Crazy or Creative?

Recently I gave a presentation on Sarah Pardee Winchester whose home in California is publicized as one of the most haunted houses in America.  Website after website claim this woman who inherited half of the Winchester rifle fortune in 1880 was

sarah
Sarah Winchester

haunted by the spirits of those killed with the automatic rifle and spent the rest of her life building this home to placate and/or fool the spirits.  So cue the spooky music and show pictures of a house with at least 160 rooms, odd windows, doors that open to nothingness and talk of séances in the middle of the night.

But wait a minute.

Yes, the house is a labyrinth of rooms, built with no real overall plan.  Yes, doors open into nothingness, or into a wall.  There are staircases that lead nowhere.  There is a room inside another room. There is a skylight in a floor.

Did she construct this to confuse the spirits? Did a medium tell her she would not die as long as construction continued? Or could there logical explanations for this unusual house and the actions of its eccentric creator?

Sarah Pardee was born about 1840 in New Haven, Connecticut and by all accounts was intelligent and attractive. In 1862 she married William Winchester who was expected to inherit his father’s shirt manufacturing company, but the family sold that businesses and created the Winchester Automatic Rifle Company, the gun that “won the west.”  Theodore Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Annie Oakley, all used it.  And it turned a prosperous family into an incredibly wealthy family.

Sarah and William’s first and only child, Annie, died at six weeks.  Unable to take nutrition, the child starved to death.  I can only imagine how horrible that would be to experience. The couple never had another child.

William died in 1880 of tuberculosis leaving Sarah one-half of the Winchester fortune. Her income in today’s’ spending power would be about $1000 an hour. The couple had moved with his family when they married, so as a widow, she had never lived on her own and never been responsible for her own finances.

By 1886 Sarah left New Haven and moves to the Santa Clara valley in California. One of her sisters lived in San Francisco and two other sisters and their families came with Sarah. She had by this time developed rheumatoid arthritis and the climate in California was undoubtedly an improvement over Connecticut.

saraholdhouse
Winchester House early 1900s

Sarah bought an eight room farm house and began to build additions. She built onto; she built up, and she kept on building.

The story goes that she hired teams of carpenters who worked 24/7 until her death, but there seems to be evidence from journals belonging to the estate manager that those teams of carpenters did not work around the clock for close to forty years. However, she definitely had many people working on her additions over the years.

The question I grapple with is why.  Why did she keep building? Why all the oddities?

I know she had no overall plan.  She just ordered a room or series of rooms built. Sarah did all the designing herself. Her carpenters would get a drawing she made on a piece of ordinary paper. Then she gave other orders changing her mind. So why?

Yet, what options did she have as a wealthy widow with a crippling disease?  Travel was undoubtedly difficult.  She had no children, only nieces and nephews. The disease ultimately disfigured her enough that the woman once known as the ‘Belle of New Haven’ might not want to be seen in public.  In fact, when she went out, she wore a veil.

We know Sarah was intelligent with a love of math and science and based on her subscription to architectural magazines, she loved architecture. How could she fill her days?  Was the building of this house a creative outlet for her? Was the planning for the construction and the furnishings of this house the way she filled her days? Was she deliberately trying to provide employment for her workers, giving people paychecks and not handouts?

Or was she haunted by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle? Did the spirits make

sarahnewhouse
Winchester House today

her do it?

We may never know.

But I take the hype about the haunted nature of Winchester House with a large grain of salt.  A little voice inside me says if the house had been built by a man the narrative would be different.

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