As early as I could check out library books at Eastvalley Elementary, I was reading books about the weird. Ghosts. Aliens. The disappearance of Amelia Earhart. I loved all things bizarre. My love for these offbeat stories and landmarks has continued into adulthood, as I scour Roadside America before every trip and catch specials on the Travel Channel.
Thanks in part to flooding on the Pacific Coast Highway, I had to detour through San Jose. It was time to cross a major destination off my “weird destinations” bucket list: The Winchester Mystery House.
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After turning around in San Luis Obispo, we cut inland and stopped for the afternoon in the gateway to Silicon Valley. I was surprised to see historic buildings alongside modern skyscrapers. But with little time to explore, we headed straight for the sign indicating “Winchester Mystery House.” It didn’t look that big to me, especially from the parking lot, but once inside, I changed my tune.
The Winchester family made their fortune in their famous lever action rifles starting in the 1860s. It was the brand of choice for Teddy Roosevelt. William Winchester, the treasurer of the company, died in 1881 at age 43 of tuberculosis. This was just the first of many tragedies that his wife Sarah would endure after, in 1866, the couple’s daughter died of marasmus only 9 days after birth. A few years later, she began construction on her Victorian home in San Jose.
Convinced that she was cursed or haunted by the ghosts of those who died because of the Winchester rifles, a psychic told her that the only way to ward them off was to never stop work on her house. So she paid the workers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 38 years.
She retained 50% ownership of her husband’s company and over $20 million dollars after his death. No architect was employed, so a number of bizarre features are included like doors to nowhere and windows to walls as well as over 150 rooms. A 1906 earthquake knocked down three stories.
Sarah Winchester died in 1922 in her sleep. Her will left everything to her niece and a personal secretary. After the niece took everything she wanted, she sold the rest at auction. Because of the unusual layout of the home and earthquake damage, no one wanted it. Instead, a local investor purchased it for $135,000. It became a tourist attraction in 1923 only a few months after she died and Harry Houdini was one of the early visitors.
When you visit yourself, skip quickly through the over-the-top gift shop when you arrive. Wait for your tour guide in the courtyard, where there’s a small museum about the Winchesters and even a shooting game. The guide will share stories of the house and point out interesting features.
The one I remember best is what was found in her safe. It wasn’t money or gold, but locks of hair of her late husband and child. No photos were allowed of the inside because Helen Mirren is set to star in a film about Sarah’s life. Another room was found as recently as 2016 and just opened for tours, so you never know what you’ll see!
If You Go
Winchester Mystery House is located at 525 S Winchester Boulevard, San Jose, California. They’re open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. The standard Mansion Tour lasts around an hour and costs $20. They also have other tours that run on special occasions. Parking is included. You can drive from San Francisco in less than 2 hours or take Caltrain to Tamien and take the light rail or Lyft from there, which will take 2 hours.
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