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VINCENT PRICE: Connoisseur
WHAT'S MY LINE?
THE WHISTLER
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

THE MYSTERY HOUSE GUIDE[1]

Each year, thousands of guests pass through the halls of the Winchester Mystery House. There they learn the history of the strange mansion and its designer, Sarah L. Winchester.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of working at the Mystery House as a tour guide. I was able to experience the mansion in a way that few others can and learned many of its secrets.

If you're visiting the Winchester Mystery House soon (or visited it in the past), then I hope my commentary will fill in some of the blanks for you. For others, I hope I can share a little bit of the magic of the mansion, and maybe even inspire you to take a trip to San Jose for a visit to one of the world's most interesting houses.

Are you ready? The tour starts here!

Inside the Winchester Mystery House

 

The Carriage Entrance[1]

The tour begins here, in the Carriage Entrance. In addition to the rules of the house (no smoking, no food, no running, etc.), your guide will also tell you a little about the house and its history.

You'll also have a chance to size up your guide here. Is she lively? Does her tour patter flow smoothly? If not, you're probably in for a long, boring slog of a tour. Your Mystery House experience is almost entirely dependent on your guide, but have no fear- even if the guide is a poor one, you'll still have my charming commentary.

One of the first things guests notice is a large photograph of Sarah Winchester in her carriage. The photograph was taken in the gardens, just outside the doors opposite the the tour entrance. There's a small legend about this photo, told to me by several different guides. According to them, Mrs. Winchester never allowed herself to be photographed after the death of her husband, but one of the farmhands fell in love with her, and hid in the bushes just outside of the carriage entrance to capture her on film. Even discarding the romantic angle, I don't find much that's convincing in this story. To my eye, the photograph looks too posed for me to believe that she was unaware of the photographer. What was the occasion of the photograph then?

I believe the photo was taken prior to 1909, when Mrs. Winchester purchased an automobile, and prior to the 1906 earthquake. Who could have convinced Mrs. Winchester to sit for the photograph? It seems unlikely that one of her employees would have approached her and requested that she pose. It's more likely that her niece Marion, who lived on the estate, instigated the portrait, planning to send the image to family that remained back east in Connecticut.

I like the photograph a lot. She seems happy to me, even mischievous. Without it, she would be so much more abstract.

As for the rest of the room, I mentioned that there were two oddities. The tour script points out the door that opens to the wall, and it's a fun way to start the tour. Right away, everyone gets a look at the strangeness they paid to see. Another sign of a good tour guide can be seen here. A good guide will open the door casually, and not make a big deal out of it, after all, there's plenty more where that came from.

The other oddity in the room is hidden. When the guides introduce Mrs. Winchester, they mention that she stood 4'10" tall. To illustrate, they point to a very short closet door that also measures 4'10" (according to the script), implying that it was cut to match Mrs. Winchester. Maybe it was, but it was also cut to fit the staircase that runs above it, a staircase so steep that its known as 'The Vertical Staircase.' The Vertical Staircase is no longer on the tour route, and probably hasn't been for decades. It's not even on the special tour of locked off rooms given to employees after they've worked at the House for thirteen months.

I got a chance to see the staircase one afternoon when I volunteered to rescue a pigeon that had trapped himself in a skylight. I remember that it looked to have a 70 degree pitch, but standing at the top it was hard to tell. I suspect the stairs were meant for workers needing roof access, as I doubt Mrs. Winchester could have climbed them even in her best health. As the guide finishes this room, he'll ask you to follow him around to the next room. In most cases, I recommend sticking close to the guide, particularly if he's a good guide. You'll get more chances to ask questions, and generally get a little extra learning, but as you leave the carriage way feel free to hang back a bit. This will let the crowd thin out a little as you reach the next stop... THE STAIRS TO THE CEILING!


[1] http://mysteryhouseguide.com/mystery-house/

Article originally appeared on Inside the Winchester Mystery House (http://mysteryhouseguide.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.

Pictured above are Mrs. Winchester's carpenters. They were well-compensated professionals who worked hard to meet Mrs. Winchester's strange but exacting standards. They lived, worked, and in some cases raised families on the estate. At least one of them may still be there.

During most of the mansion's history the main basement has been closed off. It wasn't until a few years ago that a second tour was added to include the basement. This meant clearing about 80 years of accumulated debris and dust. Since tours guides have some downtime between tours, they were given the job of sweeping up. It took several months, and during that time people kept running into someone they didn't know. He wore overalls, and had a wheelbarrow, and looked like he might be part of the restoration crew.

One of the guides, expecting to be alone in the basement that day, asked his manager who the other person doing the cleaning was. The manager was confused because no one else was scheduled to do any work in the basement. She asked what the other person looked like. The tour guide described him as wearing overalls and having a mustache, and he was pushing a wheelbarrow.

A few weeks later a different guide asked the same question. 'Who is that guy in the basement?'
The manager was curious, and asked what he looked like. The tour guide described him. He had a mustache. He wore overalls. He was pushing a wheelbarrow. This was very strange, no one was scheduled to be in the basement.

The tour opened to the public shortly thereafter. One afternoon in the basement, a guest asked her guide who the man with the wheelbarrow was. What man, he replied. No one was supposed to be in the basement. After the tour, he asked the manager who might have been in the basement with a wheelbarrow. No one, what did he look like? Well, he had a mustache, and wore overalls....

People kept seeing the man with the wheelbarrow. One day, a guest pointed to the picture of the carpenters and said to her guide, 'I saw that man in the basement. He had a wheelbarrow.' The guide told the manager what the guest had said.

Out of curiosity, the manager showed the photo to one of the guides. The guide was surprised. 'That's him.' The manager brought in the other guide. Without being asked, the guide pointed to the man on the far right side of the photo. 'That's the man with the wheelbarrow.'

People ask me if the house is haunted. I tell them that I don't know, but some of Mrs. Winchester's employees were very loyal.

The Goofies and The Hayloft[1]

Tuesday, October 2, 2007 at 11:13PM
Stephen in Winchester Mystery House

The Goofy Staircase is the first example of the switchback staircases that you'll encounter on the tour.

According to the tour, these stairs are actually called Easy Risers (or EZ risers on some pages), a name which I can't find any other references to. The steps on these staircases rise only a couple of inches, and the tour guide will explain their use in the next room, but I'll spill the beans now.

Sarah Winchester suffered from crippling arthritis, and would not have been able to climb ordinary stairs. Not that climbing Easy Risers is at all easy, at least not at a normal pace. Tour guides develop the habit of taking two or three steps at a time in order to keep a normal pace, but I'd recommend walking slowly if you don't want to fall down. They're even more challenging when heading downstairs, but with a couple of exceptions, the tour route only uses these short steps when traveling up.

The Goofies, as they're called by guides, lead up one floor to.... THE HAYLOFT! What untold mysteries await you in THE HAYLOFT?

The Hayloft isn't a very compelling name, and that's okay because it isn't a very compelling room. There would be very little reason to stop here except that it takes a long time for thirty people to climb the Goofy Staircase, and if the group didn't wait in the room at the top of the stairs, people would get lost. Of course, this means the most eager guests, the ones that rushed up the Goofies with the guide, are left waiting. This is a good point to ask a question, though most of the obvious ones are answered during the course of the tour.

This is also the time that any psychics on the tour will make themselves known. Keep an eye out for anyone walking around the room sensing cold spots, channeling the deceased, etc. An attraction like the Mystery House brings in a certain number of "out-of-the-ordinaries", and that's a good thing, but the psychics I encountered in the Hayloft seemed much more impressed with themselves than their revelations would warrant.

One visiting psychic did tell a friend of mine that the Hayloft was the site of a particularly brutal fight between two Winchester farmhands, and that one of the men died there. I don't think there are any records of this event, but if you'd like to simulate a psychic experience, you might mention the murder to your guide.

Since The Hayloft is more of a gathering place than an essential stop on the tour, the tour script takes the opportunity to provide some details on how the house and property were distributed after Mrs. Winchester's death. Specifically, the script explains that the mansion itself was not mentioned in the will, and that the furniture was left to her niece, who took what she wanted and sold the rest.

For some reason, many people on tour become outraged that her niece would do such a thing, and that no attempt was made by the family to keep the house. I've never understood this outrage. I'm sure the furniture was quite nice, but unless you live in a 160-room mansion, what are you going to do with it? Likewise, unless you have Mrs. Winchester's wealth, which the niece did not, you won't be able to manage a 24,000 square foot home. Trust me, it takes a lot of staff.

As you leave the Hayloft, you'll go down a couple of long hallways (which actually double back on themselves), then head down a set of Easy Risers to the 13th Bathroom, where you'll have a chance to see where Mrs. Winchester showered. Please refrain from picturing Mrs. Winchester in the shower as you go . . . .