Visual Culture

Ghosts, Guilt and Guns: The Winchester Legacy

Winchester, The

The Winchester Rifle, the iconic gun made in New Haven, Connecticut, and sold in its hundreds of thousands around the world, mirrors American expansion at a key period in the young country’s history. The lethal repeating rifle became the defining image of America’s frontier – and was known amongst Native Americans as “the spirit gun”. It represented both the pioneering vigour and the brutal force which conquered the West. Laura Trevelyan explores the history of, and the family behind, this renowned representation of American power. The entrepreneurial drive of Oliver Winchester led the rifle to rapidly assume legendary status not long after its release in 1866, gaining endorsements from the likes of Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and President Teddy Roosevelt. This engaging history sheds light on the story and myth of an American legend.

In this extract, Laura Trevelyan details the extraordinary-looking house commissioned by Sarah Winchester with her share of the family’s fortune…

Sarah’s eight-story house soared into the sky, with cupolas atop turrets, looking like nothing anyone had ever seen before. The style was Italianate, in the broadest sense of the term. “Weird and eerie, strange as a dream and fantastic as a fairy tale [ . . . ] bristling with turrets, gables and roofs [ . . . ] the queerest house, surely, that was ever built,” was the verdict of Frank P. Faltersack, who wrote for a popular men’s magazine. “A pathetic five million dollar witness to a deranged mind” was another comment, and “A mysterious combination of Paleozoic palace and Coney Island fun house” was one of the kinder descriptions. “The house is like a problem in mathematics with faulty figures cropping up again and again confusing you until you can’t be sure whether two and two are four or five. Inaccuracy abounds in this house. As architecture, it is untrue, improper and illogical,” wrote a bemused journalist who toured the property soon after Sarah’s death. Sarah never explained to her neighbors why she was building this ungainly colossus on their doorstep – and so they tried to come up with explanations of their own. It’s really not surprising that the reclusive widow with the fortune made by the Winchester rifle, which had killed so many out West, was assumed to be building this weird structure because she was haunted by ghosts, guilt, and guns.

winchester house

Sarah Winchester’s house in New Haven

In 1895, reports Sarah’s sympathetic biographer Mary Jo Ignoffo, the very first article linking the never-ending construction to Sarah’s supposed superstitious beliefs appeared. “The belief exists when work of construction ends disaster will result, and it is rumoured among the neighbors that this superstition has resulted in the construction of domes, turrets, cupolas and towers covering territory enough for a castle.”19 After that, practically every newspaper feature writer who made the pilgrimage to Sarah’s folly repeated this assertion as fact. In the absence of any denial from Sarah herself, the myth was born and rapidly grew out of control.

The mansion is extraordinary even by today’s standards of flamboyant ostentation – so just imagine what the neighbors must have thought back in the 19th century. No wonder they scratched their heads and tried to imagine what Sarah was up to, and what her motivation could possibly be. My favorite characterization comes from 1923, when a local newspaper writer described Llanda Villa as looking “a good deal like a half size Vendome hotel gone Cubist.”20 At Sarah’s death, the sprawling mansion contained 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. There are skylights aplenty, a bell tower, and exquisite Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows. The daisy is frequently featured in the stained glass panels – it appears to have been Sarah’s favorite flower, and her dearest niece to whom she left a considerable amount of money was named Daisy.

Sarah was a woman of considerable style, who one can just imagine having her magnificent home featured in Architectural Digest today. Her fireplaces were decorated with Swedish tile and brass, the sinks were Italian porcelain with elegant inlay, silver chandeliers were from Germany, the walls and parquet floor in the Grand Ballroom were made of not one but six different hardwoods – mahogany, teak, maple, rosewood, oak, and white ash. Ornate, embossed Lincrusta wallpaper in more than two dozen different patterns was imported from England at what must have been considerable cost. Cargo ships sailed across the Atlantic laden with Sarah’s fine household furnishings from Europe. When she died, a storeroom containing exquisite unused materials imported from Europe was valued at $25,000 – just looking at the rolls and rolls of Lincrusta wallpaper, crystal light fittings, elegant stained glass panels, and fireplace mantels, one can only marvel at the millions of dollars’ worth of fine craftsmanship on display today. Sarah loved luxury: towards the end of her life, she was chauffeured around in a Pierce-Arrow motor car, upholstered in lavender and gold.

Observing this largesse, the obvious question is why did a single woman find it necessary to build such a luxurious, gigantic home for herself? …

~~~

Read the full story in The Winchester, available to order now from the I.B.Tauris website

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