I just finished reading Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune by Mary Jo Ignoffo (2010). This biography of Sarah Winchester (1839-1922) was loaned to me by friend and neighbor Rev. Stephenie Cooper, who is also interested in local history.
As a native San Franciscan, I have seen freeway billboards for the “Winchester Mystery House” for decades. I have frequently walked by San Jose’s historic Victorian mansion – on my way to the Winchester movie theater next door or the Santana Row shopping district across the street. I was curious enough about this local legend to read the book and also watch “Winchester Mystery House Explored: Secrets of the Mansion” (1997), a twenty minute video-tour distributed through the attraction’s gift shop. The video seems typical of the spooky and suggestive patter fed to visitors on their $40 tour. Despite all of the spiritualist hype, the mansion is a genuine California Historical Landmark. It is also listed in the US National Register of Historic Places and is a San Jose Historic Landmark.
The detailed and documented history presented by Professor Ignoffo (History Department, De Anza College) is quite different from the wild story in “Secrets of the Mansion”:
- The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 severely damaged Sarah Winchester’s San Jose house and was responsible for most of its resulting oddities: “The house’s so-called stairs that lead to nowhere had previously lead to an upper floor. Likewise, doors that now open into thin air were once entryways to suites of rooms…” (Ignoffo, p.4).
- She was involved in design and extensive construction of the San Jose house from 1886 to 1906. After the quake, Sarah Winchester ordered the rubble cleared and the house made safe but by 1908 “…Winchester had ceased making additions to her San Jose house” (Ignoffo, p.163). According to Roy Leib in 1925: “She did not hire a single carpenter after her house was damaged in the earthquake of 1906” (Ignoffo, p.165). The 38-year 24-hour daily construction of the San Jose house mentioned several times in the video seems to be fiction.
- With regard to Sarah Winchester’s supposed insanity and fear of ghosts, Ignoffo writes: “Much later, after Sarah Winchester’s death, her relatives, employees, servants, and gardeners scattered across California. None of them ever claimed that Winchester was superstitious, guilty, mad, or a spiritualist. A few tried to make a public statement in her defense” (Ignoffo, p.165).
Sadly, the “Mystery House” legend of obsessive continual construction is encapsulated in the formal California Historical Landmark property description:
NO. 868 WINCHESTER HOUSE – Built by Sarah Winchester, widow of rifle manufacturer William Winchester, this unique structure includes many outstanding elements of Victorian architecture and fine craftsmanship. Construction began in 1884 and continued without interruption until Mrs. Winchester’s death in 1922. The continual building and remodeling created a 160-room house covering an area of six acres.
Location: 525 S Winchester Blvd, San Jose
Professor Ignoffo’s history is of a very private woman who was deeply interested in landscape design, horticulture, agriculture, and woodworking and was rich enough to implement her taste in her own home. After the 1906 earthquake, Sarah Winchester turned her attention to management and expansion of her other properties in Atherton, Palo Alto, Burlingame, and Los Altos, and to generously endowing a medical facility to treate tuberculosis patients, in honor of her husband William Wirt Winchester who died of that disease in 1881.
Images Copyright 2013 by Katy Dickinson