Basement Blog

Honoring Mrs. Winchester on the 90th Anniversary of Her Death

Fiction from a Devoted Employee

"Thank you all for coming and joining us in the Séance Room. Please join hands and concentrate...

"We have gathered here this day, September 5th, 2012, to honor you, Mrs. Sarah L. Winchester, on the 90th anniversary of the date of your passing. Please give us a sign if you are here with us...

"Is that faint organ music I hear?

"We hope you realize that you have achieved the eternal life that you sought, although perhaps in a different way than intended. Due to the legacy you left behind, millions of people have seen and wondered at your architectural marvel, the behemoth house in San Jose. You will always live on in the stories and legends surrounding this house, the neighborhood that grew around it, and the city itself. Your beloved husband, William, is still the namesake of the hospital you formed through your charitable giving. Now it is part of the highly respected Yale Medical School.

"Was that an earthquake? No, the house is just... vibrating!

"Mrs. Winchester, is that you? Please let us know that you mean us no harm, and that you're happy in the afterlife with William and baby Annie!

"That was definitely a distinct knock on the wall, and nobody else is in the house. There's another... and another... four... five... six... seven... eight... nine... ten... eleven... twelve... thirteen!

"Ohmygawd! Who turned out the lights?!"

(intense, blood-curdling screams)

Officer: "And that's the end of the recording, sir. None of the séance attendees have been seen since. The room was locked from the inside, but all that was in there was this audio recorder, the table, and thirteen chairs."

Detective: "You don't really believe in that mumbo-jumbo, do you? I'm sure it's just some practical joke. They'll all turn up somewhere."



[All in good fun, Mrs. Winchester. We love and respect you. Rest in peace.]

Hammer Films Set To Make Official Winchester Mystery House Movie

Fright Nights Producers In The Mix

Well, the scary black cat is out of the menacing burlap bag. A feature-length film is about to be made about the Winchester Mystery House! The news broke this past Friday and it has been all the buzz throughout the weekend. Shooting will be done on location, so you know it's going to be authentic (don't worry, we'll work the shoots around our regular operating schedule and if the rare case of a closure occurs we'll make it known well in advance).

The movie will be produced by Exclusive Media's Hammer Films division, in conjunction with Imagination Design Works (IDW), and Nine/8 Entertainment. Hammer Films was the producer of The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe, which has grossed over $100 million internationally. IDW was the creative force behind Winchester Mystery House's wildly popular Fright Nights event that will be going into it's second year this October. Andrew Trapani of Nine/8 Entertainment produced The Haunting in Connecticut in 2009.

KTVU's Robert Handa reported on the news:

First the Basement (Blog), Now We're Cleaning the Garage

Items stored in the estate's garage prove to be part of the 7-story tower torn down in 1906

Today, April 18th, marks another anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Cleaning Mrs. Winchester's garage recently, staffers pulled out and examined many of the pieces of the mansion that were removed after the quake. Believe it or not, even though she built on the mansion for another 16 years after the earthquake, she never threw away or reused some of the parts of the 7-story tower. They were simply placed in storage and left there for over 100 years. Here we see where some of those pieces fit into the vintage photo of the tower.

Spring Cleaning in the Basement

A New Basement Blog Writer "Spruces Things Up"

Welcome back to the basement! Today, April 12th, 2012 marks the one year anniversary of Winchester Mystery House establishing a presence on social media with Facebook and Twitter. In honor of this milestone we are renewing the Basement Blog. We will once again be sharing regular news and events, and discussing little-known facts and history about Mrs. Winchester and the estate.

The former Basement Blog writer, Stephen Harred, has moved on to bigger and better things. We thank him for his service and wish him continued success. All of the posts below this one were written by him.

If you have not yet joined Winchester Mystery House on social media, please do:
Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter

We're now also on Pinterest!
Follow us on Pinterest

And don't forget to check back here in the basement often!

Employee Relations

Sarah Winchester, her employees, and the United States Postal Service

Obviously, a mansion and estate the size of Mrs. Winchester's required a sizable staff. In addition to household staff, Mrs. Winchester kept a crew of carpenters busy year round, and of course there would have been quite a few people employed in her fruit orchards. Many of these employees lived on the estate, some of them with their families.

By all accounts, Mrs. Winchester was a demanding but generous employer, and many of the people that worked for her stayed on for many years, but I know of very few direct references to how she treated the employees.

One thing interesting item I found in my research is a note from Mrs. Winchester to the Postal Service. Apparently, the Postal Service was considering eliminating delivery to rural residences in 1898. This would have directly impacted the estate's workers, so Mrs. Winchester wrote to the Postmaster General on behalf of her employees requesting that rural delivery continue.

This note is part of the official record of the United States Postal Service, and can be found in the Postmaster General's annual report from 1898. Below is a copy of the printed note:

Life on the Farm

Sarah Winchester and Silicon Valley Agriculture

I wanted to take a break from our series on Spiritualism and share a great resource for learning about Sarah Winchester's other business ventures. As most readers may know, Sarah Winchester used the fortune she commanded as head of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to build her mansion, but many people don't know that she also ran a successful farm on the estate. In fact, the local records for Mrs. Winchester list her occupation as "fruit seller."

Today, the Winchester Mystery House sits on just a few acres of land, but Mrs. Winchester once owned more than 160 acres, and most of this land was given over to orchards for growing apricots and prunes. These were fruits were common crops in the Santa Clara Valley, and were its major industry until the 1950s.

It's difficult for me to imagine the busy and crowded Silicon Valley as farmland, but fortunately there's a great place to see photographs of the land as it was in Sarah Winchester's time. Silicon Valley History Online features an amazing collection of historical photographs and other images from the Santa Clara Valley. If you're interested in seeing what life was like on a farm such as Mrs. Winchester's, then have a look at the Agriculture section. You might also be interested in the collection of photographs taken after the 1906 Earthquake, which destroyed much of San Francisco and San Jose, and toppled the upper stories of the Winchester Mystery House.

Among the Spirits, Part 2

Sarah Winchester and the Practice of Spiritualism

As I discussed last week, if Sarah Winchester was a Spiritualist or visited a Spiritualist medium in hopes of contact the spirits of her late husband and daughter, then she would would not have been unusual. The movement’s popularity reached its peak in the 1870s, and had its epicenter in the northeastern United States, where she lived prior to moving to California. It’s likely that many of her friends and acquaintances were involved in the movement, and it would have been impossible for her to ignore.

What would the practice of Spiritualism have involved? From its beginning, Spiritualism revolved around the séance. The word séance, which means “sitting” or “session” in French (as in “sitting for a portrait”), is any gathering where the participants attempt to contact the spirit world through a psychic or medium.

The first séances involved the medium asking questions of the spirits and receiving answers in the form of knocks or raps. For example, the medium might ask a visiting spirit a question, and then instruct it to “knock once for yes, and twice for no.” However, as the popularity of séances increased, they grew from small private events to larger, more theatrical performances, and the spirit manifestations became increasingly elaborate. The visiting spirits might play a musical instrument, levitate people and furniture, or even become visible.

Because of its popularity, many books were published about Spiritualism. Some of these were favorable to the movement, almost to the point of being propaganda, while others took a dimmer view, condemning mediums as frauds or agents of the Devil. These books contain many firsthand accounts of séances and give us a glimpse of what Mrs. Winchester may have experienced if she attempted to contact the spirits of her lost loved ones.

Below are a few excerpts from such books:

From Spiritualism: A Personal Experience and a Warning, by Coulson Kernahan:

From Arcana of Spiritualism: A Manual of Spiritual Science and Philosophy, by Hudson Tuttle:

And from Spiritualism: A Popular History From 1847, by Joseph McGabe:

Among the Spirits

The History of Spiritualism and Mrs. Winchester

The meeting between Sarah Winchester and the Boston psychic that advised her to build a house that was never finished is central to the legend of the Winchester Mystery House. While it’s important to remember that many of those closest to Mrs. Winchester denied that she had any involvement with such things, it would not have been unusual for a woman of her age and position in society. To understand that, it’s useful to know a little bit of the history of Spiritualism.

In 1848, two sisters living in Hydesville, New York claimed that they were in contact with the spirit of a murder victim which resided in their family home. They demonstrated their method of communicating with the dead by asking questions which would then be answered by a series of disembodied raps or knocks. The story of their contact with the spirit spread, and Kate and Margaret Fox, not even teenagers at the time, were soon known around the world as mediums- those with the gift of communicating to the dead, and that first contact with the dead is acknowledged as the beginning of the Spiritualist movement.

The movement quickly became a worldwide phenomenon, especially among the middle and upper classes, and over the next forty years many prominent figures would become involved in some way. For example, Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, conducted séances in the White House after the death of their son. It’s even rumored that the President took part in one or more of them.

At the height of its popularity, Spiritualism became linked with important causes like the abolition of slavery and women's right to vote. Far from being a fringe movement, it was a driving force among many of the world’s leading intellectuals, and some claimed that Spiritualism’s means of contact with the dead was a scientific breakthrough on par with the other great inventions and discoveries of the time.

Much like Mary Todd Lincoln, Mrs. Winchester could have turned to Spiritualism during a period of intense grief. After the deaths of her husband and infant daughter, the promise of encountering them through a Spiritualist medium would have offered great comfort.

And what would her encounter with her lost loved ones have been like? Of course there’s now way to know, but in next week’s entry, I’ll share some written accounts of séances held during Mrs. Winchester’s time.

The Famous Sarah Winchester

Searching for the truth behind the legend.

”Winchester’s Widow Dying, Work on Her House in San Jose, Ca Has Never Ceased.” was the headline of a short article in the June 6, 1911 edition of the New York Times. The story that accompanied it began: "Lying at the point of death, Mrs. Sarah L. Winchester, the eccentric widow of the inventor of the repeating rifle, who was President of the Winchester Arms Company, is dying alone at Llanada Villa, the country home where she has lived secluded for nearly ten years, in what her neighbors call ‘the House of Mystery.’” It goes on to describe the mansion and Mrs. Winchester’s life there.

Of course, Mrs. Winchester lived another eleven years after the article was published, so it’s accuracy maybe suspect, but what strikes me is that she’d achieved enough notoriety that her apparent illness merited a story in the New York Times. While we live in an age when just about anyone can become world famous overnight, Mrs. Winchester achieved her fame before television or radio, and she achieved it in spite of her desire for privacy.

Ironically, it may have been her seclusion that fueled the speculation that made her famous. With little firsthand knowledge of Mrs. Winchester, the curious onlookers that watched her house grow could do little but speculate about its owner. Those speculations grew into rumors, which then became fodder for articles like the one in the New York Times.

Not that I blame them. I’ve done my fair share of speculating about Mrs. Winchester. Like them, I can see her work, but I can never meet her. Worse than that, I’ve walked through it hundreds of times, photographed it from every angle, studied its architecture, and the more familiar I’ve become with her house, the more questions I have.

Why is there a door on the second floor of the house that opens out to nothing? What about that door open on to a blank wall? How did Mrs. Winchester pass her days in the mansion? Was she lonely and depressed, or did she lead a full but quiet life at Llanada Villa?

Over the next year of writing this blog, I hope to add something new to my understanding of Mrs. Winchester, and I hope you will join me as I search for the truth behind the legend.

The Winchester Mystery House Proudly Introduces Stephen Harred

When I was first asked to write about the Winchester Mystery House, I wasn’t sure what I might write about, but as I looked over my notes and thought about my own experiences in the mansion, the flood of questions came back to me. There’s still so much that I want to know about the Winchester Mystery House, and as I learn more, I plan to share it in this blog.

My own history with the Winchester Mystery House began sometime in the early 1980s, when I found a collection of "Ripley’s Believe It or Not!" paperbacks in the back room of my small town’s public library. Mixed in with stories about two-headed calves and the “strange” customs that Ripley had observed around the world was a single page of illustrations about the mansion. I don’t remember many of the details except that Ripley claimed that the collections of “solid gold keys” to all of the doors in the mansion was kept in a five gallon bucket, which would have amounted to quite a fortune on its own if it had been true.

I learned more about the house over the next two decades, but I never imagined that I would ever visit it, let alone work there, until a friend living in San Jose invited me to visit him for the summer. My first week there, I drove by the house and noticed a sign that read “Now Hiring.” Remembering the stories I’d read, I decided that I would put in an application. Two weeks later, I started one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, Tour Guide at the Winchester Mystery House.

During my time as a guide, I became fascinated, some say obsessed, with learning as much as possible about Sarah Winchester, but the difficulty of learning about the life of such an intensely private person left me both frustrated and more determined than ever to understand both her and the time in which she lived. In this blog, I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve learned along the way as I tried to get to know the real Sarah Winchester.

Continue: The Movie
Wander through 110 of the 160 rooms of this Victorian mansion, designed and built by the Winchester Rifle heiress. Tour the estate daily. Keep up to date on all the happenings, worldly and otherwise, only with the exclusive "13th Hour" newsletter.

Mrs. Winchester never had a master set of blueprints but did sketch out individual rooms on paper and even tablecloths. According to legend, Mrs. Winchester enacted a nightly seance to help with her building plans and for protection against the "bad" spirits.