The spiritualism path

The grief-mad heiress Sarah Winchester believed the Boston spiritual medium who told her that the deaths of her infant daughter and her husband were spirit-realm vengeance for all the hell wrought by Winchester’s rifles upon Native Americans and Civil-War soldiers. Stood to reason her karmic account wasn’t all paid up yet, either. There was a considerable outstanding balance.

This was in the late nineteenth century, the heyday of theosophistry and a resurgence of interest in the occult and the gnostic arts, principally among those of means. The medium offered Ms. Winchester a solution: Move west and dedicate your fortune to the construction of a giant house to appease and harbor the legions of angry spirits that now haunt you. And it is very important that you never stop building this house so long as you draw breath. If you stop, you will die.

Was this guy repping a San José construction firm?

I don’t suppose too much has changed. Whatever else it might be — and I remain open-minded — alternative spirituality still seems to be a way for the upper classes to feel purified, cleansed of complicity in the disgrace of runaway capitalism and wealth. Throw in a dash of specious we-all-make-our-own-realities self-deterministic philosophy and you see how it is possible to feel very good, very healthy, about one’s bank account. And today you don’t even have to spend all that money building a mansion for ghosts!


Even so, these days a sensible spiritual counselor out of Northampton might have proposed more socially responsible reparations to Ms. Winchester, good will directed toward the heirs of the victims, not the ghosts. But spiritualism was a spooky parlor game in the Victorian age, and it really had to be about ghosts.

Sarah Winchester did as instructed, building and building and building the famous Winchester Mystery House in San José for the rest of her natural life, and providing a material mecca for those of us who often dream of familiar houses taking on new halls and chambers: a common motif that Jung interpreted as a symbol of the unexplored regions of the unconscious and as a kind of invitation to explore them.

You know the features: a sprawling, surreal Victorian campus of a home. Stairs to nowhere, doors opening to precipitous drops (I guess ghosts can’t die, by definition). There are 160 rooms in all, 47 fireplaces, two ballrooms. Construction, they say, was year-round for 38 years.

The $20 million Sarah Winchester inherited from her husband was worth over half a billion in today’s dollars. Her daily stipend from half-ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company provided an additional $1000 a day.

She pursued the expiation of an inherited spiritual guilt with an inherited fortune. Makes sense, I guess. Her wealth-fired madness and grief produced a space in which to negotiate a peace with the spirits whose business was really with her husband and his forbears.

When it comes to treaties with the past, most of us have to make do with therapy and art and dreams. Luckily, ghosts seem just as happy to gather there.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.