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The Truth Behind the “Cursed” Millionaire Heiress, Sarah Winchester

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 21, 2024 3:01 am

The Truth Behind the “Cursed” Millionaire Heiress, Sarah Winchester

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 21, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the mansion she built is world-renowned, as much for its many design curiosities and innovations as it is for the reported paranormal activity. Here to tell the story is Ashley Hlebinsky, the former co-host of Discovery Channel’s “Master of Arms,” the former curator in charge of the Cody Firearms Museum, and president of The Gun Code, LLC.

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I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means.

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So sign up now at to claim your free welcome bonus at and live the Chumba life. And we continue with our American stories. Sarah Winchester was a woman of independence, drive and courage who lives on in legend. And the mansion she built is world renowned as much for the many design curiosities and innovation as it is for the reported paranormal activity. Here to separate fact from fiction is Ashley Lebinski. Ashley is the former cohost of the Discovery Channel's Master of Arms, the former curator in charge of the Cody Firearms Museum and president of the Gun Code LLC.

Here's Ashley. Today I want to talk about a brilliant charitable woman, but most people don't know her actual history because her name is Sarah Winchester. If you're not familiar with that name, it is kind of an ominous history because a lot of people associate her with her house out of San Jose, California.

And it's been featured in pretty much every ghost show that's ever happened. And it was also in a movie that Helen Mirren did by the Winchester name, which is a loosely based, not historically accurate horror movie, although I did like the horror movie. But it's not, it doesn't do justice to who Sarah Winchester was.

So I'm not going to focus on that right now. Let's just talk about who she was and where she came from and how she got to have this crazy rumor about her life. Sarah was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and she actually came from a family of engineers and designers. Her father was a carriage maker and she kind of took that knowledge that she learned and developed those types of interests herself. She was considered a savant. She was very well educated. She spoke several languages. I think she spoke French and Turkish. She was a composer.

So she's this brilliant woman. She's known as the Belle of New Haven. And she of course meets another very famous family out of New Haven in the 1800s, the latter half of the 1800s. And that family is the Winchester family. If you're not familiar with the Winchester family, they are known for the quote unquote gun that won the West, although that was their own marketing slogan that they did, but they're most well known for their lever action repeating rifle.

And that was developed based on several other designs. But the first one that was really called a Winchester was 1866. And that kind of idea, that image of the company really took off and it plays a very important role in Sarah's life, especially later on. Sarah meets the family and you know, as a socialite family and a socialite family, she meets Oliver Winchester's son, William Winchester, and they fall in love and they get married. Although the beginning of their marriage and the length of their marriage is really marred by tragedy. Their first daughter, Anne Pardee, which was also Sarah's maiden name, she passed away a few weeks after she was born. Then the husband and wife, they decided, you know what, we're not going to have any more children. The tragedy hit them so hard that they didn't have any more kids. And the original plan for the Winchester family was that when Oliver stepped down, his son would take over the company. And he did very briefly after his father died. But William Wirt Winchester actually passed away 15 years after their daughter died and he died from tuberculosis.

They didn't know what it was originally, but they were able to pinpoint that it was tuberculosis that killed him. And so Sarah is left alone in New Haven, Connecticut, and she's got a great reputation. I mean, everybody loves her there, but she's lonely and he passes away and she basically inherits a major fortune immediately. She inherited 777 shares of Winchester essentially overnight.

And that basically paid out an annual salary of $43,335, which may not sound like a lot of money, but when we're talking the 1880s, that is a lot of money. And so she has instant wealth. She also inherits a lot of shares from like four or five other companies that the Winchester family were involved in that weren't related to firearms. And she was set to inherit 2,777 more shares after her mother-in-law would pass away.

So a lot of people speculate that during this time she was worth $20 million. So she's a very, very wealthy woman and she is trying to figure out what she's going to do with her life. She doesn't really want to stay in New Haven.

There's just too many ghosts there. And she decides that it's time to move on. She suffers from rheumatism and arthritis really bad. There's a belief that she was recommended by her doctor to go out to California where the climate was a lot more amenable to her medical problems. So she decides that she's going to move and she moves there in 1885 and she already has family out there. And she buys a two-story farmhouse in San Jose, California.

And she basically, this is the story, this is the start of how her legend becomes this rumor. She buys this farmhouse. She actually calls it La Nada Villa. And the intention for her is to build this manor that she hopes her family will come and live in. But what happens here is she moves to California. She's a widow. So she is a single, wealthy woman. And she is now in a new world of wealthy people and socialites. And she's kind of at this point, she's moved away from that kind of being out in the public sphere because she is still very much sad over what happened to her life.

She is looking forward and she's hoping that she can develop this new life with her family out in California. So she starts building. And the house gets very, very large.

And if you've ever seen it, it is quite peculiar looking. And it turns into a seven-story Victorian mansion between 1890 and 1900. And the house constantly changes. And she constantly changes the house. And she hires all kinds of people. She actually pays them more than the going rate of the time. She's got construction workers.

She's got people that are cleaning the house. She's got designers. And she's working to develop this house all on her own. She's not an architect. She admits she's not an architect, but you know what? She's brilliant.

So why not? And so she starts building this house. She employs all of these people. And what's really neat about this part of the history is that in 1893, the nation is struck by a major depression.

So the Great Depression of 1893 hits. But she continued to employ all of these people during the Great Depression. And so there's some speculation that perhaps she was doing a lot of that and constantly changing because she was trying to help out families that would be unemployed or very much suffering during that time. I've got a great quote that she wrote in a letter.

She was constantly in contact with Jenny Bennett, who was the daughter of Oliver Winchester. And so she was constantly writing. And she wrote, For one reason and another, since I started in to make alterations in my house, I have not been able to get anything like settled. In the first place, it is infinitely more difficult to get work done than it would be in New Haven.

And I am constantly trying to make an upheaval for some reason. So she was constantly trying to change things. Now, during this time period, there's also this kind of belief that she was very lonely.

But in 1888, her niece, Mary and Daisy Merriman actually moves in with her and she lives there for 15 years. And so she has people there. And she's communicating with people.

And she's talking to her family and she's visiting her family. And the other thing that's neat about the house and the historic site that's there now they brag about this all the time and everybody wants to brag about this is the house was insanely advanced for its time. So she had early gas lights and the house in the 1880s.

And that is incredibly advanced for its time. She had indoor plumbing, she had fauceted showers, she had this contraption in the house called an enunciator. So it's basically like a communication system where she could talk through the system and talk to her staff at a different part of the house.

So you think about you know, all of the ways that we communicate with people today, it's pretty interesting that she had a 19th century version of that. There's also some belief that it might have been one of the first homes to have wool as insulation. And one story that I love is that there's this belief because a lot of these things were also her inventions, that possibly Sarah Winchester invented laundry tubs with the soap trays and the washboards attached. They were in the house. And the reason why people speculate that maybe she was one of the first ones was that later in the 20th century, there was someone that took out a patent for this type of tub.

And there was a legal challenge. And in the courtroom, they actually use the designs from Sarah Winchester to prove that she had already been doing this. So it's a good little anecdote of just kind of how ahead of the time she was and how ahead of the time the house was. And you've been listening to Ashley Lebinski tell the story of Sarah Winchester and Sarah Winchester's home, which again, is featured in almost any paranormal show or ghost show you've ever seen and more.

When we come back, more of the story of Sarah Winchester and her house here on Our American Story. I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years, I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why, and what it all means. Follow The Global Story from the BBC wherever you listen to podcasts.

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See website for details. Can we continue with our American stories and the story of firearms heiress, Sarah Winchester, and her home? She was a widow from Connecticut who arrived in San Jose in 1886, an heiress to the Winchester fortune. She began building her mansion, which was 50 years at least ahead of its time.

Let's pick up where we last left off with Ashley Lebinski. The other thing that happens with the house is that she starts changing things and there's lots of reasons why she starts changing things. One of the biggest impacts is the San Francisco earthquake that happens at the turn of the 20th century and the seven floor mansion all of a sudden loses several floors, but by 1910, she actually starts to spend a lot of time outside of the house. She's already traveling and seeing her family and everything during this time, but in 1910, she actually buys a house in Atherton and she also owns a houseboat in San Francisco.

She is spending a lot of her time during this. This idea that she was constantly there and alone in her villa isn't true. There are stories of kids in the community garden that she had, people having picnics. There was a lot of life in the house. She had events in the house. She had plays in the house.

She just wasn't necessarily interested in getting involved in a lot of the social strata of the community. And so early on, you've got a rich woman, a brilliant woman in the 19th century who moves out to a place where people don't realize she's got family. And so this story starts to be constructed that Sarah is haunted by the ghosts killed by Winchester rifles. The story starts to take off in the local community and the entire story goes that she visited a Boston medium, a well-known Boston medium, and he told her that she was being haunted, that her family was cursed, and that she had to go out to California and continuously build this house and not just build a house, but that the house was informed, the house was changed because she was getting information to build the house by the spirits.

There was a lot of speculation that she was a spiritualist, which was popular during that time, a lot more popular during that time than in other time periods, and that she had these seance rooms where she would communicate with the dead or believe she communicated with the dead. And obviously that's quite the story, right? So it takes off and the rumors continue and Sarah largely ignores the rumors, but it starts to become really overbearing when the newspapers start publishing the stories. So now it's not just speculation, it's not just this, it's not just that. Now there is hard writing that is saying that this story is true. And I want to qualify that with the fact that there has been primary source research that's been done and there hasn't been evidence that she went to see this medium. And also at the time of all of this happening, Winchester, yes, they've got this image of being a Western firearm, but they're not really engaged in a lot of military contracts.

They really take off as a military company in World War I, but it's not to the extent that a lot of people kind of, the presentism of it, you look back and you see it as a specific company. And so this story takes off and it follows her her whole life. And there is evidence that people were trying to debunk it, that her family was trying to debunk it, that her workers were trying to debunk it. And I did find an article that was published a few years before she died that tried to kind of dispel a lot of these rumors. And in it, part of the quote says, perhaps not more than a dozen people in California know that Mrs. Winchester is a musician with a genius for composition, that she is a remarkable businesswoman, that she is a French scholar, that her philanthropies alone would make her a national figure if they were known. This quote goes on and on and on to sing her praises.

And so this person is saying she is a national treasure and that the people of California do not recognize what she has done. And one of the things that she has done at this point is she's become very charitable. And one of her, the charities that she kind of takes on is back in New Haven. So she was again, very struck by the death of her husband, the death of her daughter. And so she actually donated $1,325,000 to a New Haven hospital to build a tuberculosis center in honor of her husband.

And that actually still exists. It's changed over the years, but it does still exist as a chest clinic that bears the Winchester name. So you have this really interesting spectrum of how people perceive Sarah. You've got New Haven, which sees her as, you know, the, the bell of the town still. And, you know, she's charitable and she's giving and she's, you know, still a part of the Winchester, you know, legacy and name, although she was not actively involved, you know, with the company, she was still involved and engaged. She wasn't, she just wasn't an engineer for the company.

She wasn't running the business, but she was the major shareholder. But then you've got California where she at her death has this house that yes, is rather eccentric. At the, at the time of her death, it has 160 rooms, 2000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and six kitchens.

Now, not only is that incredibly large, the other thing is that it's a lap of luxury. When you look at like, she spared no expense for the things that she put in the house. And one of the things that people always mention is the Tiffany stained glass that was in her house, um, which is gorgeous. And so she passes away in 1922 and the story kind of really takes off. The house is bought out of the estate sale and it is bought by John and Mamie Brown who have a background in amusement parks and they actually want to initially install a roller coaster on the property, but that gets ultimately poo-pooed. So they open the house for public tours really quickly after she passes away. And there's a lot of mystical things that are centered around the house.

After that, Harry Houdini visits the house and claims that Sarah came to him during that time. There's also stories that Walt Disney was inspired by the house, although it doesn't look like and wasn't the actual model for the Haunted Mansion. There's belief that there was some connection there and inspiration that he visited the house. And so this really just continues and grows and people are fascinated by the macabre. It's really an interesting story and not a lot of primary source research is done on it right away.

And so it took on a life of its own. And now every, literally every ghost show, growing up, I believe the story completely because every ghost show I've ever seen has gone to the house and rightly so. It's definitely an interesting house. And if the story of Sarah being haunted isn't true, they're not saying there aren't some spirits up in there, right? The Winchester House is perhaps the most bizarre and mysterious mansion in the United States. It's a warren of hidden passageways, stairways that lead nowhere and doors that open into midair. But it's also reputed to be a haunted hotbed of paranormal phenomena.

And so the house just kind of took on a life of its own. And now what's disappointing to me is that that story is more important than a brilliant, inventive businesswoman way ahead of her time in the 19th century. And that to me is the real tragedy of her story.

And you know what? Sometimes I think maybe if she was a man and that ghost story was happening, it wouldn't be as interesting. It becomes eccentric and fascinating when a wealthy man has those perspectives. And I hope when people go and visit it, they get to see all of her great inventions because the house really does tell about her inventions because they're quite proud of them. So when you go to the house, definitely think about a woman who had quite the life and had a lot to say, and we should continue to talk about her accomplishments instead of telling a ghost story. And a terrific job on the production by Greg Hengler and a special thanks as always to Ashley Lebinski for her excellent storytelling and what a story she told about not only a remarkable woman, but one in the end whose story got co-opted by, well, the paranormal crowd. And whether you were a part of it or not, that's what happened.

And all of her innovation, all of her intuitive genius, especially in the area of home innovation was all lost, including her being a great investor and philanthropist. The story of Sarah Winchester and her home here on Our American Story. From BBC Radio 4, Britain's biggest paranormal podcast is going on a road trip. I thought in that moment, oh my God, we've summoned something from this board. This is Uncanny USA.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-21 04:22:11 / 2024-05-21 04:31:28 / 9

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