In the middle of sprawling Silicon Valley hub San Jose, surrounded by startups and tech campuses, there’s a monstrous anachronism of red-tiled roofs and Victorian curlicues. It’s the 1880s mega-mansion known today as the Winchester Mystery House. Built by heiress Sarah Winchester over a period of almost forty years, the place is an enormous, 6-acre maze of stairs that lead nowhere, windows looking out onto walls, and 160 rooms designed to confuse and trap thousands of ghosts. The place is so famously bizarre that Hammer Studios recently bought the rights to make a horror movie about it. But no ghost story could ever be as disturbing as the true story behind Sarah Winchester’s obsession with building a constantly-expanding house, and the armies of the dead she believed were haunting her.
The legend of the house is recounted in dozens of places, including Ralph Rambo’s pamphlet “Lady of Mystery (Sarah Winchester)“ and Antoinette May’s account in her book Haunted Houses of California. Sarah Winchester was the wife of William Wirt Winchester, and William was the son of Oliver Winchester, the first president of the fabulously successful Winchester Repeating Arms Company. This was the company that sold the rifles said to have “won the West.” Their marriage was happy and prosperous, until things began to go downhill dramatically.
Early in their marriage, Sarah’s only daughter died while still an infant, and fifteen years later her husband died of tuberculosis. Sarah inherited over 700 shares of Winchester stock. Coupled with her cash inheritance, her income after her husband’s death amounted to roughly $1000 a day, which would be quite a lot today — an astronomical amount in the 1880s. After visiting a local Boston spiritualist, Sarah came to believe that her family had been killed as an act of revenge by the ghosts of people shot with Winchester rifles. This spiritualist also informed her that she could escape the wrath of these ghosts, and save her own life, by moving out west and building a mansion which would never be finished. As long as she never ceased building, Sarah would remain unharmed.
So Sarah moved from New Haven to the farming community of San Jose in 1884, into an eight room farmhouse. Each night, she is said to have communicated with good spirits in her home, who told her what to build. Employing up to 25 carpenters and dozens of other servants around the clock, Sarah died in 1922 in a house that covers 6 acres with 160 rooms. Most intriguing for visitors to the home is its bizarre construction, with stairways that lead nowhere, doors and cabinets that open into walls, skylights placed into floors, a chimney that ends inches below the ceiling, and a secret seance room at the heart of the house.
Sarah also designed a number of her home’s fixtures and rooms to repeat the number 13 — hence we find rooms with thirteen windows, thirteen fireplaces in one suite, thirteen gas lights on her chandelier, thirteen holes in her kitchen drain, and so forth. All of these gizmos and oddities were explicitly designed, according to legend, to allow Sarah to confuse and hide from the bad, vengeful ghosts she had inherited with the Winchester fortune. At the same time, Sarah believed that she continued to communicate with good spirits who guided and protected her. Except for servants and her secretary, Sarah Winchester lived alone in her mansion from 1884 until 1922, talking mostly to people she believed were dead.
Mass Produced, Industrial Ghosts
But there is another, perhaps creepier, story to be told about Sarah’s obsessions. Though she believed the Winchester rifles had destroyed her life, she continued to have a very close financial and familial relationship to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. This relationship never gets discussed on the tour of the house (which I took several years ago), nor in any of the official literature about it. Not only did Sarah continue to own a large minority of stock in the Company, but when her husband died, the man who became president, William Converse, was married to her sister.
Sarah’s sister and William Converse essentially replaced Sarah and William Wirt Winchester at the Company, and Sarah’s family continued to run it. And, as her family’s Company grew, so did Sarah’s mansion. Although the Company had amassed a great fortune since Oliver Winchester took over in 1866, its profits grew with the release of Winchester rifles manufactured during the 1880s and 90s, all of which were highly popular and led to the Winchester rifle being nicknamed “the gun that won the west.” It was also during this time that Sarah bought her mansion (in 1884), and began paying for its epic proportions. The building of her house, then, took place while her brother-in-law was building his company. It was almost like she was using the ghosts as an excuse to wreck the family fortune.
Sarah’s work on the house seemed to have gone beyond a loopy interest in the occult. She believed her ghosts came from the rifles that her family was mass producing. This was a company that continued to pump out rifle after rifle, presumably mass producing ghosts in the process. You might say Sarah thought her ghosts were created by industrial mass production, rather than the Winchester rifles themselves. Contrary to popular legend, Oliver Winchester did not invent the Winchester rifle. He merely found a means of marketing the newly-invented repeating rifles of the post-Civil War era. As Harold Williamson notes in his exhaustive study of the Winchester rifle, Oliver Winchester was in the garment industry selling clothes before he became involved in the arms business. In fact, one of the ongoing problems of the Company, and what eventually led to its downfall, was how little its board of directors knew about the actual production and construction of rifles. So the Winchester family’s guilt, as Sarah experienced it, was associated with the marketing and industrial production of rifles, not with creating them.
Revenge on the Winchester Repeating Arms Company
Seen in this light, Sarah’s bizarre building project might have been the wrathful widow’s deliberate effort to create a kind of anti-Winchester Repeating Arms Company. She wanted to reduce and squander profit rather than make it grow. Her expensive house, with its imported woods and fixtures, Tiffany glass windows, and round-the-clock servant care, could be understood as her effort to destroy the Winchester fortune by extravagantly wasting it. If money was the problem, the solution might be to burn that money away on frivolous, useless, anti-social projects like her house.
A legend of the house about President Teddy Roosevelt confirms this possibility. Apparently Teddy Roosevelt, fan of the Winchester rifle, came to visit Sarah around the turn of the century and was turned away quite rudely. Rumor has it that the butler didn’t recognize him, but given Sarah’s continued connection with the Company, and her strict supervision of all the goings-on in her house, it seems more likely that she recognized the President all too well and wanted to have nothing to do with anyone who so avidly consumed her family’s products.
Another little-reported fact about Sarah’s connection to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company has to do with the year she died, 1922. This also happens to be the year that the Company began negotiations with Simmons for a merger; in other words, Sarah died the year the Company began to die too. This detail in itself makes for an interesting ghost story—it’s almost as if Sarah’s life were magically bound to the life of a company. We can see this reflected in commercial postcards with images of house and guns rising over it, as if to imply some sort of parallel development.
The Winchester Repeating Arms Company was finally sold in 1931, after it unsuccessfully attempted to diversify into sporting goods and hardware products. What was once the Winchester Repeating Arms Company is now known as the Western Cartridge Company. The name Winchester is no longer used to market guns, so perhaps Sarah finally did get her revenge.
Only the Right Kinds of Spirits
Just as Sarah’s haunted house project served a dual purpose (spiritualism and worldly revenge), the design of her house itself also served a dual purpose. Nowhere is this more obvious than in her seance room, sometimes called the Blue Room. Nobody but Sarah was allowed to enter, and it was here that the heiress conducted all her dealings with spirits, creating new plans for her house with them. You can see this room on the house tour (it’s pictured here) — the tour guides make much of the secret doors to get in, and the mysterious thirteen coat hooks on one wall.
What most tour guides will also point out is that the Blue Room is located directly above the kitchen and servant’s quarters. Through a series of light shafts and hidden windows in the seance room, Sarah was effectively able to spy on her servants whenever she wanted. So her seance room was not simply for the observation of spirits, but also for the observation of the workers she employed. Ghosts and servants seemed to occupy a shared space in Sarah’s imagination.
An article about Sarah’s house written in 1928, and reproduced without comment or discussion in a pamphlet about the WMH available at the gift shop, comments further on this weird correlation between ghosts and servants. The article discusses how Sarah permitted only “good” spirits into her seance room, while the “bad” ones were supposed to be confused, distracted, and contained by the odd layout of the mansion. But which of the people killed by Winchester rifles were good and which were bad? Here’s what the article says about that:
It appeared that there were both good and evil spirits and that only the bad ones were to be dreaded. If she could make her surroundings congenial to the better class ghosts, they would keep the others away. This seemed reasonable to the widow, because in this world she knew that nice people kept hoodlums out of restricted neighborhoods where they live. But how to attract the nicer sort of spooks? . . . One of the oldest beliefs is that ghosts hate mirrors . . . All Sarah Winchester need have done, therefore, was to have built a cheval glass in all four sides of each room . . . But that would not do at all. It would have freed the place of the spooks of Indians, low grade white men, fire and water “elementals” and other undesirables, but it would also offend the respectable citizens of the spiritual world with whom she hoped to associate.
So good spirits were of the upper classes, and bad ones were Indians and lower-class whites. Commenting further on how Sarah planned her house around these kinds of distinctions, the 1928 article goes on to state:
The Winchester house has five fully equipped kitchens . . . Sometimes [Sarah] had American laborers fed from one kitchen, Japanese from another, Spaniards from a third and Mexicans from a fourth, so that the kitchens may not have had any direct spiritual significance.
Indeed, there were many aspects of Sarah’s house that had no “direct spiritual significance.” The grief-stricken widow may have believed in ghosts, but she also seems to have conveniently used that “belief” to control and manipulate the people around her.
At some level, Sarah seems to have grasped that there was something deeply horrific about mass producing guns designed to kill people more efficiently. But instead of using her money to fund anti-war groups or veterans hospitals, she turned it into an absurd, wasteful monument to death. And though she seemed to see the immorality staining her vast fortune, she couldn’t see beyond her prejudices to realize that “goodness” has nothing to do with class. For those reasons, Sarah Winchester and her haunted house are perfect embodiments of the Victorian spirit. Fueled by spiritualism and industry, built on class divisions, it’s sprawling mass of contradictions too big to be erased by history.
Today the house stands like a warning sign at the heart of Silicon Valley. It’s the ghost of a dead industry, the wretched wraith of fortunes ill-gained, haunting a region where even now billionaires are made whose fortunes may one day seem far more tragic and absurd than anything Sarah ever knew.
Images via Winchester Mystery House.
This article is based in part on research I did for an academic conference paper presented at the California American Studies Association Annual Meeting.