Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune
by Mary Jo Ignoffo; University of Missouri
Sarah Winchester built a 160-room crazy quilt of a house in San Jose, Calif., that has steadily drawn crowds since it opened as a tourist attraction in 1923. But who was she? Pop history—the sort dispensed at the “Winchester Mystery House” even today— says she was an eccentric, miserly recluse who wasted the fortune she inherited from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company on a bizarre building project. Consumed by guilt from the deaths due to the rifles that made her rich, she turned architect, directed by aggrieved ghosts. As long as she kept building, she could stay a step ahead of the Grim Reaper.
On the other hand, we have witnesses like Frank Lieb, her longtime legal counsel. “Mrs. Winchester was all that a woman should be, and nothing that a good woman should not be,” Lieb noted after her death in 1922. “If there is a heaven, there she must surely be.” What could be a more suitable epitaph for an upper-crust Victorian lady?
So which was the real Sarah? In the first full-length biography of Winchester, Mary Jo Ignoffo argues the heiress was not so different from other Gilded Age matrons—except, perhaps, in one important respect: She sought neither the company nor the approval of her contemporaries.
When Winchester moved from New Haven, Conn., to California in 1886, she was the wealthy 47-year-old widow of William Winchester, the rifle company heir. Two of her three sisters went west with her; she generously provided for them and their families. She was devoted to her niece Daisy Merriman, practically raising her as a daughter and ensuring her entrée into San Francisco society. She made philanthropic donations—including $150 to a fund for victims of the 1906 earthquake—but usually did so anonymously. She also gave some $2 million in cash and stock to a New Haven hospital that treated tuberculosis, the disease that took William’s life. And she carefully planned how to divide her estate among family and household staff. This doesn’t sound much like a self-obsessed flake trying to cheat death.
Besides, what did it matter that Sarah Winchester built a massive house with Tiffany art-glass windows and exquisite woodwork? Gilded Age industrialists all around the country— and their wives and widows—were doing the same. In fact, she knew about building. Her father was a master carpenter. She’d happily assisted William in overseeing the design, construction and decoration of the Winchester family manor in New Haven. In California, she indulged her whims, adding rooms and folderols in haphazard fashion. But she didn’t build feverishly until her death; she even considered tearing the house down after it was severely damaged in the 1906 earthquake. Instead, she had the structure stabilized and sealed off unfinished areas. Those stairways that lead nowhere and half-finished chimneys are touted as evidence of an unbalanced woman trying to confuse evil spirits, but natural, not supernatural, causes created them.
Most damaging to her reputation, however, was her unwillingness to explain herself: She declined requests for interviews and showed no interest in engaging the neighbors. “They did not know what to make of her,” Ignoffo writes. “Eventually, they just made fun.”
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.