Madness, Guns, and Ghosts: The Strange Tale of the Winchester Heiress
The film, Winchester, now playing in theaters is a ghostly thriller starring Academy Award winner Helen Mirren and inspired by real events. Mirren portrays widow Sarah Winchester, the reclusive socialite heiress of the Winchester Rifle fortune. Hers is a truly fascinating story and one that created a lasting interest to a bizarre historic-tourist attraction in California.
A Fortune of/from Guns
One of the most prominent and successful American firearms company of the nineteenth century was the Winchester Rifle Company. In 1866, Oliver Winchester re-established the original New Haven Arms company as the Winchester Repeating Arms Company after disputes with his partner, Benjamin Henry.
Oliver’s only son, William Wirt, served as treasurer of the company until his death. The Winchester company found success early and quickly, building up its fortune largely with repeating firearms (firearms designed with the use of a semiautomatic mechanism to fire).
The company developed various rifle models over the years and provided significant weaponry to British and American forces during both World War I and World War II. Oliver died in 1880 and William died several months later from tuberculosis.
The Winchester Rifle fortune was bequeathed to William’s widow, Sarah.
The Belle of New Haven
Born in 1840 as Sarah Lockwood Pardee, Sarah grew up in an upper-middle class family among the high society of New Haven, Connecticut. As a child, Sarah was very intelligent and beautiful. Well-versed in four languages, with a love for Shakespearean works, she became known as the “Belle of New Haven.”
The Winchesters and the Pardees were well acquainted through the New Haven society and as members of the First Baptist Church. In 1862, Sara married William, and their daughter, Annie, was born in 1866.
Tragically, Annie died six weeks after birth from a condition called marasmus, a severe malnutrition due to a protein deficiency. The two never had more children and Sarah never remarried after William’s death.
The widowed Sarah, suddenly one of the wealthiest women in the world with an estimated fortune of $20 million (equal to about $500 million today), uprooted from her east coast life and headed west to settle in California in 1884.
She purchased several hundred acres of land in areas of California of what is now known as San Jose and Los Altos.
In addition, she owned a houseboat in the San Francisco Bay, nicknamed “Sarah’s Ark,” alluding to a personal fear of the coming of another great flood such as the one experienced by the biblical Noah.
But it is the unfinished farmhouse that Sarah purchased in the Santa Clara Valley for which she is most remembered. It is where she spent her remaining years in mourning, presiding over a peculiar expansion of the farmhouse into a multi-room, labyrinthian home with innumerable bizarre features.
Madness and Ghosts
The farmhouse originally consisted of eight rooms when Sarah embarked on remarkably time consuming and high-priced extensions to the house. Partly inspired by her travels in Europe and, allegedly haunted by the souls of those killed by Winchester rifles, Sarah was burdened with the guilt of these deaths and strived to alleviate the curse of her family fortune. Thus began the erection of an eccentric, 24,000 square foot Queen Anne style mansion.
There were debates of what compelled Sarah with this project – madness, grief, or hauntings of ghosts – as she oversaw the architectural construction of complex and enigmatic rooms and interiors.
Already fascinated by the occult and spiritualism, Sarah held midnight seances with an Ouija board and planchette as a means of spiritual communication, upon which the spirits allegedly guided her in the design of the house. After the seance, Sarah then relayed instructions to her hired carpenters to build a room and any essential features. Upon completion, the spirit settled into the room and thereby found peace. Work on the home continued in this manner for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for the duration of the year for nearly thirty-eight years.
Whether one believes the legendary accounts surrounding Sarah and her reasons for the expansion, the house no doubt stands today as a marvelous curiosity. Like a vast puzzle, the home includes windows in the floor, doors to nowhere, stairs going into a ceiling. There is a door opening to a two-story drop called “the door to nowhere.” The use of numbers feature prominently throughout the home and their meanings are debatable. A technology enthusiast (rare for a woman of that time), Sarah’s home included modern day features such as forced-air heating, indoor toilets and plumbing, push button gas lighting, elevators (a rare horizontal hydraulic elevator). Stained glass windows designed by the Tiffany Company include spiderwebs.
The famous magician, Harry Houdini, once visited the Winchester home in 1924. He originally went there in the hopes of debunking the spiritualists and mediums of the day, whom Houdini considered to be fake. But after his visit, he agreed there was certainly something unnerving about the home.
Haunted or not, one should remember that Sarah lived in solitude inside this mammoth structure.
Earthquake (Tragedy) and Death / Death and Legends
A California earthquake damaged part of the house in 1906, even trapping Sarah inside one of the bedrooms for several hours. For reasons of her own, she did not allow the damaged portions of the house to be repaired.
Sarah died in her home from heart failure in 1922. She was laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery, next to her husband and daughter in New Haven. The house and everything inside was willed to Sarah’s niece, Marian Marriott, who auctioned off the house to the highest bidder. It was then turned into an attraction site and the first guests visited it in 1923.
One may never know the true reasons behind any of Sarah’s motivations except the mythology surrounding her and the final product of what exists today as the Winchester Mystery House.
The historic landmark and popular tourist attraction is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tours of 110 of the 160 rooms of the house are available. Guests may explore with one of the tours available: the Explore More Tour, Mansion Tour, Halloween Candlelight Tour, or the Friday the 13th Flashlight Tour.
Some guests even claim to see ghosts.