The Winchester rifle is best remembered as ‘The Gun That Won The West’, especially its ’73 model which sold enormously and fueled the American conquest of the West. It was distributed by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company founded by Oliver Winchester, also Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut in the late 1860’s. Proof that you can be a trusted politician while you put guns in the hands of people… When he passed away in 1880, his son William took over the firm’s leadership.
William had married Sarah Pardee to whom he had a single child, Annie, who died from a mysterious infant disease a few days after her birth. This tragic event did probably not improve William’s health, diagnosed with tuberculosis; he died in March 1881, leaving his spouse with a massive fortune and about half of the shares of the company.
But Sarah Winchester did not want to get her hands into the Winchester business; instead, she was haunted by a thought. She believed both the family and the fortune were cursed by the thousands of victims the Winchester business had generated. She also received the visit of a medium from Boston, soon after her husband’s death, who strengthened this belief: he advised her to leave New Haven, and to build a house somewhere else to welcome and ease the avenging spirits.
She settled thus in Santa Clara Valley, California, in 1884, where she started her unbelievable project: to keep on building her mansion so as to stay away from evil revenants. Night and day, the place would incoherently welcome new extensions, open up new doors, add up floors… and often sacrifice the architectural logic to obsessional creation (which explains why some doors open on walls or stairways lead to nowhere). Needless to say no architect was hired to oversee the works.
Indeed, Mrs. Winchester would use this odd construction method to her advantage, since she knew about the secret passages of a place which turned out to become a real maze. (Nowadays visitors touring the mansion are warned by guides not to stay away from the group or they could get lost for hours!). Sarah never slept in the same bedroom two nights in a row, in an attempt to confuse the spirits chasing her. She also elaborated spying features so as to check on her employees at work.
Rumours spread out in the local community: the old lady was said to reach the very center of her property every night, the Blue Room, to commune with the spirits and ask them about their will for the never-ending construction.
It takes more than a studio flat to accommodate inhabitants of the hereafter: when Sarah eventually passed away in 1922, the house included some 160 rooms, with 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens, and about 10,000 windows.
Her niece inherited the labyrinthine mansion, and shortly had it auctioned off. Sarah’s safe was also opened with great impatience, but inside was just found “a lock of baby’s hair in a tiny purple velvet box” along with paper clippings from the day Annie had died. The surviving memory from the day Sarah, the happy wife, turned into the mysterious lady of the ‘house built by the spirits’…
Now one can tour the Winchester Mystery House, and the business is going great guns. Once again.