Winchester House: Designed by Guilt, Superstition, or Esoteric Knowledge?
Over the preceding weeks, we have presented American castles with odd or supernatural histories, but the subject of today’s post is by far the weirdest house in these United States. There are theories about why its builder designed her home as she did, but whatever her reason, the result is undeniably strange. Located near San Jose, California, Winchester Mystery House is now operated as a museum where those who adhere to a certain aesthetic can entertain and be entertained. I believe the venue is popular for weddings among the Goth set.
Sarah Lockwood Pardee Winchester was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1839. Her father provided for his family as manager of the City Bathing House and later as an in-demand finish carpenter. The Pardees were financially secure, but certainly not wealthy. While he worked as a skilled laborer, Leonard Pardee ran a progressive and intellectually stimulating household. Prominent abolitionists and freethinkers of the day were frequent visitors and dinner guests. Young Sarah would have been influenced by the ideas and politics discussed around the family table.
Her home environment also valued education for women. She was an able student who excelled in music composition, math, and sciences, as well, as learning four languages. Despite her obvious capability, in 19th century America, as is true too often today, her academic accomplishments were overshadowed by a more banal characteristic. She was so beautiful she was known as the “Belle of New Haven” and her great beauty attracted a suitor destined for great wealth. In the eyes of any person of the time, it would have been a match made in heaven when Sarah married William Winchester on September 30, 1862.
William, also a New Haven resident, was the son of Oliver Winchester, co-owner of the Winchester-Davies Shirt Factory of which William was intended to take the reins. In addition to clothing, Oliver had another interest that would prove to have tremendous potential. His purchase of the Volcanic Arms Company led to the business that would far outstrip the clothing business in both production and profitability, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Established in 1866, Winchester Arms moved ahead of all competition with its Model 1873 repeating rifle, the “gun that won the West.” By 1916, Winchester had produced 700,000 rifles with purchases being made by some of the most famous names of the post-Civil War era. Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, and Teddy Roosevelt were all accomplished marksmen thanks to their Winchester rifles. Seeing the company’s early success and rapid growth, William abandoned shirts to become secretary of Winchester Arms.
By all appearances, William and Sarah’s life together should have been perfect. Sadly, tragedy struck with the death of their only child at six months of age. William’s death followed in 1881 after a prolonged battle with tuberculous. Sarah was left alone as a 42 year-old widow and half ownership of a company worth approximately $20 million. After establishing an endowment in New Haven for the future Winchester Chest Clinic, she moved to California where she had extended family members.
The move west is where Sarah’s life takes a decidedly sharp turn away from the ordinary. After purchasing an eight room farmhouse situated on 162 acres, she began a renovation project that would last until her death. She died in 1922 leaving a structure comprised of 24,000 square feet, 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 160 rooms, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces and stairways, 17 chimneys, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. The final cost would total $71 million in today’s dollars. This alone would be enough to place Winchester House among the most fantastic castles in America, but there is more to the story. Fantastic becomes fantasy or maybe something more macabre when one considers the truth of Winchester House’s interior design. The house contains staircases that lead to the ceiling or simply stop at walls, doors that open onto blank walls, skylights that do not admit the light from the sky, and other oddities. If one is seeking wasted space and useless features, Winchester House provides those in abundance.
There are at least three theories as to why Sarah built Winchester House as she did. The most well-known is the legend. It is said that after the deaths of her child and husband, Sarah was so consumed by grief that she may have become somewhat unbalanced in her mind or at least susceptible to superstitions having to do with contacting the “other side.” It is believed a friend may have suggested she obtain the services of a spiritualist or medium to help her deal with her losses. During a seance, she was purportedly told her husband was present. The medium described William and then shared his instructions for Sarah’s future. He said there was a curse on the family due to the 1000s of deaths caused by the Winchester repeating rifle. The curse had taken their child’s life, his life, and would soon take Sarah’s life if she did not sell all of her property and move toward the setting sun. He told her that she must find a new home and that she would recognize it when she saw it. Once purchased, she must continually add to the house to provide a place for the wandering spirits who had fallen victim to the “terrible weapon.” Her life’s work would now be to appease the victims of the Winchester rifle. If she failed in her mission, the curse would take her too.
Whether this was the source that prompted Sarah’s building project is subject to speculation, but she certainly did add to the property she purchased for the remainder of her life. She kept a small army of carpenters continually busy building additions and redesigning that which had already been built until her death in 1922.
Of the other theories, the one proposed by Mary Jo Igonoff in her 2010 biography of Sarah, Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune, is the most down-to-earth. She posits that the devastating 1906 earthquake was the source of the unusable features in the house. Igonoff believes the house was damaged beyond repair in places and that some stairs and certain rooms were simply sealed off so that construction continued in other parts of the property. This is a less romantic, but perhaps more logical explanation for the stairs leading nowhere, etc. Still, it does not explain why Sarah never stopped redesigning and adding to the house for all those years.
The third theory is one which I will not attempt to explain other than to say it has to do with Freemasonry, Rosicrucian philosophy, Theosophy, numbered cipher systems, Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner’s theory of an “ever building” universe, and the Baconian Doctrine claiming Francis Bacon as the actual author of Shakespeare’s vast body of work. This theory also seems plausible despite being esoteric in nature. (Full article here.)
Whatever Sarah Winchester’s true purpose, the result is a completely fascinating structure that draws 1000’s of visitors each year. (Plan a visit.)
1963 Documentary Narrated by Lillian Gish