by Scott Hancock
The wife of William Winchester and heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company Fortune, Sarah Winchester lived a life of not only privilege and elevated social status, but one of horror and devastating loss.
Born in September of 1839 in Connecticut to parents Leonard and Sarah Pardee, Sarah Lockwood Pardee was the oldest of six children. Little is known about the early life of Sarah or her immediate family. Sarah Pardee launched herself into New Haven’s social elite when she married William Wirt Winchester on September 30, 1862. William Winchester was the only son of Oliver Winchester, owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Although the Civil War was at its height, life for the Winchesters was nothing more than profitable. The Winchester Company was the chief supplier of rifles for soldiers from both the North and the South, affording the Winchesters a life of privilege and wealth. The couple welcomed their only child, daughter Annie Pardee Winchester, on July 12, 1866.
Tragedy struck when Annie passed away at six weeks of age from marasmus, a childhood disease now referred to as “failure to thrive” syndrome. Sarah Winchester fell into a deep depression, feeling that a curse had been placed on her family. The Winchesters shunned all outside contact and the couple had no more children. Following the deaths of her father-in-law in 1880 and her husband in 1881, Sarah Winchester inherited fifty percent of the Winchester Company (approximate current value of $20,000,000) and an income of $1000 per day (approximate current value of $22,000.)
Nearing madness with grief, Sarah Winchester consulted a local medium believed to have psychic powers. The well known “Boston Medium” advised Winchester that her family had been pursued by the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles. The psychic further advised her that she would be haunted forever unless she was able to outsmart and hide from these spirits. She was instructed to build a home and keep it under constant construction to confuse the spirits. She was warned that any interruption in the remodeling would result in certain death. Armed with her newly inherited fortune, Sarah Winchester relocated to the west coast in 1884.
Winchester purchased an eight-room farmhouse under construction from Dr. Robert Caldwell on 161 acres in what is now San Jose, California. For the next thirty eight years the house was under constant construction, seven days a week, twenty four hours a day.
When structural damage during the Earthquake of 1906 trapped Winchester in her master bedroom for a few hours, she felt that the spirits were angry with her for devoting too much time and money on merely the front portion of the mansion. Workers were ordered to board up the earthquake damaged portions of the front of the house, and to begin new construction on the rear of the house. To this day, many of the areas damaged by the quake have never been repaired.
Although she possessed no training as an architect or designer, Winchester oversaw all aspects of the construction. Fueled by fear of being sacrificed by evil spirits, she served as a foreman with an iron fist. Workers or household servants who made accidental eye contact with her were immediately fired. Due to constant construction, the house became a maze of staircases and hallways. Most workers used maps to navigate the labyrinth that would become The Winchester Mystery House. Fascinated by the number thirteen, Winchester insisted that a pattern of thirteen be used whenever possible. The mansion has thirteen bathrooms, most windows have thirteen panes, and many rooms have thirteen chandeliers.
On instruction from Winchester, workers would begin a new project each day. This practice resulted in stairways that led nowhere, one straight into a ceiling. Many doors opened into blank walls, and one to a thirteen foot fall into a kitchen sink.
Construction on the Winchester Mystery House ceased upon Sarah Winchester’s death on September 5, 1922; she was eighty-three years old. The house boasts 160 rooms, which include forty bedrooms and two ballrooms, one completed, one not. The mansion houses forty seven fireplaces, 10,000 window panes, two basements and three elevators. Before the availability of elevators, special “easy rise” stairways were installed to allow Winchester access to every part of the house, accommodating her severe arthritis.
A will was found, written in thirteen sections, signed thirteen times. The furnishings in the home were left to her niece, Marian Merriman Marriot, who took what she wanted and auctioned the remainder. Movers loaded eight truckloads a day for six and a half weeks to empty the mansion. The house itself was auctioned to the highest bidder, who turned it immediately into a tourist attraction.
The Winchester Mystery House is now a National Historic Landmark, a San Jose Historic Landmark, and is California Historic Landmark number 868. The Santa Clara-Los Gatos Boulevard in front of the mansion was renamed Winchester Boulevard in honor of Sarah Winchester.
Today, the house is open to the public every day except Christmas. Tours are conducted of both the house and the surrounding grounds. Special Halloween and Friday the thirteenth midnight tours are also available.
For more information on this California treasure, visit their website.