Alleged Hauntings of the Winchester Mystery House™
by Stephen Harred
Do You Believe In Ghosts?
When people ask me if I believe in ghosts, I always tell them the same thing: “I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’d walk ten miles if I thought I might.” I’ve always loved ghost stories, and the legends and tales of the Winchester Mystery House™ are among my favorites. The notion of a house built either to confound the spirits or to house them, depending on whom you ask, seems so full of spooky potential.
During my time at the Winchester Mystery House™, I was fortunate enough to collect alot of ghost stories. Some of them were quite recent, but others happened many years before I worked there. All of them had been told many times, by many different people, and in being passed around, their rough edges were worn down until they became well polished gems.
They were all told to me as if they were true, and when the person telling the story believes in it, then it doesn’t matter whether you believe in ghosts or not. You’ll still experience that familiar shiver.
All old houses are haunted in one way or another, and these haunts have a way of playing tricks.
Whether their tricks are the work of spirits or simply the result of wear and tear on old structures is a matter of debate, but the fact remains that the people that live or work in them usually have a story of something that might have been a ghost.
The Winchester Mystery House™ is no exception. Since 1923, when the house opened to the public, the people who work in the mansion have described strange experiences. By themselves, these stories of creaking floorboards and rattling doorknobs don’t always seem like much, but over time they paint a portrait of a house with a spirit, or spirits, of mischief.
One of the mansion’s caretakers related several experiences of hearing footsteps and breathing in the empty house late into the night, long after the mansion emptied out. On one lonely night, he heard the sound of a screw slowly turning, followed by a "plop" as it fell to the floor, but when he turned on the lights he could find nothing out of place. Could it have been one of Mrs. Winchester’s carpenters continuing his work? If so, perhaps he was the same mysterious stranger who appeared in a photograph the caretaker’s friend took at the house one New Year’s Eve. After all, the man, whom neither of them recognized, wore a workman’s heavy coveralls.
Another longtime employee at the Winchester Mystery House™ seemed to become a target for the sort of pranks a mischievous spirit would play. As he closed the mansion up one evening, he locked the heavy doors to the main courtyard and then set the burglar alarm. When he turned back to check the doors, he found them unlocked. Of course, he was alone in the house at the time.
On another occasion, after conducting a walkthrough of the house at the end of the day, he carefully locked all of the doors and turned off every light, but as he walked to his car he looked up to discover that all of the lights on the third floor were on. While anyone might forget to switch off a single light, he couldn’t imagine forgetting to turn off an entire floor’s worth.
A final bit of mischief occurred in his absence, but it seems clear that he was the target. One morning, he arrived to find his desk drenched with water. All of the paperwork he’d left the night before was soaked through, and his pencil cup was filled to the brim. There had been a light rain the night before, but the walls and ceiling around the desk were bone dry and undamaged.
Chicken Soup for the Departed Soul
When I tell people about working at the Winchester Mystery House™, the first thing they always ask is if I ever got lost in the mansion, and their second question is usually: were you ever scared?
The answer to both questions is no. I never got lost, and I was never afraid inside the house. I don't tell you this to brag. I’m not especially good at finding my way around, and I’m certainly not extraordinarily brave. The simple truth is that once you’ve walked through Mrs. Winchester’s house a few hundred times, it starts to feel pretty homey.
That shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, dozens of servants called the mansion their home during Mrs. Winchester’s time, and others have lived on the grounds in the years since her death. With so many people making themselves cozy, it makes sense that one of the hauntings that’s been reported multiple times is the comforting odor of a hot meal.
The first report of the phenomenon was nearly thirty years ago. A tour guide was doing some cleaning in one of the kitchens when she smelled warm chicken soup cooking. Keep in mind, the kitchens (there are six) in that part of the house hadn’t been used in decades.
A few months later, a different tour guide reported the same experience, but she was accompanied by a tour group who all reported smelling the same thing. In fact, the second tour guide reported seeing hot steam rising into the air and a feeling of warmth when she passed her hand over the spot, just as if a large pot of soup were cooking.
Other guides at the Winchester Mystery House™ told me similar stories, but I’m not sure if I believe them. Still, I like the idea of a kitchen haunted by something as nutritious and comforting as hot chicken soup.
The Long Fight
By 1900, Mrs. Winchester had more or less completed the exterior of her mansion. Photographs taken around that time show the house at its seven story height, its peak before the 1906 earthquake leveled the main tower, reducing the house to its current four story height. But even after she completed the outside construction, she continued to make changes. By some accounts, she remodeled the interior more than six hundred times.
With that many changes, it’s not surprising that nearly every room in the Winchester Mystery House™ used to be something else, and sometimes this means that unlikely events are alleged to have transpired there. Take the second floor storage room for instance. There’s nothing stored in it today, but in Mrs. Winchester’s later years it was used to store household valuables like fine china and cut glass. Before that, it served as a hayloft above the part of the barn where her carriage horses were kept. Hidden just out of sight are a few “trap doors” where hay could be easily dropped to the horses below.
It was in this room that a nicely dressed tour guest approached a friend of mine, another Winchester Mystery House™ guide, and asked him if he ever felt uncomfortable in the room.
“Sometimes, I guess. Why?”
“I’m not surprised. There’s a lot of violence here.”
“Violence? I don’t think so.”
“You can feel it, but you don’t know what it is.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
She explained to him that she could see past events, and that a terrible fight had taken place in the room.
“It happened a long time ago, before they took out all of the hay, and it's still happening now.”
The detail about the hay surprised him because even though the tour script refers to the room as “The Hayloft,” he hadn’t revealed that fact to the tour group yet.
“It started over there,” she said as she pointed to a dark corner of the room. “I guess they’d quarreled before because one of the men just walked right up and punched the other one square in the face. The other man, the one that got hit, grabbed some kind of sharp tool and started swinging it around.
“I think he cut the other guy up pretty bad. Maybe he didn’t live. I don’t know, but all of that bad energy is balled up in this room.”
He shrugged the story off and went on with the tour, but later he admitted that the room had always felt uncomfortable to him.
“Do you think it’s true?” I asked him.
“Maybe. Maybe not. It’s a good story either way.”
Have you ever seen a ghost?
It’s a common question at the Winchester Mystery House™, and as you might imagine, there are a lot of different answers. One of my favorite answers came from a tour guide friend of mine, who told me, “No, but I’ve heard one.”
Early one evening, she led a tour group to the Servants’ Call Room, the third floor room that once served as an office and gathering place for Mrs. Winchester’s household staff. As usual, it took a few minutes for everyone to gather in the cramped room, so she made small talk until the stragglers caught up. As soon as the last guest arrived, she began her scripted description of the room.
A few sentences into it, someone interrupted by calling her name.
“Yes?” she said. When none of the guests replied, she asked again. “Did someone have a question?”
No one did, so she continued speaking, only to hear her name called again.
“Did someone call my name?” she asked the group.
“No,” said a guest.
“No one heard anyone call me?”
Everyone agreed that hers was the only voice they’d heard in the small room. She tried to continue, but the same thing happened a third time. Excusing herself, she left the group and walked ahead to see if anyone was in the next room, but it was empty. She also checked the stairway that led down from the room, but found no one there either. In fact, this was the last tour of the day, and no other guests remained in the mansion. There shouldn’t have been anyone in that part of the house at all. She returned to the group, and without finishing her description of the the Call Room, led everyone to the next stop on the fourth floor.
“Did it ever happen again?” I asked her.
“Just once, a few weeks later. I was in the same room, but alone because I was dusting and cleaning the windows.”
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? I just called out, ‘Is that you Mrs. Winchester?’”
“And was it?”
“No idea,” she said.
I asked her how, if it was a spirit calling her, she thought it knew her name.
“It better know my name. I spend more time in the mansion than I do my own house. We’re practically roommates,” she said. “I just wish it would take a turn at dusting every now and then."
A Loyal Employee
Only a handful of photographs were taken of the Winchester Mystery House™ during Mrs. Winchester’s time, but we’re lucky to have any pictures of the house from that era at all. We forget sometimes how difficult and expensive photography was in the days before Kodak film and pocket sized point-and-shoot cameras, much less Digital SLRs and mobile phone cameras. To take any photograph at the turn of the 20th century required patience, skill, and costly equipment.
One of the photographs is of some of the carpenters that built the mansion. It hangs in the gardener’s tool shed, and you can see it when you visit the grounds. The men stand shoulder to shoulder, some with youthful faces and others with gray beards. They were obviously skilled craftsmen and hard working. Mrs. Winchester hired only the best, and she paid better than any other employer in the area. Because the estate was so far from town, especially in the days before automobiles were common, many of the men lived there. Some of them even raised families on the grounds, in houses provided by Mrs. Winchester.
Because of this, it wasn't unusual for those who worked for her to stay on for many years, but it might surprise you to learn that one of the men she employed may still be working in the basement of the mansion.
For most of the last eighty years, the main basement has remained locked and inaccessible to visitors and employees alike, but a few years ago the managers of the Winchester Mystery House™ added a new tour. The new tour, known as the “Behind the Scenes” tour, takes guests into some of the other buildings on the estate. It also goes into some of the previously unseen rooms of the house, including one of the basements.
Before the new tour could begin, many years of accumulated dust and debris needed hauling away. Since tours guides sometimes have down time or need to rest their voices after giving a few tours in a row, they got the job of sweeping up the basement. It took several months to completely clear the cavernous network of underground rooms and hallways, and during that time tour guides reported encountering someone they’d never met. He wore workmen’s coveralls and pushed a wheelbarrow.
Most of them assumed he was part of the restoration crew that works full time to preserve and repair the mansion, but one of the guides asked the Tour Manager who the man was. Confused, the manager told him that no one else was scheduled to work in the basement. She asked what he looked like, and the guide described the man.
“He had dark hair and a mustache, and he was wearing white coveralls.”
They dropped the matter, but a few weeks later a different tour guide asked the Tour Manager the same question after a shift in the basement.
“What guy?” asked the manager.
This tour guide gave the same description: a man with a dark mustache, white coveralls, and pushing a wheelbarrow.
No one else reported seeing the man until the Behind the Scenes tour opened to the public. One afternoon, a guest on the tour asked her guide about a man she’d seen in the basement.
“I didn’t see him. What did he look like?”
“Well, he had a mustache, and he was wearing white work clothes. I think he was pushing a wheelbarrow…”
Tour guides are trained to be very aware of who is in the house at all times. It’s important to make sure that no one gets lost or separated from their group, and they keep an eye out for anyone in a place where they might not belong. No one was supposed to be in the basement, so after completing the tour he reported the incident to the manager, who must have noticed a trend by then.
One day, while on tour of the gardens, a woman pointed to the photograph of the Mrs. Winchester's carpenters.
“I saw that man in the basement,” she said, pointing to a man with a mustache and white coveralls. “He had a wheelbarrow.”
The tour guide told the manager about it, and out of curiosity, the manager showed the photo to one of the guides that had reported seeing someone in the basement.
“That's him,” he said. "That's the man with the wheelbarrow.”
People ask me if the house is haunted, and I tell them that I don't know, but some of Mrs. Winchester's employees seemed pretty loyal.
Has Mrs. Winchester Left the Building?
Over the years, many psychics and paranormal investigators have come to the Winchester Mystery House™ in hopes of contacting the spirit of Mrs. Winchester. The first recorded attempt was made in 1924 by the great magician and psychic debunker, Harry Houdini, who later spoke of Mrs. Winchester’s purported Spiritualism in his lectures against the movement. Others of a less skeptical bent, including some of the most famous psychics of the modern era, have held séances in the house. To the best of my knowledge, none of these attempts has been successful. For the most part, it seems that Mrs. Winchester has left the building.
I’m happy about that. As much as I would love to round a corner in the mansion and bump into her, I’d prefer to think that she’s resting quietly rather than haunting the halls of “the house built for the spirits.” After a long life in which she experienced a great deal of pain, both physical and spiritual, I can only wish her a peaceful afterlife.
Still, there is one story that makes me think she might not be completely gone.
Several years ago, the Office Manager for the Winchester Mystery House™ was walking through the first floor when she noticed an older woman sitting in a chair in the formal dining room. The woman was small and dressed in Victorian-era clothing, and she didn’t look at or speak to the Office Manager. Later, she asked the Tour Manager why no one had informed her that there was a promotional activity that day. After all, she was the Office Manager, and it was important that she be kept in the loop.
“What do you mean? There aren’t any promotions today,” said the Tour Manager.
“The lady dressed as Mrs. Winchester? Isn’t she part of a promotion?”
“What lady? There’s nothing like that planned for today.”
Together they went into the dining room, but there was no one there. The chair where the old woman had been was pushed into place beneath the table, undisturbed.
I don’t know who the Office Manager saw that day. It could have been someone playing a prank, or it might have been an eccentric visitor dressed in period garb. But even if I’d prefer that Mrs. Winchester rest in peace, I don’t see why she can’t drop in to check on her house from time to time.
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