Historical Haunts:How a Rifle Created America’s Strangest and Haunted Home

by Tony Harrington

Sarah Pardee was born in New Haven, CT in 1839. As she grew she matured into the quintessential “Belle of the Ball”.

Sarah Pardee-Winchester

Her musical talent made her prominent in the well-to-do circles that threw lavish parties and social events and soon the diminutive woman (4ft 10in) was well-known and sought after by New Haven’s prominent bachelors.

Sarah ended up catching the eye of a young businessman named William whose family had just acquired the assets of a weapons firm that manufactured the Volcanic Repeater, a rifle mechanism that auto-loaded bullets into the weapons breach making the weapon faster to load than previous muzzle loaded variations.

Several improvements were made to the weapon and in 1860 they unveiled the “Henry” which averaged a single shot every three seconds making it the first repeating rifle of its kind. This caught the attention of the Northern Army and the weapon soon became the rifle of choice for union soldiers in the early days of the Civil War.

The young man’s family name was Winchester and in September of 1862 Sarah Pardee became Sarah Winchester and was absorbed into New Haven’s wealthiest family.

Sarah gave birth to a daughter on July 15, 1866, however the joyous occasion was wrought with tragedy when baby Annie Pardee Winchester contracted a fatal disease that caused her body to wither and die. Sarah was overcome by her despair and teetered on the edge of madness and depression for almost a decade. She and William never bore another child.

Tragedy struck the Winchester’s again when in the early months of 1881, William, the sole heir of the Winchester fortune succumbed to consumption and died leaving Sarah the incredible sum of $20 million dollars and almost half of the Winchester repeating Arms company. This, coupled with a per diem of about 1,000 dollars a day assured Sarah would be set for her remaining years.

A fateful meeting with a psychic/medium of the time forever changed Sarah Winchester. Because of her inconsolable grief over the loss of her child and husband, a friend recommended she seek spiritual guidance from a psychic and the psychic put Sarah in contact with her departed love. The psychic advised the woman that there was a curse on the family name due to the thousands of lives lost at the hands of the Winchester rifle and that the spirits would haunt her eternally unless she sold her current home in New Haven and with the guidance of her deceased husband  build a new one and never stop building lest the spirits find her.

And that is what she did.

She found a modest home in Santa Clara Valley, California and in 1884 purchased it from a doctor. The home at the time was a 6 room house on 162 acres of land. For the next 36 years she constructed out of madness and fear of ghosts and vengeful spirits a sprawling estate of 26 rooms with the assistance of 22 carpenters who stayed steadily at work twenty-four hours a day year round.

There was no master plan for the work in progress, Sarah met the foreman at the start of each day to discuss what she wanted. Often the plans would not work out due to the lack of architectural experience and instead of tearing down the existing room, another was built around it.

Aside from rooms within rooms, other oddities included but were not limited to:

-Rooms being turned into their own wings of the home

-Doors were joined to windows that didn’t open

-levels of the hose were turned into towers

– The mansion sprawled to 7 stories

-Three elevators were installed

-47 fireplaces, some with incomplete chimneys

-Staircases that lead to the ceiling

-Trap doors

-Secret passages

-Hallways that double back on themselves

-Doors that open to hazardous drops

-Doors that open to brick walls

The list of Winchester oddities goes on and on not to mention Sarah’s preoccupation with the number 13. Walls had 13 panels, windows have 13 panes of glass, and every staircase with the exception of an odd spiral had 13 steps.

The Winchester Mansion

In 1906 a devastating earthquake hit San Francisco and leveled the top three stories of the mansion trapping Sarah inside one room. She took this as an omen that the spirits that haunted her were angered that she was almost finished construction on her home and the cycle of building commenced once more.

The strange and fascinating tale of this unfortunate widow came to an end in September of 1922 when Sarah retired to her bedroom one night and passed in her sleep at the age of 83.

Stories of vast fortunes locked in safes throughout the home yielded only oddities such as fishing line, socks, a lock of baby hair, woolen underwear and newspaper clippings outlining the deaths of her daughter and husband.

The home, upon Sarah’s death, was willed to Sarah’s niece. The house has since been declared a historical landmark and is a popular tourist attraction. The exact room count is unknown to this day. Because of the unique construction, confusing labyrinthine halls and twisting floor plan, the number changed each time a survey was attempted. The general consensus and acceptable number is 160 rooms though no one is quite sure.

To this day, employees and visitors tell tales of paranormal activity ranging from the ghostly sightings of construction crews, the sounds of hammering in the night, phantom odors, orbs and other manifestations. The sounds of footsteps, disembodied voices, singing, cold spots and psychic encounters have all been reported.

There is no official stance on the haunting of Winchester House, many believe that it is just the active imagination of those visiting an odd and fascinating home built under tragic circumstances. Others believe that Sarah Winchester continues to build onto a home that became a lifelong obsession and continues into the afterlife.

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