“12 Gauge Shotgun Buckshot,” from the series The Big Bang. © Deborah Bay
By Sara A. Lewis
Sarah Winchester and the legacy of living with guns
The first time I fired a gun was on a Monday at an indoor range in South Houston. I was nine years old. I know it was a Monday, because Monday was Ladies Shoot Free Day, which was both financially prudent and my father’s day off from his job at a county hospital. I shot a Taurus .22-caliber J-frame revolver, which he says is a good gun for small-handed and small-framed people, though as a child I was what he describes as sturdy, a word he still uses for me as an adult.When I walked into the range, accepted the earmuffs marked LADIES and the pair of me-sized yellow shooting glasses, I was on my way to being an adult, though I was still a child with tiny hands, thin wrists, and an unfortunate haircut—picture bowl cut plus perm. The earmuffs sagged around my head, and the yellow shooting glasses slid down my nose with each kick. On the targets, each .22 round left a hole smaller than a pupil, but a couple of groupings were adjacent to the bullseye. I took pride in my proficiency, even though I was firing only about five yards downrange.
There had been ample preparation: conversations, safety lessons, and verbal quizzing before my dad decided I was ready. The biggest lesson was to assume that all guns were loaded. Every time I picked up a gun in my house, almost always after watching my dad clear the ammo from the cylinder or replace a loaded magazine with an empty one, I would keep it pointed south, toward the back of the house, beyond which was a drainage ditch backed by an open field backed by a cemetery. Then, I would go through the same motions: spin the revolver’s cylinder to make extra sure all the ammo was extracted, or release the magazine and pull back the slide to verify a round was not chambered.
I remember that first trip to the range and the lead-up much more vividly than my subsequent visits, which were sporadic through the rest of elementary school and junior high. Mostly, I remember that for a few days after, my hands smelled like gun residue, which to me was something like how they smelled after eating cheese enchiladas topped with raw onions at Don’Key’s.
I have no memory of my mom being present at any moment I handled a gun, but it seems impossible that she wouldn’t have been a part of the decision to let me shoot, my parents being a team, if often a tag-team given their differing work and sleep schedules. I recently asked her about her thoughts on giving a child access to guns. “You mean, ‘Where was Mom?’” she said. “I wouldn’t trust any child with a firearm, but I trusted you, and I trusted my husband completely to determine what to teach you and when.”
By ten years old I was likely to correct anyone who called a magazine a clip or otherwise confused a semi-automatic and an automatic weapon. As a latchkey kid, I knew where many of my father’s guns, usually loaded, were hidden. Sometimes I would come home from school, with thirty minutes to an hour before anyone else would arrive, and crank up Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” on the stereo and jump from one piece of living room furniture to the next. Less frequently, I would check to make sure a couple of black plastic gun boxes were where they were supposed to be. Just in case. Of what I’m not sure. I knew I wasn’t allowed to touch even the boxes, barring emergency, but I wasn’t allowed to jump around on the furniture either. Once, I climbed up on a kitchen chair to “check on” a gun hidden above our hutch, concealed by the molding around the high edge. There, a decorative metal watering can with hand-painted bluebonnets covered a plastic rectangle about the size of a TV dinner. I lifted the can and set it right back down before noisily pushing the wooden chair back under the table. Later, my dad called me into the living room and walked toward the kitchen. “Look at that,” he said, pointing to the watering can. “Have you been messing with it?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“It’s facing the wrong way.”
I looked up and noticed that the spout was just a few degrees off from its normal position. “Looks the same to me,” I said and returned to what I was doing. Lying to my parents was something I rarely, if ever, did, but I must have been too scared to let my dad down, to reveal myself as some immature kid and not the person he could trust.
It was about this time that I first heard of Sarah Winchester, though her surname was familiar to me from ammo boxes and episodes of Tales of the Gun I’d watched with my dad. Somewhere, I saw a documentary about the unusual, supposedly haunted house in San Jose, California, built by the eccentric heiress of the Winchester rifle fortune starting in 1886. My memory is of a house with hundreds of rooms that never ceased to be under construction. There were dead-end hallways, staircases to nowhere, and secret entrances. I was fascinated more with the home itself than with the owner. The house seemed to me like a Batcave or secret laboratory, a place where Sarah Winchester could take her extraordinary wealth and build whatever she liked. It prompted me to imagine what I might build for myself, what my house would feature. (In ninth grade, I drew up a sketch of my sprawling dream home for a social studies project. After I’d already presented my plans to the class, my dad noticed and pointed out that it was a large foyer I was after, not voyeur.)
More recently, I have started to think about the widow rather than the house, and the legend that she was haunted by the spirits of those killed by Winchester guns. Though Sarah and her home have been part of popular culture since the Gilded Age, the recent release of the horror film Winchester, starring Helen Mirren, has reignited interest in the supernatural aspects of Sarah’s story.
I’ve been trying to understand how the supernatural—or what is portrayed as supernatural in media contemporaneous to both Sarah’s time and mine—became an explanation for Sarah’s response to trauma, her experience of death, of either those in her immediate family or strangers killed by Winchester firearms. It’s impossible to estimate the casualties that resulted from Winchester rifles, but between the Civil War and World War I, the guns were carried by American, French, German, Russian, Turkish, Swiss, and Apache fighters in conflicts around the world, not to mention their use by civilians, big-game hunters, and law enforcement.
There is some overlap between Sarah’s story and my scholarly research, which focuses on societal trauma in Modernist writing between and during the two world wars, but I have also felt a more personal connection to her. Trauma and guns have become inextricable in my own life and in the lives of increasingly more Americans. Around a year after sustaining a traumatic brain injury, I moved home post-college to live with my parents because I couldn’t take care of myself due to delayed but worsening post-concussive symptoms. Sleeping in a spare bedroom on a twin bed, I started having nightmares about a disembodied hand shooting me in the head. Sometimes, even while awake, a gunshot would go off in my imagination and a scene of a hand, my head, a recoiling semi-automatic, and blood spatter would appear. After my dad happened to mention during a conversation about work that self-inflicted gunshot wounds are more likely to be fatal if the gun is pressed to the roof of the mouth, the visions varied, now sometimes with the recoil knocking out the bottom row of my teeth. This gun is almost always a Glock Model 19, a gun that would have been in the house at the time, but I didn’t make that connection then. I didn’t tell anybody about the troubling figments until this year, nearly a decade later.
After starting treatment for the TBI, the thought spirals about guns mostly went away. But just after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the loop started playing again. And soon—feeling both haunted by the tragic possibilities of guns and bewildered by the response of the gun industry—I thought about Sarah and the reportedly tortured side of her that suggested some guilt and culpability for her connection to the Winchester company. What does her story say about gun culture both historically and contemporarily, and about the responsibility of the gun industry to gun victims? These were my pressing post-Parkland questions. But I also wanted to understand her because I had an inexplicable feeling of kindredness; there was something about gun violence she seemingly couldn’t shake and I couldn’t either. Somewhere in the research, at her house and in her letters, I was sure, was a version of her yet to be discovered.
Though my parents weren’t a part of my interest in Sarah Winchester, the Sarah Winchester house is the kind of place my family would visit. My mom would like the ghost stories. My dad would have no patience for them, though he might derive some joy out of finding the historical inaccuracies. A common theme of our relatively few family vacations is my dad finding an error or typo on something etched in stone at a historical site and pointing it out to the historian/park ranger/volunteer.
When I visit home now, we’re able to spend more time all together, but growing up, I was likely with either one parent or the other. My mom is an accountant who works long hours during the week. My dad, a private person who’d prefer I didn’t reveal his exact credentials, has worked in a level-one trauma center for thirty years, where, he says, “we take care of everything that comes in. You go to our place if you have blunt or penetrating trauma (or if you have no money).” In my youth, this is where he usually was on weekends.
Still, my dad abided by what he called a quantity over quality approach to family time. This was mostly a joke, but my parents were serious about spending all the time we could together, despite their work demands. I always understood this as the antidote to the way he’d been raised. From an early age, his life was marked with upheaval and pain: the death of a younger sister, abandonment by his father, the death of his stepfather, and his mother’s struggle to survive depression. It was his role—at least he felt it was—to hold everything together. In contrast, my childhood was stable, our family unit was functional, and I never wanted for anything, least of all love.
You’ve seen the style of gun that made the Winchester family rich. It’s the one in all the cowboy movies, with a lever just off the trigger for the three stock-gripping fingers to bear down on after firing off a shot. In that motion, one casing is ejected and the next is chambered. It’s difficult to understate how the repeating rifle revolutionized killing, of both animals and man, as it brought the world from the single-shot muzzle-loaded rifle to a gun that could hold multiple cartridges and fire two shots per second. It’s the “gun that won the West.” Laura Trevelyan, author of The Winchester: The Gun That Built an American Dynasty and a great-great-great-granddaughter of founder Oliver Winchester, writes that it was the rifle owned by everyone from Napoleon to Teddy Roosevelt, Sitting Bull to Buffalo Bill, Texas Rangers to Turkish soldiers. One could make the argument that this gun, one of the first effective and mass-produced repeating rifles, ushered in the era of mass-casualty shootings. Though it was never officially adopted by the Union army, Trevelyan writes, “Lincoln, a gun buff, realized that a repeating rifle could potentially shorten the war, saving thousands of lives. If you could shoot more quickly than your rival, because you didn’t have to reload, then it stood to reason that battles should be concluded more rapidly.”
Alongside the unquestionable historical relevance of the gun, the lore and legend of Sarah Winchester grew, both in her own time and up to the present day. She is, after all, an embodiment of America’s greatest obsessions: money and violence.
The most persistent Sarah Winchester legend goes that, following the deaths of her husband, repeating rifle inventor1] The repeating rifle was actually invented by Benjamin T. Henry, an employee of Oliver Winchester." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">1 William, and their daughter Annie, Sarah visited a medium named Adam Coons in Boston,2] No such person is known to have existed. There is also no evidence that Sarah ever visited or was visited by a medium." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">2 who told her that the spirits of those killed by her husband’s guns were angry and she needed to move west, build a house, and keep building to appease them.3] A doctor suggested the move to help with her arthritis." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">3 Sarah followed the directive and bought a house that she continued to work on and expand until the day she died,4] She stopped major building shortly after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, which affected the whole Bay Area, and all building in 1910, twelve years before her death." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">4 filling the space with symbols of the occult like spider web windows5] Spider web windows were not uncommon in houses of this era and reflected a Naturalist aesthetic." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">5 and appearances of design elements in multiples of thirteen.6] Sarah’s most reliable biographer argues that elements like the thirteen coat hooks and thirteen-pronged chandelier are post-Sarah prop installations." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">6 She dressed in black from head to toe,7] Such clothing was typical of a Victorian-era widow." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">7 even covering her face with a black veil and her hands with black gloves.8] It’s likely that Sarah was self-conscious about her disfigured hands and that she had few teeth." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">8
Sarah built either to the spirits’ command or to confuse them.9] Neither one is true." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">9 Each night at midnight she tugged at the rope that descended from a six-story bell tower, sending the chimes into the darkness to summon the spirits.10] The Mystery House tour claims that neighbors reported nightly bell-ringing and séances, but no known sources—neighbors, family members, friends, employees—support either claim." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">10 Then, she entered a room that had one way in and three ways out to commune with the spirits in a séance.11] This particular room was not private nor restricted by Sarah; it was often used as an employee bedroom." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">11 Harry Houdini claimed that, while visiting the house at midnight on Halloween in 1924—two years after Sarah died—he encountered her. “Mrs. Winchester has a vast wardrobe of variously colored robes,” he told a reporter. “She uses a different robe for each spirit.”12] Houdini was invited by the house’s new owners to visit as a marketing move. It’s likely this was said for the sole purpose of drumming up tour business." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">12
After my head injury (and a few bonus concussions), a lot of things changed: memory, tolerance for stimuli, perception of light, balance, executive function, vision. I relied on my dad to help me understand the test results and the treatments. Revealing to him my need to seek psychiatric treatment in addition to neurological care has been less easy. I never told my dad that I did therapy for PTSD, that I will probably always need therapy, or about any of the additional meds prescribed by a psychiatrist. My mom knew a little. She helped me make appointments and navigate insurance coverage, but mostly helped by being encouraging, though she never asked for specifics.
Several months ago, a new psychiatrist concluded my first visit with her by saying, “I’m not worried about you. You aren’t the kind of sick that goes in and shoots up a building.” With each mass shooting comes a diversionary attempt by the NRA to attribute gun violence to the mentally ill rather than to easy access to assault rifles and modified high-capacity semi-automatics. So while the remark was surprising, and I wasn’t sure whether to read it as insensitive or ironic, it did speak to the way our gun crisis has created a blanket label of “mentally ill” that lumps together every neurodivergent person despite what is clearly a very specific phenomenon of sociopathy occurring among an equally specific demographic.
Earlier in the session she had asked, “When was the last time you thought about killing yourself?” assuming as a foregone conclusion that someone with my brain history would consider suicide. Maybe not a mass shooting, but maybe a shooting. It’s common for a patient, when asked “have you ever thought about killing yourself?” or “have you ever tried to kill yourself?” to answer no—for privacy, self-protection, to avoid unshakable diagnoses, etc.—regardless of the truth. But I assume she purposefully phrased the question in a way that prevented any wriggling out.
I don’t remember what I said, if I said anything, but she followed up, asking, “What’s kept you from doing it?”
“My dad,” I answered.
“Good,” she said. “My dad killed himself and I think about it every day.”
“My dad’s mom tried a few times,” I said. “And so I think of suicide as being the worst possible thing I could do to him.”
A few visits later I decided to stop seeing her when, after I told her about writing this essay and struggling with the recent suicide of a family member, she said something to the effect of: If someone’s out to kill themselves, there’s no stopping them. When I replied that we could make it less easy to get guns, she expressed that this seemed, in her professional opinion, to be futile.
On my thirtieth birthday, which I celebrated at the beach, I was in the middle of changing medications and had a bad psychological and physical reaction, which was so painful I was admitted to the hospital and given morphine. By then, my depression and anxiety had also become so unmanageable that I had stayed for days in a room at the beach house, sweating and in the fetal position, unable to see my family members who’d come from across the state and across the country to celebrate my birthday. Instead of taking me back to the house after I was discharged, my dad drove me around the avenues with letter names where my maternal grandmother was raised and told me that my life mattered and that he needed me. It was hard to believe him then, but I was able to convince myself that if I just kept trying maybe there would come a time when it would be true.
He told me last week that this was the first day he found out I was “severely, clinically depressed,” the first time he saw the list of medications I was taking. Sometimes I remind myself about that day and how hopeless it all seemed. I also often think about my dad as a little boy hiding razors from his mother, and how much that boy suffered. Sometimes I think of something sillier, like how we both find clothes we like and stick with them. For me it’s blue jeans and blazers; for him it’s tactical pants, a fitted Astros cap, and a polo shirt with a pocket in front.
In her poem “The Journalists Set the Record Straight on Sarah Winchester,” Alexandra Teague captures the Sarah Winchester legend as dozens of myths emerging as if from a game of telephone, both recursive and contradictory.
…to appease the
ghosts confuse the ghosts provide an all-consuming hobby
for her health for William’s health they tried to save halfway
to California when he turned back he never left home died
at the house they were building had built died in a
sanitarium and her so grief-stricken she went to Boston
to a medium a Spiritualist named Adam Coons a woman
who said Move West so in 1882 84 85 86 she came
alone with her sisters knew nothing of architecture
was one of America’s first women architects an original
artist her workmen terrified of her grateful she treated
them like family…
From the original articles written about Sarah during the Gilded Age to television documentaries in the 1960s to the most-recent Hollywood film, the stories are built upon Jell-O, a wiggling foundation of false information.
Encouraged by a San Jose librarian to set the record straight on Sarah, Mary Jo Ignoffo published Captive in the Labyrinth in 2010, the first book to incorporate primary sources such as Sarah’s letters, the daybooks of a trusted employee, and correspondence with her longtime lawyer. Ignoffo casts Sarah as an intelligent, cultured, and capable woman, one whose choices have rational explanations and whose home’s idiosyncrasies result from understandable, not supernatural, phenomena.
Sarah Winchester was born Sarah Lockwood Pardee in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1839. Her father was a master carpenter successful in his job building carriages and later as a skilled craftsman who built and installed custom embellishments for the ornate Victorian homes of New Haven, a city rapidly growing with wealthy families. During the Civil War, she married William Wirt Winchester, the son of the Winchester Arms founder, Oliver, and they moved into the Winchesters’ New Haven house with William’s parents and his sisters and their families.
Near the end of the war, Oliver decided to build a new home on Prospect Street and, because he was so busy, tasked William—along with Sarah—with supervising every detail, from the design to the décor. They worked as a team, and though it began as a relatively happy time, Sarah also learned that the process of building supported her emotional well-being following the death of their only daughter, Annie, in 1866. Architecture was just becoming a profession; otherwise it’s likely William would have pursued this as a career.
In December 1880 Oliver Winchester died, and his son William succeeded him, but William succumbed to tuberculosis the following March. Sarah was left with a significant fortune, inheriting much of her father-in-law’s wealth and all of her husband’s. Though letters in which Sarah details her grief following the deaths of her daughter, husband, and several other family members have not been uncovered—if they exist at all—it’s roundly understood that these events left her devastated.
With a huge sum of money and little anchor to Connecticut, she moved, on a doctor’s advice, to a climate more suitable for her arthritis and developed a “vigorous hobby,” as prescribed. She purchased an eight-room farmhouse in the Santa Clara Valley that she named Llanada Villa and began a project that did, indeed, last much of her life.
From 1886 to 1906, the year of the great San Francisco earthquake, Llanada Villa was her workshop. Sarah’s passion for architecture and design is reflected in her familiarity with a multitude of trends and her wide aesthetic interests. Ignoffo writes of the house during Sarah’s ownership: “Primarily Queen Anne in architectural style, it showed Eastlake and Stick elements, although a glimmer of Gothic and a taste of Romanesque appear now and then. It is asymmetrical, another typically Victorian feature.” As vivid as Ignoffo’s rendering of Sarah’s life and her home was, it became clear that in order to understand the vast difference between Sarah’s actual life and the one perpetuated in popular culture, I needed to visit San Jose and see the house for myself.
The experience was appropriately, but surprisingly, bifurcated between the legend and the reality. After turning left at the BEAUTIFUL AND BIZARRE billboard for the Mystery House, an acknowledgment of the competing draws of the attraction, I parked outside the entrance to the gift shop, which, along with the café and outdoor dining area, felt less historical than like the Old West town at a Six Flags. It was complete with a shooting gallery with plastic versions of Winchester guns; the object was to shoot at ghosts (identifiable by red dots) as they appeared near a wedding dress, iron stove, rocking chair, and other Western parlor items. A spooky soundtrack emanated from the life-size arcade while I sat waiting for the official tour to start.
The guided tour took us through parts of the house clearly perverted for the sake of the tour. There were the practical adjustments like rubber floors in heavily trafficked areas, and less-practical touches like speakers playing the sounds of an otherworldly presence. My personal favorite was the blue orb light installed in the “séance room” that set the mood for inter-spiritual communication after all the doors were closed around the twenty-plus people in our group. We were wrangled together so closely under this flashing light and the “sound of spirits” that we could feel each other’s body heat.
One visitor had a question at nearly every stop; he seemed particularly focused on Sarah’s sanity and the presence of spirits. “Would you say there’s one room that she felt had the most spiritual presence?” he asked the tour guide.
“Other than the séance room,” she said, “I would say the basement, which I’m actually kind of scared to go to. But you’ll get to see that if you’ve upgraded to the Explore More tour.”
After finishing the official Winchester Mystery House tour, I was scheduled to meet the house’s historian and special projects director Janan Boehme, who after a brief interview spent two and a half hours showing me more thoroughly around the house, where she has worked off and on for nearly forty years—about the same amount of time it was owned by Sarah.
With me, Boehme (mostly) eschewed the macabre, and she took care to point out the details of Sarah’s work. Sarah had described her house as “rambling,” and, in addition to being an accurate indicator of size, this speaks to the eclecticism of her taste and the way her ideas spill from one room to another without cohesive theme or demarcation. Because none of the furniture in the house is original, no one will ever know what the house looked like while Sarah lived there. However, Boehme and others on staff have restored some of the rooms with period-appropriate items that they believe to be of Sarah’s taste.
I could have spent hours looking at the sitting and dining rooms just off the front entrance, which feature many signature Sarah details. The floors are inlaid with several different types of wood in patterns so intricate they look stenciled on, revealing an advanced interest in parquetry. There are art glass windows with complicated patterns designed by Sarah, though for decades mistaken for Tiffany’s. Even the dining room fireplace (one of a few dozen in the home) features extravagant craftsmanship with beveling perfectly carved out of the top and sides of the hearth. On each wall there are also multiple patterns of Lincrusta, an embossed wallpaper-like treatment that gives the impression of a variety of textures. The remaining rolls of it, found at the house after Sarah’s death, are believed to make up one of the largest collections in existence today. Sarah’s house has more different kinds of Lincrusta patterns than any other place. Boehme would like for this to be part of Sarah’s legacy, and for more people to come to the house to value its historicity, particularly as a Lincrusta repository.
To stand in one place and look at the majesty of the restored rooms is to appreciate the vision of an accomplished designer and builder. The patterns in the wood are sophisticated and precise. The walls with the Lincrusta protrude slightly like delicate molding, creating shadow. These elements are calling for a tactile experience in their perceived or actual multi-dimensionality. If it’s true that this house is possessed, it’s not by the spirits of those killed by Winchester guns. There’s something vibrating on the other end of the spectrum, something beautiful and light.
At least that’s how it felt, in that moment, standing in the dining room admiring Sarah’s work. The ballroom, visible through the dining room’s glass doors, is a major point of interest on the regular guided tour. I watched another group go through and listened again to a guide recite the Mystery House script, which reminds visitors at this point that Sarah reportedly spent $9,000 on the ballroom during a time when an entire house could be built for less than $1,000.
This figure only matters to me insofar as it’s being used (in this context) to show that Sarah was not sane. I can’t help but think that if this were a tour of Samuel Colt’s house, the guide would praise his extravagant choices and point out the industriousness of his expansive building. The $9,000, however, regardless of how little Sarah had to do with the Winchester company’s daily operations, was earned from the profits of war.
There are two simple explanations for the anomalies in the home cited as examples of Sarah’s craziness. The first explanation is the earthquake of 1906, which severely damaged the home, most dramatically sending the seven-story cupola down into the middle of the house along with many of the chimneys. In order to make the house safe and livable, the most damaged parts were ripped off (and, as Boehme showed me, repurposed in at least one outbuilding) and all the gashes to both the vertical and horizontal planes were hurriedly repaired. This, as much as anything, is how an interior wall with plumbing ends up as an exterior wall, how a staircase leads up to a ceiling, and how a door opens to blue sky. As Ignoffo reports, Sarah herself thought the post-earthquake house looked as though it had been built by a “crazy person.”
The additional explanation for the oddities is that Sarah, though a subscriber to Architectural Record and other building periodicals, never had a unified plan. She drew up her own sketches and served as the architect, but the house was never conceived as a single, cohesive project. In the era of yellow journalism, Merle H. Gray was one of the only reporters sympathetic to Sarah, aptly describing this house as her workshop. She built, bought, and renovated several other houses in her life, many quite large, though none were treated—by her or the media—the same as Llanada Villa. Sarah liked to try things out. If they didn’t work, she scrapped the idea. She sometimes abandoned projects for weeks, months, or, in some cases, forever. Of a plumbing problem she wrote to her sister-in-law, “I do not think it is so bad as to be actually dangerous and don’t know whether I can summon up the courage to make the required changes.” One of the most astute observations made by Ignoffo is that “perhaps she kept building not to accommodate more houseguests, but to avoid having them.” Sarah had no interest in being a society lady, so the house was not so much her home as her place of work.
The Llanada Villa property was even a moneymaking venture. Sarah was one of the first settlers in the valley to grow fruit, which Trevelyan writes “was dried in [an] ingenious Sarah innovation, her special dehydrator, which had a coal furnace and could dry half a ton of fruit in 30 hours. The fruit was sold at market, bringing in a tidy income.” The house was also self-sustaining—she installed her own gas plant for heat and light—and was full of inventions and workarounds Sarah designed herself, like brass corner plates fixed on the stairways to make it easier for the servants to clean the many steps. There was a rudimentary intercom system, a window catch supposedly modeled after a trigger, laundry tubs with built-in washboards, indoor conservatory irrigation with special slotted and removable floors, and outside shutters cranked from inside.
“Few nineteenth-century American women have come down in history as parodied and as fractured as Sarah Winchester,” Ignoffo argues. “In another time and place, perhaps, she would have pursued academic degrees in design or architecture, or at least a contractor’s license.”
Still, the legend persists. My Airbnb host in San Jose said that she was interested in the real story of Sarah. “I think she was crazy,” she said. “No doubt. But maybe not like what they say.” They being the people who run the house. But I push back even against an innocuous assessment of “crazy.” Sarah was intensely private, she defied gender expectations, and, because she usually donated her money anonymously, she was perceived as ungenerous. Add to this that she attained unimaginable wealth from guns. The combination of elements that allowed a false perception of Sarah to persist was then amplified by her righteous refusal to engage.
While I was in California visiting the Winchester House, a teenage boy shot up his school in Santa Fe, Texas, a town thirty miles from my parents’ house, not with an assault rifle this time but with a shotgun and a handgun. USA Today reported that same weekend from my otherwise sleepy suburban hometown, as the Santa Fe High School baseball team played at our field, the stands full of locals wearing Santa Fe’s colors, green and yellow, in solidarity. A couple of weeks later, my dad explained to me the ballistics of this attack, but I tuned him out, so oversaturated by the methods of school shooters by this point that I can’t discuss them intellectually.
Then, he told me about one of his first gun memories. When he was a young boy, his cousins and brothers, older than him by a decade, lined up three empty shotgun shells on a frozen pond. They all took turns shooting at the shells, except for my dad, who they deemed too little. After several attempts, none could hit the shells. Presumably disheartened and nearly out of ammo, someone handed my dad a gun and let him try. He hit all three shells his first time shooting a gun. “I was good at something,” he told me. “I was really good at it and I hadn’t even started trying. Now, I’m really really good at it.”
He also told me about the way he sees the world, something I already recognized but had never heard him articulate. He described himself as having a “rescuer” psychology, like many people in health care. In his early life and in his job now, he’s been tasked with responding well in a crisis and being able to hold things together. This ability to manage stress and chaos is a necessity. In addition to being an exceptional marksman, his desire to carry, study, and customize guns is part of a compulsion to be proactive in a crisis.
We talked for several hours, and for every statistic I had, he had one to match or a reason why my information was misleading. He followed up with an email to clarify his thinking: “When you were much younger, my primary concern was that ANY house you entered in Texas would have firearms present. We were seeing multiple cases of children shooting each other, or themselves, while handling a firearm. When you were very young, I showed you what real guns looked like, and that you should immediately leave any place you saw one unattended or in anyone’s hand—and to let me know immediately or call 911. As you aged, I showed you how firearms work, and how to make them safe. I took you to the range and let you shoot, so that I could really get your attention about the power and danger involved. I wouldn’t change any of that. There are at least 150,000,000 guns in the U.S., and it wasn’t likely that you would ever enter a house in Texas that didn’t have at least one of them.”
It isn’t fair to retroactively figure the depression from my adulthood into decisions made when I was a child. Especially when I’d spent a decade trying to obscure its reality from my father. I went through and asked him about several moments, proof I was depressed, things I thought he already knew. (I always assumed information trickled from my mom to my dad.) It was a back and forth of “You didn’t know?” “I didn’t know. Your mom didn’t tell me that part.” After four examples, he just sighed and said, “I fucked up. I really fucked up. I didn’t put any of this together and I should have.”
Trying to land the point that safety or my best interests weren’t always at the forefront of his decisions, I met with pushback. “There’s a couple of hundred people buried in this county who got their last breath from me,” he wrote. “I don’t really feel compelled to justify my attitudes or decisions to people who have never noticed someone’s brains on their shoes when they’re in line at the cafeteria, or had someone hand them a human arm to hold because its former owner is in the next ambulance.”
It was a difficult conversation for many reasons, primarily because I know that my dad will do anything to help me or protect me if I need it; as he reminds me when I start feeling down, “As long as I have a roof over my head, you have a roof over your head. I will take care of you for as long as I breathe on this Earth.” He’s been worrying about me, he says, “since my wife told me she missed her menstrual cycle.”
In my long conversation with Janan Boehme, I asked her how she can reckon her own understanding of Sarah with the narrative the house spins, or as she says, “the story most people want to hear.” “People come here to believe what they want to believe,” she told me. “To see things the way they want to see them.” As she said this, I remembered another woman in my tour group. She’d turned to the man she was with while we stood in an opening between rooms. “Did you feel that?” she whispered to him. He looked at her as if to say what? And she replied, “Something just brushed across my back.” His eyes widened at the confirmation of the supernatural, and the two were practically giddy about the encounter. We were all receiving the same information, and yet we’d come to vastly different conclusions.
Last month, I visited my parents and stayed in my childhood bedroom, which has become office, guitar room, and gun storage. In the early morning before my flight out, I opened a black gym bag stacked at the head of the futon I’d been sleeping on. For no other reason than curiosity. Inside was a 200-round box of 9mm ammo, Winchester brand. I laughed a little to myself, thinking I’d discovered something, the missing piece, the thing that connected my narratives.
On the flight home from visiting Sarah’s house in California, I’d read “The White Album,” in which Joan Didion lists a series of quasi-coincidences she finds “equally meaningful, and equally senseless.” I realize now that the equally meaningful and equally senseless connections I’d both discovered and tried to force would never come together as I’d hoped. I’d made the mistake of coming to this project with my thesis decided, that Sarah Winchester’s guilt could be used as a stand-in for the gun industry as a whole, her house a mammoth response to an equally mammoth problem. Or, perhaps, that Sarah’s response to gun deaths wasn’t crazy; the culture that allowed those deaths to happen was. But when you study Sarah and realize that she never felt guilty, was never driven by guilt to keep building, any reading of the myth unravels.
I suppose I wanted my dad to be a stand-in, too, but I also wanted to vindicate him, so that our relationship and my love for him would be less complicated. When I started writing this, he knowingly kept guns in the same rooms as his depressed daughter. If I remove knowingly, this, too, unravels—which is not to give anyone in my family a pass, including myself, but it means that I don’t have a place where I can neatly hang all the resentment and feelings of betrayal I’ve been building up. I wanted to be able to blame my dad. It’s easier to go about my life if I can blame someone for what’s wrong.
The threads do meet in culpability: the link between Sarah, my father, and me is our resistance to accept any.
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