Episode 109: The Winchesters: Rifles, Money, and Madness

This episode is brought to you by El Yucateco

This episode of The Sofa King Podcast explores the life and legacy of the Winchester family. From the “Gun that Won the West” to the Winchester Mystery house, we look at this intriguing and influential family and how they shaped America in the Old West and Beyond. We start with a look at the early life of the family patriarch, Oliver Fisher Winchester. Born in Boston in 1810, Oliver worked his way from a farm hand to a dry goods store proprietor to the owner of two shirt factories in New England. Once he was an established business man, he saw a chance to buy a failing firearms manufacturer that was a branch of Smith and Wesson called the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company.

From there, he made a series of very smart business moves and ended up revolutionizing the design and manufacture of rifles and ammunition with the famous Henry Rifle and its evolution to the Model 1866 and the infamous Model 1873, the model that won the west. The conversation is a who’s who of gun manufacturers that looks at ties between Benjamin Henry, Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson, and even Robert Browning.

And this is where the story gets interesting. In December of 1880, Oliver Winchester dies, and his son, William Wirt Winchester takes control of the company. William dies a year later from Tuberculosis, and his wife Sarah becomes heiress to 50% of the Winchester company, the entire Winchester fortune, and is suddenly the wealthiest woman in America. However, she is deeply troubled. Popular myth about the family holds that after a séance in Boston, Sarah obsesses over spirits and becomes convinced that the spirits of all the people killed using her family’s rifles are haunting her. In fact, the spirits are why her baby died in just nine days, her husband died, and her father-in-law died.

Her solution? Build a crazy house! She buys a house in what is now San Jose, and she hires a crew of 20 carpenters to work for 38 years constantly changing the structure and rooms. As long as she never sleeps in the same bedroom twice, Sarah allegedly concludes, the spirits can’t touch her. So her house is filled with trick rooms, doors to nowhere, shrinking hallways, and other mysteries. Did Sarah think she was haunted? Was there another reason for her to build this amazingly bizarre house? How does she tie in with theories of Shakespeare being a fraud? How drunk does Brent get on King Cobra? Listen, Laugh, Learn.

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