Guns & Ghosts - What Haunts You?
Winchester, the horror movie about the eccentric firearm heiress Sarah Winchester, (starring Helen Mirren) opens this Friday.
Take a look at the trailer:
Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born somewhere around 1835 to 1845. There are no actual records of her birth date or year. She was the fifth of seven children who was born into a respectable, upper class Connecticut family. It is said that as a child, Sarah was anything but ordinary. By the time she was 12, she was fascinated with the work of Shakespeare and fluent in at least five languages. She was said to be a child prodigy.
William Wert Winchester was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1837 and was an only child. He was named after the US Attorney General, which was popular to do back then. Eventually, his family moved to Connecticut and the two families became acquainted. William attended New Haven’s Collegiate and Commercial Institute, which later became Yale. He and Sarah married in September of 1862.
"Winchester - the house that ghost built"
In 1880 Oliver Fisher Winchester died leaving the Winchester Repeating Arms Company (not to be confused with the famous Smith & Wesson Revolver Company, founded later by the same man) to his only son William, who held the a position of treasurer until his death from tuberculosis in 1881, one year later. He was just 43.
Sarah is said to have inherited William's $20 million estate, worth nearly half a billion dollars today, adjusting for inflation, plus nearly 50% of the Winchester Arms stock which, in turn earned her approximately $1,000 dollars per day in royalties for the rest of her life. This resulted into making her one of the wealthiest women in the world.
William and Sarah had one daughter Anne Pardee Whinchester, who died in infancy just 40 days after she was born due to Marasmus. Sarah was distraught at the loss of her husband and child and sought the advice of the then famous Boston medium Adam Coons. During a séance with Coons, Sarah was told that because of the many people who had been slain by the Winchester Rifle, she was cursed by the Winchester fortune. He then told Sarah that she had to leave Connecticut and go to California and build a house for the “spirits” in order to appease and prevent them from killing her.
"The Ghost of the past speak to all that will listen"
Sarah, the grieving widow immediately did as she was told and left Connecticut for ...Europe. There is no actual documentation, but it was rumored she spent three years in Europe before settling in California (1884). Sarah was well educated and it is presumed that she visited numerous architectural landmarks and that this is where she found a lot of the inspiration for the home. She is said to have chosen the San Francisco Bay area as she had numerous Pardee relative who had relocated during the 1849 Gold Rush.
Sarah purchased the 6 bedroom farmhouse along with 161 acres of farmland and immediately hired 20 carpenters. The construction of the house was non-stop, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for the next 38 years. She spent $5.5 million (in the money of the time) renovating it until she died in her sleep on September 22, 1922. I read that the news of her death found her workers halting construction, leaving nails half driven into the walls. I definitely noticed numerous nails half hammered into the walls.
The Victorian style home was designed by Sarah and the spirits. At one point in time, it had a height of seven stories! The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 reduced the home to four stories and Sarah refrained from building up from then on. Besides the obvious massiveness of the home, the labyrinth like feel to it gives it the reputation of being very odd and unique. There are tons of twisting hallways and corridors and staircases, some that lead to walls, others that lead to doors that open to ...a wall. I guess when you have all that money and you are scared for your life....you do what the medium tells you to do!
It is said that once Sarah moved into the home, she began holding her own séances every midnight so that she could receive the next day’s building instructions from the spirits. They would start with her ringing a bell. Her séances allegedly involved the use of a Ouija board and planchette, and 13 various colored robes she would ritualistically wear every night. They would go on for hours.
I visited the home last October. I had been to Santana Row earlier that year, but had no idea that the home was in walking distance. It's smack dab in the middle of the Silicon Valley. This enormous mansion with all this history, locked inside by not one but two fences. It was October, so I decided I would take the candlelight tour. It looked a little hokey, but having read so much on the home, I had to see it with my own eyes.
Being born on Halloween, I have always been fascinated with spirits. I never know if I sense a presence or if it's just my adrenaline racing. Either way, it's fun and slightly terrifying and who doesn't love a good adrenaline rush?
Did I mention I was alone?
The tour was awesome. It was like real life Narnia. There was no one there at all; I literally didn’t see another person the entire tour, except the guy who took my ticket. Throughout the house and grounds I couldn't help but notice the prime numbers 7, 11 and 13 displayed that were said to be extremely important to Sarah. I had read that 13 was her favorite number. These numbers consistently showed up in the number of windows in many of the rooms, or the number of stairs in the staircases, or the number of rails in the railings, or the number of panels in the floors and walls, or the number of lights in a chandelier, etc.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside the home, but I did find the picture of the staircase below to give you an idea of the 'staircases to nowhere'. They were everywhere. I can also tell you it was crazy small and cramped. It was like a life size mouse maze. Very little of the movie was filmed at the home, as it is was too tiny.
Ironically in my research, I found numerous stories of bankruptcy within the Winchester company. In 1981, The U.S. Repeating Arms Company was formed by Winchester employees to purchase the rights to manufacture Winchester-brand rifles and shotguns in New Haven, Connecticut, under license from Olin Corporation.
In 1989, after bankruptcy of the employee-organized corporation, USRAC was taken over by Fabrique Nationale de Herstal (FN), a Belgium-based company producing firearms. In early 2006, the plant in New Haven, CT closed and production of several Winchester rifles would cease worldwide; some models would be continued in plants outside of the US. This has changed, as according to Winchester Repeating Arms' website, Winchester guns are still being produced by FN in both the US and Belgium
As with all mysterious/ghost stories, there are numerous tales and theories. All I can tell you is I was fascinated. I could keep writing and talking about this forever. Why would someone who was so well educated and wealthy go to such extremes. Had she lost her mind? Was she haunted by the victims of the Winchester guns? Was she ahead of her time and the home was her art?
I think that a lot of people (Hollywood included) like to profit off of folklore and like to fabricate the truth. Was she eccentric, yes? Depressed and possibly a little crazy, maybe? Did she have more money and time than she knew what to do with? Absolutely.
I am looking forward to seeing the movie, as I love Helen Mirren and I like to hear different theories of why. That is always the question when it comes to Sarah Winchester.....Why?? Leave it to Hollywood to turn it into horror film.
I will tell you this: if you are ever in the San Francisco/San Jose, California area...go! I found the house to be lovely and quite beautiful. The gardens were peaceful and there were flowers everywhere. I think Sarah was possibly ahead of her time and her home is said to resemble that of the late MC Escher. It’s an amazing home, with an eery, cool vibe. I can promise you this: the hair on your arms will definitely stand up.
Happy paranormal hunting!