New Haven, Connecticut born Sarah Winchester became one of the wealthiest women in the world after the death of her Winchester Repeating Arms Company heir husband, William Wirt Winchester, in 1882. With a 50% holding in the rifle making manufacturer plus a legacy equivalent to £426 million ($529 million) in 2020, this true eccentric – whose only child died aged just one – took the advice of a medium and moved west to California.
Here, in San Jose, this grief obsessed and beyond superstitious, American equivalent of Queen Victoria spent the remainder of her life constructing a mansion that she believed would appease the spirits of her relatives and those of the victims of Winchester weaponry. Known as ‘The Winchester Mystery House’ and built (but never completed) between 1884 and 1922 at a cost estimated at the equivalent of £57 million ($71 million) today. Starting from an 8 room farmhouse, the property grew to 24,000 square foot and eventually included 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 160 rooms, 52 skylights, 47 stairways (some leading absolutely nowhere), 17 chimneys (some that didn’t even reach the roof), 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens and a séance room (that was once used by Harry Houdini).
Described as being a “woman of independence, drive and courage,” Sarah Winchester died of heart failure in her sleep in September 1922 leaving a will written in 13 sections that was signed 13 times and a safe that contained a lock of her infant daughter’s hair. She was portrayed by Helen Mirren in the 2018 horror film Winchester.
‘The Winchester Mystery House’ was sold five months after its creator’s death and has been open to the public for tours since June 1923.