Helen Mirren is one of my favorite actresses. When I heard that she was going to be in a movie next year entitled “Winchester,” I assumed this referred to a British person.
Then our pastor talked about Sarah Winchester in his sermon last Sunday. Sarah was the widow of William Winchester, who passed away in 1887 as the sole heir to the Winchester Rifle Company. He died of tuberculosis at age 43. Sarah and William had one child, a little girl who only lived for a month and died in 1866.
When William died, Sarah inherited more than $20 million (which would be the equivalent of nearly half a billion dollars these days). In addition, she owned the rifle company. She received profits of the equivalent of $1,000 a day for the rest of her life. That would be like getting $23,000 a day in 2016. Sarah lived until 1922, so she was an incredibly wealthy woman. Some historians say she was one of the richest of her day.
But that’s not what interested me about Sarah. What is so fascinating to me is what she did after her husband passed away.
Sarah left their home in Connecticut and moved to California, where she purchased a large home and immediately began construction that would last, on and off, for the next 38 years of her life. She created a seven-story home with a significant number of additions. In 1906, the big earthquake damaged a lot of the home. In fact, Sarah was trapped in a bedroom for several hours.
The earthquake didn’t completely level the house, as it was built on a floating foundation, but did some damage. Sarah continued the renovation and the restoration, limiting the house to four stories. The mansion had over 160 rooms, including 47 bathrooms, two ballrooms, 47 fireplaces, three elevators, and many expensive appointments, such as Tiffany lamps.
Oddly, Sarah did not employ an architect, nor did she have any training (or, apparently, aptitude) in this area. So the house with its incredible number of rooms had no rhyme or reason to the layout. In fact, there are windows that view only walls, staircases that lead nowhere, and alcoves and balconies that don’t have function.
Harry Houdini visited the house a couple of years after Sarah’s death and termed it the “Winchester Mystery House,” a name which caught on and is used today. The structure is so bizarre that a room was discovered just last year in the attic that no one previously knew about.
There are several theories as to why Sarah nurtured this project during her life. It might have been to find purpose after her husband’s death. It may be related to her affinity for the spirit world and her concern for the people killed by Winchester rifles. Whatever the reason, Sarah Winchester didn’t mention the mansion in her will. It was sold at auction.
While no one knows for certain what was in Sarah’s mind, I can say this: I’m really looking forward to seeing Helen Mirren in this movie.
Sue is a retired public servant who volunteers at the Hospice store (For All Seasons) in Troy and teaches part-time at Urbana University. She keeps busy taking care of husband, house, and pets. She and her husband have an adult son who lives in Troy.