, and temporarily trapping Sarah inside a room (she undoubtedly blamed the earthquake on the spirits). Predictably, Sarah consulted the spirits and they told her to leave the destroyed part of the house unfixed and boarded off, and to instead begin working on another section. They still stand in damaged form today.

One of the greatest mysteries in the Mystery House is a pair of stained glass windows with two unrelated Shakespeare quotes in them. Nobody knows exactly why she chose them, or what they meant to her … “a riddle that may never be solved.” Did they combine into a meaning of importance to her? Thoughts, anyone?

Even if you’re not intrigued by the mysteries of the house, a tour is worth it for the architectural details alone.

Magician and escape artist extraordinaire Harry Houdini visited in 1924 and got a private, midnight tour.  Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion takes inspiration from the Winchester Home, as does Stephen King’s book Rose Red.  Travel Channel’s Destination Fear has spotlighted it, and even LEGO has duplicated its many quirks using lots of little bricks.  This article by Historic Mysteries gives a terrific summary of the house and its lore! 

Meanwhile, in a different part of San Jose, another Muffler Man awaited, joining our ongoing treasure hunt for these guys. San Jose Muffler Man, though in need of a good coat of paint, is perhaps the most authentic, however, for being posed in front of an actual muffler shop.

Furthermore, he’s holding a REAL muffler, not some cartoony version like the Happy Halfwit we saw a few months ago. This, along with his Babe work shirt and the little shadow of chest hair peeking out, suggests that he is the real deal, an actual giant who has received the proper training to work on mufflers, and not just some marketing gimmick, does it not?

We invited the Muffler Man to lunch, but he was still on the clock at the shop, so we journeyed not far to San Pedro Food Market, a lively square with all kinds of scrumptious food, shady outdoor seating, and live music most nights.

We chose Guapo Bros. (“Handsome Brothers”) and got a quartet of fantastic street tacos (brisket, crispy pork belly, spicy shrimp, and duck) and sweet plantain “chips,” which turned out to be about 20 full-on plantain turds — deeeelish, but enough to feed an entire family of Muffler Men.

Leaving San Jose, we indulged in a roadtripper’s (semi-scary) dream, driving the RV over the Golden Gate Bridge! Our next stop north of San Francisco is Point Reyes National Seashore, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Muir Woods National Monument … a three-fer of National Park Service sites in one stop!

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