A Woman to Know: Sarah Winchester

This legend grew up around her of her being crazy. But I think, in fact, she was someone with great empathy. — Helen Mirren

This legend grew up around her of her being crazy. But I think, in fact, she was someone with great empathy. — Helen Mirren

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1862, 23-year-old Sarah married William Wirt Winchester, the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. The two made their life on the East Coast, preparing to one day inherit the multi-million-dollar arms company. When her husband suddenly died in 1882, however, Sarah began seeing mysterious people in her dreams, bloody and anguished. Soon after, her infant daughter passed away, leaving Sarah entirely alone, the sole remaining member of the Winchester clan.

Sarah visited a Boston psychic to help her decipher the nightmare visitations, only to learn something dreadful: the medium told her the visions were the ghosts of the millions of victims who’d died at the hands of a Winchester rifle. They were plaguing her dreams to take revenge on the Winchester family, and Sarah would have to move West to escape their clutches.

In 1884, desperate to escape the ghosts and her overwhelming guilt, she purchased a 140-acre estate in Southern California. The Winchester Rifle fortune funded her eccentric building project: a multi-story “mystery house” with secret passageways, hiding places, booby traps and more, all designed to elude the ghosts Sarah believed were chasing her. Historians today say she probably invented several home decorations and improvements, but Sarah never officially recorded a patent or trademark for her creations. She refused the help of an architect and insisted on building spider imagery into the house, along with designs revolving around the number 13. She believed these touches would ward off the evil spirits.

For the next 40 years, Sarah lived alone in the house, constantly constructing new rooms and installing “tricks” like switchback staircases, phantom elevators and interior windows. By the time she died at age 83 in 1922, the 160-room house had become something of a local legend. The estate opened for public visits nine months later and remains a Santa Clara Valley tourist destination to this day.

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