Please note that this story has been corrected to clarify that the Winchester family were not owners of the Betts House but were close business partners with the Betts House’s original owners, the Davies family.
Thursday, October 27, 2022
Yale Conferences & Events has the privilege of planning events across Yale University’s beautiful New Haven, CT campus. However, one property stands out: the Betts House, a 21,000-sqaure-foot mansion built in 1868 and acquired by Yale in 1972. Although the house itself is not known to be haunted, it has connections to Sarah Winchester, who is the inspiration for one of America’s most compelling ghost stories.
Born Sarah Lockwood Pardee in 1839, she was the daughter of a craftsman and a member of a significant local lineage. In 1862, she married William Winchester, the only son of Oliver Winchester, founder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Best known for the Winchester Model 1873, or the “gun that won the West,” the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was a commercial powerhouse that added to the Winchester family’s already vast fortune.
Mr. John Davies built the mansion now known as the Betts House at Yale, and he and and Mr. Oliver Winchester (Sarah’s father in law) were partners in the shirt manufacturing business, having both moved to New Haven from New York to pursue that line of work.
Unfortunately, Sarah would endure a series of personal tragedies during this time. In 1866, she and William had a daughter, Annie Winchester, who died at five weeks of age. Three years after Annie’s death, Sarah’s father died. Then in 1881, her husband William died of tuberculosis at just 43 years old. Sarah’s mother died the following year and in 1884, one of her sisters died of cancer.
Although Sarah’s inheritance made her one of the wealthiest women in the world at the time, she had lost almost everyone closest to her. Ready to leave her painful past in New Haven behind, she moved out West in 1884 and began to build a house on a 160-acre estate in San Jose, California. Legend has it that Sarah had consulted a medium, who revealed that a curse had been put on her family. Her only recourse to escape, the gossip went, was to constantly renovate and expand her house into as many configurations as possible in order to confuse the vengeful spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles.
Winchester Mystery House
Sarah spent the next 38 years building a massive, 161-room Queen Anne-style mansion that is now known as the “Winchester Mystery House”. She did not use an architect and added on to the building in a haphazard fashion, so the home contains numerous oddities such as doors and stairs that go nowhere, windows overlooking other rooms, and doors opening up to bricked walls. Sarah died in 1922 and is now buried next to her husband and their infant child in Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven. She left a will written in thirteen sections, which she signed thirteen times.
In 2018, Sarah’s story was brought to the big screen in the supernatural horror film “Winchester”. The popular podcast Criminal dedicated an episode to Sarah’s story in 2019 called “The Widow and the Winchester”.