This first full-length biography of Sarah Winchester, heir to the arms company and a notorious eccentric who kept her home under extensive construction for twenty years, reveals that she was not a maddened spiritualist driven by remorse but an intelligent, articulate woman who sought to protect her private life amidst the chaos of her public existence. By excerpting from personal correspondence, Ignoffo gives the heiress a voice for the first time since her death.
Initially, I scoffed at the idea. I had heard about the woman who kept a large house under constant construction in order to stave off death, and I thought she must have been mad. I had never visited the Winchester Mystery House, and I had no desire to do so. I was a skeptic’s skeptic.
As I was researching another topic at San Jose’s main library, the librarian there told me that he was asked for information on Sarah Winchester every week, and that he wished he had something worthwhile to offer patrons. He went on to mention that he believed a local history museum nearby had some papers relating to her. His suggestion nudged me to go and look at the papers.
The papers I found opened the proverbial Pandora’s box. Sarah Winchester’s attorney had left papers, including both sides of the correspondence between the widow and the lawyer. The letters and assorted documents indicated a woman far different from her quirky persona. I discovered that the attorney had also been Mrs. Jane Stanford’s attorney and had been president of the first board of trustees of Stanford University. From the local museum I went to Stanford’s archives and found more letters. By that time, I was hooked on Winchester and certain that others would also be interested in the woman most categorized as one of history’s laughingstocks.
Q: Why did Sarah Winchester build such a large house?
If Sarah Winchester kept a personal diary, it has not been found, so knowing her personal desires and aspirations is not possible. But the historical evidence can allow us to reach some conclusions.
First, it is documented that when Winchester purchased a farmhouse near San José in 1886, she immediately took steps to enlarge it. I was able to prove that her three sisters with their families came to California at the same time. The widow supported them financially with monthly allowances. One might surmise that she built the house to accommodate the relatives.
Before long, the sisters and their families were living elsewhere. Yet Winchester continued to build and enlarge the San José house and gardens. She also purchased adjoining properties so that her land holdings grew from about forty-five acres to almost 160 acres over about fifteen years. Only Marion “Daisy” Merriman, Winchester’s niece, lived with her and a few servants. So why did she keep building?
In a letter in 1898 to her late husband’s sister in New Haven, Winchester described construction delays and problems she encountered while building the house. Yet, the tone of the letter suggests that she was telling her sister-in-law not to visit. “I am not so situated yet,” she wrote after almost ten years of construction, “as to feel that I can make invited guests as comfortable as to justify me in giving pressing invitations.” Perhaps Winchester kept building to avoid houseguests rather than to encourage them.
Winchester’s personal secretary reported that the house was the widow’s hobby. Planning, designing, and viewing the construction was an occupation that fulfilled her and brought a sense of well-being. A woodworker stated that Winchester wished to keep woodworkers gainfully employed. This line of thinking is easy to believe since Sarah Winchester’s father had been a finish carpenter who, for many years, was not able to support his family with his skill and had to resort to other work in order to make a living.
Sarah Winchester built because she wanted to, she enjoyed it, she could afford it, and she found satisfaction in providing employment for woodworkers. It also allowed a reasonable excuse to avoid houseguests. The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed a large portion of the house and this lifestyle that she enjoyed so much.
Q: Was Sarah Winchester a spiritualist?
This question is often asked with an edge of suspicion to it, as if being a spiritualist is so far to the fringe as to constitute madness. In the middle to late nineteenth century it was not uncommon for a woman of Winchester’s social class and background to explore spiritualism, attend a séance, or visit a medium. In this book I draw parallels to other wealthy women, like Mrs. Jane Stanford for example, who appealed to a medium to conjure her deceased son. There is no concrete evidence that Winchester did this. One legend names a Boston spiritualist who Winchester purportedly consulted after the death of her husband. However, a search of spiritualist directories and periodicals of the time lists no such person.
But what if Winchester was a spiritualist? Would she not have joined with others in the San José area who practiced spiritualism? There was an active local community of spiritualists who come together at monthly meetings, and held sessions in their parlors. They were also educated people from the East of significant means. Winchester would have been welcomed, yet she never attended.
And what of the “séance” room of her large San José house where Sarah Winchester purportedly sealed herself off to commune with spirits? This notion misrepresents spiritualism which is primarily a social activity. It requires more than one person. It is not a solitary devotion. Sarah Winchester’s supremely private personality almost single-handedly precludes the assumption that she was a spiritualist.
Winchester was raised Baptist, and in California she participated in an Episcopal church in Burlingame. She befriended the rector there and invited him to her home. He presided at the funerals of a few of her employees, at least two relatives, and finally, was the presider at Sarah Winchester’s own funeral. If she ever employed spiritualist practice is uncertain. What is certain is that she often participated in a traditional church and arranged for her own funeral to be carried out through it.
Q: Legend has it that the only person allowed entry through the front door of the Winchester house in San José was Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science religion. Is there any truth to this?
No. Eddy was never in California. Furthermore, the Mary Baker Eddy library has no correspondence between Eddy and Winchester in its vast collection.
Q: Was Sarah Winchester obsessed with the number 13?
I found no evidence that Sarah Winchester was obsessed with the number 13. Furthermore, I found no evidence that the number played any particular role in the design and construction of her house. In tracing newspaper articles about Winchester that appeared in the press between 1895 and her death in 1922, none mentions the number 13. In fact, the number 13 only begins to appear in articles relating to the Winchester house a full six years after the widow’s death.
Within six months of Winchester’s death, an amusement park manager had leased her large old house, and he invited a local columnist, Ruth Amet, to visit the house. The columnist wrote a lengthy article, detailing the rooms, doors, stairways, and it lays out the house as ghostly and mysterious. In all the details, Amet never mentioned the number 13. Added to that, James Perkins, a man who worked as a carpenter at the Winchester place for many years, reported that the references to the number 13 were added by the new owners after the widow’s death. Perkins said many oddities were added to the house to draw the curious tourist.
Recently when I visited the Winchester house, a corridor with thirteen coat hooks was pointed out to me, and I was told they had been added quite recently. This twenty-first-century addition is only the latest of many references to the number 13 that were not in the house when Winchester lived there.
Q: Was Sarah Winchester consumed by guilt over the Winchester repeating rifle?
There is nothing to indicate that Mrs. Winchester felt guilty over her association with the Winchester repeater. She followed the finances of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company quite closely and was updated by the president of the firm, who happened to be her brother-in-law, at least quarterly between about 1890 and her death in 1922. Her personal finances fluctuated with the profits and losses of the company. Winchester did not hesitate to use dividends earned from stock in the company for a wide variety of investments in real estate, stocks, and bonds.
Sarah Winchester’s female relatives, and possibly Sarah herself, were animal rights advocates. Her sister was the first Humane officer in California. Yet even taking into account an allegiance to the Humane Society does not equate to a negative attitude toward guns. The women objected to waste and to cruelty to animals. They did not object to hunting for sport or sustenance. Each hosted or enjoyed meals from locally grown or hunted animals.
Until the early years of the twentieth century, most firearms including the repeating rifle, were considered symbols of progress and industrial ingenuity. They were viewed as deterrents to crime and enforcers of peace. They offered hope for a lawful and upright world. This view came into question early in the century, but even then in Winchester’s old age, there is nothing to show that she felt guilty over gun production. During World War I, the numbers of firearms manufactured by Winchester and purchased by the government and its allies was forwarded to Sarah. After the war when the company faced bankruptcy, the idea that the Winchester family would relinquish control of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was one that shocked Sarah Winchester and that she resisted. She exhibited no desire to free herself from the gun company.
Q: What is the most surprising thing that you learned while researching the life of Sarah Winchester?
There are a few things that surprised me. The first was the amount of material related to Winchester that I was able to uncover. I had always heard, and when I started out was told, that there was no information on her. Sure enough the collections that contain her letters are not catalogued with her name but buried within the papers of other individuals like her attorney and ranch foreman. Finding the first set of papers was like pulling a loose thread, unraveling what had held Sarah Winchester secreted away all these years.
Another surprise was discovering Sarah Winchester’s sister, Isabelle Merriman, who was Sarah’s opposite in every way imaginable. Where Sarah was reclusive and private, Isabelle was outspoken and brash. The two lived at opposite ends of the Santa Clara Valley, a balancing act reflective of their lifestyles. Isabelle went bankrupt, and Sarah got richer; Isabelle was political, and Sarah never registered to vote; Isabelle practiced the Bahai faith, and Sarah was Episcopalian. Somehow through their differences and eccentricities, the two remained close, one offering support to the other. Ultimately, when Sarah Winchester’s remains were transported for burial to New Haven, so too were those of her sister Isabelle.
Perhaps most surprising was the realization that Sarah Winchester did not live at her large San José house after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. I thought she occupied the burgeoning house, as legend has it, for over thirty years. This is not the case. After 1906, Winchester occupied other homes, primarily one in Atherton, and went “to the ranch” a few times a year but rarely for longer periods of time. The ranch foreman at San José kept daybooks, one for each year from 1907 until 1922, and in them he noted when “Mrs. W. came” or “Mrs. W. went away.” Some of her visits were just for a few hours, and at other times she spent a week or two. She lived the last fifteen years of her life at her Atherton home, although she was in San José when she died. Her physician was a San José doctor, about twenty miles from Atherton, making it almost impossible for him to check in on her unless she was at the ranch.