ECCENTRIC

Helen Mirren Turned My Ancestor’s Life Into a Ghost Story

Sarah Winchester did spend decades erecting a mansion but not out of fear that spooks would haunt her for the deaths caused by the rifles her family made. She did it out of grief.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images for CBS Films

“Ghosts, I feel their presence,” declares the actress Helen Mirren in her new role as Sarah Winchester. “The spirits killed by the rifle—we must lock them in.” So goes the trailer for Mirren’s new movie Winchester—The House That Ghosts Built, based on supposed “real life events” at the Winchester Mystery House in California’s Santa Clara Valley.

In fact, the celluloid version of my great-great aunt Sarah Winchester is simply another fantasy version of the life of a much maligned and misunderstood woman.

First, the legend: Sarah Winchester, heiress to the fortune of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, was haunted by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester Rifle in the conquering of the American West. So she built a gargantuan, sprawling house in California, because a medium told her that as long as she kept building, the spirits would leave her alone.

The truth is very different. There is no evidence that Sarah consulted occultists, held séances, or was obsessed by ghosts, guilt. and guns. She was a fabulously wealthy widow, and she did build a gigantic house continuously, but there the facts end and the fiction begins. Since Sarah is long dead and cannot defend her reputation, let me tell you who she really was.

Born into a wealthy family in New Haven, Connecticut, Sarah Pardee married William Winchester, son of the founder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, in 1862. Sarah was clever, thoughtful, and accomplished in music and languages. Yet tragedy struck the young couple early. Their baby daughter Annie died after only a few weeks. Then William died of consumption, aged only 44.

Sarah was devastated. Stricken by ill-health, she followed the advice of her doctor and moved West to California’s Santa Clara Valley to begin a new life. There she bought land and began building what is now known as the Winchester Mystery House. Immediately, the gossiping began.

As Ralph Rambo, nephew of Sarah’s financial adviser, recalled, “Our valley was thrilled by this dramatic entry of a millionairess; by those freight cars sidetracked in Santa Clara, unloading rich, imported furnishings; by building activity that mushroomed an eight-room house into a 28-room mansion, in the first six months. Here was fair game for all! We talked about Mrs. Winchester! Gossip would be a more fitting word, gossip no one claimed to like, but everyone enjoyed.”

Why did Sarah spend her fortune on building this gigantic house? Her gossipy neighbors needed to find a reason. Since the workmen continued to work on Sarah’s sprawling mansion for almost four decades, it’s not surprising that the entire Santa Clara Valley chattered incessantly. By 1895, the first newspaper article appeared linking the construction to Sarah’s supposed superstitious views: “The belief exists when work of construction ends disaster will result.”

Meanwhile Sarah, who was intelligent and interested in architecture, while also frail and reclusive, had found a purpose in life. She enjoyed building, ordering expensive materials from around the world, and experimenting. It was a distraction from her overwhelming grief. Sarah pioneered the use of household laundry tubs with built-in washboards and developed an inside crank to open and close shutters. She explained her constant construction in letters to family back in New Haven. “I have had such dreadful luck with plaster. I have tried different plasterers… I tried adamant and had two rooms done with it… I shall have it all removed from the walls and re-plastered, and this is about the way I progress.”

Houdini claimed he saw the ghost of Sarah surrounded by spirits, and the myth became legend.

Sarah’s letters never mention spirits, ghosts, guns, or guilt. They are practical and banal: “I have been looking into the matter of sanitary plumbing and find that my system has some glaring deficiencies.” And Sarah’s life is quiet: “The first thing I do after dinner is go to bed. Just think how stupid I am, to go to my night’s rest before dark!” No hint there of all night sessions with mediums, appeasing the ghosts of those slaughtered by the Winchester Rifle.

There is sadness in Sarah’s letters, and much concern with her burial arrangements she wishes to be reunited with her baby daughter and husband when she is buried in the same cemetery in Connecticut. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the house was damaged, and repairs were undertaken, adding to the odd look of the place.

Sarah’s final years were spent thinking about where best to leave her fortune. She donated money to build a tuberculosis hospital in New Haven, in her husband William’s memory, and generously endowed the hospital in her will. Today that hospital has become the Winchester Chest Clinic, and a portrait of William Winchester is prominently displayed. The clinic’s director told me, “I sometimes look at William’s portrait and wish that Sarah Winchester could know of the immense and immeasurable good she has rendered our patients with lung disease with her bequest, which will endure into future generations.”

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When Sarah died in 1922, her mysterious home was leased to a John Brown, who had an eye for a marketable tale and a background in amusement parks. The house became a prominent tourist attraction, and stories of the Winchester Rifle heiress’ obsession with the spirits of dead Indians and cowboys became accepted as gospel. In 1924 the Browns invited Harry Houdini to visit their haunted house. Houdini claimed he saw the ghost of Sarah surrounded by spirits, and the myth became legend. Former employees of Sarah were shocked by this representation of their shy mistress, but their views were of no interest to anyone.

A San Jose student who had grown up with the lurid legend of Sarah Winchester decided to write his thesis on her exaggerated life. More than seventy years ago, Bruce Spoon concluded, “legend moves through the element time, much as the party game where some sentence is whispered around a circle of guests only to appear completely changed. In the case of Sarah Winchester, it is carried either involuntarily and unconsciously by those individuals who pass it on verbally and change it so as to make themselves more important with the sensationalism of the exaggeration; or purposely by groups who stand to gain from the propagation of the legend.”

Sarah Winchester was a gentle soul, haunted only by the unbearable loss of her baby daughter and husband. And her true legacy lies not with the Winchester Mystery House, or this new movie, but in the Winchester Chest Clinic in New Haven. That is a fitting memorial to Sarah Winchester’s generosity, good deeds, and love of family.