F or the fact that New Haven is one of the oldest cities in America, it doesn’t have many ghosts. There are colonial graveyards and old mansions galore, but its spectral population seems limited to Midnight Mary and the crew of the Phantom Ship.
Yet one of America’s greatest ghost stories starts in New Haven: the tale of Sarah Winchester.
Before she was infamous, she was Sarah Lockwood Pardee, of the prominent local Pardee lineage. Born in 1839 in the Elm City, her father was a sash and blind manufacturer who also managed a public bath on 27 Orange Street. From 1837 her family lived next door at 29 Orange, later moving to homes on Court Street and Brown Street. Then, in 1862, she married a young man by the name of William Wirt Winchester.
It was a brilliant match, joining two romantically compatible people and two industrious families. William Winchester’s father, Oliver, was a successful businessman, who in his most famous venture had taken over the business that would become the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Through technological innovation and the canny hiring of engineering talent, the Winchester family was in the midst of creating a commercial powerhouse.
The timing was fortuitous. Within a few years of their marriage, it was the end of the Civil War, and the era of westward expansion was gaining steam. The famous “gun that won the West,” the Winchester Model 1873, added greatly to the family’s already substantial fortune.
As famous as the Winchester name already was, there’s little we know about Sarah’s life in New Haven. It was a time when, instead of seeking the spotlight, many in the upper class religiously shunned attention. Both women and men were enjoined to keep their names out of the press. The only times one should be mentioned, the old saying went, were at birth, marriage or death.
Not five years into her marriage, poor Sarah began to experience a wealth of the latter. The young couple had a daughter in 1866, but little Annie Winchester wasn’t long for the world. She died after five weeks, and three years later, Sarah’s father died. In 1881, after just 43 years of life, her husband William died of tuberculosis on the family’s Prospect Street estate. A year later, her mother died. In 1884, one of her sisters died of cancer.
Sarah was left impossibly wealthy, but at the cost of most of her family. Instead of staying in New Haven surrounded by a painful past, in 1884 Sarah followed the path the Winchester rifle had blazed and went west.
This is where fact and fantasy begin to intertwine. She bought a 160-acre estate in San Jose, California, and began to build a bewildering house that would expand outward and upward, climbing to seven stories before being knocked back to four by the famous 1906 earthquake.
Wealthy, reclusive and eccentric was not the best reputation for Sarah Winchester to cultivate as she settled in her new state. By 1895, as old-world superstitions and death rates mingled with burgeoning technological optimism, spiritualism—beliefs and rituals surrounding communicating with the dead—had become popular. Rumors flew that Sarah had consulted a medium, who revealed that a curse had been laid on her family. Her only recourse to escape, the gossip went, was to constantly renovate and expand her house into as many configurations as possible in order to confuse the vengeful spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles.
The “Winchester Mystery House,” as it’s promotionally called today, is a massive, 161-room, Queen Anne-style mansion open to the curious public. Billboards advertising the “haunted” edifice line the highways up and down the Golden State, and it’s been marketed as a spooky experience, with staircases to nowhere and doors opening up to bricked walls.
While Sarah never publicly explained why she wanted to spend 38 years building an immense mansion that would befuddle people after her death, alternate theories abound. The daughter of a craftsman, some say she wanted to provide work for the Santa Clara Valley’s burgeoning industries. She gave immensely to charity, so it would not have been out of character. Others say it was a most polite brush-off to extended family members who wanted to visit—her home was under construction, couldn’t possibly come visit now.
Or perhaps it was just something to do. After all, she owned several other estates in the Bay Area and spent significant time at many of them. Sarah Winchester was no madwoman trapped in the attic.
After she died in 1922, the house quickly became a tourist attraction, while Sarah herself returned home. She’s buried in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery, next to her child and husband. The grounds at the Winchester Mystery House now feature a perfect replica of her gravestone as a spooky accent, but her actual resting place is much quieter and more peaceful.
One imagines she would have liked that.
Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank.