The Haunted House That Guns Built

The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture
By Pamela Haag
Basic Books, 2015, $29.99, 528 pages

Sarah Winchester was the widow of William Winchester, and William’s father Oliver was the pater familias of the Winchester gun company. Oliver died in December 1880, and William succumbed to tuberculosis four months later. Two months after that, Sarah’s mother died. By mid-1881, Sarah was essentially alone. But she also held 48 percent of the stock for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. And the stock paid dividends, between 21 and 79 percent of profits every year from 1869 to 1914.

Upon William’s death, his wealthy widow got on a train in New Haven and went west until she couldn’t go further. She ended up in San Jose, then a burgeoning town still feeling the aftereffects of the gold rush. She bought some land and began building a house—and kept building, and building, and building. When she died in 1922, the house was still under construction: a confusing, ad hoc, and immense mansion of 160 rooms filled with inscrutable architectural choices. Doors open onto walls; staircases go nowhere; halls wind back and forth; rooms are built within rooms. The whole disorienting, labyrinthine mess is now dubbed the Winchester Mystery House.

Did a marketing campaign trick Americans into loving firearms?

Why did Sarah build it? Well, there’s the legend and there’s the truth.

Here’s the legend: Distraught by the deaths of the people closest to her, Sarah became heavily involved with spiritualism. A medium told her the family was cursed by everyone who had been killed by Winchester guns, and that she should go west to build a house for the spirits. If construction ever stopped, the medium said, Sarah would die as well. The house is built in a convoluted fashion in order to throw off the spirits, who apparently were easily confused by switchback hallways and oddly placed doors.

The truth? No one knows. Sarah left no journals, she was obsessively reclusive, and very few records exist.

But for Pamela Haag, the legend in some sense is the truth. In The Gunning of America, her contentious and aggravating but still ultimately interesting book, the Yale-educated historian traces the stories of American “gun capitalists,” most prominently the Winchester family, and the businesses they built. “We hear a great deal about gun owners, but what do we know about their makers?” she asks. Haag tells Sarah’s story because “Oliver Winchester produced the rifles that contributed to many a gun legend; and, through her creation, Sarah became a counter-legend to the gun legends.…Oliver’s mad ambition and Sarah’s mad conscience belong to the same story and culture.”

More bluntly, she tells the legend because it fits her narrative. Haag believes that companies like Winchester did not merely manufacture guns but manufactured the demand for them; if this created a crisis of conscience for Sarah, Haag feels, so should it now for the nation.

Although Haag often papers over the factual lacunae in Sarah’s tale with words like “may have” and “perhaps” and “probably,” she doesn’t always do so. Readers have to be astute to differentiate between solid facts and Haag’s guesswork, as during a bizarre multi-page foray into what Sarah’s visit to a Boston medium “may have” looked like. And even when she includes such caveats, she can really lay it on: “Sarah may have heard the cogs of justice click into place. The spirits had exacted retribution against Sarah—and the Winchester name—by taking Will’s life, and Annie’s, and the lives of all her babies, to atone for those killed by their rifles.” She should have added, “or at least that’s what some unsubstantiated and biased sources say.” Hundreds of passages could have used a similar disclaimer.

Haag’s book is not an anti-gun diatribe. But from the outset, she confesses that guns are foreign to her; she admits to having never owned or shot a gun when she began working on the book, and many of her word choices—a reference to America’s “intractable gun problem,” for example—betray her queasiness with such tools. This unfamiliarity with guns helps explain the central thesis of her book: that America hasn’t historically had a “gun culture.” Instead, she suggests, corporations gave that culture to us. “Gun markets and demand could never be taken for granted,” she writes. “It was the gun business’s business to create them.”

The Gunning of America is fundamentally an informative industrial history that unsuccessfully tries to be a trenchant social commentary too. Haag is fascinated and confused by American gun culture, and her argument that it was “manufactured” should, she thinks, have some effect on the gun debate. Americans don’t have a “unique and special relationship to guns,” she writes—or, if it is unique, it is a product of forced rather than natural demand.

This is the Hypnotoad theory of advertising and control. Hypnotoad, for those not aware, is the star of a fictional TV show, Everybody Loves Hypnotoad, within the cartoon comedy Futurama. In the Futurama world, set 1,000 years in the future, one of the most popular programs is a running loop of a toad with multi-colored, mesmerizing, oscillating eyes, accompanied by a pulsing industrial drone. You can’t look away. Viewers are spellbound, held in rapt attention by the bewitching stare and the thick, oddly mellifluous hum, which combine to hack the audience’s minds. Fans chant, “All glory to the Hypnotoad!”

Hypnotoad theories are bigger than politics yet still inexorably tied to the political. Have you ever ranted against the “corporate music” consumed by “the masses”? Have you ever lamented the tragedy of American consumerism and the relentless cacophony of mass marketers cajoling their dupes to buy, buy, buy? Then you’ve embraced your own Hypnotoad narrative, complete with the wonderful sense of self-satisfaction you get from knowing that, despite being surrounded by a thick web of impenetrable control, somehow you have emerged untainted.

Although Haag’s language is more measured than that—she doesn’t describe anyone as a “dupe”—it teems with those implications. At one point she writes, “One answer to the question ‘Why do Americans love guns?’ is, simply, that we were invited to do so by those who made and sold them at the moment when their products had shed much of their more practical, utilitarian value.” It may be just an “invitation,” but, apparently, by accepting it, we were unwittingly becoming part of an unnatural market invented by “gun capitalists.”

Haag also writes: “Earlier, sales had meant ‘satisfying wants’—wants that existed independently of advertisement—but in a consumer culture where demand ideally kept pace with faster production, sales meant, ‘the actual creating of wants in the minds of the purchaser, and the building up of desires.’” Here she echoes the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, whose 1958 book The Affluent Society described the alleged process by which “production creates the wants it seeks to satisfy.” To Galbraith, if a person’s desires were not “original with himself,” then there was something unseemly about them. Thus, he reserved a special scorn for advertising, which he compared to being assailed by “demons” which create “a passion sometimes for silk shirts, sometimes for kitchenware, sometimes for chamber pots, and sometimes for orange squash.”

In Haag’s view, the domestic American gun market was created by the “visible hand of the gun industrialist,” which “sat heavily on the gun market and orchestrated it.” In the 1910s and ’20s, Winchester’s team of salesmen fought to push into new markets by using different strategies to create new gun-buying demographics. One prominent ad said that every “real boy” wanted a Winchester rifle. Through these and other methods, Haag contends, gun sales were pushed “beyond the natural inclinations of the customer or market demand”; the gun became “a thing that served psychological needs more than the pragmatic ones of war, ranching, the conquest of Native Americans, or the rural economy.” At a time when Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, and other Western icons were beginning to achieve their legendary status, gun manufacturers capitalized on that mystique.

Haag makes a reasonable case that such marketing campaigns contributed to the consumer demand for guns. But whether that new demand was “natural” is a question the Hypnotoad theory of advertising isn’t well equipped to answer. People who embrace that theory seem to forget New Coke, Coca-Cola’s disastrous attempt to discontinue and replace Coke’s original recipe. Or the Edsel, or OK Soda, or any of the countless failed products that enjoyed millions of dollars in advertising backing. Far from being able to invent demand, they spend most of their time trying to figure out what it is.

Haag’s narrative about the “making of American gun culture” ultimately reflects her personal puzzlement about why people own guns at all. Ask a “gun nut” why America has a “gun culture” and he’ll say it’s because guns are awesome. Ask Haag, and it’s because gun capitalists made people think that guns are awesome. Is there really a difference? Introspectively, I have no idea what my “true” desires are and which have been foisted on me. I do know that when an ad shows me something I want but previously didn’t know about, my reaction is not to feel violated.

What do we achieve by arguing that parts of American culture are somehow fake? The music industry took a band called the Pendletones, renamed them the Beach Boys, recorded a few dozen songs about surfing, and then pushed a saccharine vision of California beach culture. Movie makers added Beach PartyBeach Blanket Bingo, and many more insipid Frankie and Annette features for good measure. Should California surfing culture therefore be looked upon with skepticism? Can the “fake” ever turn into something “genuine”?

The Gunning of America is mostly interesting, readable, and enjoyable. Haag discusses the invention and perfection of Winchester’s famous Henry rifle, the trials of establishing a domestic market for a highly durable good in a rapidly urbanizing country, the gun industry’s experiences during the Civil War and in selling weapons to regimes abroad, how the industry cashed in on romanticized notions of “the West,” and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company’s eventual downfall (at least as a family-owned business) after World War I. All these are interesting stories that are well-told, and Haag’s asides about “inventing demand” are intermittent rather than constant.

But occasionally we get tales like the legend of Sarah Winchester, where Haag essentially tries to write a novel and forgets to write history. She tries to justify her embrace of the Winchester Mystery House legend by comparing it to gun legends. The house “became a tourist attraction, advertised by a ghost story that—exactly like the western gun legends—grew more lurid, yet more confidently ‘factual,’ with each retelling, but this does not mean that there was never a core of truth to it,” she writes. Possibly, but one wonders how much Haag tried to find that “core of truth,” especially when the legend was so useful for injecting “conscience” into her narrative.

There is some evidence that Sarah was involved with spiritualism and that her house’s idiosyncrasies are somehow tied to those proclivities. But Haag’s attraction to the legend leads her to ignore competing theories about the heiress’s behavior. In Captive of the Labyrinth, one of the very few biographies of Sarah, the De Anza College historian Mary Jo Ignoffo challenges the story that Haag embraces. Ignoffo doubts her involvement in spiritualism, her mission to cleanse her conscience, and her desire to fool ghosts with a convoluted house. Sarah, she argues, was just a rich, reclusive, and eccentric Gilded Age widow who lived in high society but didn’t care what other people thought of her. She built the house to give her life purpose, Ignoffo concludes, as well as to satisfy her lifelong interest in architecture, a profession that was not readily open to women at the time.

Haag makes only two references to Ignoffo’s theory, both confined to footnotes. The only substantive one is bizarre and dismissive: “Captive of the Labyrinth focuses on the more worldly aspects of Sarah’s time in California and calls spiritualism a ‘mistaken legacy,’ although to some extent all legends are by nature mistaken, yet, for their own reasons, believed.”

Haag wanted to write a book that would affect modern debates over gun policies, and so she infused an otherwise interesting history with dubious notions about “natural markets” and grieving widows. She’d have been better off sticking to the facts.

Trevor Burrus is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.