Playlist: 99% Invisible
Compiled By: Tom Langley
99% Invisible (Standard Length) (Series)
Produced by Roman Mars
Most recent piece in this series:
The 1873 Winchester Repeater Rifle—capable of firing fifteen shots in just over ten seconds—was the gun of American western expansion. It came to be known as “The Gun That Won The West.”
[The 1873 Winchester Repeater Rifle. Credit: adamsguns.com]
Because of this, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was the most successful gun company in the late 19th Century and the Winchester family became fabulously wealthy.
In 1862, William Winchester, the heir to the family business and fortune, married the beautiful and intelligent Sarah Pardee. Four years later, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, Annie. The whole family lived together in a palatial mansion in New Haven, Connecticut.
And then came a string of terrible tragedies.
Baby Annie couldn’t absorb protein. And even with all they money in the world, Sarah Winchester couldn’t stop her daughter from starving to death before her eyes. Then, five years later William Winchester died from tuberculosis. He was 43 years old.
[Credit: John Triana]
According to legend, Sarah Winchester’s friends advised her to seek the services of a Boston spiritual medium named Adam Koombs. As the legend goes, Koombs put Mrs. Winchester in touch with her deceased husband—but William had bad news.
He told Sarah Winchester that she would always be haunted by the spirits who had been killed by Winchester rifles.
[1963 documentary about the Winchester House narrated by Lillian Gish]
Speaking through Koombs, William Winchester instructed Sarah to placate the spirits by building a structure that would perpetually grow to shelter the ever-increasing number of Winchester rifle victims.
And if she did this, Sarah Winchester would gain immortality.
Winchester rifles had killed a lot people. If Mrs Winchester was to appease their ghosts, she would need to build a very, very big house. And she had the money to do it. Having inherited her late husband’s stock in the rifle company, she was now one of the wealthiest people in the country.
Sarah Winchester moved from New Haven to an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose, California. Right away she began remodeling. At any given time there might have been a dozen people there working on the house—carpenters, tile setters, painters, and electricians.
Some reports estimate that her house swelled from 8 to 26 rooms in the first six months.
Others claim there was no end to the construction—that Sarah Winchester’s crew worked on the house in rotating shifts, 24 hours a day, for 38 years.
Over time the house became a tangled maze of halls and a mash-up of turrets and stained glass windows. And because she built over so many years, the house was also a wild combination of architectural styles
It also has doors that lead nowhere, staircases that stop halfway.
For a long time no one was able to see the hodgepodge of styles and ornaments in this house except Sarah Winchester and her staff of eighteen house servants, thirteen carpenters, eight to ten gardeners, and two private chauffeurs.
Sarah Winchester kept to herself. Supposedly she was also always shrouded in a veil.
[Sarah Winchester in 1920. Photographer unknown.]
It’s unclear how much of the Sarah Winchester legend is true. We don’t know whether she attempted to commune with ghosts, or whether she built her huge house to placate them, or whether she felt guilty about her fortune coming from guns.
After she died in 1922, the legends and rumors about her gained traction. Especially given that, in 1923, an entrepreneur named John H. Brown saw the possibility in the old decrepit estate and re-opened it as “The Winchester Mystery House.” Since then, it’s been the subject of all kinds of pseudo-documentaries on haunted houses.
The widely accepted narrative about Sarah Winchester, and the one that the current owners of the house are selling, is that she was haunted by spirits. But not everyone is buying it. Historian Mary Jo Ignoffo explores alternative theories about Sarah Winchester in her book, Captive of the Labyrinth.
Ignoffo found no evidence supporting the idea that Sarah Winchester communed with spirits. She believes that what drove Sarah Winchester to build was her desire to be an architect.
Sarah Winchester lived at time when it was highly unusual for women to be architects. She wasn’t licensed, so her own home was the perfect place—and the only place—where she could practice architecture.
Whatever her motivations were, Sarah Winchester built a house with more than 150 rooms, 2000 doors, 47 fireplaces, 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases, 17 chimneys, 13 bathrooms, six kitchens, three elevators, two basements, and one shower. She spent nearly all of her life being an architect.
Reporter Ninna Gaensler-Debs spoke with Mary Jo Ignoffo, author of Captive of the Labyrinth, and architectural historian Mitchell Schwarzer.
Music: “Age of Wonder” – The American Dollar; “Kapsburger” – Clogs; “Revival” – Beats Antique; “Listening to raindrops on a window” – Lullatone; “Passerine” – OK Ikumi; “Übern Fluß” – Roedelius; “Dame de Fer” – The Clockwork Dolls; “vlagaine” –melodium