Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible covers design questions large and small, from his fascination with rebar to the history of slot machines to the great Los Angeles Red Car conspiracy. Here at The Eye, we cross-post new episodes and host excerpts from the 99% Invisible blog, which offers complementary visuals for each episode.
This week's edition—about the legend of Sarah Winchester—can be played below. Or keep reading to learn more.
The 1873 Winchester repeater rifle—capable of firing 15 shots in slightly more than 10 seconds—was the gun of American Western expansion. It came to be known as “the gun that won the West.” Because of this, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was the most successful gun company in the late 19th century, and the Winchester family became fabulously wealthy.
In 1862, William Winchester, the heir to the family business and fortune, married the beautiful and intelligent Sarah Pardee. Four years later, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, Annie. The whole family lived together in a palatial mansion in New Haven, Connecticut. And then came a string of terrible tragedies.
Baby Annie couldn’t absorb protein. And even with all they money in the world, Sarah Winchester couldn’t stop her daughter from starving to death before her eyes. Then, five years later, her husband died from tuberculosis at 43 years old.
According to legend, Winchester’s friends advised her to seek the services of a Boston spiritual medium named Adam Koombs, who put Winchester in touch with her deceased husband, who had bad news. He told her that she would always be haunted by the spirits of those who had been killed by Winchester rifles.
Speaking through Koombs, her late husband instructed her to placate the spirits by building a structure that would perpetually grow to shelter the ever-increasing number of Winchester rifle victims. And if she did, Sarah Winchester would gain immortality.
Winchester rifles had killed a lot people. If Winchester were to appease their ghosts, she would need to build a very, very big house. And she had the money to do it. Having inherited her late husband’s stock in the rifle company, she was now one of the wealthiest people in the country.
Winchester moved from New Haven to an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose, California. Right away she began remodeling. At any given time there might have been a dozen people there working on the house—carpenters, tile setters, painters, and electricians. Some reports estimate that her house swelled from eight to 26 rooms in the first six months. Others claim there was no end to the construction—that Winchester’s crew worked on the house in rotating shifts, 24 hours a day, for 38 years.
Over time the house became a tangled maze of halls and a mashup of turrets and stained glass windows. And because she built over so many years, the house was also a wild combination of architectural styles. It also has doors that lead nowhere, staircases that stop halfway.
For a long time no one was able to see the hodgepodge of styles and ornaments in this house except Winchester and her staff of 18 house servants, 13 carpenters, eight to 10 gardeners, and two private chauffeurs. Sarah Winchester kept to herself. Supposedly, she was also always shrouded in a veil.
It’s unclear how much of the legend is true. We don’t know whether she attempted to commune with ghosts, whether she built her huge house to placate them, or whether she felt guilty about her fortune coming from guns.
After she died in 1922, the legends and rumors about her gained traction. Especially given that, in 1923, an entrepreneur named John H. Brown saw the possibility in the old, decrepit estate and reopened it as the Winchester Mystery House. Since then, it’s been the subject of all kinds of pseudo-documentaries on haunted houses.
The widely accepted narrative about Winchester, and the one that the current owners of the house are selling, is that she was haunted by spirits. But not everyone is buying it. Historian Mary Jo Ignoffo explores alternative theories about Winchester in her book, Captive of the Labyrinth.
Ignoffo found no evidence supporting the idea that Winchester communed with spirits. She believes that what drove Winchester to build was her desire to be an architect.
Sarah Winchester lived at time when it was highly unusual for women to be architects. She wasn’t licensed, so her own home was the perfect place—and the only place—where she could practice architecture. Whatever her motivations were, she built a house with more than 150 rooms, 2,000 doors, 47 fireplaces, 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases, 17 chimneys, 13 bathrooms, six kitchens, three elevators, two basements, and one shower. She spent nearly all of her life being an architect.