To understand the Winchester Mystery House (located in San Jose, California) is to understand its owner, protector and overseer – Sarah Winchester. The house was more than a home or the tourist attraction it is today, it is a homage to Sarah’s beliefs and unrelenting determination to triumph over what she perceived to be her “curse”.
Sarah married into the wealthy Winchester family in 1962. Her husband and father-in-law owned the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in Connecticut, a prominent gun manufacturing company utilized during the American Civil War. Sarah and her husband, William, gave birth to a daughter in 1866, a girl they named Annie.
Tragedy seemed to strike in quick succession for Sarah. First, she suffered the death of her daughter less than a month after her birth from marasmus. Twenty years would pass before her husband would pass away due to tuberculosis which followed only four months after the death of her father-in-law.
Alone and distraught, Sarah chose not to ignore what she truly believed – she was cursed with bad luck. She came to the conclusion that someone must want revenge against the Winchester family. But who? Sarah figured it out – the guns. Sarah turned to a medium who advised her that the only way to appease the spirits killed by Winchester guns would be to move west, build a sprawling house and never stop putting hammer to nail, only then would she find peace and avoid her own death at the hands of these vengeful beings.
Sarah had inherited $20.5 million plus nearly fifty percent ownership of the Arms Company. On a daily basis she earned what would be $1,000 a day (or $23,000 a day in 2013). She began to build. Many rooms served no purpose, windows that open to walls, a door that opens to a ledge stories above the ground with no warning, and stairs that go straight up into the ceiling. Sarah built to save her life. She never forgot her reasons and held nightly séances in a designated room with which had a door handle to leave, but none on the other side to re-enter. She ordered construction without blueprints, resulting in a house more like a maze which visitors (then and now) need a map or else risk being lost for days.
The result is 160 rooms filled with twists and turns. But through the secret passageways and trickery, Sarah kept her wits about her. If she was going to appease these spirits, she was going to toy with them all the same. Many believe the reason for the confusing and irrational layout of the house was to mislead the spirits into not finding, following or further tormenting Sarah Winchester.
Sarah lived this way until she passed away in her sleep at the age of eighty-three of heart failure. It is said that upon hearing of her death “carpenters even left nails half driven” and construction ceased immediately. No one but Sarah understood the purpose for the house and its hold over her.
I visited the Winchester Mystery House in autumn of 2014. Without a doubt it is one of the most interesting places I have ever seen. With each step there was a chance of mis-step. It was impossible to know what was waiting around the next corner.
-By Christina Persaud