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Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"In this scattered but well-meaning biography of the heiress to the massive Winchester arms fortune, Ignoffo's attempts to undercut rumors of eccentric behavior become bogged down in historical minutiae. Born in 1839 in New Haven, Conn., Sarah Lockwood Pardee entered the Winchester dynasty in 1862 when she wed William Wirt Winchester, the son of the founder of the legendary Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The Winchester rifle became the preferred gun of the expanding American frontier, and Sarah moved westward herself four years after William's death in 1881, using her substantial wealth to settle in a then undeveloped California. Rumors of her spiritualist leanings and reclusive tendencies began after Sarah purchased a large ranch in the Santa Clara Valley, christening it Llanada Villa, which became the titular labyrinth. When completed, it was over three stories high, with rooms and hallways tacked on at random. Sarah purchased several more properties surrounding Llanada and near San Francisco, all while remaining aloof from neighbors, primarily due to debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. While Sarah Winchester's intriguing life has been largely overlooked by historians, Ignoffo does her subject few favors with a lack of organization and frequent tangents. (Dec.) In these 60 short essays, men and women of all ages and backgrounds write about love: of a teacher, house, step family, the poor or needy, mountains, and even growing old. While 'Love on Aisle Three' is about a small group that gathers round an adorable baby in a cart, several essays explore love not of a person or thing, but an activity like cooking or knitting. In 'God Is In Her Hand,' John Samuel Tieman writes, 'Love is in the hand that crafts, sculpts, sews, caresses, soothes.' The most moving pieces examine love tied to a difficult situation. In 'The Courage to Let Go,' Gale Workman's father, after taking care of her mother for months, finally allows himself to say goodbye. Originally started on Edward R. Murrow's 1950s radio show, this effort to get ordinary citizens to discuss their core values has produced essays that vary greatly in quality and suffer in this form from the absence of a human voice. Still, this anthology beautifully captures our need, and the sacrifices we make, for love. (Dec.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
Ignoffo unearths the truth about notorious eccentric Sarah Winchester, revealing that she was not a maddened spiritualist driven by remorse but an intelligent, articulate woman who sought to protect her private life.
This first full-length biography of Sarah Winchester, heir to the arms company and a notorious eccentric who kept her home under extensive construction for twenty years, reveals 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. By excerpting from personal correspondence, Ignoffo gives the heiress a voice for the first time since her death.
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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Biography » Rich and Famous