Mystery House

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Let’s say you lived sometime before 1860 and you wanted to fire a rifle. First, you’d need to pour gunpowder into the powder charge to measure the amount of gun powder you needed. And then you’d pack down your gunpowder, and then bullet, into the rifle with a ramrod. Then you’d pull back the hammer and take something called a percussion cap and you’d fit it on the hollow metal nipple on the back of the barrel. Pull the trigger and that was one shot.

Roman Mars:
Then you had to reload, which meant pouring out new gunpowder, stuffing the gunpowder and the new bullet down with the ramrod, pulling back the hammer, putting a new percussion cap on the nipple, and then you could shoot again. The whole process took at least as long as it just took for me to describe it, and as you can imagine, this was all really inconvenient if someone was shooting at you.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
But then came the Winchester Repeater rifle.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Ninna Gaensler-Debs.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
The Winchester 1866 Repeater rifle was a thing of beauty. Nicknamed the ‘Yellow Boy’ for its bright brass receiver, the gun was sleek, gleaming, and deadly. You could fire off 15 shots and just over 10 seconds.

Roman Mars:
The Winchester Repeater arrived on the market just in time for the rise of Western expansion.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
The huge sweep of manifest destiny and people migrating to the Western part of North America.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
That’s Mary Jo Ignoffo, a California historian at De Anza College in Cupertino.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
That weapon became a source of survival and protection for people.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
The next iteration of the Winchester Repeater, the 1873 model, was an even bigger hit. It was lighter, more accurate, and it became synonymous with westward expansion.

Roman Mars:
It came to be known as ‘the Gun That Won the West’, but probably only by people who think they won the West.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
The Winchester Rifle Company was very successful.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
The most successful arms company in America in the late 19th century.

Roman Mars:
The Winchester family became fabulously wealthy. They lived together in this palatial mansion in New Haven, Connecticut. They were harmonious, rich, and happy.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
And to make matters happier, William Winchester, the heir to the family business and fortune, married the girl next door. The beautiful and intelligent Sarah Pardee. And in 1866 Sarah gave birth to a daughter, Annie.

Roman Mars:
And then came a string of terrible tragedies.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
They found that baby Annie couldn’t absorb protein, and even with all the money in the world, Sarah couldn’t stop her daughter from starving to death before her eyes. Then five years later, Sarah’s beloved husband William passed away from tuberculosis. He was only 43 years old.

Roman Mars:
After losing her husband, Sarah Winchester then lost her father-in-law and her eldest sister.

Lillian Gish:
“Sarah was now alone. Half a lifetime of loneliness lay ahead of her.”

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
That’s the voice of the iconic black and white film actress Lillian Gish. She’s narrating an old documentary about Sarah Winchester with plenty of dramatic flair.

Lillian Gish:
“… and it was in that same year, 1881, that friends, trying to console Sarah, advised her to seek the services of a well known Boston medium, Mr. Adam Koombs.”

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
And as the legend goes, through this medium, Sarah was able to contact her deceased husband, William. But William had some bad news.

Lillian Gish:
“Her husband’s voice told her that she would always be haunted by the spirits of those who had been killed by the Winchester rifle.”

Roman Mars:
Someone please give this poor widow a break.

Lillian Gish:
“He now instructed her to placate them by building a structure that would never be completed. A house to which rooms would constantly be added to provide shelter for the ever-increasing number of Winchester rifle victims. Finally, he told her that by doing what he had prescribed, she would gain immortality.”

Roman Mars:
Winchester rifles had killed a lot of people. If Sarah was to appease their ghosts, she would need to build a very, very big house.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
And she had the money to do it. Having inherited her late husband’s stock in the rifle company, she was now one of the wealthiest people in the country.

Roman Mars:
And where better to build an ever-expanding structure than in the wide-open west: California.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
Sarah left New Haven to begin anew in California. She bought an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose and dove into the remodeling project headfirst. At any given time, there might’ve been a dozen people working on the house. Carpenters, tile setters, painters, electricians.

Roman Mars:
Some reports estimate that her house swelled from eight to 26 rooms in the first six months.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
And others claimed there was no end to the construction, that Sarah Winchester’s crew worked on the house in rotating shifts, 24 hours a day for 38 years.

Roman Mars:
As the construction marched forward, the house became a tangled maze of halls and a mashup of turrets and stained glass windows.

Mitchell Schwar:
You know, it has a kind of haunted mansion quality.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
That’s architectural historian Mitchell Schwarzer.

Mitchell Schwar:
Doors that lead nowhere, staircases that stop halfway.

Roman Mars:
And because she built over so many years, the house was also a wild combination of architectural styles.

Mitchell Schwar:
You know, every five years or so, there was a kind of new movement, new types of ornament. Curves are introduced in the 1890s.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
But for a long time, no one was able to see the hodgepodge of styles and ornaments in this house except Sarah Winchester – well, Sarah and her staff of 18 house servants, 13 carpenters, eight to 10 gardeners, and two private chauffeurs.

Roman Mars:
Because Sarah Winchester kept to herself.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
Mrs. Winchester did not entertain and she did not open her doors to visitors.

Roman Mars:
Supposedly, Sarah Winchester was also always shrouded in a veil.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
And she never spoke to strangers or members of the press who inquired about her odd building endeavor.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
And because she didn’t respond, they started formulating their own suggestions. Maybe she’s superstitious. Maybe she feels guilty that all that money came from guns. Maybe she feels like if she keeps building, she’ll never die. And so those little stories became the factual analysis of Mrs. Winchester.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
It’s unclear how much of the Sarah Winchester legend is true. We don’t know whether she communed with ghosts or at least thought she was communing with ghosts, or whether she built her huge house to placate them, or whether she felt guilty about her fortune coming from guns.

Roman Mars:
But after her death, those legends and rumors about her have lived on.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
After Sarah’s death, an entrepreneur named John H. Brown saw the possibility in the old, decrepit estate. In 1923 he reopened Mrs. Winchester’s property as the Winchester Mystery House, and ever since it’s been the subject of all kinds of pseudo-documentaries on haunted houses.

Documentary Montage:
“Said to be inhabited by ghosts and inspired by madness, it has the deranged design of a carnival funhouse.”

“The Winchester Mystery House was built on fear.”

“When I walked in, my hand … I got chills.”

“The workers that built this place, they’re still building it on the other side.”

Roman Mars:
For $33 and you can buy a ticket and tour Sarah Winchester’s house.

Maggie:
“My name is Maggie and I will be your guide today on this 65-minute tour of Mrs. Winchester’s beautiful, 160 room Victorian mansion.”

Roman Mars:
I brought my family there. We drove an hour, we waited in line. We shelled out a whole lot of money for tickets because we’d never been there, in some Bay Area landmark.

Maggie:
“… and it’s California Historical Landmark Number 868. If you have a look at that black and white photo right there …”

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
The tour points out all the bizarre things about the house, like the staircases that lead to nowhere.

Maggie:
“”… we have our door to a wall, a window to a wall, a staircase to nowhere, and even a door to nowhere. We are now …

Roman Mars:
And they like to point out that Ms. Winchester hid the number 13 all around the house.

Maggie:
“If you count the blue and amber stones, you will count 13 stones. You are going to see a lot of 13s on your tour here today.”

Roman Mars:
But the highlight of the tour is definitely the seance room.

Maggie:
“This is the seance room.”

Roman Mars:
Which sits in the middle of the house. This is where Sarah supposedly received directions from the spirits.

Maggie:
“Legend has it Mrs. Winchester would come up here every night to speak to the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle.”

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
They seem to be selling the story of the haunted house and of the haunted Mrs. Winchester. And a lot of people seem to be buying it, but not everyone.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
The mythology about her, it’s not only insulting to her, it’s insulting to me as a consumer of popular culture. It insults a person’s intelligence.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
That’s Mary Jo Ignoffo again, and she doesn’t believe the haunted Mrs. Winchester legends. She wrote a book about Sarah Winchester that challenges some of the myths about her.

Roman Mars:
Sarah herself didn’t write a memoir or speak to the press, but Mary Jo did find documents that helped her understand who the real Sarah Winchester may have been.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
There were incredible original sources that hadn’t been used by anybody else before. Letters that she wrote, correspondence with her attorney, property records.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
After pouring through documents, Mary Jo has come to believe that …

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
A lot of the really strange things that we see today and that are emphasized in the mythology about Sarah Winchester are completely explainable.

Roman Mars:
The stairs to nowhere, for example, they probably did lead somewhere once. Rooms were constantly being tweaked and remodeled. Plus, the 1906 earthquake had a major effect.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
There are no original blueprints for the house, but we do know that the earthquake destroyed the front of the mansion and the third and fourth stories.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
She felt like the defects of the house really came to the fore in the 1906 earthquake. And so she kind of was chagrined at her own workmanship, that this would happen.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
Instead of rebuilding, Sarah had workers clear away the rubble and make the place safe, and then just boarded up the front of the house. So it’s very possible that the stairs led to a room that got destroyed in the quake.

Roman Mars:
As for all those 13s, Mary Jo doesn’t put a lot of stock in them, and she believes that some of them might not be from Sarah Winchester.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
A couple of the men who worked on the house, they stated, in the 1920s, that those references to the number 13 were added after her death.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
As to whether Sarah Winchester conducted seances, in her supposed seance room …

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
It’s possible.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
Spiritualism and seances we’re actually fairly common practice in Sarah Winchester’s time. But still, Mary Jo finds it unlikely. Partly because of the location of the room in the middle of the house.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
Anybody who knows about spiritualism or seances knows that those are really public affairs, social affairs at the very least, if not public, and you would have that in your front parlor.

Roman Mars:
Then again, Sarah was a very private person, so maybe she did her seances alone.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
The ranch foreman also stated that he had actually stayed in that room, and it was not related to any kind of spiritual or superstitious events at all.

Roman Mars:
And lastly, in the popular legend about Sarah Winchester, her whole building endeavor was set in motion after seeing a medium by the name of Adam Koombs, who had supposedly put her in touch with her dead husband.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
But Mary Jo gained access to a list of mediums and spiritualists that would have been practicing in New England during Sarah Winchester’s lifetime.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
The name that’s usually associated with having seen Winchester is not there.

Roman Mars:
Adam Koombs may never have existed at all.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
There are some things we’ll never know about Sarah Winchester, but what Mary Jo does feel like we can know for sure, is that Sarah wasn’t out of touch with reality. On the contrary, she was rational and savvy.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
This is a woman so far ahead of her time in financial matters, in her real estate investment, in her bond portfolio. It’s remarkable. It’s really remarkable.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
So why does a financially savvy, forward-thinking woman build such a crazy, never-ending house? Mary Jo has a different theory.

Roman Mars:
No ghosts involved.

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
She was an architect wannabe.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
Sarah Winchester wanted to be an architect. She loved doing, building, experimenting.

Roman Mars:
And I love that theory.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
Sarah Winchester lived at a time when …

Mary Jo Ignoffo:
It was highly unusual to have women architects.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
And she wasn’t licensed.

Roman Mars:
So her own house was the perfect place, the only place really, for her to practice architecture, and it became her playground. Sometimes in the middle of a project, she’d lose interest and move on to something else. From all this emerged an odd and frenetic confluence of architecture, but her house isn’t only a collection of oddities. There are some legitimately innovative elements too.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
There’s a solarium with a zinc floor. It doesn’t rest and it’s tilted for the water to run off and be used in the garden. There are also these amazing zigzagging stairs that instead of going up at a steep pitch, rise in shallower increments. Sarah Winchester had debilitating arthritis and these stairs made it possible for her to move about her house.

Roman Mars:
The legend says that Sarah and her crew worked on her house 24 hours a day for 38 years and that upon hearing of her death, her work crew finally set down their hammers and walked off the job. This is most likely an exaggeration, but the house was certainly a project that consumed Mrs. Winchester’s attention for decades.

Lillian Gish:
“Finally, he told her that by doing what he had prescribed, she would gain immortality”

Ninna Gaensler-Debs:
And of course, she didn’t gain immortality from all of her building as the spirits had supposedly promised that she did live into her eighties.

Roman Mars:
In the end, whatever her motivations were Sarah Winchester built a house with over one hundred fifty rooms, two thousand doors, forty-seven fireplaces, forty bedrooms, forty staircases, seventeen chimneys, thirteen bathrooms, six kitchens, three elevators, two basements, and one shower. And spent nearly all of her life being an architect.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Ninna Gaensler-Debs with Avery Trufelman, Katie Mingle, Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars.

Credits

Production

Reporter Ninna Gaensler-Debs spoke with Mary Jo Ignoffo, author of Captive of the Labyrinth, and architectural historian Mitchell Schwarzer.

Music

Music: “Age of Wonder” – The American Dollar; “Kapsburger” – Clogs; “Revival” – Beats Antique; “Listening to raindrops on a window” – Lullatone; “Passerine” – OK Ikumi; “Übern Fluß” – Roedelius; “Dame de Fer” – The Clockwork Dolls; “vlagaine” – melodium

 

Sponsors

Slack– Slack is a platform for team communication: everything in one place, instantly searchable, available wherever you go. Hover– The best way to buy and manage domain names. New code: Winchester Tiny Letter– Email for people with something to say. Check out my new favorite Tiny Letter “The Podcast Broadcast” by Brittany Jezouit.

  1. Brilliant to hear the backstory behind this house. I recall watching a piece on this on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not when I was but a lad.

    Still, I gotta admit I prefer the myth.

  2. Clint

    I don’t think I buy the misunderstood female role model story. There are first hand accounts of her sleeping in a different room every night to avoid the spirits. It’s generally believed that she was suffering from schizophrenia. The guys at Stuff You Should Know did an episode on the Winchester Mystery House that was very detailed and, I feel, well researched.

  3. LeeAnn

    I didn’t hear anybody call Sarah Winchester a “misunderstood female role model.” If you read Ignoffo’s book “Captive of the Labyrinth” you’ll see that “role model” was the last thing Sarah wanted to be. The documents and correspondence that Ignoffo uncovered tell Sarah’s story quite clearly, and often in her own words. But the American public never lets facts get in the way of their fun, and we love a good ghost story.

  4. April Halberstadt

    If this was my great-grandmother, the folks who continue to malign her as a crazy old lady would be hearing from my attorney. Substantive research shows that she was elderly and ailing. What a rotten thing to do do a person who cannot defend herself, or her reputation. She was a practicing a Presbyterian who donated millions to charity. I am so tired of programs such as this one that concentrate on the hearsay. Thank goodness for reputable historians like MaryJo Ignoffo.

    1. Buzzy

      She was my great-great Aunt. And yes, the family appreciates the rehabilitation of her good name by careful research.

  5. Justin

    I’d say she did kind of live forever. We have this story about her more than 100 years later.

  6. Thank you for the article. I’m so happy to see that oil painting of Sarah. I’ve been to the house many times as I live only an hour away. I like you think that they have really embellished the ghost part just to bring in money. I believe that she was unable to have a career that she wanted. She might have been suffering from OCD or Depression or who knows what, just making her have “moods” to do things.

    The one thing that we know as a fact, think about this for a minute. This woman had more money than you can imagine. Her husband that she loved was dead. Her baby had also died. And she was living in a situation where women had certain social norms.

    You can say “Well I would have done this, or done that” but you can’t know that. We didn’t live in those times. Also just because some women in that era bucked tradition, does not mean that Sarah was capable of doing that.

    She might not have wanted to travel or entertain or whatever for many reasons that we don’t know. She found herself a hobby and went all out with it. She was very kind to her household from what I heard, and also the neighboring community.

  7. Lizanne Lyons

    Thanks to Mary Jo Ignoffo for the many countless hours of original research she did to balance what has become a profitable, commercialization of Sarah Winchester with the facts.

  8. Tom

    Sarah Winchester DID gain immortality. More so than if she lived a boring life in a boring house. Nobody would know her name almost 100 years after her death if that was the case. She has her own Wikipedia entry. If that’s not immortality I don’t know what is.

  9. Mark D

    I can’t say enough about Ignoffo’s book. It’s obviously very well researched and backed by Sarah’s own correspondence. There’s no evidence to support the stories of mediums, ghosts, seances, and around-the-clock construction, yet plenty to support the simpler truth. Funny how much of Ignoffo’s source material was right there in the county records, available to all… yet nobody looked for it until her. People were more satisfied with the fabricated fiction of Sarah than the truth. The buyers of the house have spun a profitable whopper which continues to draw tourists; there’s even evidence they’ve added to the design themselves, to support the ghost story and the alleged preoccupation with the number 13. (That chandelier, for example, was not Sarah’s doing.)

    What else to say? People prefer ghost stories over history. I myself used to, but as I’ve aged I’ve become less interested in the supernatural and far-fetched and more interested in TRUTH and simplicity.

  10. Dear Roman Mars,
    Thanks so much for this interesting and lovely piece. My wife and I have also visited the Winchester House, and like you and Mary Jo Ignoffo, we found the “mad woman” story a bit hard to swallow, at least in the version they pitched to us on the tour. My wife, Joni Tevis, is a writer; in her new book of creative nonfiction titled THE WORLD IS ON FIRE, she has an essay about our experience there, and about her sense of Sarah Pardee Winchester as a woman dealing with grief through art. In some ways, interestingly, she comes to some of the same conclusions as Ignoffo, though Joni’s work does not aim to be a historical interpretation. Along the way, she also delves into the history of nails, the structural architecture of spider webs, and recommends some good 19th century entomologists. I think you might really dig it. Check out her book on http://www.jonitevis.com. Thanks again for a wonderful program.
    David Bernardy

  11. Christine Gill

    Enjoyed this broadcast very much! $33.00/ticket to take the tour and hear the stories…..I wonder what a ticket for the truth tour would sell for?
    Well done!

  12. Vince

    The reason she kept building was NOT to house the spirits as suggested incorrectly in this article, but to escape being haunted by them by sleeping in a new room every night… Where they “couldn’t find her.”

  13. Eric

    The recent book “Ghostland” by Colin Dickey throws even more cold water on the theories about Sarah Winchester. For one thing, she spent most of her later years at another house she owned in Atherton. But more importantly, John H. Brown was an amusement park operator before buying the house and opening it to the public for tours.

    There’s other evidence in “Ghostland” about the Winchester Mystery House as well, but those two facts struck me as rather damning.

  14. “150 rooms, 2000 doors”

    Uhm… how?

    Every room has an average of 13.3333 doors? (another example of repeated 13’s?)
    That seems unlikely…

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