Rifle heiress haunted by so many ghosts, she built a mansion for them


Sprawling and flamboyant, at first glance the red-turreted mansion designed by the heiress to a gun fortune looks fairly typical.

But if you dare to peek behind the ornately carved doors, you will discover the most mysterious house ever built.

Doors lead to fatal drops or brick walls, a staircase ends at the ceiling, chimneys stop short of the roof and a skylight is covered by tiles.

It is said to be haunted by the spirits of the men and women killed by bullets fired from the Winchester rifles that were the basis of the heiress’s wealth.

It was Sarah Winchester, the owner of the house, who wanted spectral tenants in the mansion.

Believing she was cursed following the deaths of her husband and only child, Sarah supposedly constructed the 500-room residence in California as a penance for the lives lost at the hands of people wielding her family’s weapons.

The labyrinthine layout was intended to confuse good ghosts so that they never left.

This legend has now been turned into a film starring Dame Helen ­Mirren as the troubled widow, who is not only haunted by ghosts but also by her past.

Naturally, the horror movie, called “Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built,” ramps up the nocturnal bumps, with the actress’s black lace-clad heiress taking on the demons.

This was a palace built for ghosts.

In the real world, it remains unclear how much Sarah, who died at age 82, feared figures from the afterlife.

But Mirren, 72, is certain that, at the very least, the mansion was founded on Sarah’s supernatural beliefs.

The actress said: “There was a spiritual search going on and I think Sarah was a part of that.

Helen Mirren plays Sarah Winchester in “Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built.”CBS Films

“This was an extraordinary woman. She was into spiritual development and spiritual things in general.

“She was actually kind of trained as an architect. She had a huge interest in architecture and design before she got married.

“It was an era of building amazing, complicated palaces. But the purpose of her building was always to expiate souls.”

The family firearms company was established by Sarah’s father-in-law, Oliver Winchester, in 1866 on the back of the success of a revolutionary repeating weapon called the Henry rifle.

Later it produced Enfield rifles and Browning automatic rifles for the British army in World War I.

The rifles were an instant sales hit, but Oliver did not have much chance to enjoy the fruits of his fortune, dying in 1880.

His son and heir, William, Sarah’s husband, died just over a year later from tuberculosis, at 43.

Sarah, 41, inherited $20 million, which is the equivalent of $510 million in today’s money.

With her only child, Annie, having died years earlier from the protein deficiency marasmus at the age of just 1 month, Sarah had no one to share it with.

Grief-stricken, Sarah is said to have looked to the spiritual world to find out why such a string of losses had befallen her.

CBS Films

She visited a famous psychic in Boston named Adam Coons and he claimed the answer was clear: Her family was cursed by everyone ever killed by a Winchester rifle.

Channeling the spirit of her late husband, Coons advised constructing a home for the troubled spirits on the West Coast and to never stop building, because halting the work would result in her death.

So in 1884, Sarah bought an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose, California.

Then she brought in men to expand the building, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Mirren explained: “At that time, it was just empty farmland and in the middle of it was this extraordinary construction, bit by bit being built by this widow who would always wear black and who no one in the local town would ever see.

“She was private, always in her house. You can understand why a mythology started building about her as the house became more extraordinary, more complicated, bigger and bigger.”

Money was no object in the grand design, which included hand-painted wallpaper, silver inlaid doors and up-to-date technology such as an elevator and indoor plumbing.

Sarah Snook (left) and Finn Scicluna-O’Prey also star in “Winchester: The House that Ghosts Built.”CBS Films

Amid the grandeur were obvious signs of Sarah’s superstition, most notably in the spiderweb designs on window panes and the repetition of the number 13.

A window has 13 glass stones in it, staircases have 13 steps, walls and ceilings have 13 panels.

Back then it was believed the number only brought misfortune to bad people.

One room has a conical shape, which has given it the name Witch’s Cap, and it was apparently designed to create a weird echo.

But the most intriguing room was the one used for seances, when Sarah would apparently contact the dead to get further design instructions.

While there is only one way into the seance room, there are three ways out — the entrance, an exit leading to an 8-foot fall, and a third door you can’t get back through because there is no latch on the other side.

Sarah would sleep in a different bedroom each night, and the house only had one working toilet to further confuse otherworldly visitors.

Historian Janan Boehme, who works at Winchester House, suggests the dead ends could have been part of Sarah’s ploy to rid herself of evil ghosts while maintaining a home for the good ones.

Boehme told The Sun: “Sarah was a smart woman and showed no signs of insanity.

“But there is a legend she wanted to create a dwelling that was hospitable to the good spirits and not to the bad, which she wanted to drive away.”

This is how some people explain the dead-end hallways and the staircases to nowhere.

CBS Films

“She probably even forgot some of the things she built. It is just so big and just goes on and on.”

The mansion eventually reached seven stories in height and had over 500 rooms until the deadly earthquake of 1906 toppled the top three floors and its mighty tower.

Sarah survived the quake and eventually died in one of its bedrooms in 1922.

These days, the house, now owned by Winchester Investments LLC, is a tourist attraction at the center of Silicon Valley.

But according to Boehme, who has worked at Winchester House since the late ’70s, the ghosts are still there.

She revealed: “I have heard sounds of people talking when there is nobody there. I swear I have heard my name whispered.

“I also heard steps on the roof early on a Sunday morning and I couldn’t see anybody.

“I came up the staircase and through two locked doors and there was no one there.”

Other visitors have reported organs playing without any musicians, the sound of dancing in empty ballrooms and unexplained apparitions.

Skeptics say there is no evidence of Sarah’s obsession with the supernatural because she was solitary and kept no diaries or records about her motives.

But for Mirren, the confusion only makes the story even more intriguing.

She said: “It is fascinating. Whether that is the truth of Sarah or not, no one will ever know.”



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