“Perhaps not more than a dozen people in California know that Mrs. Winchester is a musician with a genius for composition, that she is a remarkable businesswoman, that she is a French scholar, that her philanthropies alone would make her a national figure if they were known, that she is a full-fledged architect familiar with the building peculiarities of all countries…” – Merle H. Gray

 Sarah Winchester (1839-1922), born Sarah Lockwood Pardee, was the daughter-in-law of firearms manufacturer Oliver Winchester. Unfortunately, her legacy has been reduced to nothing more than a ghost story connected to a quirky house in San Jose, CA. Her real story, however, is that of a brilliant, charitable woman whose life was marred by tragedy and forever tarnished by gossip mongers and tabloid drama during her lifetime and beyond.

In Connecticut, Sarah was known as the Belle of New Haven. She was the daughter of a carriage manufacturer and a child prodigy, who by the age of 12 was fluent in four languages, cultured in the literary works of authors such as William Shakespeare, and a skilled musician. She attended the Young Ladies Collegiate Institute at Yale University.

Sarah married Wiliam Wirt Winchester in 1862. They had one daughter, Annie Pardee Winchester, in 1866, who died quickly after birth. Stricken by grief, they would not have any other children. Around 1881, she lost her mother, father-in-law, and husband. William died of tuberculosis fifteen years after the loss of their daughter. In the wake of tragedy, Sarah became one of the richest women in the country practically overnight, with a fortune some speculate of over $20 million. She initially inherited 777 shares, which was nearly 50% of Winchester Repeating Arms Company’s shares. She also had shares in a myriad of other companies that were owned by the Winchester family.

Widowed and wealthy beyond compare, Sarah decided to travel around the world for three years and settle in California to be with the rest of her family around 1884. She bought a two-story farmhouse that infamously became known as the Winchester Mystery House. She, however, named it Llanada Villa. In 1888, her niece Marion Daisy Merriman moved in to live with her for fifteen years.

Construction began not long after, when Sarah started the process of turning the farmhouse into a seven story Victorian Mansion. During this construction, however, rumors began about the wealthy widow obsessed with building a house at the behest of, believe it or not, ghosts. In 1895, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about the odd construction of the house and its mysterious owner. From there, the legend was, if not born, given legs to grow. There is much speculation as to why this rumor got started and spread. Some historians believe it was due to the Great Depression in 1893 that Sarah was turned into an easy villain for having immense wealth that she invested in frivolity during a time when people were struggling to keep their own homes. Personally, I think a shift in gun culture at the turn of the twentieth century played a role in the demonization of Sarah and the source of her wealth.

The legend states that Sarah Winchester believed she was haunted by the ghosts of people killed by Winchester rifles. If that statement alone doesn’t indicate a shifting in attitudes towards firearms, I’m not sure what does. In this story, Sarah visited a well-known medium in New England who told her that she must continuously build a house, never laying down the hammer, based on the requests of these tormented spirits. From her séance room in the mansion, she was guided by these architects. These directives from beyond the grave have been used to explain many quirks in the house. For example, a stairwell to nowhere and a door that leads outside to a large and deadly drop. In the legend, Sarah believed if she stopped construction, she would die.

The reality is that construction regularly stopped on the project and evidence shows that Sarah spent more time out of the house than inside it. She paid her construction workers handsomely and did so during the depression as to keep them and their families financially cared for. The stairwell to nowhere was simply due to her boarding up the top floors that were significantly damaged during the San Francisco earthquake, and the deathly doorway was a construction entrance for workers to create a pulley system to take materials onto a higher floor.

There is no denying the house has its peculiarities, with small and winding stairs to accommodate Sarah’s ailing arthritis. In writing to the wife of Thomas Bennett, who ran Winchester for the rest of its existence, Sarah herself acknowledged,

“For one reason or another since I started in to make alterations in my house, I have not been able to get anything like settled… In the first place it is infinitely more difficult to get work done than it would be in New Haven. I am constantly trying to make an upheaval for some reason.”

The letter indicates indecisiveness rather than something more sinister.

Despite its quirks, the house is massively ahead of its time. It has early gas lights, indoor plumbing, faucets, and showers. It is possibly one of the first homes to use wool insulation. Everything Sarah did was incredibly high end, featuring Tiffany stained-glass throughout the property. Several of Sarah’s own inventions were in the house, including a communication system that allowed for people to speak to one another in any room, called the annunciator. She developed a drainage system for a greenhouse located within the building. Sarah even invented laundry tubs that had soap trays and washboards attached—later patent litigation from another inventor actually cited her as the original inventor.

Contrary to the rumors, the property was full of life, with Sarah opening her gardens up to community events and hosting plays in her Grand Ballroom. At the time of her death, the house had 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. It should be noted that there is no evidence she had a séance room at all, despite spiritualism’s gaining popularity at the time.

Sarah owned other properties in California. She purchased a houseboat and in 1910, another home in Atherton to be closer to her family. She spent a lot of time there until her passing in 1922. At the end of her life, Sarah gave $1,325,000 to build a tuberculosis center in Connecticut in honor of her husband, which remains a chest clinic today.

Before her death, the rumors of her tortured soul grew exponentially, causing her to retreat within herself. Her family and those in her employ did everything they could to refute the claims, including an article from Merle Gray highlighting her achievements and dismissing these cruel accusations. However, it was too late. The perpetuation of the myth in the newspapers could not be drowned out by those who really knew and loved her. After her death, the house was bought by John and Mayme Brown, known for their background in rollercoaster design and amusement parks. For a moment, they even considered putting a rollercoaster onto the property. Shortly after acquiring the house, they opened it to public tours, which have been occurring for over one hundred years. There isn’t a ghost television show or book series in existence that hasn’t told this lie. It was even made into a horror movie, starring Helen Mirren in 2018. And this year, the Winchester Myster House is hosting a haunted house entitled, Unhinged.

To be fair, the historic site does celebrate Sarah’s brilliance and kindness on its tours, but it can never, whether it wants to or not, shake off the ghosts of the past. Ghosts that manage to overshadow public memory of the life of a genius woman who was clearly ahead of her time.

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