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Captive of the Labyrinth

Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune

Mary Jo Ignoffo

Publication Year: 2010

Media Kit


Since her death in 1922, Sarah Winchester has been perceived as a mysterious, haunted figure. After inheriting a vast fortune upon the death of her husband in 1881, Sarah purchased a simple farmhouse in San José, California. She began building additions to the house and continued construction on it for the next twenty years. A hostile press cast Sarah as the conscience of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company—a widow shouldering responsibility for the many deaths caused by the rifle that brought her riches. She was accused of being a ghost-obsessed spiritualist, and to this day it is largely believed that the extensive construction she executed on her San José house was done to appease the ghouls around her.



But was she really as guilt-ridden and superstitious as history remembers her? When Winchester’s home was purchased after her death, it was transformed into a tourist attraction. The bizarre, sprawling mansion and the enigmatic nature of Winchester’s life were exaggerated by the new owners to generate publicity for their business. But as the mansion has become more widely known, the person of Winchester has receded from reality, and she is only remembered for squandering her riches to ward off disturbed spirits.



            Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune demystifies the life of this unique American. In the first full-length biography of Winchester, author and historian Mary Jo Ignoffo unearths the truth about this notorious eccentric, revealing that she was not a maddened spiritualist driven by remorse but an intelligent, articulate woman who sought to protect her private life amidst the chaos of her public existence. The author takes readers through Winchester’s several homes, explores her private life, and, by excerpting from personal correspondence, gives the heiress a voice for the first time since her death. Ignoffo’s research reveals that Winchester’s true financial priority was not dissipating her fortune on the mansion in San José but investing it for a philanthropic legacy.



             For too long Sarah Winchester has existed as a ghost herself—a woman whose existence lies somewhere between the facts of her life and a set of sensationalized recollections of who she may have been. Captive of the Labyrinth finally puts to rest the myths about this remarkable woman, and, in the process, uncovers the legacy she intended to leave behind.

Published by: University of Missouri Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. 2-8


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pp. vii-viii

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Author’s Note

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pp. ix-x

Although named “Sarah” after her mother and a deceased elder sister, Sarah Lockwood Winchester was always called “Sallie,” nicknamed for her paternal grandmother, Sally Pardee Goodyear, who died just months before Sarah Winchester was born. “Sallie” stuck, and even late in life...

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pp. xi-xx

I first saw a Winchester repeater when I was ten years old. My brother Mike had been given a 1966 Winchester Centennial .30–30 for his eighteenth birthday, and as he took mock aim and cocked the lever, the hallmark of Winchesters, I thought he looked like Chuck Connors in The Rifleman. Mike pointed out the gun’s distinctive...

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pp. xxi-xxvi

Sarah Winchester is as beguiling a subject as one can imagine. Her simultaneously secretive and public life called for such a wide spectrum of sources—ranging from archives to zip codes—that as I acknowledge those who helped I am afraid that some will be left out. I offer gratitude and admiration for many, many friends, colleagues...

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pp. 1-6

Sarah Winchester ’s lifetime spanned the Victorian age. She was born in 1839, two years after the teenaged Queen Victoria was crowned, and eighty years later, as death approached, Winchester could have been a Victoria look-alike—a stooped little lady, face veiled, in black silk mourning garb. Like the queen, she had seen profound...

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Chapter 1: New Haven’s Daughter

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pp. 7-21

Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born in a charming New England town. At least that is how Britain’s popular author Charles Dickens saw New Haven, Connecticut, when he visited just about the time she was born, a year before he penned his classic ghost story, A Christmas Carol. The town’s seventeen-acre Green with three beautiful...

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Chapter 2: Marrying into the Winchester Family

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pp. 22-38

Sarah Pardee had known William Winchester since childhood. William moved next door to Sarah on Court Street in 1850, and shortly after that, he graduated from the all-male Hopkins Grammar School, finishing there with eighteen other students. He went on to attend high school at about the same time the Pardee...

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Chapter 3: “The Gun That Won the West”

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pp. 39-65

In the middle 1860s as William Winchester walked to his office at the shirt factory each morning, he presumed his father’s investments in the arms industry were purely the whim of a wealthy man. About eight years earlier, Oliver Winchester had invested cash accrued from the Winchester & Davies Shirt Manufactory in a...

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Chapter 4: The Winchester Fortune

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pp. 66-82

In the years immediately following the Civil War, Sarah and William Winchester’s living quarters, daily life, and family ties went through a dramatic transformation. They moved to a stunning mansion overlooking New Haven, an enviable home even to other elites. The Court Street house, crammed in among crowded boardinghouses...

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Chapter 5: A California Dream

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pp. 83-105

Sarah Winchester had the money to do what she pleased and go where she wanted. She could have occupied the finest house in New York or an isolated villa in Italy, so one wonders what possessed her to choose the mostly unknown California. She had traveled extensively with William, and in the years since his death had...

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Chapter 6: Labyrinth

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pp. 106-122

Sarah Winchester ’s San José house has old bones, even older than its current owners claim.1 A full ten years before she purchased it in 1886, a two-story wood-frame farmhouse sat tucked in a small grove fronting the Santa Clara—Los Gatos Road. Although it is not possible to prove beyond a doubt that the early structure was still standing...

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Chapter 7: Daydream or Nightmare

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pp. 123-137

Across the valley at the Merrimans’ ranch , Belle had found home. California in all its golden glory lay before her on the edge of the undulating hills at the pastoral El Sueño. She grew more than a dozen varieties of flowers, and lived on a generous monthly check provided by her wealthy sister. Belle kept a menagerie along with...

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Chapter 8: Guns, Guilt, and Ghosts: The First Commentaries on Sarah Winchester’s Odd House

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pp. 138-165

Newspapers began printing commentaries on Sarah Winchester’s unwieldy and unaccountably unfinished mansion in 1895, after about eight years of construction at Llanada Villa. The articles speculated on Winchester’s behavior and her motives for building, and subsequent articles built on the first, often repeating whole paragraphs...

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Chapter 9: Health and Welfare

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pp. 166-178

After the Southern Pacific Railroad split the Merriman ranch, Sarah Winchester sold it in a few pieces. The Merrimans remained at the old house until 1907, when Winchester agreed to buy a lot and build them a new home in Palo Alto. Winchester believed that land near Stanford would only increase in value, and Palo Alto’s...

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Chapter 10: Changing Fortunes

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pp. 179-195

Advancing age and failing health made Sarah Winchester retreat from construction projects that had occupied her time up until about 1910. And the death of Frank Carroll derailed her plans for a harbor at Burlingame. She no longer worked on the San José house except for adding an elevator in 1916 and having odd maintenance jobs...

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Chapter 11: Trapped in a Mistaken Legacy

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pp. 196-205

Sarah Lockwood Pardee Winchester, variously known as the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, a recluse, a spiritualist, and “Aunt Sallie,” hovered between life and death the first week of September in 1922. Ravaged by years of rheumatoid arthritis, her body slowly shut down. The household staff knew it. Tommie, the...

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Chapter 12: Capitalizing on Spirits: The Mystery House

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pp. 206-214

One by one, Sarah Winchester’s properties were subdivided, sold, and developed. The land in Burlingame was thought to be worth $65,000, but the houseboat was worth very little. The ark was offered for sale in 1924, with a notice in the Burlingame Advance stating: “A modern ark, built along the lines of Noah’s famous...


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pp. 215-232


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pp. 233-238


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pp. 239-252

About the Author, Back Cover

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pp. 281-282

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272317
E-ISBN-10: 0826272312
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219831
Print-ISBN-10: 0826219055

Page Count: 278
Illustrations: 29 illus, 6 figures
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1