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New Haven Heiress Sarah Winchester The Subject Of A New Horror Film

Tucked away in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery is an ornate gravestone bearing the names of William Wirt Winchester, his infant daughter Annie, and Sarah Lockwood Pardee -- Winchester’s wife, who outlived her firearms magnate husband by some 40 years.

Now, a largely debunked myth about Sarah Winchester is the subject of a new Hollywood horror film.

Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born in New Haven in 1840. In 1862, she married William Winchester, son of Oliver Winchester, the owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms company. When William died of tuberculosis in 1880, Sarah Winchester inherited $20 million, and 50 percent ownership in the Winchester company.

And here's where fact and fiction become blurred.

In 1886, the heiress moved to California, and began work on an endless series of additions to her Victorian mansion in San Jose that allegedly continued until her death. The “Winchester Mystery House” still stands to this day -- a sprawling, architectural curiosity, that attracts thousands of visitors each year.

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The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California

The mansion, and the movie "Winchester” rely heavily on the legend that Sarah Winchester was obsessed with the occult.

The story goes that shortly after her husband's death she visited a medium in Boston. The medium told her that the Winchester family was cursed by the spirits of everyone who was killed by a Winchester rifle. Sarah, played by British actress Helen Mirren in the movie, was told the curse would be lifted if she constructed rooms to house those spirits.

But Sarah Winchester biographers have cast doubt on the legend. Many historians note that she would stop construction on her mansion for months at a time, and that no additions were constructed in the last two years of her life.

Biographer Mary Jo Ignoffo believes the legend was a fabrication created by journalists of the day. She points out that “nobody felt guilty about guns at the turn of the 20th century. Everybody used them and needed them.”

Winchester was also a prolific philanthropist. Many believe the countless additions to her home was her way of keeping local workers and artisans employed.

“Winchester” is now playing at movie theaters nationwide.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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