Features & Columns

The Real Sarah Winchester

The new horror flick 'Winchester' is just the tip of the iceberg

The Winchester Century

A new film about the Winchester Mystery House reminds us about the power of myth.

The famous Winchester House stands as a contrast between the valley as it was—a place of delight, sure, then as now, if you have the money—and the latter-day Santa Clara County, in all of its incredible sprawl, where the hammering and sawing never stops.

At night, lit up, it draws people driving past on Winchester Boulevard with its potential for horror. The guides put you in a susceptible frame of mind as you climb the strangely angled stairs and walk the dim corridors.

Since the reclusive Sarah Winchester's demise of old age in 1922, the place has had an enthusiastically cultivated bad name. As early as 1939, the WPA Guide to California, an early tourism reference book, described the mansion as "the externalization of a psychopathic mind."

After a few weeks of location work last year, the Spierig brothers—Daybreakers' Peter and Michael, twin directors from Australia—have finished a feature film about our local portal into weirdness. "Insanity and blood" promise the advertisements, along with an A-list leading lady: Dame Helen Mirren as the wealthy Sarah Winchester.

The film hasn't been previewed for the press. But in an email, Winchester scriptwriter Tom Vaughan describes the film in one word.

"Tense," he says. "The Spiriegs did their own draft of the script after me, and they did a beautiful job directing as well. There's a prolonged tension through the whole film. One layer after another is revealed, both about the characters and the house itself."

There are some outlandishly fine Victorians in Melbourne—relics of the Australian gold rush, as described by Hal Porter in his memoir The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony. After location work, the filmmakers went back Down Under to finish shooting the film. Producer Tim McGahan told of how the Mystery House on screen would be a combination of the real Winchester House in San Jose and multiple Victorian mansions in Australia. "We would walk in to some of the mansions on location scouts and find almost identical servants' quarters and kitchens to those in the Winchester House. It was uncanny.

"The Winchester Mystery House poses certain challenges when shooting. Firstly, it is an active business and operating tourist attraction in its own right. Secondly, many of the rooms and corridors are far too small for a crew to access, or even for our actors to stand upright in. Sarah Winchester was only around 4 feet, 10 inches tall, and so it seems she only needed to build the house to accommodate her height. As part of the filmmaking process, we need to get cameras into all sorts of positions, as well as accommodate other production equipment. Some of the sets we built in Melbourne had to balance the scale of the house and rooms with filming practicalities. We created sets made up of intricate Tetris-type puzzles that required assembling and disassembling, and the removal of walls, ceilings or floors, depending on where the camera needed to be placed." Drones were used to film the the roof of the Winchester house to show its vast size.

Technology. Helen Mirren. Two directors with a rep for elegant horror. And it's all based on a true story, yet ... As the advertisements used to say—"Can you prove that this didn't happen?"

Sadly, yes.

"On Amazon, someone called me a killjoy," says Mary Jo Ignoffo, a history teacher at De Anza College and the author of the book Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune.

Obviously, they have to have something to put on the poster, but would Ignoffo describe her subject's life as a saga of blood and madness? "Nnnnnnno," she says. "Blood, I don't understand at all. Sarah Winchester has been accused of being insane a couple of times, historical evidence to the contrary."

Ignoffo's study of Winchester was piqued by the cache of some 20 years' worth of correspondence Ignoffo discovered, letters between Winchester and her attorney.

"One often hears that there's nothing out there," Ignoffo says, referring to an alleged dearth of historical records and primary documents concerning Winchester. "In fact, I was able to uncover hundreds of references from sources."

"Madwoman" is one way to describe Winchester, but that's less easy to prove than another phrase: "Land baroness." Winchester owned some very nice chunks of Santa Clara County, and areas beyond: 100 acres near San Francisco Airport, and 160 acres in San Jose around the house. Los Altos was her ranch. "When she sold it, the city of Los Altos was born," Ignoffo notes.

Ignoffo hadn't visited the house before she started her study of Winchester. Like many locals, she'd drive past the mansion, convinced that it was for visiting out-of-towners.

"I'd never been, which was funny, since people around the world want to go there," she says. "The convention and visitors bureau are bringing in tourists by the busload. But the locals seem to roll their eyes—they're not the first in line to go see the house."

Winchester's story is a twice-told tale in this area. Sarah Pardee was a well-born and well-educated Connecticut lady, the daughter of an affluent carriage manufacturer. Her marriage to William Winchester was considered a love match, but tragic losses followed it. When Sarah Winchester was 26, her only child, Anne, some 5 weeks old, perished of the wasting disease known as marasmus. Less than 15 years later, her beloved husband followed Anne to the grave—a casualty of tuberculosis.

So the story goes that Winchester went to a Boston medium. With all of the grief over Civil War deaths, it must have been lush times for psychics. The medium allegedly told her wealthy customer that Winchester's suffering was due to what the Hindus call karma. The soldiers and Indians killed by the Winchester rifle demanded payback, and in protection from these angry spirits, Winchester must build a house nay, a maze. That would keep the ghosts out.

In this telling—one practiced by the very entertaining guides at the Mystery House—Winchester kept the construction going for decades, with workers devising baffling floor plans, doors to nowhere and zigzagging staircases. And there she languished for the rest of her life—the hammering and sawing only ceasing when she breathed her last.

Except she wasn't living at the Winchester House when she died.

"The most important thing people don't realize," Ignoffo continues, "is that from the big earthquake in 1906 to 1922 she lived in Atherton, despite the whole mythology of the building going on 24/7 until the day she died. Her place in Atherton is a very normal house—it was recently renovated and featured in a recent issue of Gentry magazine. Sarah's attendant for 12 years described the Winchester House as a 'hobby house.'"

The big quake of 1906 hit the great Winchester house hard, leaving it maimed and unfinished. To save it from the elements, Winchester had portions sealed off; hence the staircases to nowhere, the sealed corridors. As for the conical turret where the guides to the house tell you she had her séances, there's no proof that it's more prone to paranormal activity than anywhere else in the place. Ignoffo says, "Workers on the ranch reported that they used to go up there to take rests from ranch work. There's no evidence for a lot of things the guides tell you."

As for the séances: "I discovered that there was a very active spiritualist community in San Jose—and she never joined. Spiritualism is a social endeavor. You don't hold a séance alone. The reports of her being a spiritualist, are at the very least exaggeration—and perhaps falsehood."

I wondered if Ignoffo had ever spent the night in the Winchester house, if she was so very convinced that the place wasn't crawling with furious ghosts. "No. My first thought is that it would be cold. There's nothing insulating the walls."

While the new film 'Winchester' is a horror movie, things probably weren't all that spooky for the real Sara Winchester.

Given the sketchy evidence that she was in communication with the afterlife, there are some exculpatory circumstances that would make such spiritualism almost mainstream. Winchester was indeed part of an era when it seemed as if the next world was just out of reach. Locally, Jane Stanford, wife of Leland, was using spiritualism to try to contact the dead son whom the Palo Alto university memorializes. Even men as scientifically minded as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed that new technology was going to allow us to witness and photograph the spirits of the dead. Consider the inventions of the time, such as the telephone (Winchester was one of the first in the San Jose area to have one)—here was technology in an era when tech was indistinguishable from magic.

But Winchester is remembered as the creator of the spidery house, instead of as a philanthropist who endowed a lung-disease hospital. She spent her last dozen or so years setting up an endowment for the Winchester Chest Hospital in New Haven, today administered by Yale.

"Her financial dealings in the last decade don't reflect someone who was crazy or insane," Ignoffo argues. "They're detailed, closely analyzed. She protected her finances in order to fund this hospital."

As for Winchester the movie, Ignoffo isn't going to be first in line to see it. "I wouldn't rush out. I have trouble with the horror genre." Still, she has hopes. "I'm the first person who officially suggested Sarah Winchester was a sane person. I hope the movie depicts her like that, and I hope someone eventually makes a historical drama." Winchester's story has been featured on various local and syndicated shows, and Ignoffo was a guest on the 'Winchester' episode of William Shatner's Weird or Not? ("I was the 'not,'" Ignoffo jokes.) The people at the mansion would love to have a biographical film produced, and they would show it. Her story needs a filmmaker. I have all the documentation ready."

Fortunately for Winchester's fans, Winchester screenwriter Vaughan is an admirer of the industrious widow. "She was way ahead of her time. An independent spirit who had the money to back it up. I can only imagine how many people she drove crazy because she refused to play society's games. That's enough to start a lot of nasty rumors all over town alone. The more you learn about her, the more compelling she becomes. If our mythology is people's gateway into her story, I'm totally OK with that. I'm just gratified she's getting the attention she deserves."

Winchester's producer Tim McGahan comments, "There are many theories about Sarah Winchester, but little verified information about her true personality. I personally think Sarah Winchester was an incredible woman, well ahead of her time, intelligent, generous to her staff and a wonderfully creative architect."

Still, there is a mystery that goes far beyond the supposed haunting of the Winchester House: what curdled the reputation of these great houses? Movie watchers know that something turns a house bad. Perhaps they can go bad on their own. Maybe the most perfectly written summing-up of this kind of madness is Shirley Jackson's opening for her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House.

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

"Not sane"—a whispery, gentle kind of description for a house gone bad.

But every haunted mansion started out benign, a showplace. "Solid black walnut every inch of it—balustrades and all. Sixty thousand dollars worth o' carved woodwork in the house! Like water! Spent money like water! Always did! Still do! Like water. Gosh knows where it all comes from." Such are the trappings of the great house in the script of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The fall of the house of Amberson is due to the invention of the automobile—the factories building them pollute the area and allow commuters to come into the city from the outskirts. The Ambersons' manor becomes ghostly because the neighborhood values crash. Without being a conventional horror story, Ambersons explains as well as any movie the process of how these wooden castles, these ultimate marks of status, ended up as the kind of edifice you advertise on billboards with skulls on them.

Hopefully the upcoming Winchester will provide some invigorating fear, and burnish the local legend a bit. But maybe the ghosts in the Winchester House are due to an uneasy feeling, as per the folk belief put into words by Honore de Balzac: "Behind every great fortune is a great crime."

Ignoffo concludes: "Well, I have a theory about Sarah herself. I theorize that if she had inherited her wealth from something that wasn't guns—say, the Singer sewing machine—that there still might be stories of garment workers haunting the place. But the house is a symbol of our ambivalence and conflict about guns. While there's no evidence Sarah Winchester felt any conflicts about it, I think people's discomfort about the Winchester house reflects the Civil War, the way Native Americans were treated, and urban gun violence today. It's easier to consider this as the place built by guilt over guns than to have some kind of meaningful dialogue about guns."

Producer McGahan notes, "Some might take the view that the success of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. ultimately existed at the expense of many lives. Regardless of whether or not you believe in ghosts or 'haunted' houses, my take on the story is that the ghosts are a representation of Sarah's own guilt and torment due to the loss of so many lives at the hands of the rifles."

Winchester screenwriter Vaughan suggests that the very opulence of the place may have seemed to later observers as decadence. "I couldn't say for sure," he says, "but there does seem to be this sense that the resources required to build and maintain these structures might have been better used elsewhere. There's an empty sadness to them now, isn't there? It feels like a haunting is exactly what they deserve!"