The Winchester Repeating Arms Company made a boatload of money. The company had improved upon the Volcanic Repeater, a rifle that used a lever mechanism to load bullets into the breach. Improving on the this design, the company started production of the Henry Rifle, which became a favorite with Northern troops at the beginning of the Civil War. Eventually, the Winchester Rifle became known as “The Gun That Won The West”. William Winchester was the son of company founder, Oliver Fisher Winchester, who was also the Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut. The Winchesters were the cream of New England society, so when it came time for William to marry, he did so in a lavish style. His bride was Sarah Pardee of New Haven, Connecticut. She was a petite beauty, who was the belle of the county both for her looks and her vivacious personality.
Things seemed set for the young couple and they settled into a comfortable lifestyle. Tragedy struck when the couple’s infant daughter died of a illness. Doctors said the baby had “marasmus”, a disease where the body wastes away. The death of a child is never easy, but Sarah took the death of her daughter especially hard and did not seem to recover for almost a decade. She and William did not have any other children. Then William was taken suddenly from a bout of tuberculosis in 1881. This left Sarah an extremely wealthy widow as she inherited over 20 million dollars and 48.9 percent of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. That is a lot of money for today, but in that time it was untold wealth.
Sarah grieved deeply for her lost husband and child, and in her grief turned to Spiritualism. Spiritualism was extremely popular during the 19th century. Even Mary Todd Lincoln was said to have brought Spiritualists to the White House to contact her deceased son Willy. Sarah went to a medium who told her William was at the seance. The medium said, “He says for me to tell you that there is a curse on your family, which took the life of he and your child. It will soon take you too. It is a curse that has resulted from the terrible weapon created by the Winchester family. Thousands of persons have died because of it and their spirits are now seeking vengeance.” Naturally, Sarah was distraught. The medium went on to tell her she must start a new life and build a home for the spirits who were killed by the Winchester Rifle. She also instructed Sarah to never stop building the house. Once building was finished on the house, Sarah would die. Thus the Winchester Mystery House was born.
Sara sold her home in New Haven and moved west to California, and eventually settled in the Santa Clara Valley, three miles from San Jose, California. In 1884 she bought the unfinished home and surrounding 162 acres of Dr. Caldwell. During the next 36 years, construction on this house never ceased and it grew into a mansion. Construction was done on the house 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The elaborate building had no real plan. Sarah met with the construction foreman each morning and would present him with hand drawn plans she had sketched. Supposedly, she got many of these plans from seances she would hold the night before. The house grew to seven stories, 47 fireplaces, and 3 elevators. There were many stairways that led nowhere. It was full of trap doors, double-back hallways and secret passages. Chimneys were everywhere, even if they did not connect to a fireplace. All of this was to confuse the vengeful spirits, and to keep them from executing their revenge on her.
Sarah was generous with her employees as well as with local charities and orphans. She even welcomed the neighborhood children into her home to eat ice cream and play the piano. Despite this, she tried to remain somewhat secluded. She was never seen without a dark veil covering her face and a large cypress hedge surrounded the house. Sarah would never sleep in the same bedroom either, and changed every night to confuse any evil spirits waiting for her.
The number “13” is featured prominently in the house as all the windows contain 13 panes of glass, the walls have 13 panels and the greenhouse has 13 cupolas. All of the staircases had 13 stairs except one, which has 42 but each step is only 2 inches high. Rumors went round that there was a safe hidden somewhere with a solid gold dinner service, upon which Sarah entertained her ghostly guests, as well as jewelry and money. After Sarah’s death, several safes were found but they only contained newspaper clippings about her daughter and husband’s death and a lock of baby hair. This made me inordinately sad as that last remembrance of her daughter must have been her greatest treasure.
When the San Francisco earthquake struck in 1906, Sarah was trapped in the Daisy Room, where she was sleeping, by a collapsing fireplace. The house also sustained other extensive damage as the top three floors collapsed. Sarah was convinced this was a sign the spirits were angry because she had almost finished the house. To placate them, she had 30 rooms boarded up so construction would never be complete, and the spirits who were trapped in the collapsed part of the house would be stuck. As crazy as all of this sounds, it may have worked because Sarah died at the ripe old age of 83 on September 4, 1922.
The house was declared a California Historical Landmark, and is a tourist attraction. Even today, visitors and staff had both had strange experiences there. Many visiting psychics believe the house is haunted by the spirits Sarah invited in as well as Sarah herself. Who knows?
Sources available on request