The haunting story of the Winchester Mystery House™ in San Jose, California, is a combination of the wealth, grief, eccentricity, and remorse of Sarah Winchester. The house would probably never have been built had it not been for the death of her daughter and husband. But fate takes a strange twist at times, and her life went from happy, upper class New England society to one of solitude and mourning.
Sarah grew up in a privileged family in New Haven, Connecticut. She went to the best schools and played piano. She married William Wirt Winchester in 1862. Her father-in-law was Oliver Fisher Winchester, clothing manufacturer and owner of the New Haven Arms Company.
1866 was a significant year for the Winchester family. The New Haven Arms Company name was changed to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and the first Winchester rifle was manufactured. Oliver Winchester became Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut. Sarah gave birth to the couple’s only child, Annie, who died six weeks later of the childhood disease marasmus.
After her husband died in 1881 of tuberculosis, she was convinced her family was cursed and visited various spiritualists for advice. A Boston medium told her that the deaths of her daughter and husband were caused by the spirits of people killed by the Winchester rifle. Sarah was advised to go out west and build a house to appease the spirits. As long as construction continued she would not be in danger and would even achieve eternal life. She went to California and bought an eight-room farmhouse which would become the famous Victorian mansion.
Construction was done around the clock, even during the night, continuously for the next 38 years. Sarah held seances to have the good spirits help her with room designs to ward off the evil spirits. She had staircases that led to nowhere, doors that opened to a drop-off of several feet below, windows in the floor, secret rooms, and passageways. Money was not a problem. She’d received millions in cash plus stocks when her husband died, and additional stocks when her mother-in-law died. Her income was $1,000 a day. Additional income also came from walnut, apricot, and plum tree orchards on the property. By the turn of the century, the house had grown to a seven-story mansion.
Sarah Winchester may have been eccentric but she also did a lot for the community by making large anonymous donations to orphanages and other charities. She left a large amount to the Winchester Clinic in Connecticut for tuberculosis care. But it was her eccentricity that captured people’s attention. By the time she died in 1922, the house stretched out over six acres and had 160 rooms.
Was she being haunted by the ghosts of those killed by the rifle bearing her last name? Was it just coincidence that her daughter died the same year the first Winchester rifle was marketed? Did the millions of dollars she got from rifles bother her? Would she have felt differently had the money come from a different source? No one knows. Since the Winchester’s first model in 1866, it had been used in the American-Indian Wars of the latter half of the 19th century, in Canada, Mexico, and overseas. It was the preferred rifle of settlers and was known as “The Gun that Won the West.”
The Winchester Mystery House™ is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Please visit their website for additional information, including tours.
Written by: Cynthia Collins, Senior Museum Correspondent