Sarah Winchester

Woman of Mystery

Sarah Winchester

It is easy to imagine how the combined grief of losing both a child and a spouse could be very crippling. But if you had $20,000,000 and all the time in the world to help you cope, can you imagine what you would do?

Mrs. Sarah L. Winchester’s response to the deaths of her child and husband left a bizarre and impressive architectural reflection of her psyche. The fascinating story of the Winchester Mystery House™ has its roots in the personal tragedies suffered by Mrs. Winchester and in the legacy of the Winchester rifle, “The Gun That Won The West.”

Early Life

Born around 1840, Sarah Lockwood Pardee was the daughter of Leonard Pardee and Sarah Burns, a carriage manufacturer in New Haven, Connecticut. Known as the “Belle of New Haven,” Sarah enjoyed all the advantages of a cultured upbringing, including an education at the best private schools. She spoke four languages and played piano beautifully.

In 1862, Sarah married William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and manufacturer of the famous Winchester repeating rifle. The couple’s life together was happy, and they moved in the best New England society. However, in 1866, disaster struck when their infant daughter, Annie, died of then mysterious childhood disease marasmus. Mrs. Winchester fell into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. Fifteen years later, in March 1881, her husband’s premature death from tuberculosis added to Mrs. Winchester’s distress. It is said, she ultimately sought help from a spiritualist.

Photo Credit: History San Jose

Is it Mystery or Misery?

The Boston Medium

According to some sources, the Boston Medium consulted by Mrs. Winchester explained that her family and her fortune were being haunted by spirits – in fact, by the spirits of American Indians, Civil War soldiers, and others killed by Winchester rifles. Supposedly the untimely deaths of her daughter and husband were caused by these spirits, and it was implied that Mrs. Winchester might be the next victim.

However, the medium also claimed that there was an alternative, Mrs. Winchester was instructed to move west and appease the spirits by building a great house for them. As long as construction of the house never ceased, Mrs. Winchester could rest assured that her life was not in danger. Building such a house was even supposed to bring her eternal life.

On a more practical note, maybe a change of scenery and a never-ending hobby were just what Mrs. Winchester needed to distract her from her grief.

Whatever her actual motivations, Mrs. Winchester packed her bags and left Connecticut to visit a niece who lived in Menlo Park, California. While there she discovered the perfect spot for her new home in the Santa Clara Valley. In 1884 she purchased an unfinished farm house just three miles west of San Jose - and over the next thirty-eight years she produced the sprawling complex we know today as the Winchester Mystery House™.

The House That Mrs. Winchester Built

In the late 1800’s, the Santa Clara Valley presented sweeping vistas of rural open space. It was a serene setting for Mrs. Winchester to begin her building project, which she did with steadfast determination. She immediately hired carpenters to work in shifts around the clock. By the turn of the century the eight-room house had grown into a seven-story mansion! The estate eventually grew to 161 acres of farmland, which included orchards of apricots, plum, and walnut trees to supplement Mrs. Winchester’s income. She also owned homes in Atherton, Los Altos, and Palo Alto.

Mrs. Winchester’s financial resources were virtually unlimited; upon her husband’s death she received several million dollars in cash and 777 shares of stock in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Upon her mother-in-law’s death in 1897, Mrs. Winchester received 2,000 more shares, which meant she owned just under fifty percent of the company’s capital stock. This provided her with an income of $1,000 a day – back in the days before income taxes.

The Eccentric Mrs. Winchester

The combination of her wealth and her eccentric building project gave rise to many rumors in the local community. On the one hand, Mrs. Winchester was generous with her employees, paying three dollars a day when the going rate was one and a half dollars. She often paid trades-people in gold coin, and when she went to town they would bring their wares right out to her carriage for inspection. Orphanages and many other local charities benefited from anonymous contributions. She welcomed neighborhood children and let them play on the grounds, even inviting them in to eat ice cream or play the piano.

On the other hand, Mrs. Winchester’s interest in seclusion was evident from the start. One of the first tasks of the gardeners was to plant a tall cypress hedge surrounding the house.

She reportedly kept her face covered with a dark veil at all times, and there are stories of her firing servants who caught a glimpse of her face by accident.

Then there were occurrences that defied explanation. Neighbors would hear a bell ring at midnight and 2 a.m., which according to ghost lore are the times for the arrival and departure of spirits. Some said that Mrs. Winchester never slept in the same bedroom two nights in a row, in order to confuse any evil spirits that might be waiting for her. At the very center of the house is the Blue Room, where Mrs. Winchester supposedly would go every night to commune with the spirits. This room consisted of a cabinet, a table with pen and papers, a closet, and a planchette board – used for transmitting messages from the beyond. Legend has it that she would wear one of 13 special colored robes and receive guidance from various spirits for her construction plans.

Mrs. Winchester Passes Away

Mrs. Winchester suffered greatly from arthritis in her later years. She passed away in her sleep from heart failure on September 5, 1922 and was buried at the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut beside her beloved husband. She was survived by her sister and many nieces and nephews, to whom she left cash and substantial trust funds. She also left cash sums to her favorite employees and a substantial sum to the Winchester Clinic of the General Hospital Society of Connecticut, for the care and treatment of tuberculosis patients. The clinic still exists today as part of the Yale New Haven Medical Center.

At the time of her death, the unrelenting construction had rambled over six acres. The Sprawling mansion contained 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. Carpenters even left nails half driven when they learned of Mrs. Winchester’s death.

According to the provisions of her will, Mrs. Winchester’s personal property, including the furnishings, household goods, pictures, jewelry, and papers were left to her niece, Mrs. Marian Merriman Marriott, who promptly had the furnishings auctioned off. It is said to have required six trucks working six weeks to cart the furnishings away! The mansion and farm were not mentioned specifically in the will. They became part of Mrs. Winchester’s estate and were sold by her trustees, the Union Trust Company of San Francisco.

The Mystery Lives On

What was Mrs. Winchester’s true motivation for devoting the second half of her life to building what is now known as the Winchester Mystery House™? No one can say with complete certainty, for no one ever interviewed her and she left not a single journal. Since Mrs. Winchester’s death, hundreds of wild stories have appeared about this mysterious woman and the sprawling mansion that bears her name. It seems odd that none of her relatives or former employees ever came forward to contradict these stories, despite that fact that some of them lived more than forty years after Mrs. Winchester’s death. For some reason, did they feel threatened by talking – or did they feel the need to continue to guard Mrs. Winchester’s privacy even after her death?

At the Winchester Mystery House™, we may never be able to separate fact from legend – so this book will present a variety of stories that have been told since the turn of the century. We leave it to our guests to decide for themselves why Mrs. Winchester really built the house in the manner she did.

Continue: The Winchester Family Tree

Wander through 110 of the 160 rooms of this Victorian mansion, designed and built by the Winchester Rifle heiress. Tour the estate daily. Keep up to date on all the happenings, worldly and otherwise, only with the exclusive "13th Hour" newsletter.

It is said that Mrs. Winchester felt the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was a warning from the spirits that she had spent too much money on the front section of the house, which was nearing completion. After having the structural damage repaired, she immediately ordered the front thirty rooms – including the Daisy Bedroom, Grand Ballroom, and the beautiful front doors – sealed up. The heavy, ornate front doors, which had been installed just prior to the earthquake, had only been used by three people – Mrs. Winchester and the two carpenters who installed them.