I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
You have to conclude that Sarah Winchester was a tad eccentric. She began the renovation of a farmhouse in San Jose, California that lasted 36 years. The resulting 24,000-square-foot palace is filled with mystery and, perhaps, some ghosts.
The Winchester Fortune
Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born in 1839 in New Haven, Connecticut. Sarah’s father was a shrewd businessman who made a fortune building and supplying ambulances to the Union Army during the Civil War.
Sarah is said to have been a child prodigy who could speak fluently in Spanish, French, Italian, and Latin by the time she was 12. She had musical talent and was well versed in the classics such as Shakespeare and Homer. Combine all this with physical beauty and she became known as The Belle of New Haven among the high society of the community.
She was also quite deeply involved in mysticism and spiritualism.
At the age of 23, she married William Wirt Winchester, whose father owned the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
William died in 1881, and Sarah got an inheritance of $20 million, worth well over half a billion dollars in today’s money. As well, Sarah inherited half ownership in the company that made “The Gun that Won the West.” The revenue from rifle sales generated an income of about $26,000 a day, in today’s money.
Sarah Winchester had become one of the world’s wealthiest women.
Sarah Winchester Goes West
After William’s death, Sarah took an extended trip to Europe before settling in California. She became secretive, which, of course, is an open invitation for people to make stuff up.
One story that floated around, and is still told, is that she went to see Adam Coons, a Boston psychic. The medium is said to have told Sarah that she and her family were cursed by the tortured souls of all those people who had been killed by bullets from Winchester rifles.
Coons, obviously in close contact with the sophisticated higher powers of the occult, is supposed to have advised the distraught woman that the only way to quiet the unhappy spirits was to embark on an endless building project. And California, it seems, was the best place to do this.
There are those who say the story of the clairvoyant is wild speculation. The Coons yarn is probably make believe but has credibility because of Sarah’s belief in spiritualism. However, these rumours were flying about during Sarah Winchester’s life and she did nothing to snuff them out.
And, there is no denying the physical evidence of Winchester House itself, which, to say the least, is weird.
Winchester House Construction
Sarah bought an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose and the renovations began. Each night, there was a séance allowing her to get instructions for the following day’s work. The construction went on day and night, seven days a week because, she seems to have believed, if the work ever stopped she would die.
Extensions were planned and erected, new floors added, and turrets and towers rose. Inside, a strange higgledy-piggeldy maze of corridors and rooms took shape. The labyrinthine twists are turns of passages are said to have been built that way to confuse the malevolent forces of the dead.
Some rooms were constructed with 13 walls, because everybody knows that’s an unlucky number that might make the spooky things go away. There were staircases that ended in ceilings.
Sarah was not an architect and her plans were likely to be confused. One door opens onto a 15-foot drop into shrubs below. Perhaps, she felt there was no point in fixing that mistake because there were new instructions from the Ouija board to be dealt with.
The project came to end when Sarah Winchester died in 1922, rather prosaically of a heart attack in her sleep. There were no signs of a struggle with a spectral menace bent on avenging the deaths attributed to the Winchester rifle.
What exists is a massive property with:
- 10,000 windows;
- 2,000 doors;
- 160 rooms;
- 52 skylights;
- 47 stairways and fireplaces;
- 17 chimneys;
- 13 bathrooms; and,
- Six kitchens.
The sticker price for all this was $5.5 million, about $71 million in today’s value.
Winchester House Today
Soon after Sarah’s passing, the local authorities declared the house a landmark. Today, it is a tourist attraction visited by many thousands of people.
All the visitors know about the alleged paranormal activity associated with the place, so it’s no surprise several report feeling a ghostly presence or getting a nudge from an invisible hand.
Enter parapsychologist Christopher Chacon. In the 1990s, he was hired to investigate the disembodied voices and phantom apparitions. He turned up with all the paraphernalia of his trade: radiation, temperature, electrostatic, geomagnetic, pressure, and vibration detecting devices. There were lots of other gizmos as well, and interviews with more than 300 people.
The surveillance went on for 30 days continuously and the results were mixed. There were 1,440 so-called “events” recorded, the vast majority of which were described as natural phenomena. However, some of these “events” did not have a scientific explanation.
Mr. Chacon concluded that “Further investigation would be required to determine whether the phenomena are natural anomalies or a product of human consciousness and are reactive, as well as sentient or as theorized in parapsychology as residual or perhaps even the result of displaced RSPK (Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis, otherwise known as poltergeists).”
Bottom line―no ghosts were seen or captured and put in containers for further examination in the lab.
No further paranormal investigations have taken place. The failure to detect any apparitions, wraiths, sprites, or banshees might be bad for the box office.
- The Winchester House was severely damaged during the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, but was repaired and the additions continued.
- Sarah Winchester made no provisions for the house in her will. Because of its cockamamie design and earthquake damage it was deemed worthless. The house, into which more than $5 million had been poured, sold at auction for $135,000.
- In 2018, Helen Mirren played the lead role in the movie Winchester. It scores an paltry 13 percent among critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Peter Travers in Rolling Stone wrote that it is “a movie of such barreling awfulness that it strands the great Helen Mirren in a gothic house of cards that collapses on actors and audiences alike.”
- Winchester Mystery House Website.
- “The Winchester Mystery House.” Mike Bison, Atlas Obscura, undated.
- “Oliver and Sarah: The Story of the Winchesters.” Colin Dickey, Los Angeles Review of Books, September 28, 2016.
- “Whispers from the Grave.” Scholastic Scope, October 31, 2011.
- “The Truth about Sarah Winchester.” Richard Allan Wagner, 2015.
- “Winchester: From Legendary Haunt to Blockbuster Movie.” Chewie, Scare Tissue, January 15, 2018.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on July 10, 2020:
Oh really? I didn't know that. I really need to buy the book on this, and it still fascinates me.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 10, 2020:
Louise. From what I've read, the movie is riddled with errors and has a lame script. Most critics wondered why an actor of Helen Mirren's stature would agree to have anything to do with it.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on July 10, 2020:
I've seen the film Winchester. It's really interesting. After watching that I looked into Winchester House. It's ever so interesting, I'd love to visit here.