Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune

Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune

by Mary Jo Ignoffo
Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune

Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune

by Mary Jo Ignoffo

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The first full-length biography of Sarah Winchester, the subject of the movie Winchester starring Helen Mirren.

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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826219831
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 01/30/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Mary Jo Ignoffo teaches in the history department of De Anza College in Cupertino, California. She is the author of five other books about California history.

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Sarah L. Winchester Heiress to the Rifle Fortune
By Mary Jo Ignoffo


Copyright © 2010 Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1905-3

Chapter One

New Haven's Daughter

* * *

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 churches particularly captured his fancy. "The effect is very like that of an old cathedral yard in England," he noted, "... a kind of compromise between town and country; as if each had met the other half-way and shaken hands upon it."

Even the climate was widely admired. One account (written when most of the present-day United States had yet to be explored) claimed, "As to pleasantness of situation and salubrity of air, New Haven is hardly exceeded by any city in America." The whitewashed fencing of the Puritan days had lately been replaced with black iron gating, and hundreds of elm trees had matured into leafy tunnels sheltering carefully groomed streets. New Haven was, as Dickens saw it, one of America's most beautiful cities, and the vibrancy and comfort of the Green became a standard by which other towns measured their relative ambiance.

Sarah Winchester's ancestors had lived in New Haven almost since its founding, making her American roots as old as the colonies. In 1644, a battered and maimed twenty-year-old George Pardee tumbled off an emigrant ship into the shallow harbor at New Haven Colony, a fledgling village on Connecticut's coast. Pardee was Sarah Winchester's fourth great-grandfather, the younger son of an English clergyman descended from a French family. He had been chased out of his native Somersetshire, England, for hard-line Puritan statements, and after a brutal beating, he had fled for his life. His escape from anti-Puritan England was in the nick of time, for he had been beaten so badly that he never fully recovered and walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. This marked him as a man of unflinching religious convictions. Even his name suggested a lineage of churchmen: "Pardee" derives from an old French oath, par Dieu ("by God"). He found a probationary welcome at New Haven, and his name first appears in a court record apprenticing him to a tailor. "George Pardy shall dwell with Francis Browne as his apprentice for the terme of 5 years from hence forwards, dureing which time the said Francis is to doe his endevor to teach him the trade of a taylor." Sarah Pardee Winchester came from decidedly Puritan stock.

As an unmarried man, Pardee was not permitted to live apart from a respectable householder, and Francis Browne became his patron and mentor. During his apprenticeship, Pardee gained practical knowledge as well as respect. He was assigned the fourth seat from the aisle in Center Church, a manifest advancement from his poor and bedraggled condition upon his arrival at New Haven. In 1650, after the prescribed five-year indenture, Pardee married Martha Miles, and four children came in rapid succession. The community discovered his latent talents, and in 1662 he was appointed the first rector of New Haven's Hopkins Grammar School, which thrives to this day. He must have studied or been tutored as a youngster to be entrusted to teach English and "to carry them on in Latin so far as he could." Having learned scripture and obedience at the foot of his Puritan father, Pardee had a stern disposition that kept New Haven's boys orderly and pious. Soon he was living nearer the commons, another indication of his growing social status.

Like many seventeenth-century women, Martha Pardee died in childbirth. In 1655, George married Katherine Lane and had four more children. The youngest child and only male of his second marriage, Joseph, born in 1664, was the undisputed favorite son and, not unlike the biblical youngest named Joseph, was resented by his siblings for the important roles he was given in the growing community. When a new bell replaced the drum that had heretofore called the people to worship, Joseph was hired, for five pounds per annum, "to ring the bell for ye Towns occasions or ye Sabbaths ... and allsoe to sweep ye meeting house every week." Moreover, George guided Joseph to learn a trade. As a young man, Joseph took up carpentry and developed into a successful craftsman.

Joseph Pardee married Elizabeth Yale (a cousin of Elihu Yale, the benefactor for whom Yale College would be named) in 1689. By the time of Joseph's wedding, George Pardee had been in New Haven for forty-five years. The gifts he bestowed on his youngest son are a testament to his success in the colony. He gave Joseph his home near the Green (provided that the senior Pardees could live out their lives there), other town lots, and thirty-four acres on the west side of the Quinnipiac River. The generous gifts excluded all of Joseph's siblings, which was a fairly common practice when elder siblings had long since established their own families. But Joseph felt compelled to address the complaints of his eldest half brother, who believed the gifts were a particularly egregious insult. Joseph attempted to persuade his father to divide the worldly possessions fairly among the Pardee sons (evidently he was not so concerned about his several sisters). But in 1700, when it was clear that George was about to die and had not changed his mind, Joseph arranged to have the property deeds redrawn because "the just rights of my other relations are not answered and secured, but manifestly injured and invaded through the mistake of the scribe," meaning the senior Pardee. Joseph Pardee demonstrated an unusual adherence to fair play.

Sarah Winchester's ancestry derives from George and his son, Joseph. Characteristics of these men, including a strict sense of justice, found their way down several generations to Sarah, who also possessed the Pardee appreciation for woodworking. Joseph Pardee's descendants over the next four generations—Enos, Thomas, Joel, and Leonard—were all woodworkers and lived in Hamden, a small village bordering New Haven on the north. Sarah Winchester's father was Leonard Pardee, born in 1807 to Sally and Joel Pardee. After the early death of his father, he was raised by his mother and her second husband, Eli Goodyear (a relation of the patent holder for the vulcanization of rubber for tires). Leonard followed in the footsteps of generations of Pardees, perfecting his skills as a joiner.

The family's neighborhood in Hamden, which bordered New Haven, had a distinctly industrial identity. The famous inventor Eli Whitney, who revolutionized the cotton harvest with his gin that separated cotton from the seed, had established the Whitney Arms Company there in 1798. The Mill River, so named for the number of mills along its banks, ran through Hamden. Its water powered the jigs, drills, and lathes of a dozen small factories. Life in Hamden provided Leonard Pardee an entree into the inner workings of the Industrial Revolution. He perfected machining skills along with his traditional wood-joining techniques, and schooled himself to produce those small but vital parts. By age twenty, Leonard was living in New Haven and making a reasonable income.

* * *

The young woman who would become Sarah Winchester's mother was born in 1808 in Milford, a town of about 2,500 residents that had grown up west of New Haven along the Wepawaug River. It was primarily a fishing village and, unlike New Haven, did not have an industrial base. At the time of the American Revolution, its population was large enough to require having a fort there, but eventually Hamden and New Haven eclipsed Milford, leaving it a bit of a backwater. Sarah W. Burns was the fifth daughter and seventh of twelve children born to Ralph and Polly (Morehouse) Burns. Her grandfather Burns fought in the Revolutionary War as a gunner at Fort Milford, and her father was born at the height of Revolutionary skirmishes. Ralph and Polly fed their family alternately by oystering and farming, depending on the season and whatever could be coaxed out of Connecticut's rocky topography. The Burnses were different from the Pardees. They did not have a personal Puritan history, nor a long-established tradition as tradesmen. For them, making a living was an arduous perennial demand.

Whether Burns or Pardee, one immutable reality that all shared in common was the persistent and equal hand of death. The Milford cemetery holds the remains of infant twin Burns girls who died in December of 1821, a two-year-old Susan who died in 1828, and sixteen-year-old Jennie, who died in 1829. The most commonly held theology in New England at that time insisted that a wrathful God rejected those whom He had not predestined for salvation. Perhaps the deaths of Sarah Burns's sisters during her adolescent years inspired her to question tradition and venture to a Baptist camp meeting on the riverbank. Although the inspiring preacher maintained a belief in predestination, his brand of revivalism heralded a radical departure from Congregationalism's dismal, restrictive, doomsday message. She and hundreds of others were captivated by the preaching of the Reverend Benjamin Hill, a self-proclaimed "Calvinistic Baptist," who held forth on the banks of the Quinnipiac for the better part of a week in May 1828. Hill called out for converts to come to baptism. His invitation to salvation was so appealing that membership in his church doubled between 1824 and 1828.

Hill's revival was just one example of modern denominations' vying with the traditional Congregational (Puritan) Church for members and for higher moral ground. Several distinctly American religions emerged as the Industrial Revolution pulled thousands of men, women, and children from farm to factory, and New England and New York provided fertile breeding grounds for alternative religious expression. Large Baptist and Methodist revivals converted hundreds, and other spiritualities were initiated by commoners rather than an educated (but out-of-touch) clergy. Among the radical departures from mainstream religious thought were Mormonism, transcendentalism, and spiritualism. Each offered a more personal experience of the divine. Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, deemed himself a new Moses, accepting God's code of conduct directly from an angel. Smith found ready adherents and ushered his followers to establish a western outpost. A bit later, transcendentalism gained many followers when Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau articulated a fresh way of intuiting spiritual reality. Spiritualism, born of the upstart religions, supported a belief in the ability to communicate with the dead. It surfaced in New York after two young sisters claimed that knocking noises were directives from a murder victim. Kate and Margaret Fox's claims drew widespread attention to their Hydesville community, as the idea that spirits were seeking to speak to humans resonated with people who were overwhelmed by the relentless presence of death. Spiritualism became more popular during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, affording commoners a toehold in religious interpretation and practice. Its practitioners were most often women, who overrode the authority of the pulpit by suggesting a life after death even for the unbaptized. The notion that one could hear directives from deceased persons lifted the dual yokes of death and damnation and captured widespread attention. Spiritualism took flight in America.

The great jostling between traditional religions and upstart varieties during the Second Great Awakening manifested itself in Connecticut in 1818, when the state declared that Congregationalism was no longer the official religion. At about the same time, as if to stabilize shifting theological ground, in an attempt to maintain authority stalwarts built three classic church buildings in a neat row on New Haven's Green. Center Church claimed an ancestry dating to the Puritans; Trinity Episcopal Church, the earliest Gothic-Revival church in the United States, stood as testament to the colonies' Church of England ancestry; North Church was the epitome of strict conservatism when it was constructed as a Congregational church. The stoic Yale College bolstered the religious stricture on the Green. Even though it hosted some of the premier thinkers and inventors of the era, it had been founded to educate a conservative clergy. Its very buildings had the look of restrained tradition. New Haven Green remains among the most beautiful historic enclaves in New England. It is also the most vivid picture that we have of the setting and scenery of Sarah Winchester's childhood.

Sarah Winchester's parents came of age just after the churches on the Green were constructed, in Puritanism's last gasp. Sarah Burns emerged from baptism in the chilly Quinnipiac River ignited with religious ardor, born again on the eve of her twentieth birthday in the early spring of 1828. As it happened, one Leonard Pardee was also swept up in the revival and proclaimed his faith. Sarah and Leonard encountered the preacher, the divine, and each other at the same time, and were inspired to join hands into the future. The two young converts found common ground despite the apparent differences between their respective families. They were the same age, each was a Connecticut native, and both found hope in the more democratic and expressive Baptist Church.

Leonard Pardee and Sarah Burns married in 1829, stating wedding vows before Rev. Hill, a startling departure from the Congregational roots of both families. Hill's simple brick-and-stone church on Olive Street, although modeled on Center Church, was no candidate for real estate on the Green. It was a house of worship for the more demonstrative, and the singing and public prayer that emerged through its walls would not have made a good neighbor to tradition. Leonard and Sarah established a lifelong friendship with Hill, whose message inspired a passionate spirituality. For the next four decades, even after he answered a call to lead another church, Hill often returned and presided at Pardee funerals and weddings.

* * *

The Pardees made a home at 12 Hill Street (an interesting coincidence, given their attachment to the preacher of the same name), near the Congress Avenue junction in the center of New Haven. They began having children shortly after marriage, and in a pattern common for mid-nineteenth-century New Englanders, had a child almost every other year for fifteen years. They were luckier than most: all but the first survived childhood.

In February 1831, a daughter was born and they named her Sarah, adhering to the custom of naming the first daughter after the mother. The baby's first year progressed very well, but in the summer of 1832, she died. Although town records list scarlatina (scarlet fever) as the cause of death, it is likely that little Sarah succumbed to the cholera epidemic descending on New Haven that summer (neither cholera nor scarlet fever were treatable before the introduction of antibiotics). A local physician kept careful notes on the outbreak:

The first case of cholera in New Haven, in 1832, occurred on Tuesday, July 10th, in the person of Mrs. N. She arrived the day before, from New York, with her son, six years old, at the house of her father, Mr. J., in Grand Street. In the house which she left in New York, there had been several cases of cholera and two deaths. She was attacked the morning after her arrival, and her son on Thursday, two days afterwards. Both had the disease severely, but recovered. On Friday, July 13th, Mrs. J., the mother of Mrs. N., and on the night following, Mr. J., her father, were attacked, and both died; one in eleven and the other in thirteen hours from the attack. No other case of the disease was observed in the city for more than three weeks.

Then a new round of cases appeared, and it included eighteen-month-old Sarah Pardee. The child died on August 11, just hours after showing symptoms. The death toll in New Haven rose to more than thirty. While the doctor rightly believed the disease had been brought to New Haven on incoming vessels from New York, the public was confounded by the disease that struck so quickly and took life so promptly. Most looked to the heavens for answers, believing that cholera must have been sent by the hand of God in retribution for lax living. The Pardees lost their firstborn, and the grieving parents held a Baptist funeral for their baby girl. Not even the new Baptist faith offered salvation to the baby, who was relegated to eternal damnation. This kind of forbidding theology allowed spiritualism to chip away at Calvinist doctrine. The Pardees' Baptist fervor cooled, and when a schism divided the congregation after a new pastor arrived and his salary of $1,200 per year was announced, Pardee attendance at Sunday services was intermittent.

When the Pardees' first child died, Sarah Pardee was pregnant. Another daughter was born in 1833, and baby Mary thrived. Two years later, in October of 1835, Antoinette ("Nettie") joined her. The Pardees enjoyed relative health for the next decade. They were not so lucky financially. The troubled national economy of the middle 1830s was stretched beyond its limits with widespread speculation and an oversupply of paper money. More than a third of the banks in the country closed, limiting the capital available. Leonard Pardee teetered on the brink of poverty.

Andrew Jackson's presidency bolstered the hopes of the common man and reflected a nation more in keeping with citizens like Pardee. The president personified a shift in American culture toward decentralized government and fewer class restrictions. Individuals in every arena, from family to church to government, had the right and the power of self-determination. New Haven, with almost 10,000 residents living within its six square miles, was a microcosm of the nation. Young journeymen who were coming of age, men like Leonard Pardee, aimed to take economic power from the Whigs, the old-moneyed aristocracy. The Whigs were nervous and attempted to strengthen their grip on money and power but, in New Haven as elsewhere, were unable to hold back the new, young craftsmen, active players in industry who were ready to take their place. So not only was the religious foundation of the community in flux, with the likes of Rev. Benjamin Hill entering the scene, so too the economic and political hierarchies were shifting. The community was beset by a new rivalry between the upper class and those of moderate means.


Excerpted from CAPTIVE OF THE LABYRINTH by Mary Jo Ignoffo Copyright © 2010 by Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Author's Note....................ix
Chapter 1 New Haven's Daughter....................7
Chapter 2 Marrying into the Winchester Family....................22
Chapter 3 "The Gun that Won the West"....................39
Chapter 4 The Winchester Fortune....................66
Chapter 5 A California Dream....................83
Chapter 6 Labyrinth....................106
Chapter 7 Daydream or Nightmare....................123
Chapter 8 Guns, Guilt, and Ghosts: the First Commentaries on Sarah Winchester's Odd House....................138
Chapter 9 Health and Welfare....................166
Chapter 10 Changing Fortunes....................179
Chapter 11 Trapped in a Mistaken Legacy....................196
Chapter 12 Capitalizing on Spirits: the Mystery House....................206

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