Secret passageways and rooms have always had an air of mystery about them. Why are they there? Who built them? And most importantly... does your house have any? These four structures are known for their eerie tunnels, doors that lead to nowhere, walls that are hiding something sinister, and disturbing or unsettling histories.
The Murder Castle in Chicago
H.H. Holmes is widely known as America’s first and most prolific serial killer. Holmes’ fascination with the human body began when he was in medical school and used cadavers to collect the deceased’s medical insurance. His crimes quickly evolved from fraud to homicide once his Murder Castle was built—just in time for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. What was disguised as a hotel and pharmacy was actually an elaborately structured house of horrors. The three-story building had rooms with no doors, rooms with too many doors, stairs that led to nowhere, an asphyxiation chamber, and many more horrific quarters. Perhaps the most disturbing part of the hotel was its cellar, as “[i]t was fitted with operating tables, a crematory, pits containing quicklime and acids, surgical instruments, and various pieces of apparatus which, resembling medieval torture racks,” a 1943 article in Harper’s Magazine stated. Holmes was eventually caught by the authorities, and sentenced to death for his horrendous crimes. He only ever admitted to killing 27 people within his short but plentiful killing spree. However the police suspected he was responsible for countless more unexplained disappearances during the World’s Fair. Thankfully, the Murder Castle was eventually burned to the ground and a post office was built in its stead in the 1930s.
Fun fact: The popular FX Network television show American Horror Story's new season has a character based on H. H. Holmes, portrayed by actor Evan Peters.
Winchester Mystery Mansion in San Jose, Calif.
Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born in the mid-1800s in New Haven, Conn., to a wealthy family. She married William Wert Winchester, heir to the Winchester repeating rifle fortune, and led quite a happy life with her husband and infant daughter Annie. Things took a turn for the worse when Annie—not yet a year old—suddenly fell ill and died of a disease called marasmus. Adding to this tragedy, William also died a premature death due to tuberculosis, 15 years later, at the age of 43. Stricken with grief, Sarah sought out the counsel of a Boston medium, who informed her that the spirits of those the Winchester rifles had killed were vengeful, and that this was the reason for her daughter and husband’s untimely deaths. Fearing she might be the next victim, Winchester decided to heed the psychic’s advice and move west to appease the angry spirits. According to the medium, the only way to keep the spirits away from her was to build a never-ending mansion for the growing number people who had been killed by Winchester rifles. Thus the Winchester Mystery House began its construction in 1884, and did not stop until her death in 1922. According to the official mystery house website, the home contains 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. Some doors and stairs lead to absolutely nowhere, and secret passageways helped Sarah navigate through the house in a way she believed would confuse the spirits.
Fun fact: The home is open to visitors for guided tours, private, and seasonal events.
Sowden House in Los Angeles
Built in 1926 by architect Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, Sowden House has had quite the scandalous reputation. Its Mayan Revival style was not popular at the time of its construction, and is still also known as the “Jaws House” because of its upwardly protruding entrance that is oddly reminiscent of an open-mouthed shark. The home's second owner Dr. George Hodel did nothing to better the image of the home. Though Hodel was a well-known doctor who brushed elbows with famous artists of the time, such as Man Ray, he would also have drug-induced sex parties at Sowden, and regularly beat his children in the basement. His son Steven says walking into Sowden House was “like entering a cave with secret stone tunnels, within which only the initiated could feel comfortable. All others proceeded with great caution, not knowing which way to turn.” Steven eventually wrote a book about his father after finding evidence that George Hodel might have been Elizabeth Short’s—better known as the Black Dahlia—killer, a murder that still has not been completely solved to this day. In fact, Hodel had been a prime suspect in the case at the time that he fled the country in the late 1940s.
Sowden House is still on the market today for $4.8 million.
Halcyon House in Washington, D.C.
Benjamin Stoddert, the first U.S. Secretary of the Navy, began construction on the Halcyon House in 1787. After being sold to one of noted writer Mark Twain’s nephews Albert Clemens in 1900, the house went through some serious renovations. A 2008 Washington Post article describes the house as looking like “an M.C. Escher maze of doors and stairways to nowhere.” The reason for this was because Clemons believed that if he kept building, he would gain immortality. Sadly, his logic failed and Clemons died in the late 1930s regardless of how labyrinth-like Halcyon had become. In “Ghosts: Washington Revisited” (1998, Schiffer), Halcyon was named the most haunted house in D.C. Visitors have reportedly heard crying in the basement, footsteps in the attic, and even the feeling of being levitated.