The Bloody History of Two American Labyrinths Part 1 – The House That Bullets Built

History is liberally doused in stories of gore, crime, lamentable insanity and tragedy, of which America claims its fair share. Here is the first of two such true tales of  mazes steeped in blood in the United States.

The House That Bullets Built

   Americans take great pride in their right to keep and bear arms, a freedom provided in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment was adopted in 1791 and allowed any citizen to own firearms even if they were not serving in the military. To this day Americans defend this constitutional right fiercely with 50% of all the guns in the world owned by US citizens.

   The American love affair with firearms is by no means a modern concept and is reflected in the history of the gun itself. If we put aside the frantic race for military supremacy made during the two World Wars, the majority of advancements in weapons technology have arguably been American. The States also have a long-standing dominance in the manufacture of firearms and most recognisable gun brands are from the US.

   America was clearly the right place for ambitious men with business savvy an eye for an opportunity and perhaps, few scruples.

   Step forward Mr Oliver Winchester, a Bostonian born in 1810. Olly had first tried to make his fortune by manufacturing clothes in New York but was on the look out for a new venture. He spotted his chance when he noticed a floundering division of Smith and Wesson. Smith had made a few improvements on a new type of gun patented by Walter Hunt in 1848. The gun was still not a big seller, being complex and unwieldy. Winchester promptly got a few fellow investors together and bought stocks of the ailing branch of the company. Within a few years he’d manoeuvred himself to be the principal stockholder and eventually bought out the business outright in 1857. He hired a brilliant engineer named Benjamin Tyler Henry who greatly improved the design. Henry was rewarded for his ingenuity with a patent naming the rifle the Henry Rifle.

By now the American Civil War was looming. The Henry rifle was used by only a few Union military units and the Confederates didn’t use them at all as there had not been enough time to successfully test these newfangled guns sufficiently or to train troops how to use them effectively.

It was to be peace time that would really prove lucrative for Winchester, with his subsequent gun improvements and designs finding their principal market not with the army, but with civilians.

Having renamed the company after himself, Winchester now made sure that he was on the forefront of gun design and manufacture. He began working with John Browning (who would later go on to develop some of the most famous guns used during the two World Wars) and together they developed gun technology so quickly that the military couldn’t even keep up.

Pioneers in particular adored Winchester rifles and bought them in huge quantities. Teddy Roosevelt used them whilst hunting and even the great Apache warrior Geronimo owned one.

Oliver Winchester died a very wealthy man in 1880, leaving the business, )and a huge wodge of cash,) to his son William Wirt Winchester.

William had already been struck by tragedy after his only child died whilst only a baby. William’s wife Sarah was inconsolable at the loss of their tiny daughter Annie and suffered from depression afterwards, never to fall pregnant again.

William was head of Winchester Repeating Arms Company for only 4 months, quickly following his father to the grave after succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 43.

Having already become bitter and sad after mourning her daughter for fifteen years, Sarah now found herself a widow. She inherited a substantial chunk of the business and a daily income of $1,000 a day (around $23,000 a day in modern terms) as well as roughly $20million (around $454m today.) Despite of her enormous wealth, unsurprisingly Sarah didn’t feel very blessed with no-one to share her fortune with.

Depressed and increasingly desperate, Sarah sought out the services of a Boston psychic. This psychic confirmed Sarah’s worst fears. The Winchester family was cursed and Sarah would be doomed to a life of misery unless she took action. The psychic explained that the Winchesters were haunted by the ghosts of every person who had been killed with a Winchester rifle. The vengeful spirits had taken the lives of both her baby daughter and her husband and unless they were appeased, the spirits would take Sarah next.

Desperate to escape such a fate, Sarah asked the psychic how tragedy could be averted. The psychic told Sarah to head West and build a massive house for the ghosts to live in, having been deprived of a long life and dignified death.

Sarah left Connecticut shortly after, never to return. In 1884 she headed for California where she already had relatives and purchased a farm house still under construction. Sarah vowed to complete the building in such a fashion as to satisfy the victims of the cursed guns.

With almost unlimited funds at her disposal, Sarah hired armies of builders who were to work on the house in shifts, day and night. Sarah was constantly terrified that the house was never going to be finished in a way that would satisfy the ghosts, so every time a design was finished she’d find a new architect to add more and more to the property. If there was a delay in finding something to add to the existing work, Sarah would order finished rooms to be torn down and rebuilt to altered designs.

One man allegedly spent over thirty years continually laying down exquisite, intricately designed parquet floors, ripping them up as soon as they were completed, and starting again from scratch. Elegant fittings were imported from the finest European craftsmen and each room, when finally deemed satisfactory, was decorated lavishly with expensive furnishings.

Because of the numerous workmen on site and the never ending parade of architects, no-one seemed to know the complete design of the house and got lost in the maze of corridors even if they had worked on the site for years. Sarah was the only person who knew the exact location of every last nail.

Paranoid of the fate that might yet befall her, Sarah installed architectural tricks to confuse any malevolent ghosts that may wish to harm her. The house therefore contains staircases that lead nowhere and doors that open to reveal brick walls. There are a myriad of secret passageways and dead ends. Sarah never slept in the same bedroom for more than a single night at a time to make it difficult for a malevolent phantom to find her by studying her habits. She did however spend some time each evening in her very own séance room, communing with spirits to check that they were satisfied with the construction and to receive their requests.

By 1900 the house had grown into a sprawling, seven storey maze. In 1906 a massive earthquake ripped through the San Francisco area, destroying parts of the house and trapping Sarah in one of her bedrooms. She was convinced that the ghosts had sent the earthquake to voice their dissatisfaction with the nearly completed front half of the house. Sarah had 30 of the offending rooms shut up, unrepaired, and ordered work to resume in earnest at the rear of the property, with for structural reasons was pared down to a mere 4 storeys.

Sarah finally died, mercifully in her sleep, in 1922 aged 83. Finally, the construction work that had gone on uninterrupted even by weekends or Christmas days for nearly 38 years ceased. Sarah left behind a mansion with 160 rooms including 13 bathrooms, (all but one fake!) two unused ballrooms, 40 bedrooms, 2,000 doors, 47 staircases, 6 kitchens, 10,000 windows and so many fireplaces that some rooms have two.

Curious servants opened up Sarah’s safe when she died, hoping to find treasure. They found a lock of her baby’s hair, a yellowed newspaper cutting of the baby’s obituary and mementoes of her beloved husband.

The contents of the house was inherited by Sarah’s niece, who promptly sold nearly all of the furniture. It took six removal crews six weeks working flat out to remove all of the furniture. The house itself was auctioned off and bought by a local who opened it up as a visitor attraction. So many legends sprang up about life at the mansion that it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction.

The story of Sarah Winchester is both intriguing and tragic and it is a testament to her strong character that the mansion remains a popular attraction for tourists to this day, unchanged from how she left it on the day that she died.

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