American Folk Figure. An eccentric heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, she is remembered for the continuous construction of her home in San Jose, California in order to prevent the spirits of those who were killed by the Winchester rifle from killing her. Known as the "Belle of New Haven," she enjoyed all the advantages of a cultured upbringing, including an education at the best private schools. She spoke four languages and played piano beautifully. In September 1862 she married William Wirt Winchester, the son of Oliver Winchester, owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. After the death of their infant daughter from malnutrition in July 1866, she became severely depressed and never recovered. When her father-in-law Oliver Winchester died in 1880, her husband took over the company, but he died of tuberculosis the following year, and she received approximately 50 percent ownership in the Winchester company. A Boston medium, believed to be a psychic, allegedly told her that the Winchester family was cursed by the spirits of all the people who had been killed by the Winchester rifle, and she should move west to build a house for herself and the spirits. The medium is claimed to have told her that if construction on the house ever stopped, she would join her husband and infant daughter. In 1884 she moved west to San Jose, California with her sister and her niece, and in 1886 she purchased an eight-room farmhouse, known today as the Winchester Mystery House. She immediately began spending her $20 million inheritance by renovating and adding more rooms to the house, with work continuing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for the next 36 years, although this is disputed by contemporary scholars. She was fascinated with the number 13 and worked the number into the house in many places. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, she became trapped in one of her bedrooms for several hours. When she was finally freed, she told the construction crews to stop working on the nearly completed front part of the house and had her carpenters board it up, leaving much of the extensive earthquake damage unrepaired. According to the legends, she thought the spirits were angry with her because she was spending too much time decorating and working on the front rooms and construction resumed on new additions and remodeling the other parts of the structure. After the earthquake, she moved to Atherton, California and visited the house in San Jose only periodically. She suffered from arthritis in her later years and died of heart failure at the age of 83. At the time of her death, construction on her home ceased immediately. The unfinished house sprawled over 6 acres, contained 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. The Winchester Mystery House is a National Historic Landmark and a popular tourist attraction. Daily tour guides are given of the house and the surrounding estate.
Bio by: William Bjornstad
William Wirt Winchester
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