The Winchester Mystery House

I have always wanted to visit this delightful maze of a victorian mansion. While we were visiting San Jose, California for a wedding, I was finally able to convince my family to come along for a tour.

In 1881 Sarah Winchester lost her husband, William Wirt Winchester, to tuberculosis just a month after losing her infant daughter to Marasmus. Deciding she was cursed, she visited a spiritualist who proclaimed that there was only one way to escape the spirits of all the people killed by Winchester rifles. If she began construction on a house, the spirits couldn’t touch her as long as it remained under construction.

winchester01Mrs Winchester inherited several million dollars as well as a 51% share of the Winchester company. This gave her a comfortable daily income of $1000 in a time when a normal daily wage was $1.50.

In the height of its glory the property had 161 acres of farmland including many orchards and beautiful gardens, and the house was seven stories tall. Today the property takes up about one city block.  The house was damaged badly in the earthquake of 1907, and instead of repairing it. Mrs. Winchester blocked off that portion of the house to never be used again, considering it cursed.

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After her death her niece quickly auctioned all of her furniture and sold the house for next to nothing. When she died the estate was huge but sprawling and unfinished. It contained 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. It however had extensive earthquake damage on one side that was never repaired, and upkeep required a large crew of people.

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Today as you visit the Winchester House there is a confusing mix of modern tourism and historical preservation. After walking through the gift shop full of all sorts of junk and knick knacks which have absolutely nothing to do with the house, paying a heavy fee, then being forced to take a photo while holding a Winchester rifle for possible later purchase (by the way, there’s no photography allowed inside the house), you will begin your tour of the house led by a historically costumed guide. While the guides provide historical information for different aspects of the house, they don’t really know a lot about Mrs. Winchester or the house specifically. This is because she never kept any journals or did any interviews. She also didn’t see many guests. Only a few of the rooms in the sprawling mansion are furnished. The rest are just bare walls, with a few scraps of old wallpaper here and there. This gives the house a feel that is more like a bizarre construction site than a haunted mansion.

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The assortment of windows to walls, windows on the floor, doors to nowhere, stairs to nowhere, etc. are pretty cool to see. They don’t really add an air of “mystery” though, as you can see the train of thought that went into them however bizaar. Mrs. Winchester would just build a new room next the house, then build a door to connect them.  She just didn’t deem it necessary to remove the old doors, windows or stairs. While it’s a little odd, I wouldn’t call it creepy.

Overall I enjoyed the trip. It was a bit more touristy than I expected, but there was a lot of interesting things to see, and our tour guides were very knowledgable about the history of  the region and technologies of the time. They explained to us the systems for gas power, and how the estate pumped and stored its own water. The house also had 4 elevators. It’s not very often you get to see the very best that 1900 had to offer, especially on this scale.

http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/

Wandering Paris

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Léa Seydoux, Midnight in Paris (2011)


I dashed across Avenue de la Grande Armée and ducked under the awning of Café de la Terrasse just as the rain re-commenced Friday evening. If Paris really is most beautiful in the rain, I’d already experienced a full week of beauty.

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The waiter presented me with a menu featuring specials for “happy beers” and “happy wines.” Perhaps it was just a poor translation by the copywriter, but I liked the idea that the drinks were as happy as the hour.

We’d spent the past three days exploring strategies and innovations meant to cut costs and streamline workflow in a declining industry, and we weren’t just happy to be having a drink, we needed one. Despite the intensive brainstorming sessions and extended dialogue, one important question had remained unanswered — was I or was I not supposed to eat the flower?

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Cigarette smoke wafted over the sidewalk tables as my colleagues from France, Scotland, Italy, India and Malaysia took turns asking me questions about Donald Trump and whether or not I owned a gun. Yes, Trump and guns, this is the cultural impact the US has upon the rest of the world.

As we all said goodnight and headed back to our respective hotels, I was left alone in Paris. I had no big plans this time, just a day to kill. I usually travel the city via Metro, but as the rain had finally stopped, I decided to walk. I passed the Peugeot headquarters and this curvy, winged car called out to me, but unfortunately the museum wasn’t open.

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I made my way to Trocadero where a quartet of troubadors were strolling café to café around the circle hoping for tips. They were mostly just having their pictures taken by tourists (myself included).

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For the first time all week the sky cleared, and the Eiffel Tower came into view in sync with the golden hour. I stopped to snap a photo since my previous attempts at a nice tower photo came with brown smoggy skies.

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I made my way down to the bridge watching both the tourists and the dozens of peddlers with their wares spread out on blankets. They still had models of the Eiffel Tower in many different sizes, but this year they were also hawking small robotic dogs that bark and walk, which I haven’t seen in the US since the 1990s, and of course, selfie sticks.

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The smell of crepes fills the air around the tower. I’ve never actually tried one, but I do enjoy the aroma and plenty of people were lining up for both crepes and ice cream.

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Since I had no plans, I decided to stick around and do some people watching. I guess I looked trustworthy enough that I wouldn’t run away with a camera as three different couples asked me to snap their photo in front of the tower.

I’d already done the Seine tour dinner cruise on a previous trip, but I always enjoy checking out the various boats — big, small and stationary.

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At 9:30 p.m. the tower finally lit up, which was the photo I really wanted to capture. I snapped a few shots and then walked through the night back to my hotel.

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Never underestimate how lost you can get even when there should be a large river to block you from going too far in the wrong direction.

Saturday morning was gray and dreary. I set out down the same road towards the Catacombs, but I must have taken the wrong exit at one of the roundabouts.

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However, as I wandered through the streets I got a nice insight into a Parisian Saturday. I passed soccer fields full of kids running and laughing while parents looked miserable on the sidelines. I watched people walking their dogs, trying to keep them from peeing on the motorcycles parked along the street. I saw young people carrying home bags of groceries while older people pushed their groceries home in strollers. I even discovered how new refrigerators are lifted into those tiny apartments.

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When I finally made it to the Seine I was two bridges down from where I was supposed to be, but I did get a nice view of the Statue of Liberty. The French version is a bit smaller than the one they sent to America.

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I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the catacombs — aside from a long line. Only 200 people are allowed in the tunnels at a time, so there gets to be quite a queue. My plan to get there early had been self-sabotaged by wandering the streets for an extra two hours.

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I think I was hoping for a spooky experience, but I didn’t feel that at all. The first section is an exhibit regarding the geological history of Paris and the formation of the limestone with a few fossil casts. Then several boards detailed the excavation and history of the catacombs. Then you finally reach the bones.

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I don’t even know how to explain how many bones are in these tunnels. If every man, woman and child I’ve ever known were entombed together, it wouldn’t come close to matching this number of bones. In some places the stacks are 10′ high and go 20′ back. And those were just in the tunnels open to visitors. There were more tunnels shut off to the public. There’s an estimated six million skeletons in the catacombs.

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In case you’re wondering, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, is the man who can be thanked for the creative stacking of femurs and skulls. I thought this skull heart was a nice touch.

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Once I finally returned to the surface, I started the walk back to the hotel and stumbled across this interesting army surplus store.

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But just as I was about to go in, I got distracted by this table of people cycling by while drinking beer. I’m not sure what kind of tour that is, but I think that’s the one I want to take next time I visit.

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