Oliver and Sarah: The Story of the Winchesters




THERE IS NOTHING as American as the Winchester rifle. A technological wonder, a lifestyle brand, and a devastator of lives, it’s an invention that changed the world, both in terms of its function and use, and in the capitalist enterprise that drove its dissemination. We’re used to hagiographic biographies of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, so a similar work devoted to the family that built the gun shouldn’t be too surprising. Laura Trevelyan’s The Winchester: The Gun That Built an American Dynasty is that book. Trevelyan herself is a descendent of the Winchester family, and her history lauds Oliver Winchester, his company, and the great works of his death-dealing weapon.

From the opening chapter’s depiction of Oliver’s early days as a carpenter and as a shirt manufacturer, Trevelyan sets the tone, describing Winchester as a person in the same mold as Jobs and Bill Gates, noting his combination of “fundamental uprightness” and his “entrepreneur’s flair and flourish.” Winchester, she writes, wasn’t content “to work for others in the sleepy world of constructing houses of worship — he wished to run his own show and make his own destiny.”

And certainly, from the perspective of an MBA student, Oliver Winchester’s story is inspiring: his understanding that the future lay not in any given product in particular but in patents, and in the new techniques of industrial manufacturing. He had made good money making shirts, but knew there was more to be had, and had the foresight to understand that the gun (not unlike, later, the computer or the smart phone) had the potential to change the world completely. Though the arms manufacturing industry was dominated by Eli Whitney, Eliphalet Remington, and Samuel Colt, Winchester knew the market wasn’t yet at its full potential, and so he invested in New Haven’s Volcanic Arms Company. Winchester believed in the company even as it initially faltered, pouring more and more of his own resources into it in exchange for an increasingly larger share of stock and patents. It was an unlikely gamble, but as the technology was continually refined and Winchester found markets for it, it began to pay off handsomely for him and his family.

One of those markets, the market that the Winchester is perhaps most associated with, was the American West, where a hunger for land and resources — underwritten by the idea of Manifest Destiny — drove white settlers further and further into Native people’s lands. It is difficult, of course, to discuss the Winchester without noting the deaths it caused in this westward expansion, as Trevelyan does:

The settlement of the West can still be seen through the rosy lens of American Exceptionalism — yet from today’s vantage point, it’s difficult to defend the mass slaughter of Native Americans trying to defend the lands they had occupied for centuries.

Did Winchester himself feel any guilt over this mass slaughter? Apparently not. Oliver Winchester, Trevelyan tells us, didn’t “appear to have lost a night’s sleep over anything, let alone those killed by his guns,” and “simply saw the shifting frontier as an opportunity to sell more rifles.” The gun itself, after all, was morally neutral, happy to kill whites, too. When Colonel George Custer and his 200 men faced off against Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at Little Big Horn, they were armed with single-shot Springfield carbines. The Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, meanwhile, had Winchesters. Custer and his men were dead in under an hour.

This was the exception, though; the Winchester became a favorite of white settlers, and an icon of death in what many now see as a genocide. One might expect a book about such a singularly destructive weapon to spend more pages accounting for the lives it destroyed. But like Oliver’s indefatigable spirit, Trevelyan’s book roars onward, spending little time exploring the moral and ethical impact of the Winchester rifle. She lists the company’s sales in foreign countries without mentioning anything of the conflicts those weapons were used in. Of the slaughter of Native Americans in the American West, Trevelyan notes that “[t]he expansionist years saw Winchester move towards becoming a profitable company, after years of teetering on the edge of financial viability.” Her glowing admiration of her forefather’s capitalist spirit repeatedly seems to preclude any deeper reflection of the gun’s implications: “I think of my shrewd Yankee forefathers and what their ingenuity and determination achieved,” she writes. “At a time when life in the West was nasty, brutish, and short, the Winchester rifle was a means to conquer, survive, and prosper.”

By the end of Trevelyan’s book, the gun is just a commodity like any other commodity, to be discussed in terms of units shipped, revenues reported, and rising stock prices. A paragraph devoted to the gun industry in the wake of the Newtown shooting is typical:

As for Winchester Ammunition, still owned by Olin, the post 9/11 campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 created strong sales of ammo to the US military. The push for stricter gun control laws in the wake of the 2012 Newtown killings of teachers and first-grade students in Connecticut led to an increase in sales of guns and ammunition to consumers, as gun owners feared their ability to buy was going to be curtailed. Congress ultimately failed to pass any legislation. Winchester officials in August 2015 forecast that demand for consumer ammunition would remain strong, explaining that many gun owners have taken up target shooting as a hobby.

Regardless of one’s political leanings, it is disconcerting to read such a paragraph, running through such a string of human tragedies in short order, treating them solely in relation to a manufacturer’s balance sheet. In passages like this, The Winchester reads less like a work of nonfiction and more like a report to shareholders. Trevelyan closes the book imagining “Winchester’s signature fringed rider on his pinto, galloping across the plains, gripping his trusty model ’73,” having lost herself in entirely in the mythology of the gun.

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A reader looking for a description of the actual impact these guns had on the landscape should instead seek out Pamela Haag’s recent The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture. Ostensibly, Haag’s book covers the same subject matter: the rise and fall of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. But from the outset, Haag’s interest is vastly different: The Gunning of America uses the Winchester story instead to explain how arms manufacturers created a market for weapons where none existed, and how they created, in the process, the notion that firearms were an indispensable part of American culture.

Haag’s book documents how the tragedy of American gun violence — including Newtown — emerged “from the banality of American gun business.” The early industrialization of gun production, involving large investments in machines designed to churn out rifles by the hundreds, quickly created an oversupply. Other manufacturers in New Haven laughed at Oliver Winchester when he announced that his plant stood ready to manufacture 200 guns a day — who could possibly need that many guns? The average gun owner needed maybe one or two guns in his or her lifetime, and most Americans didn’t need one at all. Supplying weapons to the government was erratic work; during times of war, governments wanted lots of guns, but as soon as hostilities ended, they wanted none. In order for these machines to turn a profit, then, Winchester needed to increase demand.

The Gunning of America details how, starting in the 1840s, manufacturers began to reconceptualize the gun from being an “exceptional martial tool,” used only in wartime by governments, to an “unexceptional commercial commodity,” like a stove or a wagon, to be owned by anyone. By the 1850s, Haag writes:

Gunmakers were no longer producing the guns that were needed, when they were needed, and supplementing their incomes with other crafts in between, but trying to sell all the guns that could be produced by machines that were tooled up to produce one design.

The current debate around the Second Amendment, and the notion that owning a gun is an American’s inalienable right, Haag shows, was the result of a concerted effort by gun industrialists to ship as many guns as possible to turn a buck.

For Haag, the story of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company is an exemplar of what historian John Blum calls “the amorality of business,” one in which WRAC sold their “lethal commodity with the commercial equivalent of agnosticism.” We cannot understand our current gun situation, including the mythological hold firearms seem to hold over a sizable portion of the population, without understanding this basic capitalist need to move product. “One answer to the nebulous but compelling question of why Americans love guns,” she writes,

is simply that the gun industry invited us to. As an unexceptional, agnostic imperative of doing business in the early 1900s, its marketing and advertising burnished the gun as an object of emotional value and affinity. Eventually, it would become one of political affinity as well.

Unlike Trevelyan, Haag doesn’t shy away from tallying up the deaths caused by Winchester and his rivals, even as their spokesmen were speaking in abstract, bloodless terms. The Gunning of America tells the comprehensive story that lurks only at the edges of Trevelyan’s The Winchester. Gun manufacturers like Colt and Winchester, after all, understood that killing was their business. In Florida in 1838, Colonel William Harney massacred the local population of Seminoles, leaving their bodies in “conspicuous places on the trees as a warning to others,” and credited Colt’s pistols with his success. Colt, however, was wary; as he later said, Harney’s victory, “though very glorious for the Government, was exactly the reverse for [me], for by exterminating the Indians, and bringing the war rapidly to an end, the market for the arms was destroyed.”

Arms dealers wanted then what they want now: slow, drawn-out, never-ending conflict, with lots of shots fired. Despite Colt’s demur in the case of Harney, a lot of deaths on all sides was good for business; perpetual and nebulous fear was the name of the game. It was on this business model, one of ceaseless bloodshed, that celebrated Yankee entrepreneurs like Oliver Winchester built their fortunes. (Though Colt and Winchester both sought contracts with Washington, DC during the Civil War, Colt was also busy shipping guns to the South up until the last possible moment.) For Oliver Winchester, guns were a thing to be sold, like shirts or anything else, and being a good businessman meant selling a lot of them, in whatever manner you could.

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Since Oliver never mourned the deaths of those killed by Winchesters, that role has fallen, curiously, to his daughter-in-law, Sarah Winchester. Legends and lore have long surrounded the reclusive Sarah, architect of the famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California: after her husband and infant daughter died, the tour guides tell you, Sarah consulted a medium named Adam Coons, who told her that her family was being haunted by the ghosts of anyone ever killed by a Winchester rifle; the only way to keep them at bay, Coons told her, was to build a house that was never finished. So Sarah moved to San Jose, bought an eight-room farmhouse, and with her fabulous wealth hired workmen to continually build on the house — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — until she died 36 years later. The resulting monstrosity can now be toured everyday but Christmas: a 160-room Victorian labyrinth, a monument to mourning without rhyme or reason.

I grew up not far from the Winchester Mystery House, and was obsessed with it long before I started researching Sarah’s story in 2009. When I began looking into it, I assumed that the story told by the house’s tour guides was mostly true, but almost immediately I ran into problems. There is scant archival evidence from Winchester or her employees on the house’s construction, and what little there is seems to openly contradict the legend. With the publication of the first real biography of Sarah Winchester in 2010, Mary Jo Ignoffo’s Captive of the Labyrinth, it became clear that most of the story of Sarah Winchester was indeed fictional, appearing first as a series of gossip items and then codified by the man who bought the house after Winchester’s death, a carnival operator who saw an opportunity to build a haunted house attraction.

Trevelyan’s chapter on Sarah follows Ignoffo’s lead, pulling apart the myths, returning her to the status of a thoroughly average human being. What’s confusing, then, is that Haag’s The Gunning of America, despite being so thoroughly researched and rigorously argued, repeatedly plays up the myth, trying to convince her readers that yes, Sarah Winchester was a Spiritualist who was haunted by ghosts and built her house as a labyrinth to keep them at bay. Haag is careful at times to remind readers that she is being conjectural, but the more space she devotes to this hypothesis, the more the lines blur. And since so much of Sarah’s life is unknown, and because it’s almost impossible to prove a negative, Haag sees room to speculate that the story is perhaps true.

Such speculation takes her far from the comprehensive, detailed study of the rest of the book into outright fiction. Take the supposedly famous Boston psychic, Adam Coons. Ignoffo and others have reported that there exists no record of any such psychic practicing in Boston during the 1870s; further, there are no contemporary records of Winchester ever visiting a psychic of any kind. The first appearance of the name “Adam Coons” was in a 1967 book by a psychic named Susy Smith. Haag, however, unearths a clairvoyant named Ada Coombs, living in Hastings, Minnesota, in 1880. Based on this extremely thin gruel, Haag proceeds to devote an entire chapter imagining Winchester’s supposed meeting with Coombs.

Haag also cites one of the few extant letters by Sarah Winchester, in which she speaks of a lost loved one “who has passed from mortal vision.” For Haag, the line is telling: “this phrase, singularly, suggests that Sarah Winchester really did believe in ghosts, after all.” But a cursory Google Books search of this exact phrase finds it in the minutes of a Freemasonry society in Oregon and in those of a Southern California teachers association, in the obituaries of a Boston insurance salesman and a Chicago dentist, and in a Mormon history of Utah. No doubt Spiritualists used this phrase, but it hardly seems exclusive to them, nor indicative of any firm belief on the part of Sarah Winchester.

Elsewhere, Haag repeats the tour script contention that Winchester had workmen add to her house 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is openly contradicted by one of the few actual letters we have from Sarah Winchester herself, a letter from which Haag freely quotes elsewhere. Upon learning that plaster could not be set during the heat of summer, Winchester writes, “I had to wait for cooler weather; then I became rather worn and tired out and dismissed all the workmen to take such rest as I might through the winter.”

The Winchester house, Haag concludes, is the result of the “convolutions of an uneasy conscience,” and its very existence suggests to Haag that “Sarah feared that the rifle blood fortune had cursed and deformed her family and her home.” But this is all complete speculation, and hyperbolic speculation at that. It’s unclear why Haag sabotages her own book, so well researched and soberly presented, with increasing flights of fancy that bear little relationship to fact or history. As Mary Jo Ignoffo notes, the concept of “gun guilt emerged out of progressive social ideals prevalent at the turn of the twentieth century,” and there is no documentary evidence that Winchester ever felt it:

Her aversion to publicity, to making a statement in her own defense, ensured that gun guilt became her persistent companion. Whether for her politics, her physical attributes, her religious practices, or her personal lifestyle, by the turn of the twentieth century Sarah Winchester was considered an obsessive and superstitious dowager. She could have mitigated the gossip, but chose to remain silent.

Haag wants to hold up Sarah’s story as a mirror to Oliver’s: in her narrative, Sarah’s life took on the public function of mourning that his did not. “It’s feasible to poise (male) ambition and (female) conscience against each other along a fault line of American character,” she writes. “Sarah Winchester’s estate could be seen as Oliver Winchester’s portrait of Dorian Grey, silently absorbing the American gun horror.”

Perhaps the fascination with Sarah Winchester and her Mystery House comes out of a desperate need for some kind of public mourning, some public monument, to assuage our collective gun guilt and memorialize the heavy death toll of the United States’s firearms industry. So strong is that need for someone — anyone — to account for the deaths of millions at the hands of the Winchester rifle, that even otherwise perspicuous scholars are apparently willing to accept myth rather than fact. Because Sarah Winchester did not speak up for herself, it would seem, we have decided to speak for her.

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Colin Dickey is a frequent contributor to LARB and the author of Ghostland: An America History in Haunted Places.


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