When Harry Houdini Visited the Winchester Mystery House

Harry Houdini once dropped in on the Winchester Mystery House, purportedly home to ghosts galore.
Harry Houdini once dropped in on the Winchester Mystery House, purportedly home to ghosts galore. / APIC/Getty Images (Harry Houdini) // C Flanigan/Getty Images for CBS Films (Winchester Mystery House)

While purportedly haunted houses abound, none has the grandeur of the Winchester Mystery House, the sprawling 24,000-square-foot San Jose estate said to be occupied by the ghosts of those who succumbed to the rifles of weapons manufacturer William Winchester. It’s little wonder, then, that magician and famed paranormal debunker Harry Houdini decided to pay the property a visit in 1924.

Work on the Winchester house began in 1886, when William’s widow, Sarah Winchester, began expanding on an eight-room farmhouse in what grew to be a compulsive and virtually ceaseless expansion. Folklore has it that Sarah was attempting to appease the ghosts of those who had been killed as a result of her husband’s famed Winchester rifle, and that William—who had died of tuberculosis in 1881—had instructed her from beyond the grave to build a place for them to roam. (Another version has William telling her to keep building or suffer an early death.)

Sarah had her construction crew build a massive labyrinth of 160 rooms, including secret passageways, doors that led nowhere, trap doors, and other eccentric carpentry. The work ended only when she died in 1922. Businessman John Brown saw opportunity in showcasing the house, first renting and later purchasing it for those purposes after Sarah’s death.

While many visitors have dropped in on the home in the last century, Houdini may have been the most significant. The escape artist was on a lecture tour in 1924 in an attempt to debunk various claims of paranormal activity and spiritualism, believing that those who claimed to communicate with the dead were misguided at best and con artists at worst.

The late October visit was reportedly arranged by Fred Faltersack, then a San Jose State University student who volunteered to be a participant during one of Houdini’s shows. The two struck up a dialogue and Faltersack then invited him to the Winchester home, where he was working as a tour guide.

So how did the world’s most famous spiritual skeptic react? Adding to the Winchester's many mysteries, Houdini never provided a detailed summary of his visit. What we do know is that he sought out specific rooms that were said to be the sites of high spiritual disturbance and that he was impressed by the byzantine layout of the home. But a detailed investigation never occurred because the performer had other, pressing engagements.

But Houdini’s visit did add an important part of the Winchester legacy. According to Vanity Fair, the magician suggested the tour organizers dub it the Winchester Mystery House, a tantilizing bit of branding and showmanship. While the phrase had appeared in newspapers prior to Houdini’s visit, official ads under that name began appearing soon after.

Today, the house offers a tribute to Houdini’s visit with Houdini’s Spirited Escape, an escape room inside the property.