Sarah bought an unremarkable five-room wooden farmhouse four miles outside of San Jose. Something compelled her to invest, and she paid $12,750 in gold coin for land with an unfinished cottage sitting on it. Who would envision it would become her mystery house and self-generated prison?
Should we feel sorry for Sarah Winchester? She was born around 1840—her birth date is murky—christened Sarah Lockwood Pardee (affectionately called “Sallie"), the daughter of a carriage maker in New Haven, Connecticut. Her father eventually became a highly skilled finish carpenter who produced architectural details and woodwork embellishments that directly fueled the Victorian trends of the mid-1800s.
She had a princess’s upbringing—the best education in private schools, exposure to culture and the nickname the “Belle of New Haven." She was a fascinating combination of knowledge and beauty; she was well read, fluent in several Romance languages and played piano.
With close proximity to Yale College, Sarah knew about freemasons, Rosicrucian thinking and was fond of Shakespeare. In addition to a liberal education, her command of science and mathematics was ingrained into the exemplary mix.
Her match made in heaven was to an enterprising character named William Wirt Winchester, the only son of Oliver Fisher Winchester and Jane Ellen Hope.
William’s father, Oliver, had founded a successful clothing manufacturing company in New Haven. If fate had not entered in, Oliver might have been the shirt-collar king, but a savvy investment made him the Winchester rifle king instead.
The Winchesters and the Pardees were acquainted through the First Baptist Church and both William Wirt Winchester and Sarah Pardee had a crossover in studies. They married in September of 1862.
The union of the two was rather idyllic until their only child, Annie, died when she was only a few weeks old in 1866.
In 1880, Oliver Fisher Winchester died and left the newly realized Winchester Repeating Arms Company (WRAC) to his only son. His accounting had been in the black then. The preeminent name for semiautomatic rifles, his corporate value went from the red to $3 million in 1880—an economic value equivalent to $783 million today. The Winchester family dynasty was intact.
Upon Oliver’s death, his son Will was in management, his son-in-law T.G. Bennett was secretary, and W.W. Converse (married to Sarah Winchester’s sister Mary) was treasurer. John Browning, called the “Thomas Edison of guns," was the inventor of the company’s patents in 1880’s and 90s, and WRAC was more than stable. The majority of the 10,000 shares of stock were held by his wife, Jane, his daughter, Hannah Jane and Sarah.
Sarah’s husband Will was 43 when his father died. His own health failed from deep-seated tuberculosis and he died two months after his father. Death had stalked her remorselessly.
The widow Winchester and T.G. Bennett managed and controlled the gun market trusts, associations and price-fixing to preserve profit. The gun business was often chaotic and political. Several takeovers and an initiative to foreign sales meant eventually an inheritance of 20 million dollars and nearly 50 percent of the Winchester Arms stock would be Sarah’s.
There is speculation that a medium told Sarah to move west. Her mission was to put the spirits to rest by building a house for them. And, of course, that this building should not cease for the rest of her life.
There is no absolute evidence that Sarah Winchester was told what to do by a medium. Yes, she did believe in the spirit world but it is just as likely that Sarah wanted to leave New Haven to escape the ghosts of her dead family there. Coupled with these additional monies and perhaps her knowledge of finances, she knew it was the time to start anew and separate herself from the things that gave her pain.
Sarah Winchester suffered from deep depression. Llanada, the name she selected for her new estate meant “house on the plains"—a dialect of an obscure North California tribe. She took to discouraging visitors to her estate. Her mother-in-law, Hannah Jane Winchester had also died and that served to transmit more of the rifle fortune into Sarah’s purse. She went from wealthy to flamboyantly wealthy.
Soon every missive sent to ask to visit was met with rebuke: she slept very little and the house projects became all encompassing. For instance, in one letter she wrote, “…my upper hall which leads to the sleeping apartment was rendered so unexpectedly dark by a little addition that after a number of people had missed their footing on the stairs I decided that safety demanded something to be done so, over a year ago, I took out a wall and put in a skylight, then I had to have plastering done." Of course, that created more problems and the heating system problems exhausted her.
The continued building of her property allowed her to isolate herself from guests by using the house as an excuse. Besides, she was aging poorly and sanctuary gave her peace.
The Mystery House
Sarah’s rambling house eventually became bizarre. Sarah built onto the house nonstop. She had hired a crew of 20 or more carpenters and the vast building project lasted 38 years. The work shifts were often rotating, meaning someone was laboring 24 hours per day, seven days a week, every week of the year.
A very partial inventory of the houses amenities included:
- 2,000 doors
- 150,000 panes of glass
- 47 fireplaces
- An annunciator system with 150 boxes
- Palladian and bull’s-eye windows
- 200 rooms
- Winding staircases and Jacob’s ladder
Room upon room, a seven-story tower and competing towers, cupolas, minarets, turrets, widow’s walks, skylights, ridgepoles, dormers, pediments—all mashed together and built and rebuilt. There were staircases leading to nowhere, doors that opened onto walls, trap doors, spy holes, and don’t forget her purchasing more and more acres of land.
She was preoccupied with entrance and exits; there was a staircase—one of 40—that ended at the ceiling. Halls winded back to their beginnings and rooms had rooms within rooms. One balcony was only inches wide. Chimneys stopped short of the ceiling. One room boasted two doors next to each other—one normal-sized, one small and child-sized. There was discovered a hidden wine cellar sealed shut as if it were a pharaoh’s tomb.
Sarah Winchester’s estate would have the distinction of being the most expensive residence to build, $130 million in 2015 dollars. She, of course, had a loyal staff, an impenetrable hedge and a pack of bloodhounds to roam the property.
Sarah was not crazy. She ran an extensive vineyard, had ambitions for a houseboat and helped to run a rifle and factory empire.
Author of an unauthorized biography, Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune says, “Winchester was reclusive, probably in part because of severe rheumatoid arthritis that gnarled her hands and feet. She also had lost most or all of her teeth and often wore a veil and gloves when she ventured out."
Rumors have it that Sarah was deeply involved in spiritualism. That she had seen ghosts of the people and animals alike who had lost their lives because of the Winchester rifles. In the ghost story, her home was supposed to be a maze to confuse the malevolent spirits. She is quoted as saying to a friend, “They must never be able to find their way through my house. Each year I will add new rooms so that the spirits will go weary of trying to get me."
Another theory has it that a medium named Ada Coombs tricked her into—as author Pamela Haag in The Gunning of America puts it: “sleight of hand, illusion and instantaneous perception fed by a hunger for miracles and ghosts."
Whether Sarah was coaxed into séances or spirit readings is not known. We can only imagine. Upon Sarah Winchester’s death on September 5, 1922, workers halted construction; it is said they left nails half-driven into the walls.