Crooked House

Legend has it that Sarah Winchester kept expanding her California home for fear of dying if she ever stopped.

Winchester House San Jose California
Pre-1906 view of the Winchester House in San Jose, California (Winchester Mystery House)

Not the Agatha Christie novel, but those who have read the Stephen King story Rose Red will find this piece of architectural confusion vaguely familiar.

The story begins in Connecticut when heiress and widow Sarah Winchester consulted a spiritualist for advice following a depression brought on from the deaths of her only daughter in 1866, her father-in-law in 1880 and her husband, wealthy gun magnate William Winchester, in 1881. She had assumed that the Winchester family was cursed from the deaths that had occurred.

The medium she consulted was reputedly psychic and told Sarah Winchester that the family were indeed cursed — by the spirits of the people killed by the Winchester rifle. The medium advised her to move west and build a new house for herself and the spirits.

The twist was that if Sarah Winchester was to ever halt construction on the house, she would also die.

Sarah Winchester
Sarah Winchester

Moving to California in 1884, Sarah Winchester purchased an eight-room farmhouse and started spending her $20 million inheritance on renovating and adding to it. This work continued 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year, for the next 38 years.

Winchester House San Jose California
Winchester House in San Jose, California as it appears today (Library of Congress)

The house itself is a complete confusion of design or forethought. It has doors that open into walls, stairs that lead up to nowhere and end at the ceiling. It is predominantly of redwood frame, and boasts some 160 rooms, forty of which are bedrooms. There are 47 fireplaces, 10,000 windowpanes and seventeen chimneys. The motif of the number thirteen is a running theme through most of the house; Sarah Winchester was fascinated with the number thirteen as she felt it had some spiritual meaning to her.

The 1906 earthquake damaged the house. It was previously seven stories high but today is only four. Nevertheless, Sarah Winchester died at the age of 83, and construction on the house was stopped.

It is said to be haunted today and is a popular tourist attraction, known as the Winchester Mystery House.

The story of her fear of the spirits of the dead is the most well-known for the reasoning behind the confused architecture. Perhaps Sarah Winchester truly feared the spirits of the dead — or maybe she was rich enough to build her house how she wanted, and that is what she did.

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