September 5, 2007

September 5 | Sarah Winchester

September 1839 - September 5, 1922: Age 83

I begin this entry with a picture of a house because this is what makes Sarah Winchester interesting. Heiress to the family fortune of the gun manufacturer, Sarah's only daughter died as a baby and her husband died of tuberculosis 15 years later. Sarah consulted a medium who advised her that the spirits of all the people killed with Winchester rifles were angry at her family, that her daughter and husband were taken in revenge, but that she herself would be protected if she bought a house and expanded it continually. So long as construction continued, she would not die.

The spirits misled her: she did die — 38 years after she bought the house and started construction. You can get a lot of building done in 38 years: in this case a really weird house with 160 rooms and some very odd construction details (stairs that go nowhere, windows in floors, a door that leads to an 8-foot drop into a sink, etc.). Needless to say she designed it all herself. She believed that spider webs and the number 13 were lucky and so both those motifs are prominent in the decor — an odd choice for someone afraid of spirits.

She died in her sleep at the age of 85 in 1922. When the workers heard she was dead, they stopped, "even to the extent of leaving nails hammered in part way". Her safe contained locks of her daughter's and husband's hair, copies of their obituaries, and her will, written in 13 parts and signed 13 times. She left all her furniture to her niece, most of which was sold: it took eight truckloads a day for six and one half weeks to remove it all. The house was then sold and turned into a tourist attraction: see the website here for more pictures.

Sources: Find-A-Grave, About Famous People, Winchester Mystery House

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