See It Now: Photo Tour
HistorySarah Lockwood Pardee married William Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1862. Their only child, a six-month-old daughter died in 1866. William died of tuberculosis a few years later.
The distraught Sarah visited a Boston psychic (a common practice at the time) who told her the deaths were revenge from the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles, and that Sarah could escape the spirits' wrath by moving west and building a house that would never be finished.
Sarah Winchester took her $20 million cash inheritance and $1,000-a-day income and moved west to California in 1884. She bought an unfinished, eight-room farmhouse near San Jose which is now known as the Winchester Mystery House. She soon started building 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - and she never stopped. For the next 38 years, the house grew like kudzu along a Virginia highway, swallowing up everything around it, including the barn and water tower.
Opinions vary about why Sarah kept building the Winchester House. While some say she thought it would prevent her death, others reckon that she was just a crazy, rich woman with too much money and a poor sense of building design. Every night, Sarah is rumored to have retreated to her seance room to consult the spirits, who gave her building instructions. Neither Sarah nor her spirits were good architects, and the Winchester House grew without plan or blueprint.
By April, 1906, the Winchester House rose seven stories high. A massive earthquake struck, setting off fires that destroyed much of San Francisco. In San Jose, Sarah Winchester was imprisoned in her bedroom. When freed, she announced that the earthquake was a message from the spirits that she was spending too much time in the front rooms. She boarded up 30 of them, blocking access to her new $3,000 front doors, and never used them again.
Sarah spent more than $5 million building and rebuilding the bizarre Winchester House, but it didn't ensure her immortality. She died in her sleep on September 5, 1922. Construction stopped abruptly. Some say the carpenters were so happy to be done that they stopped without even hammering in the nail they were working on. By then, Winchester had created a sprawling structure covering 6 acres with 160 rooms, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens, 40 staircases, 47 fireplaces, 2,000 doors and 10,000 windows.
A small clue to Sarah's thoughts was found in the contents of her safe after she died. Servants opened it, no doubt thinking it might contain items of great value, but all they found were locks of her husband's and infant daughter's hair, along with copies of their obituaries.
Even if Sarah really believed that the building would help her live forever, she had a contingency plan: a will written in 13 parts and signed 13 times. She provided for some of her servants, left her furniture to her niece and said nothing about the building she had spent so much of her energy on. The niece sold most of the furniture, which was carried away by the truckload: eight truckloads a day for six and a half weeks. The Winchester House was sold and turned into the tourist attraction it is today.
On a saner note, Sarah donated almost $2 million to the Winchester Fund for treatment of tuberculosis at New Haven Hospital, which she founded after her husband's death.
Sarah was also sometimes a practical and inventive woman, and there are many unusual innovations in the Winchester House, including a shower specially designed so the diminutive Sarah could wash without getting her hair wet, an elaborate servant call system, a conservatory room designed to save water, and a patented laundry room sink with built-in scrub-board and soap holders.