Oct. 11, 2010 -- Many people are afraid of ghosts. But probably none has gone to such extremes as Sarah Winchester, who spent decades building and rebuilding her Victorian mansion in an effort to confuse any ghosts that might be following her.
She had been married to William Wirt Winchester, son of the rifle manufacturer of the Winchester repeating rifle. The first four years of their marriage were happy but disaster struck in 1866, when their infant daughter, Annie, died of a then-mysterious childhood disease.
Winchester fell into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. Fifteen years later, her husband's premature death from tuberculosis added to her distress.
It is said that she ultimately sought help from a spiritualist. That led to the creation of one of the most bizarre homes ever constructed: the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, Calif.
For nearly 38 years, Winchester hired crews to work around the clock renovating an eight-room house into a seven-story mansion with more than 160 rooms. Quirky architectural features dominate: doors that lead nowhere, a staircase that descends seven steps and then rises eleven and columns installed upside down.
So why the continuous building and the odd features? It all has to do with the spirits. Winchester believed she needed protection from bad spirits. So she built a house that was ever-changing and designed to confuse them. It was also built to be large enough and accommodating to welcome the good spirits.
Confused? Think about the construction site's foreman, John Hansen, who would get new orders each morning after Winchester held nightly seances to guide her with the building plans.
Odd California House
Winchester was said to have slept in a different bedroom every night, supposedly in order to confuse evil spirits. Some say that she also held special dinner parties for her spirit friends.
The miles of twisting hallways are made even more intriguing by secret passageways in the walls. Winchester traveled through her house in a roundabout fashion, supposedly to confuse any mischievous ghosts that might be following her.
The home was also lavishly decorated. Freight cars loaded with gold- and silver-plated chandeliers, imported Tiffany art glass windows, German silver and bronze inlaid, Swiss molded bathtubs, rare precious woods such as mahogany and rosewood, and countless other items were docked onto a side track at San Jose.
Everything was then transported to the house where much of the material was never even installed. At the time of Winchester's death in 1922, there were rooms full of ornate treasures still waiting to find a niche in the massive home.
Today, the home is open to visitors who can experience the eccentric maze of rooms themselves.
Mansion tours start at $28 and tour guides warn people not to stray from the group or they could be lost for hours.
Go to the mansion website for more information.