Sarah Winchester circa 1875If you know anything about Sarah Winchester it’s that she built a peculiar mansion based on paranormal elements with gun money but…just hear us out here…there may be more to her story worthy of associating with her memory. Maybe, just maybe, the “mystery” part of the Winchester Mystery Mansion is: What was Sarah really like?
The legend told about this stunning, unique, and well-worth-the-40-bucks-a-visit mansion in San Jose, California is spooky and dramatic: Sarah Winchester built her house after both her baby and her husband passed away. A spiritual medium told her to build a mansion as directed by the ghosts of people who had died as a result of the Winchester rifle, the source of her great wealth. If you get to tour the mansion there are visual aids to support the legend. When you come out the other end and are wandering the gift shop, you have an image of Sarah that leaves out all the interesting details and a good chunk of truth.
Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born sometime in the summer of 1839, in New Haven, Connecticut, the fourth of six children of carpenter Leonard and his wife, Sarah Pardee. (So many Sarahs…people who knew her called her “Sallie.”) While the family was struggling financially in 1839, they hit the Movin’ On Up jackpot when trendy Victorian architecture and design demanded the finishing details that Leonard created.
Sarah married into another family with a similar wealth trajectory. William Winchester was the only son of a men’s shirt magnate but the family money source was transferred, around the time of their marriage, into a side-hustle-turned-big-business: the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
Sarah’s only child, Annie, did die as an infant and William passed away ten years later making Sarah a very wealthy woman. She didn’t take that cash and start pouring it into her spirit designed house…she traveled, then relocated to with her sisters to the Santa Clara Valley of California. As was a trend with wealthy widows of the time, Sarah built an unusual house per her own designs.
For twenty years, Sarah joyfully designed, tore down, and redesigned all the elements of her massive house. Her family settled nearby, people from back east visited (for a couple days, it was a continual construction zone proving just how wise Sarah was) and she lived without a care what others thought. In 1906 an earthquake hit and destroyed a huge swath of the San Francisco area and large parts of Sarah’s house. Sarah tidied up her home to make it safe and nothing more. She left the partially destroyed house and moved to others that she owned in the area. She lived a very full life until she died of natural causes at age 83 on September 5, 1922.
After Sarah died, the mystery began. It was a move of genius marketing that took advantage of the unusual details of the mansion that she had left, matched with some that were created after Sarah died. Now it is a major tourist attraction and one that we would visit in a heartbeat–take our money!!– for the architecture, landscaping and true history of this remarkable woman.
TIME TRAVEL WITH THE HISTORY CHICKS
If you find yourself in the San Franciso area, get to the Winchester Mystery Mansion! We would be all over this place if we were there. It’s beautiful, jam-packed with Victorian architectural details, and the grounds are the lushest park you’ve ever visited. Don’t spoil the legend for others…at least while you’re there. WINCHESTER MYSTERY MANSION
The Annunciator and other tech wonders of the house can be found in this article from the Winchester House site.
There are a lot of books with Sarah’s “story” but not a lot of her truth. We both relied heavily on Captive the Labyrinth by, Mary Jo Ignoffo.
If you would like a creepy tour of the house online, here’s Buzzfeed Unsolved’s second trip to the Mystery House:
Lillian Gish will give you a super creepy, 1963 tour as only she can:
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