Book Review

Captive of the Labyrinth by Mary Jo Ignoffo


Genre: Nonfiction

The Winchester Mystery House is a famous tourist attraction in San Jose, California. Sarah Winchester, the owner and builder of the house, became enormously rich thanks to her marriage into the Winchester family (as in Winchester rifles). She moved to San Jose in 1884 or 1885 and purchased an eight-bedroom farmhouse that she added onto almost continuously until her death in 1922.

According to legend, after a series of losses including the death of her baby and husband, Sarah consulted a medium who told her that she was being cursed by the spirits of those who had been killed by Winchester firearms. If she wanted to appease the spirits, she would have to continuously build onto a house for herself and the spirits. This, the legend goes, is why the Winchester Mansion is so strange. It has over one hundred room, stairs that lead nowhere, doors that open onto open air (on the upper floors) and other oddities. According to legend, construction went on 24/7 and stopped at the moment she was pronounced dead.

If you are attached to this legend, then read the fictional book There is No Lovely End by Patty Templeton.

If you want to read something anticlimactic yet much more plausible, read Captive of the Labyrinth by Mary Jo Ignoffo. This biography makes a compelling case that Sarah built onto her house not because she was afraid of spirits because she enjoyed building stuff. It’s a feminist take on a much-maligned historical figure but oh, so deflating for those of us who grew up with the legend.

Ignoffo was able to gain access to letters to and from Sarah and Sarah’s attorney. The collection also had invoices, magazines subscriptions, and other ephemera. Ignoffo also found materials from a family who worked for Sarah for twenty-five years. These included photographs, letters, and daybooks. This archive allowed Ignoffo to write a “just the facts” biography. Ignoffo couldn’t find any mention of ghosts or spirits in Sarah’s life other than those mentioned in often-contradictory newspaper accounts. However, she does find abundant evidence that construction did not occur around the clock and often stopped for months at a time.

The great question about Sarah is: “Why did she build such a bizarre house?”

The stock answer is “Because the spirits told her to.”

Given the lack of documentation to support this theory, Ignoffo posits:

  1. She liked architecture but being a woman, she couldn’t be an architect or access good training, so she practiced on her own house.
  2. She grew up around woodworkers and loved it, so she used her house to experiment with different woods and products.
  3. As long as she was building, she didn’t have to have people over (INTOVERT ALERT!).
  4. She had unlimited time and money so hey, why not? Winchester was, by the way, not unusual in building a large, rambling house. This was a thing that rich people did. Ignoffo specifically cites Elizabeth Colt as another heiress who built a large rambling house, and Sarah’s attorney, who built two large houses and then built a wing to connect them.

As for some of the more bizarre traits of the Winchester house, many are practical, like the low-rise stairs, which I’ll rave about further on. Others are because Sarah didn’t have architectural training and sometimes she messed up. Most are because after the earthquake damage in 1906, Sarah blocked off some of the house and redirected her efforts to other areas that weren’t falling apart. Moreover, other strange elements, particularly the recurrence of the number 13, were added by the company which owns the house now and which profits enormously off of playing it up as a haunted house.

Ignoffo believes that Sarah was smart, generous, creative, and levelheaded in a culture that did not value smart, creative women. She believes that the legend about Sarah took hold for several reasons. Sarah was reclusive, and she offended her neighbors by not making or accepting calls. She was short and had terrible teeth and gnarled hands from arthritis so she pretty much looked like a fairytale witch. Above all, there was a lot of money in the story. Today, the Winchester Mystery House is a tourist attraction that thrives on the supernatural element and plays it up in both the regular tours, in their advertising, and during special events on Halloween and Friday the 13th.

The final ingredient, according to Ignoffo, is that Sarah’s money came from sales of Winchester rifles, and people had conflicted feelings about the roles of guns and violence in the formation of America as we know it today:

She was not targeted simply for being rich; it was the fact that her fortune came from the repeater [rifle] that made some convict her. If she had not been a Winchester, if her wealth had derived from something other than a firearm- a sewing machine, for example, patented at about the same time as the repeater-the rationale for the huge, odd house would have followed an entirely different tack. No one would have suggested she was guilt-ridden by sewing machines or feared ghosts of garment workers. The themes of superstition, guilt, fear of death, and communication with the netherworld are due to Winchester’s connection to the rifle.

I’ve been to the Winchester Mystery House recently, and yes, it’s weird (many hallways, many doors, one strategically-placed-by-tour-guides creepy doll), but a lot of it made perfect sense.

For instance, the tour guide explained that the shallow stairs with many switchbacks were made so that Sarah, who was 4’10 and had rheumatoid arthritis, could walk on them, and all the bathroom fixtures were made to match her height. Everyone in my tour group seemed to find this odd. Why? It’s her house! I happen to be 4’9” and I have osteoarthritis in my feet, knees, and hips and let me tell you I’ve never been more comfortable than in that house. Everyone’s all “Oh, she was so crazy” and I’m all, “Sister, represent!”

The basement, on the other hand, is incredibly creepy, but all basements are creepy.

Ignoffo is not the most artistic writer (hence the B-), and while she had much more material to work with than other biographers did, that still doesn’t add up to a lot of material.  I did not feel like I knew Sarah as a person by the end of this biography, although I was thrilled to discover that her personal physician was a woman named Euthanasia Meade. Still, Ignoffo makes a compelling case that Sarah was not superstitious, at least not to a point where it dominated her life. She also paints a picture of a woman who loved her family but also her privacy. Sarah’s sisters, who were as openly progressive and political as Sarah was private, are fascinating in their own right, especially Sarah’s animal-loving sister Isabelle.

Above all, Ignoffo is a staunch defender of Sarah as a brilliant woman with more talent than opportunity who was made a scapegoat because of her refusal to act as was expected of her:

Those who are the most mocking of Winchester, her most strident accusers, have based their definitive opinions on a mythology that does not stand up to historical scrutiny. It is a disservice to the facts of her life to dismiss Sarah Winchester as a superstitious madwoman. It is time to set the record straight. If Winchester’s San Jose house had not been turned into a tourist attraction, her memory would have been relegated to the annals of local history as an eccentric dowager who spent a fortune in equal parts on frivolity and philanthropy. But as the house draws thousands of people each year and represents details of the widow’s life to them, it becomes imperative to give the other side of the story.

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Captive of the Labyrinth by Mary Jo Ignoffo

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  1. Rebecca says:

    The assertion that feeling guilt over making money from an improved method of killing people automatically implies mental illness may have to do with sexism, but it’s weird that Igoffo doesn’t mention that Alfred Nobel’s frankly expressed guilt over creating a perfect weapon (which in fairness had other relatively benign industrial uses) led to the creation of the Nobel prize. No one suggested that he was “haunted” or “crazy” for feeling guilty. He may have gotten the benefit of the doubt because he was a man, but his invention didn’t. Drawing a false equivalence between a sewing machine and a repeater rifle strikes me as – to say the least – highly problematic, if not actively disingenous. And I say that as a descendant of garment workers, and someone who makes an effort to buy sweatshop free clothes.

    Also, given the way guns in the US have traditionally been used to control some minority populations and completely eliminate others, virulently insisting that not only was Sarah Winchester a misunderstood genius who felt no guilt but that she SHOULD have felt no guilt strikes me as a nice example of white feminism. How dare those nasty poor people think this nice rich lady has blood on her hands and should be haunted? We should all feel sorry for the rich lady who spent her time on her expensive hobby because people said mean things about her!

  2. CarrieS says:

    @Rebecca – I caught the problematec gun/sewing machine analagy as well.

    To clarify, Sarah was an astute manager of her own money, but she did not invent the winchester Rifle, manage the company, or have any direct role in it’s business. Her connection was one of marriage and inheritance.

    People didn’t think that it was crazy to feel guilt over havnig inherited money made from guns.People thought Sarah was crazy because, accoring to popular legend, her guilt drove her to believe in ghosts to the point where she spent her life in terror and isolation, squandering her fortune on the house, and believeing that the 1906 earthquake happened because she had angered the spirits by building too slowly. She was portrayed as a hysteric, stingy, delusional person who was obsessive and constanly afraid. Because of the connection with guns, the author suggests that people were able to project their own anxieties about weapons onto Sarah, making her something of a sacrificial goat to our own troubled feelings about our troubled national history (and present).

    The author of this book posits that Sarah was no more or less eccentric and wasteful than her wealthy peers, who weren’t considered crazy. The book also lists her donations, which at the time she insisted were anonymous. They were considerable, and towards the end of her life she founded a hospital with a sum that astonished the charity’s fundraisers.

    Any “feeling sorry” for Sarah, according to the book, would come from the fact that in another time she might have been an accepted and accomplished architect. The biography suggests that we have maligned Sarah’s reputation as a hysteric unfairly, but also posits that she had a fairly happy and contented life as opposed to one tormented by spirits or delusions of spirits.

    This does not mean that Sarah was progressive by any means, but it does paint a different and more nuanced picture than you will hear if you tour the mystery house.

  3. greennily says:

    I’m not sure I’ll read the book, but the review was very informative and interesting! Thanks, Carrie!

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