Why the Winchester gun heiress created a Victorian mansion designed to be haunted

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Ghosts and guilt compelled the wealthy widow to build San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House

Opinion by Pamela Haag, courtesy Zocalo Public Square

Each time I visit the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, I try to envision what this space must have looked like to the “rifle widow” Sarah Winchester when she first encountered it in 1886—acres of orchards and fields, broken only by an unassuming eight-room cottage.

Legend holds that before the 1906 earthquake—when her estate was as fantastically bizarre as it would ever be with 200 rooms, 10,000 windows, 47 fireplaces, and 2,000 doors, trap doors and spy holes—not even Sarah could have confidently located those original eight rooms.

Sarah had inherited a vast fortune off of guns. Her father-in-law Oliver Winchester, manufacturer of the famous repeater rifle, died in 1880. Her husband Will, also in the family gun business, died a year later. After she moved from Connecticut to San Jose, Sarah dedicated a large part of her fortune to ceaseless, enigmatic building, with shifts of 16 carpenters who worked 24 hours a day, every day, from 1886 until Sarah’s death in 1922.

She built, demolished, and rebuilt. Sarah sketched designs on napkins or brown paper for additions, towers, cupolas or rooms that made no sense and had no purpose, sometimes only to be plastered over the next day. In 1975, workers discovered a new room. It had two chairs, an early 1900s speaker that fit into an old phonograph, and a door latched by a 1910 lock.

Over a century later, the San Francisco Chronicle was still baffled: “The Mansion is an ornately complex answer to a very simple question: Why?”

The answer: Sarah’s building is a ghost story of the American gun. Or so the legend went.

A spiritualist in the mid-1800s, when plenty of sane Americans believed they could communicate with the dead, Sarah became terrified that her misfortunes, especially the death of her husband and one-month old daughter, were cosmic retribution from all the spirits killed by Winchester rifles. A relative said many decades later Sarah fell “under the thrall” of a medium, who told her that she would be haunted by the ghosts of Winchester rifle victims unless she built, non-stop—perhaps at ghosts’ direction, or perhaps as a way to elude them.

When I heard Sarah’s ghost story from a friend in graduate school, I was enthralled. Eventually, Sarah became the muse for my book on the history of the American gun industry and culture.

The house teems with allusions, symbols and mysterious encryptions. Its ballroom features two meticulously crafted Tiffany art-glass windows, which have stained glass panels with lines from Shakespeare. One reads, “These same thoughts people this little world.” It’s from the prison soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard II. Deposed from power and alone in his cell, Richard has an idea to create a world within his prison cell, populated only by his imaginings and ideas.

Is the legend accurate? I do know that her mansion conveys a brilliant, sane—if obsessive—mind and the convolutions of an uneasy conscience. She wove anguish into her creation, just as any artist pours unarticulated impulses into her work. Over repeated visits, I came to think that if a mind were a house, it would probably look like this.

Ideas, memories, fears, and guilt occur to us all day long. If they displease or terrify, we brood or fuss over them for a while, then revise them to make them manageable, or we suppress them, or refashion them into another idea. One of the house’s builders recalled, “Sarah simply ordered the error torn out, sealed up, built over or around, or … totally ignored.”

Perhaps the same mental process happens with a country’s historical narratives about its most difficult topics—war, violence, guns. Sarah’s family name was synonymous by the 1900s with a multi-firing rifle, and the Winchester family had made its fortune sending more than 8 million of them into the world.

It wasn’t crazy to think that Sarah might have been haunted by that idea, that she might have perpetually remembered it, and just as perpetually tried to forget.

Pamela Haag, Ph.D., is the author most recently of The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of an American Gun Culture.

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