Sarah Pardee was born in 1841, to middle-class parents, in New Haven, Connecticut. Just 40 years later she became one of the richest women in the world.
In 1862, she married William Wirt Winchester, the only son of Oliver Winchester. Oliver Winchester owned the New Haven Arms Company, and was getting rich selling the Henry rifle.
In 1866, Oliver renamed his business the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and the first Winchester repeating rifles began production. The Winchester quickly gained popularity, especially with pioneers, and eventually became known as the gun that won the West.
Oliver earned a fast fortune running this company. And when he died in December, 1880, Sarah’s husband, William, inherited much of it. Then, just three months later, William died of tuberculosis.
This left Sarah with an inheritance of $20 million dollars, which was the equivalent to over $500 million, today. She was also left with a near 50% holding in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which allowed her to rake in $1,000 per day in dividend income. That’s the equivalent to over $25,000 per day, or more than $9 million per year, in today’s money.
You may envy her, but the widow Winchester was no stranger to tragedy. In 1866 her only child, Annie Pardee Winchester, died just 40 days after birth. And of course her husband, a man whom she truly loved, died 15 years later. No amount of money could dissolve her lifelong grief over these losses.
Much of Sarah’s life, after her great inheritance, remains a mystery. But it’s commonly believed that she was an occultist, who held seances and tried to communicate with the dead, including her late-husband and daughter.
It’s believed she once visited a famous Boston medium named Adam Coons. And it’s said that Coons warned her that she was cursed by the Winchester fortune, due to the many people who’d been slain by the Winchester rifle.
Coons allegedly relayed instructions from angry spirits, telling Sarah to move to California and build a great house for all the ghosts of those who had been gunned down. And he told her to never stop building, as the sound of all the construction noise would confuse the spirits and keep them from harming her.
And so, in 1884, Sarah Winchester purchased an unfinished farmhouse south of San Francisco Bay, in what is now San Jose, California. And she commenced a never-ending job of finishing it.
She hired a crew of contractors and paid them three times the going wage. They remained very loyal to Sarah, and set to work, continuously building room after room, addition after addition, round-the-clock, for the next 38 years.
By the time she died in 1922, her farmhouse had expanded to 161 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 2 ballrooms, 47 fireplaces, 10,000 panes of glass, 17 chimneys, two basements, and three elevators. And this was after part of the house had been destroyed by the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
It had many toilets, but only one was functioning. The other restrooms were built as decoys to confuse the spirits. In fact, much of the construction was intended to confuse these victims of the Winchester rifle. Every pillar, inside and outside, was installed upside-down. Hallways led to dead ends. A staircase led to a ceiling. Doors opened to steep drop-offs, or to bare walls. A skylight was installed in a floor. Other skylights were covered by roofs.
She decorated the house with beautiful Tiffany stained glass and crystal windows. And many windows were designed with the number 13 in mind, as this was Sarah’s favorite number. So some windows had 13 panes, or a design would repeat 13 times within a window.
Her will, in fact, contained 13 parts, and was signed 13 times.
She died in her sleep at age 81, from heart failure. Or who knows, perhaps one of the spirits finally managed to exact revenge upon this Winchester gun heiress.
When her workers heard of her death they immediately halted construction, leaving nails half driven into walls. They knew the end had come for their fat paychecks.
Sarah bequeathed all of her possessions, except her sprawling mansion, to her niece and personal secretary. She made no mention of her mansion, in the will. So her niece emptied the house, trucking most of Sarah’s possessions to an auction. And it supposedly took six trucks working eight hours a day for six weeks, to remove all the furniture from the home.
Appraisers were confounded, and considered the mansion worthless. Nonetheless, it sold at auction for $135,000. The investor leased, then sold the mansion to John and Mayme Brown, who opened it to the public as a tourist attraction, just five months after Sarah’s death.
Today it’s dubbed the Winchester Mystery House, and for an adult ticket price of $39, you can visit and explore many of the rooms of this odd mansion. The house is reputed to be haunted, and occasionally tourists and tour guides report strange happenings, such as swinging chandeliers, apparitions, and ghostly voices.
So it’s quite popular with tourists around October 31st.