Winchester is one of the most highly-anticipated horror films of the new year, advertised as a film about the most haunted house in history, but we all know Hollywood has its way of putting a spin on the truth. Before you check out the film’s premiere on February 2nd, allow me to brief you on the true story behind what is known as the “Winchester Mystery House.”
Let’s start off by identifying exactly who Sarah Winchester, the character portrayed by Helen Mirren in the upcoming film, was. At the age of 22, Sarah married a man named William Wirt Winchester. Unfortunately, William fell victim to tuberculosis and died in 1881. After the death of her husband, whose father invented the Winchester repeating rifle, Sarah became the heiress to the large fortune of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. She inherited about 50% of the company, which was valued at $20 million dollars at the time. Sarah was basically the Bill Gates of the 19th century as far as wealth was concerned.
So what exactly was it about the Winchester repeating rifle that made the Winchester family so damn wealthy? To make a long story short (you can read much more about the extensive history of the Winchester rifle here), the rifle allowed for faster firing than other rifles on the market at the time, therefore making it more desirable.
With the use of her inheritance money ($5,500,000 of it, to be exact), Sarah left Connecticut and purchased a farmhouse in San Jose, California to be closer to her family. This house is, of course, what is known today as the Winchester Mystery House. For the next 38 years after its purchase, the house was an endless construction project. What began as 8 rooms ended with a total of 160 rooms, as well as 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 52 skylights, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens, 3 elevators adn 2 basements, to name a few of its copious features. But why would someone who lived alone possibly need such an extensive dwelling? Well, there’s a few theories out there to answer this question.
One theory is that maybe Mrs. Winchester was feeling nostalgic. Back in Connecticut, she and William had overseen the construction of their New Haven home together. According to Janan Boehme, a long-time historian of the Winchester House, stated, “I think Sarah was trying to repeat that experience by doing something they both loved.”
Or maybe the motive came from the philanthropist in Sarah. Evidence of her generosity was seen when Sarah also used a portion of the inheritance money to help fund the Winchester Chest Clinic at New Haven Hospital. According to a Smithsonian article by author Pamela Haag, Sarah employed many carpenters to work on the house day in and day out, paying them triple their usual salary. Boehme stated Sarah wanted to keep her employees “gainfully employed… Sarah had a social conscience and she did try to give back. This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all.”
But you can’t possibly make a box office hit horror movie off nostalgia and philanthropy. This is where the theories that influenced the film come in. It is rumored that, after the premature deaths of her husband and her infant daughter, Sarah met with a medium who told her these untimely deaths were payback by the bitter spirits who died at the hands of the Winchester rifle. It is said the medium then instructed her to build and build onto the house as a means of warding off the spirits haunting her.
It is also said that the elaborate construction was meant to confuse the ghosts. After all, the construction was constant and most of it made little to no sense. There are stairways leading right into ceilings and a doorways that lead to multiple-level plummets.
Although Sarah apparently spent much of her time on her nearby houseboat after she became trapped in one of the rooms during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (she had to be freed with a crowbar), she did pass in her bedroom in the house in 1922 from heart failure at the age of 82.
The house is now a preserved attraction for tourists and many visitors claim the hauntings go on to this day. Some claim they have heard footsteps in Sarah’s bedroom, others say they have seen doorknobs turn on their own. There are also reports of an apparition working on the house dressed in white overalls that has come to be known as the “wheelbarrow ghost.” The house was named one of TIME Magazine’s Top 10 Haunted Places in 2008.
All ghost stories aside, Boehme says, “There is a good energy here. Sarah Winchester was truly a fascinating person.” You can check out the house’s official website here to learn more about the house, tours and special events.
Photos courtesy of winchestermysteryhouse.com.