Connecticut

William Winchester dies, leading to Sarah Winchester’s creation of the Winchester Mystery House

March 7, 1881
New Haven, Connecticut
William Winchester dies of “pulmonary consumption” (now known as tuberculosis)

William Winchester was the son of the founder of the Winchester Arms Co., and the inventor of the repeating rifle. His financial success from the sale of weapons transferred to Sarah upon his death, in the form of $20 million (worth over $505 million today). Throughout her life, Sarah continued to provide financial support to the Connecticut state hospital dedicated to the treatment of tuberculosis patients.

After William’s death, Sarah moved from Connecticut to San Jose, California where she purchased an 8-room farmhouse and began an extensive renovation which traversed multiple decades, only completely ceasing after her death in 1922 at the age of 82.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused considerable damage to the Winchester house and as a result Sarah “suffered from severe nervousness troubles.” By 1911, after multiple repairs to the damaged portions and new additions, the “House of Mystery” as it was called at the time, was over 500 feet (152.4 meters) long and its highest tower was 7 stories tall. By Sarah’s death in 1922, the 8-room farmhouse had grown to a 160-room mansion.

Keith Kittle, employee at the Mystery House during the 1970s, described “doors that open onto blank walls, stairs that go nowhere, and windows that look out on closed walls.” Kittle also noted, “The number 13 seemed to play a major role in [Sarah’s] life. There are ceilings with 13 panels, rooms with 13 windows, more than 40 stairways with 13 steps, chandeliers with 13 lights, even 13 bathrooms.” Other eccentric additions included a room with four fireplaces, a spiral staircase with steps 2 inches (5 cm) apart, trapdoors, secret passageways, and a ballroom whose interior was constructed without the use of a single nail. Other strange features were meant to assist Sarah in her advancing age, including magnifying glasses built into windows to more easily observe the garden from inside the home, a stairway of “mini-steps” with each step roughly 1 inch (2.5 cm) tall to allow Sarah to ascend the stairs of the home after she developed acute arthritis, and an intercom system throughout the house.

Almost immediately after Sarah’s death, the rumors began as to why she decided to never stop building. One such rumor claimed angry spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles warned Sarah “that all would be well so long as the sound of hammers did not cease about her,” according to The Salt Lake Tribune. The rumor claimed Sarah felt compelled to never stop construction even briefly, though there is evidence — in the form of letters written by Sarah — of construction workers being dismissed for months at a time.

The name of “Mystery House” was first granted to the home after the building was purchased and opened to the public, with a small entry fee charged to sightseers. The Mystery House is still open to visitors to this day.

Sources:
“History.” Winchester Mystery House. Accessed: March 7, 2020. https://winchestermysteryhouse.com/sarahs-story/
Guthertz, Alvin T. “Sarah Winchester’s Mystery House.” The Sacramento Bee. September 25, 1976
Bowling, Mary Jo. “The Top 10 Lies About the Winchester Mystery House.” 7×7. October 28, 2016. Accessed: March 7, 2020. https://www.7×7.com/amp/the-top-10-lies-about-the-winchester-mystery-house-1786563456 (image source)
Pitts, William. “Mystery House to be Opened to Sightseers.” The Rock Island Argus. June 25, 1923
“Sarah Winchester, Philanthropist, Dies.” Bakersfield Morning Echo. September 7, 1922
“Eccentric Widow is Seriously Ill.” The Salt Lake Tribune. June 11, 1911
“William W. Winchester.” The New York Times. March 9, 1881

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