They called her the Winchester widow.
Born Sarah Darlene Lockwood Pardee in 1839, she was a child of New Haven high society, fluent in Latin, Spanish and French, and celebrated for her intelligence, looks and charm. She married William Wirt Winchester, heir of Oliver Winchester, owner of New Haven’s Winchester Repeating Arms Co. When her father-in-law first built a New Haven factory capable of producing 200 guns a day, locals were “aghast at the incredible folly of anyone thinking that a production of 200 guns a day could be sold,” according to an account of former employees D.H. Veader and A.W. Earle.
Later, the company’s repeating rifle, the first such gun in the world, would be known as “the gun that won the west.” It made the family a fortune, but a fortune that, at least according to the stories, she would come to believe was drenched in blood and the cause of cosmic retribution against her family.
In 1866, Winchester and her husband had a daughter who died a month after her birth. Fourteen years later her mother died, followed later that year by her father-in-law. Her husband died from tuberculosis in March 1881. In 1884 her oldest sister also died. Grief-stricken, Winchester fled New Haven the following year. She headed west, ultimately settling in San Jose, California, amid what would become Silicon Valley. There, for reasons that remain unclear, she started to build a mansion and just kept building it for the remainder of her life.
“The house was built continuously over 38 years from 1884 until 1922,” says Jake Gospodnetich, digital marketing coordinator at the Winchester Mystery House, today a popular tourist attraction. “Currently, the house is on 6½ acres and contains 160 rooms, 10,000 doors, and 2,000 windows over four stories. At one point, the house was seven stories tall before the 1906 earthquake.”
Carpenters worked constantly at the house, by some accounts 24/7, always adding wings and expansions, often without rhyme or reason to anyone but Winchester. There are staircases that lead nowhere, skylights built into the floor and a series of numeric symbols that some claim were inspired by spiritualism, the popular religion of the day that aimed to connect the living with the dead.
Unsurprisingly, from its very early days, rumors began to swirl about the giant labyrinth house with its twisting corridors and never-ending construction. “She Builds To Save Her Life,” reads one ominous headline from the Los Angeles Herald in April 1895. “Ten years ago the handsome residence was apparently ready for occupancy,” the article notes, “but improvements and additions are constantly being made, for the reason, it is said, that the owner of the house believes that when it is entirely completed she will die. This superstition has resulted in the construction of a mass of domes, turrets, cupolas and towers, covering territory enough for a castle.”
But immortality was not Winchester’s only goal, at least according to the stories. Supposedly before she headed west she met with a well-known Boston medium who told her she was haunted by the souls of every person killed by a Winchester rifle, that the slain ghosts upon which the family fortune was built had been the cause of her ill-luck and that by building a house of winding corridors and numeric symbols she could confuse, or in some versions of the tale, appease these pursuing spirits.
Some of these stories were included but not endorsed in a 1967 book called Lady of Mystery, written by Ralph Rambo, the nephew of one of Winchester’s first employees in California. By that point, decades after her death, the lore surrounding the house was firmly entrenched. Even skeptical observers believed the house a product of madness, despite assurances from those who knew her that she was indeed sane.
“Sarah Winchester was a very mysterious woman, and the many legends around her life are still debated today,” Gospodnetich says. “There are many theories as to why the house was built. Was she simply grieving and found joy in Victorian architecture? Did she hold guilt over the millions of lives lost to the Winchester rifle? Whatever intentions or plans that she had died with her. She never left behind any floor plans or schematics of the house.”
In a 2012 biography of Sarah Winchester titled Captive of the Labyrinth, historian Mary Jo Ignoffo writes that “newspapers pinned the burden of guilt for Winchester-induced deaths on the widow, but there is no evidence that Sarah herself felt guilty about the repeating rifle or about earning money from it.”
Ignoffo points out that Winchester was far from the only wealthy widow to draw attention. The heir to another Connecticut gun fortune, Elizabeth Colt, in Hartford, “had invested years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on what one historian called her ‘rambling, asymmetrical pile of smooth-faced brownstone.’ ” That also-elaborate house, called Armsmear, still stands on Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford and serves as a nonprofit retirement home for women.
The round-the-clock construction that supposedly took place at Winchester House is also a myth, Ignoffo writes. Though Sarah could be impatient with the construction process, there is clear evidence she dismissed workers for months at a time. As for her alleged ties to spiritualism, it was popular during her lifetime including among members of her social circle, but Ignoffo writes that none of her relatives, friends or many employees “ever claimed that Winchester was superstitious, guilty, mad, or a spiritualist.”
Even so, the strangeness of the house makes it hard to dismiss such rumors.
“Some interesting pieces throughout the house indicate that she may have had an interest in spiritualistic symbols, the spider-web design, the common appearance of the number 13 throughout the house, etc.,” Gospodnetich says.
You can delve into the mystery of the house online by taking a virtual tour on its website. The 2018 film Winchester stars Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester and tells a sensationalist horror tale inspired, but only very loosely based, on the real history. The scariest thing about it might be its reviews: according to Rotten Tomatoes, only 13 percent of critics recommended it.