Something wicked at Winchester: Eccentric gun company heiress who spent 38 years building a 'haunted' 160-room mansion with staircases that lead nowhere inspires new Hollywood movie

  • A new Hollywood film Winchester hits theaters today - a horror flick set in a real-life mansion in California
  • The 'Winchester Mystery House' is a sprawling mansion in San Jose with 160 rooms spanning 24,000 sq feet
  • It was built over the course of 30 years by an eccentric widow who inherited millions when her husband died
  • Mrs Winchester designed the bizarre home, which is complete with strange additions like staircases that lead to nowhere, doors that open to walls, and a concealed water tower she built around 
  • Resident historian Janen Boehme says she often hears voices in the house, but believes they're positive  

 

 

The Winchester House in San Jose, California, is no ordinary home. Whispers seem to come from the walls, staircases that lead to nowhere, doors that open to nothing and a groundskeeper whose work is never done.

What started as a farmhouse continued to be built 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for 38 years by a mysterious widow named Sarah Winchester who, after her husband’s death, inherited a gun company fortune worth more than $515 million today.

When Sarah died in 1922, the home remained empty, save for the spirits that are rumored to lurk in the 160-room, 24,000 square foot mansion.

It has such a complex layout that the housekeepers were said to need maps just to navigate it so they could do their daily chores and among its many quirks is a staircase leads to a ceiling after Mrs Winchester decided to have a hallway built over it.

It’s no wonder that this peculiar story has caught the attention of Hollywood. Winchester, starring Helen Mirren, hits theaters today. The movie takes a classic horror twist, but many don’t know the very true story of Sarah Winchester’s sad and strange life. 

 

The Winchester Mystery house was built by widowed millionaire Sarah Winchester over the course of three decades in San Jose, California from 1886 until her death in 1922
 

The Winchester Mystery house was built by widowed millionaire Sarah Winchester over the course of three decades in San Jose, California from 1886 until her death in 1922

Helen Mirren will play Sarah Winchester in a new horror film, Winchester, that hits theaters today. Mirren said there are many false interpretations of her muse, many believed she was crazy or possessed. She's pictured here during filming on the grounds of the Winchester house 
 

Helen Mirren will play Sarah Winchester in a new horror film, Winchester, that hits theaters today. Mirren said there are many false interpretations of her muse, many believed she was crazy or possessed. She's pictured here during filming on the grounds of the Winchester house 

It is said that It's said that she had construction going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for 38 years
 

It is said that It's said that she had construction going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for 38 years

Born Sarah Lockwood Pardee in 1840, she married into a weapons dynasty 22 years later when she wed William Winchester.

Four years into their 1862 marriage they had a daughter, Annie Pardee Winchester, who died just six weeks after she was born from marasmus – an extreme protein deficiency. It usually occurs due to poverty, but can sometimes be caused by viral or bacterial infections, or chronic diarrhea.

The couple never had another child, and the tragedy didn’t stop there for Mrs Winchester. Her husband William passed away from tuberculosis in March of 1881, after working with his wife to build their expansive home in New Haven, Connecticut.

When William died, Mrs Winchester, at the age of 41, inherited half of the fortune from the company his father founded, the Winchester Repeating Arms company. Suddenly, she was one of the wealthiest women in America, having acquired $20 million, the equivalent of more than $515 million today.

She took the money and went west, eventually settling in San Jose, California – then a small area known for its agricultural lands. She purchased an eight-room farmhouse, and immediately set to work on reparations.

Then, the rumors began circulating. Her relentless efforts to make the biggest, most lavish mansion she could confused her family and neighbors.

Her silence and reclusiveness only served to intensify suspicions about her.

‘It fed all the legends and rumors – she wouldn’t talk about herself so people made things up,’ Winchester house historian Janen Boehme told DailyMail.com. 

 

Born Sarah Lockwood Pardee in 1840, she married into a weapons dynasty 22 years later when she wed William Winchester. This is the only known photo in existence of Mrs Winchester
 
The Winchester's daughter died just six weeks after she was born, and a few years later, William Winchester died as well, leaving Sarah Wincheseter a widow
 
 

The only known picture in existence of Sarah Winchester, left, and a portrait of her likeness, right. Born Sarah Lockwood Pardee in 1840, she married into a weapons dynasty 22 years later when she wed William Winchester. Four years into their 1862 marriage they had a daughter, Annie Pardee Winchester, who died just six weeks after she was born. A few years later, her husband died as well 

When Mrs Winchester inherited her husbands multi-million dollar fortune, she moved to San Jose and bought an eight-room farmhouse on 40 acres of land. Over time, she continued to expand the house and land 
 

When Mrs Winchester inherited her husbands multi-million dollar fortune, she moved to San Jose and bought an eight-room farmhouse on 40 acres of land. Over time, she continued to expand the house and land 

Eventually, the house ballooned into a 160-room mansion, with 13 bathrooms, rounded turrets, towers, and was eventually painted bright yellow and red
 

Eventually, the house ballooned into a 160-room mansion, with 13 bathrooms, rounded turrets, towers, and was eventually painted bright yellow and red

 

It's said that she had construction going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for 38 years. One legend says that a Boston psychic named Adam Coons told her that if she ever stopped building the house, she would die like her husband and daughter.

This story was never confirmed, and Boehme said she believes it was simply her way of coping with loss – and that Mrs Winchester was trying to recreate the happiness she felt building her New Haven home with her husband years before.

'I think Sarah was trying to repeat that experience by doing something they both loved,' she said.

Regardless of her reasons – the result was jarring. The eight-bedroom farmhouse ballooned into a 160-room mansion, with 13 bathrooms, rounded turrets, towers, and was eventually painted bright yellow and red.

Occasionally, rather than tearing something down that got in the way, she'd simply build around it. Hidden within the Winchester house is an old farm bell and a giant water tower, which once resided in the back yard, but as building expanded were simply covered up with walls and swallowed into the home. For the 38 years that the house was under construction, it cost an estimated $5 million (about $73 million today).

One legend says that a Boston psychic named Adam Coons told her that if she ever stopped building the house, she would die like her husband and daughter
 

One legend says that a Boston psychic named Adam Coons told her that if she ever stopped building the house, she would die like her husband and daughter

Winchester house historian Janen Boehme said she believes it was simply her way of coping with loss – and that Mrs Winchester was trying to recreate the happiness she felt building her New Haven home with her husband years before
 

Winchester house historian Janen Boehme said she believes it was simply her way of coping with loss – and that Mrs Winchester was trying to recreate the happiness she felt building her New Haven home with her husband years before

 Occasionally, rather than tearing something down that got in the way, she'd simply build around it. Hidden within the Winchester house is an old farm bell and a giant water tower, which once resided in the back yard, but as building expanded were simply covered up with walls and swallowed into the home
 

 Occasionally, rather than tearing something down that got in the way, she'd simply build around it. Hidden within the Winchester house is an old farm bell and a giant water tower, which once resided in the back yard, but as building expanded were simply covered up with walls and swallowed into the home

For the 38 years that the house was under construction, it cost an estimated $5 million (about $73 million today)
 
Mrs Winchester lived there for most of her life, and for 15 years was joined by her favorite niece, who kept her company and staved off conmen trying to swindle the elderly widow out of her vast fortune
 
 

For the 38 years that the house was under construction, it cost an estimated $5 million (about $73 million today)

After building this chimney three stories high, bricklayers tired and quit work on it just short of the roof. Only the most expensive materials were used in all construction
 

After building this chimney three stories high, bricklayers tired and quit work on it just short of the roof. Only the most expensive materials were used in all construction

Mrs Winchester lived there for most of her life, and for 15 years was joined by her favorite niece, who kept her company and staved off con men trying to swindle the elderly widow out of her vast fortune.

As the years went on, the construction got more and more bizarre. There remains a staircase that leads to nowhere, doors that open into walls, and rooms left unfinished. It eventually became so complex that it's been said the mansion's staff needed a map just to navigate their daily routine.

The creation was entirely her own – she cut ties with contractors within the first few years of construction.

'She had her own men here and they would try these various ideas. If they liked them, great, if they didn't, they would just tear them down,' Boeme said.

In 1906, disaster struck again. This time, an earthquake ripped through northern California, with an estimated magnitude of 7.8. It caused fires in nearby San Francisco, where approximately 3,000 people died.

The Winchester house, about 50 miles away, wasn't hit nearly as hard but still experienced the earthquake's effects. More than a century later, many rooms remain unrepaired from the damage. Mrs Winchester was terrified – as rumor has it, she became trapped in one of the many rooms she rotated as her bedroom, and the mansion's staff had to pry open the door with a crow bar to rescue her.

At one point, Mrs Winchester built a staircase that leads nowhere, having decided to place a hallway over it
 
The home eventually became so complex that it's been said the mansion's staff needed a map just to navigate their daily routine
 
 

At one point, Mrs Winchester built a staircase that leads nowhere, having decided to place a hallway over it 

The creation was entirely her own – she cut ties with contractors within the first few years of construction
 

The creation was entirely her own – she cut ties with contractors within the first few years of construction

After several years spent in ill health, Mrs Winchester died in her bedroom, pictured here, of heart failure in 1922
 

After several years spent in ill health, Mrs Winchester died in her bedroom, pictured here, of heart failure in 1922

Sarah Winchester died in her sleep at the home on September 5, 1922, of heart failure. There was a small ceremony in Palo Alta, California, and she was buried next to her husband and infant daughter at Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut.

A fiercely private person for her entire life, there is little to remember her by apart from her now famed home. To this day, there is only one known photograph of her.

No doubt a difficult task, Academy-Award winning actress Helen Mirren will portray the mysterious Winchester in the feature film under the same name.

She herself described the movie not as a horror flick, but a 'ghost story'.

Of her muse, she told the LA Times: 'There are many understandings of her. Was she haunted? Was she crazy?'

That question has puzzled historians for decades as they've attempted to decode the woman with an appetite for architecture. The Winchester House's historian Janen Boehme theorizes that instead of being possessed or mad, the widow was reclusive because of her debilitating rheumatoid arthritis that left her hands disfigured, and her gnarled teeth which required her to wear dentures.

One thing she does know for sure is that Mrs Winchester's home is full of secrets.

'I've heard things I can't explain – footsteps, voices, you'll hear whispers and stuff sometimes,' she said. 'But I think whatever is here has always been positive. She was such a good person.'

Sometimes visitors tell her they've spotted what she calls the 'wheelbarrow ghost' - a spirit trotting around the property in overalls, carrying a toolbox, and pushing a wheelbarrow.  

No doubt a difficult task, Academy-Award winning actress Helen Mirren will portray the mysterious Winchester in the feature film under the same name
 

No doubt a difficult task, Academy-Award winning actress Helen Mirren will portray the mysterious Winchester in the feature film under the same name

 

Boeme thinks giving tours of the home is, in a way, allowing Winchester to be philanthropic from beyond the grave
 

Boeme thinks giving tours of the home is, in a way, allowing Winchester to be philanthropic from beyond the grave

The Winchester House became one of San Jose's more prominent tourist attractions, and to this day visitors pay $40 per tour. The family who owns the home now has expressed their desire not to be named, and declined to disclose how many visitors the house draws annually.

Surprisingly, according to the Santa Clara County assessor's office, the home is only worth about $1.5 million.

Boeme thinks giving tours of the home is, in a way, allowing Winchester to be philanthropic from beyond the grave.

'She had a social conscience and she did try to give back,' Boeme said. 'This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of a