Sarah Winchester began plans for the famous Winchester House in San Jose, California, in 1884. Construction continued 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year, resulting in a house filled with mysterious windows, doors, and staircases, many of which lead nowhere. In “The Lady Winchester Deciphers Her Labyrinth,” author Adrian Van Young constructs his own version of the enigmatic Sarah Winchester, and the events surrounding the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. A mysterious mansion, a city-wide fire, and a mentally ill heiress. Thank you, Adrian for this wonderful and haunting story.
Before the great earthquake of 1906, twenty-three hours before it exactly, a quake which will, when it has passed, enact such a chaos of structural damage upon a house in San Jose that the house might as well not be standing at all, shattering ten of the seventeen chimneys, juddering three Tudor turrets to bricks, uprooting a wing of New England-style porches, shaking loose the plasterwork, collapsing asunder the third and fourth stories, buckling the seven-tier tower to bits—before any of this, while the house is still standing, while the house is still pumping with uncanny blood, Sarah Winchester, the woman who owns it, proceeds through its windings with Tommie her gardener, counting the number of windows that are.
Rooms in the house: 160.
48 fireplaces. 17 chimneys. 3 elevators. 2 basements. 2 ballrooms. 10,000, counting, panes of glass.
Only some of these windows look out on the gardens where Tommie, cadaverous and elegant, walks. While other windows in the house look sideways at walls or look upwards on ceilings. They are curious windows, interior windows; rather than leading outside, they lead inward. A couple look through dim woodwork upon still other windows and through these the gardens. Between the windows lies a shaft with no architecture above or below it, an extra dimension of vertical space encasing the house like some strange second skin.
Every glass pane counts as 1 discrete window. The heiress has made sure of this.
Even the stained glass surmounting the staircase which was 1000 dollars, two weeks to install, goes down in Tommie’s book as 1—one mark among a legion like it. The glass has an inscription on it from Richard II, Act V, Scene V: These same thoughts people this little world.
She is an heiress but also a widow. Her daughter is four decades dead, her husband three; she is alone. The heiress’ fortune comes to her from rifles—the Winchester model, named after her husband, who carries the name of his father in turn.
But she is the primary shareholder now. She owns the house and never leaves it.
Every two weeks she goes hobbling through it, calculating what she’s built.
She and Tommie come into the house’s ballroom where she turns in a circle; the dust motes turn with her. All the curtains are drawn in this cavernous space.
Daylight filters through the cracks.
“Seven thousand four hundred and twenty-six, Tommie.”
Tommie marks inside his book. “Are we counting the panes in the greenhouse today?”
“Of course, Tommie, yes,” says the heiress, distracted, ticking off panes with her right pointer finger. Chronic arthritis sets fire to her hands, bringing her back to the moment—his question. She turns and arranges her face into sternness: “Of course we are, Tommie. When have we not?”
She stiffens in the dim ballroom, ready to turn on a dime and go out.
To reach the right staircase that leads to the top, they’ll have to double back again down the hall that led here, then the hall at the branching, then a series of shorter halls still off of that—a kinked-up maze of passages that leads to the alcove that houses the stairs. There are many staircases all through the great house, though few of them lead to the places they should. Like the windows, the stairways melt up into ceilings or end mid-ascent in bizarre, floating platforms. They have a purpose in the world that they’ve been divested of here in the house.
“Tomorrow is Wednesday,” says Tommie.
“A good day for a holiday.”
“If you like, you may take the day off,” says the heiress. “Spend it with Ito. Your pretty young wife.”
“It’s not on my behalf…” He stops. “It’s not on my behalf I ask.”
“That’s lovely, Tommie,” says the heiress.
His diction, she thinks to herself, can she place it? Anne Radcliff perhaps—Polidori—Flaubert. She has given him so many books in the past, stacked them outside his quarters, not insisting he read them.
He is vague through the haze of the heiress’ veil. It is crepe and it gusts with the air of her motion, approaching him, passing him, leaving the room. She only removes it whenever she bathes and when she is in bed asleep, and even though Tommie has seen her without it, she still prefers to keep it drawn.
Beneath it is not even something macabre: the necrotic grand dame with the straggling hair.
It is only the face of an elderly woman who cannot fully chew her food.
When they reach the staircase she begins to climb first. She calls back down the stairs to Tommie: “I will finish this count at my leisure,” she says, “and bring you my findings so you may record them.”
When Tommie’s face begins to shake the heiress turns her own away.
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