This Heiress Built a 161-Room Mansion With Secret Passageways, Dead Ends, and a Ghost Room

Did heiress Sarah Winchester really design it to house the souls of those who'd been killed with Winchester rifles?

From shortly after her husband died in 1881 until her own death in 1922, rifle heiress Sarah Winchester lived alone. Why, then, did she insist on ever-present construction that transformed her farmhouse's initial eight rooms into a sprawling 161-room mansion that spanned 24,000 square feet, complete with doors and stairwells that led to nowhere?

One theory is that Sarah wanted to relive happier times. According to the Los Angeles Times, she and her late husband had overseen the building of their former residence in New Haven, Connecticut together. "I think Sarah was trying to repeat that experience by doing something they both loved," said Janan Boehme, a historian who's worked at the Winchester Mystery House for almost 40 years.

Another theory posits that Sarah had philanthropic motives at heart. The widow employed dozens of carpenters who worked shifts around the clock every day for 36 years, paying them triple the rate of similarly skilled carpenters, according to a Smithsonian article by Pamela Haag, Ph.D., author of The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of an American Gun Culture. Boehme told the L.A. Times Winchester had "tons of money and wanted to keep her workers gainfully employed."

The third and most bizarre theory claims Sarah was acting on the advice of a medium who, while supposedly channeling her late husband, said she needed to build enough rooms for all of the souls of people who'd been killed with Winchester rifles. Legend has it that the home's labyrinth of rooms within rooms, interior-facing windows, doors that opened to walls, and stairs leading to nowhere were all part of a grand plan to "confuse" the spirits of the dead.


Whatever her reasons, Sarah Winchester herself was enough of an enigma to attract Hollywood's attention: A film starring Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren as Sarah, directed by the Spierig Brothers (of Jigsaw fame), hits theaters early next year.

Born in 1840 in New Haven, Connecticut, Sarah Lockwood Pardee married William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Winchester, manufacturer of one of the very first repeating rifles, at age 22. They welcomed a daughter, their only child, four years later; sadly, she only lived six weeks. After William died of tuberculosis in 1881, his share of Winchester Repeating Arms Co.—roughly 50 percent, which was valued at approximately $20 million at the time, the L.A. Times reports—transferred to Sarah. She put the money towards an endowment that funded the Winchester Chest Clinic at New Haven Yale Hospital (it's still there today) and a move west to be closer to her relatives. She settled in San Jose, California, where the dry climate proved beneficial for her rheumatoid arthritis.

"There are many understandings of her," Mirren told the L.A. Times during an interview that took place in the storied house last May. "Was she a Rosicrucian? Was she a straight-down-the-line Christian? Was she haunted? Was she crazy?"

"If you have made a fortune out of death, you have to pay the price, a psychological price and a spiritual price," Mirren continued. "And I can only imagine that people who make fortunes to this day from selling armaments have pause at some point, especially if they are Christians: 'Am I going to pay?'"


Some point to Sarah Winchester's reclusive nature as proof of her guilt. She also had a habit of sleeping in different rooms (to hide from ghosts perhaps?) which posed a problem after a 1906 earthquake caused three floors of her house to cave in. Staffers found her in a bedroom that had been obscured by rubble.

While the upcoming film plays up Sarah's spiritualism with scenes like a séance that may or may not have taken place in the house's front turret, also called the "witch's cap," not everyone is convinced the heiress had otherworldly motivations. Janan Boehme, the house's longtime historian, believes there's a logical explanation for the continual, maze-like construction Sarah commissioned during the second half of her life.

"She had a social conscience and she did try to give back," said Boehme. "This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all."

From: Country Living US

This story originally appeared on
* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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