Demystifying the Winchester Mystery House
In the center of the great California metropolitan area of San Jose sits an enormous tourist attraction, a gigantic Victorian home on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built by Sarah Winchester, widow and heiress of the Winchester rifle fortune, at the turn of the 20th century. It has approximately 24,000 square feet, seven stories, hundreds of rooms, thousands of doors, and scores of stairways and fireplaces. The legend is that Sarah built it on the advice of a psychic in order to escape the tormented spirits of all those killed by Winchester rifles. She held nightly séances in a special room, advising her on what to build next. She believed that she must build every day — which went on for 38 years around the clock — for the moment she stopped building, she would die. As a result, the whole house is a crazy jumble of doors and windows and corridors and stairways to nowhere, twisted passages, and hidden chambers. It is the result of a tragic obsession and devotion to the supernatural combined with endless money. This, anyway, is the legend as you may have heard it. In today's episode, I'm going to make the point (which has been ably made before) that virtually everything you might know about the Winchester Mystery House is wrong; but more importantly, that a much more valuable and uplifting true story is being tragically obscured and lost.
To start with, let's take one of the less important bits of misinformation about the house, having to do with the fact that many of its literal thousands of windows are elaborately stained glass. Tour guides and house legend will tell you they were made by Tiffany & Co. in New York. Architectural historians, however, have never bought that, because they are nothing like anything Tiffany ever produced. Working with caretakers and historians at at least two other notable homes with similar glass windows, one in Canada and another in Oakland, CA., researchers in recent years zeroed in on John Mallon, a great San Francisco glass artist of the late 19th century. They found more close matches with some known Mallon windows in great mansions throughout California.
In 2019, Winchester staff was warming to this identification, when quite fortuitously, some renovators opened up a wall in the house — something rarely done — and what should come tumbling out but an envelope from Mallon's glass company, the Pacific American Decorative Company in San Francisco. The envelope had been opened and was empty, but its postmark from July, 1894 was still there. The mystery of the windows was conclusively solved, and one bit of Winchester misinformation was corrected.
I wanted to open with that little story because it perfectly encapsulates what we're going to do today. We're going to figuratively pull off the facade of this house, and of the enigmatic Sarah Winchester, and inside we're going to find the truth of who she was, what was the deal with this gigantic house, and finally why she really built it.
And to start with, we're going to change Sarah's name. Sarah was indeed her real name, but it was also the name of her deceased older sister. When her paternal grandmother Sally passed away shortly before Sarah was born, the family immediately nicknamed her Sallie, and that was the name she went by her entire life. She even became Aunt Sallie as she often lived with her young niece. Nobody ever called her Sarah. Her biographer Mary Jo Ignoffo stated that for the purpose of the biography, she would refer to her by her legal name Sarah, but I'm going to do the opposite. I'm going to call her the name she went by, because that's who she was, and that sort of raw honesty is in keeping with stripping away the things she wasn't, that have been gilded onto her so unceremoniously since her death.
Her story, in brief, is that her multimillionaire husband William Winchester died of tuberculosis in 1881, leaving her over $20 million and a lifetime mid-six-figure dividend income — a staggering amount of wealth. They lived in Boston at the time, and it was then that the legend's pivotal event took place. The new widow visited a Boston psychic named Adam Coons, who told her the Winchester family was cursed by the spirits of all those killed with Winchester rifles; and the only way to keep the spirits at bay was to build a house and never stop — for if the hammers ever went idle, on that day she would die. This prophecy defined the rest of her life. She moved to the west coast and bought a modest farmhouse under construction, along with its surrounding acres of farmland. She renamed it Llanada Villa, a pet name of her own, and set to work.
Some of that's true; some of that's not. As the house has been a commercially operated tourist attraction ever since her death, a lot more money has been poured into promoting the freaky legend than into any factual research. Luckily, theme park operators are not the creators of written history, and plenty of serious biographers and historians have thoroughly teased out Sallie's true history.
Ignoffo's biography of Sallie is the 2010 Captive of the Labyrinth. She found that Sallie moved west not on the advice of any psychic, but simply for new horizons following the death of her husband. California's agreeable climate and countless opportunities for investment sealed the deal. As the wealthiest member of her family, Sallie's original plan for Llanada Villa was to expand the farmhouse to make it large enough for all her extended family to live together under one roof. This never worked out, as all her sisters had their own issues and lives, and some never even visited, though her youngest Estelle did stay with her for a few weeks until she died.
It turns out that the visit to the Boston psychic Adam Coons is a fictional invention of author Susy Smith from her 1967 book Prominent American Ghosts, in which she creatively expanded upon the existing mythology of Sallie's alleged obsession with ghosts — more on that later. Ignoffo found that researchers had failed to turn up evidence that any psychic named Adam Coons — or any variation — had ever existed in or around Boston. That no printed mention of this incident existed before 1967, and only then in a book about ghosts, is a pretty good indicator that it's pure fiction. No contemporary accounts at all record any visits by Sallie to psychics, or even any interest in the subject.
While construction was underway, Sallie continued the large-scale philanthropy she'd begun in Boston. This included hundreds of thousands of dollars to Yale University, and later nearly a million dollars to hospitals for tuberculosis research. She was also a singularly successful property investor, in an era when few women did so. She purchased many properties throughout the bay area, both residential and agricultural, and operated them profitably. She divided her time among some five homes. She hired countless workers, invested more and more, and nearly always came out ahead. But Llanada Villa was her pet project.
She enjoyed being her own architect, but not being trained and having more ideas than experience, the construction was often a patchwork of remodels and changes and architectural kludges. The reason the house has one stairway to nowhere (just the one) and one door that opens onto nothing (again, just the one) is nothing more than constant changes of plan during design and construction. She hated wasted space, and any accidental gap became an oddball cubby or closet, even if impractically small.
Public relations never worked in Sallie's favor. She was extremely private, if not reclusive, and much of her philanthropy was anonymous and thus unappreciated by others. The local press in San Jose was particularly unkind. Her enormous house was regarded as a wasteful extravagance, rubbed in the face of a struggling population by a snobby Eastern millionaire. An 1895 newspaper article "Strange Story: A Woman Who Thinks She'll Die When Her House Is Built" was the original source of many of the disparaging stories about her. Suddenly she was a weirdo with bizarre obsessions. Author Colin Dickey, in his wonderfully researched book Ghostland, wrote "She was the 1 percent, and the city resented her for it. And so it punished her through gossip and myth."
One such myth is the alleged repetition of the number thirteen throughout the house. It's said that Sallie was obsessed with the number, that the house has thirteen of everything, right down to thirteen holes in the drain covers in the sinks. These off-the-shelf drains with a floral pattern are the only place thirteen actually appeared in Sallie's house — and only a few of them at that. The rest of it was invented from whole cloth in 1929, seven years after Sallie's death, in a sensationalist article in Wide World Magazine called "The Strangest House in the World." Countering this, a longtime carpenter at the house, James Perkins, stated in a 1983 interview "The number 13 in chandeliers, the number of bathrooms, windows, ceiling panels and other things were certainly put in after Mrs. Winchester died." This fictional appearance of the number thirteen headlines nearly every article or book about Sallie and the house. It's all just part of the slanderous mythology.
But perhaps the greatest misrepresentation is that of the so-called Blue Room, a chamber near the middle of the house, said by tour guides and brochures to be the famous séance room where Sallie held her nightly séances. Nowhere in any contemporary account, including the surviving journals and memoirs of her staff at the house, is there a single mention of séances. Ignoffo probed this question deeply, and though there was a fledgling community of spiritualists in San Jose, she could find no connection to Sallie, and no evidence that Sallie ever had the slightest interest in spiritualism or séances. As for the Blue Room, it is well established to have been the private office of Llanada Villa's longtime head gardener, Tommie Nishihara.
Let us close with the real reason Sallie built Llanada Villa. Nearly thirty years after her death, a Master's student in history at San Jose State University, Bruce Spoon, wanted to answer this question. For his thesis, completed in 1951 and titled Sarah Winchester and her House: How a Legend Grows, he interviewed former employees, contractors, craftsmen, and associates of Sallie's. He read all that had been published. Spoon's conclusion was twofold. First, Sallie simply enjoyed the creative outlet of being her own architect and designing such a unique and magnificent structure. It was fun for her. But it was her second motivation that more truly defined who she was.
Unemployment in the bay area was in double digits and its economy in upheaval. Yet Llanada Villa employed hundreds of people, in the orchards and farm and also in construction and staff at the house. Employees included Americans, Dutch, Italians, Irish, Chinese, and Japanese (at the time, there were few or no Mexicans, Native Americans, or Blacks in the area) — an almost unheard-of diversity by the standards of the day. She paid her employees very well and gave them free housing, though in keeping with convention of the day, Asian employees were only loaned housing and were paid less. Having the Asian employees at all, particularly the Japanese, raised additional suspicion of Sallie and fueled more speculation that she was into weird mysticism. Sallie was, by all accounts that Spoon was able to uncover, universally liked and respected by all her employees. Not one ever mentioned ghosts or séances or guilt over Winchester rifle victims, or had an ill word of any kind. Sallie even gave the builders paid days off when it was too hot to work. Having plenty in a time and place where poverty was the rule, Sallie Winchester, already the nation's greatest female philanthropist, employed hundreds to build a house she did not need. She simply wanted to keep as many people employed as she could. It didn't even matter what they built. If she had a fancy for a new wing, indulging it fed scores of families.
This was the crime for which history has sentenced Sallie Winchester to be remembered only by the slander. The tour guides and popular articles rarely speak of the shrewd investor, the generous employer, or her prodigious philanthropy. They speak of a tiny, reclusive woman, racked with guilt and fear, obsessed with spirits and the paranormal, maniacally building a maze to confound her demons. Many even do her the additional indignity of holding her up as a cautionary tale of the perils and pitfalls of unrestrained belief in the supernatural. I argue that we should watch out instead for the perils and pitfalls of accepting the popular version of any story, especially a sensationalized one, and take the time to find the truth. Open up that wall. Find the real truth, and the real treasure; and always remember the real Aunt Sallie.
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