Amid all the national clamor for sane gun safety laws, one forgotten figure keeps coming to my mind: Sarah Winchester. The heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, Sarah felt hounded by the spirits of those who had died by those rifles—Native Americans, Civil War soldiers, and many others. In 1884 she moved to California and bought a farmhouse in San Jose, where she ordered construction to proceed around the clock to trap and confound those restless, vengeful spirits.
I visited the Winchester Mystery House with my kids several years ago, during a trip to PantheaCon. What struck me then were the parallels between the Spiritualist circles that Sarah Winchester moved in 100 years ago, and the New Age community still so prevalent in the South Bay. They shared the belief that the spirit outlasts the body, and can be communicated with through channeling and other methods. Both provided a means for (primarily) women to cope with the loss of loved ones, and to experience a kind of spiritual transcendence not found in established religions.
Today what strikes me about Sarah Winchester is not her troubled personal story but the very fact that she felt responsible for how her fortune was made. To feel answerable to the victims of gun violence—is this even on the radar of the people now made wealthy by the Glock, the Bushmaster, and other weapons flooding our streets and killing innocent children?
Spiritualists in the 19th century were generally liberal—most abhorred slavery and were in favor of women’s suffrage—yet stayed focused on the spiritual realm. Women of that era did not have much political power, even those of great wealth such as Sarah Winchester. But today the social landscape has completely changed, and particularly around gun violence women are flexing real muscle.
If Sarah Winchester were alive today, maybe she would be an active member of the Women Donors Network, which just kicked off the Women United For campaign to take a leadership role on the issue of gun violence prevention. In an era where women’s activism is changing the game of national politics, she would certainly find more constructive avenues to channel her deep grief and guilt.
Perhaps her nearly 40 year project was simply the result of an addled mind, a harmless hobby for a wealthy eccentric. Maybe she was better off donating anonymously to local charities and living alone with her ghosts. But somehow I think Sarah Winchester might rest easier today knowing that the cause of her private torment is now being acted on by the entire nation.
We may never hear of a single wealthy gun magnate who is currently grappling with a guilty conscience. Perhaps they don’t exist, or maybe their are viewed as personally weak rather than principled.
Either way, the numbers of innocent dead have grown too large, their stories too anguished for us to ignore. And if we do finally enact universal background checks and outlaw assault weapons, I think the Winchester Mystery House should be part of the story of how America confronted its revolutionary roots and eventually, after too many generations, turned away from violence.