Sarah and the Winchester Mystery House

You know what’s a real bummer? When you embark on some loony ritual, suggested by a kooky medium to prolong your own life or perhaps instill immortality, and you faithfully execute that recommended “health” plan with vigor your entire life until you … die. That’s the sad story of one Sarah Winchester and the Winchester Mystery House. Yeah, you might recognize the name. She was heiress to the famed small arms company that arguably helped “win the West.” History hasn’t been kind to poor Sarah, with most people believing she was a nutcase.

The gist of the story goes like this… Freaked out by the loss of her only daughter, followed by the death of her husband some years later, Sarah moved out west to San Jose. There, she embarked on a lifelong project of building the world’s weirdest funhouse mansion, all to confuse and deter the angry spirits of those killed by Winchester’s small arms. Or something like that.

That’s the story, but is it true?

The Players

William Wirt Winchester was the son of Oliver Winchester, founder of the Winchester Repeating Arms company. Rising to the position of company treasurer, William was the guy next in line to control the successful arms maker. In 1862, Williams married one Sarah Lockwood Pardee and four years later, they had their only child. Tragically, the baby died just six weeks later.

In 1880, Oliver Winchester passed away, leaving the company primarily in the hands of William. But in 1881, tragedy struck again, and William died of tuberculosis. Sarah, now Sarah Winchester, was left with a chunk of ownership in the small arms empire.

Suffering from health issues of her own and perhaps a desperate need for a change of scenery given all the tragic events, Sarah moved west to San Jose, California, buying up an eight-room farmhouse on a 45-acre plot, promptly naming it Llanada Villa.

Here’s where things started to get a little weird.

Fact or Fiction?

As the always reliable rumor mill goes, and stamped with a seal of approval (insert sarcasm here) from the Hollywood motion picture Winchester, Sarah had received a $20 million inheritance and control of the Winchester company upon the death of her husband, William.

As most grieving heiresses do, Sarah immediately consulted a medium, who planted the seed of an idea that all the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles were sticking around just to torment Sarah. Her best defense against these spirit skirmishes was to embark on a frantic and never-ceasing construction program to convert Llanada Villa into a maze slash jail for spirits. Ghosts would wander, get lost and eventually become trapped in the labyrinth of hallways, staircases and rooms. I can see the logic…

The Winchester Mystery House

So, from 1886 to 1922, Sarah oversaw daily construction and renovation of her home. The original eight-room farmhouse expanded into a sprawling 160-room monument to excess. At its peak, the mansion reportedly had 500 rooms.

Arguably the world’s weirdest house, this one contains 24,000 feet of interior space, accessible through 2,000 doors and separated from the outside world by 10,000 windows. Skylights? 52. Stairways? 47. Bathrooms? Only 13, which seems a bit light for all those rooms, but who are we to judge? At least the home housed six kitchens, so one wouldn’t have to sleepwalk too far for a midnight snack.

Over the 38 years of on and off construction, Sarah assumed architectural responsibilities herself, taking on the project as some life mission. According to the craftsmen employed, she was exceptionally “hands-on” for each and every room built. If a new addition didn’t turn out as envisioned, Sarah was known to tear it out and start over. Word has it that one project was restarted 16 times.

All this tinkering resulted in an “interesting” if disjointed overall design. The stopping and starting left strange features like staircases ending in a ceiling, doors that lead to nowhere, and windows covered by interior walls. Now famous feature is the world’s shallowest staircase, with 44 steps rising just 10 feet.

The Truth?

A good story often takes on a life of its own. Add the financial incentives of a popular tourist attraction from 1923 until the present day, a Hollywood horror flick for accent, and you have plenty of reason to embellish the facts just a bit.

Some of the lore is easy to disprove or at least question. When William Winchester died, his estate was valued at around $370,000, little of which was available to Sarah then. William’s mother controlled the majority interest in the company until 1898. Still, Sarah certainly wasn’t poor by any means.

As for the creepy supernatural stuff, there’s little evidence for much of it being true. Friends and family claim Sarah had no discernible paranormal interests. Rather, she viewed her personal construction empire as more of a hobby to express her artistic creations, which grew to an obligation of sorts to keep local carpenters and craftsmen employed.

As for the dead-end doors and hallways, perhaps chalk that up to Sarah’s stop-and-start modus operandi. And the steps? Sarah measured just four feet, ten inches and was in declining health. Cautious ride operators might have discouraged her from riding Space Mountain. Is it that strange you’d build custom staircases to support your physical limitations?

The Winchester Mystery House (allegedly named thusly by none other than Harry Houdini) still operates as a tourist attraction. So, if you are in the area, check it out. Just take the stories with a grain of salt. More than one former tour guide has expressed regret at having to repeat, let’s say, embellishments about Sarah Winchester’s tragic life.

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