Today’s adventure takes us to San Jose, California. Years ago, before Silicon Valley took off, I visited that fair city. Return with me to stroll through the Winchester Mystery House, premier San Jose tourist destination. Climb staircases to nowhere. Look through Tiffany glass windows with a view of absolutely nothing. Learn what you can do with unlimited time, a vast fortune, firm belief in the spiritual realm, and a massive dose of eccentricity.
Born around 1840, Sarah Lockwood Pardee grew up in a conventional middle class family. Her father made a good living manufacturing carriages. Personally, I don’t think she was attractive enough to merit the title “Belle of New Haven,” but she could speak four languages and play the piano.
Sarah caught the eye of William Wirt Winchester, heir to what became the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. (More on that below). They married in 1862. Four years later, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, Anne, on June 15. The child died July 24. Sarah fell into a lifelong depression, which deepened when her husband died of tuberculosis in 1881.
Not knowing what else to do, Sarah consulted a spiritual medium. There are two versions of the results.
Option A: William Wirt Winchester spoke to his widow via the medium and told her the spirits of those killed with Henry repeating rifles (aka Winchester rifles) during the civil war needed a place to live. She must go to California and build a mansion for them. And, if she followed directions, William would be immortal.
Option B: The medium told Sarah the unhappy spirits killed her daughter and husband, and might take their revenge on her as well. But if she built a house for them, as long as she continued to build, she wouldn’t die.
I mean – hand that woman a hammer.
In 1857 William’s father, Oliver Fisher Winchester, purchased the New Haven Arms Company. Three years later, his plant manager, B. Tyler Henry, developed a repeating rifle that could fire 28 rounds per minute. Just in time for the Civil War. Union troops were so excited about the new technology they happily purchased their own weapons, rather than use single shot rifles.
In 1866 the company became Winchester Repeating Arms Company – it was worth lots of money.
Although deeply unhappy and depressed, Sarah Winchester had buckets of money. She owned about 2777 company shares that earned her $1000 per day. A 1922 dollar is worth $13.47 in 2014, so in today’s money, Sarah earned $13,470 each and every day.
And she spent it. Sarah paid her employees $3.00 [$40.41] a day – twice the going rate. [Price point comparison: A loaf of bread cost 12 cents.]
And then there was this house
In 1884 Sarah bought an unfinished 8-bedroom farmhouse near San Jose. Over the next 38 years, she built as many as 600 rooms in the Queen Anne style house. Eventually, Sarah dispensed with the services of an architect, and drew her own designs for the carpenters. Although she remained true to stylistic considerations, there are many peculiarities in the final product. Exterior walls became interior, for example.
Despite dedication, Sarah died of heart failure in 1922. Which proves that sometimes you follow directions and things still don’t turn out as promised.
On the day of Sarah’s death, the house had 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens, plus a ballroom constructed without nails. The entire estate covered 161 acres.
Sarah left her personal property to her niece Marian Merriman Marriott who auctioned off the household contents. [Try saying her name three times fast.] The official website says it took six weeks to cart off the furnishings. That’s not unreasonable for a 160-room house.
SEE FOR YOURSELF
If you’d like to see what the house looks like, I have two You Tube videos to recommend.
For a short 7-minute tour, check out “Winchester Mystery House Video” from a KTEH program called This Is Us. Access at http://youtu.be/fS4TGI-MpXg
For something more atmospheric, there’s a 30-minute black and white 1963 documentary narrated by Lillian Gish from KPIX-TV. Find it at http://youtu.be/DAzVmJOLHas
If you decide to visit, the house is located at 525 S. Winchester Blvd., San Jose CA 95128. Telephone: 408-247-2101
Winchester Mystery House. http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.