If you lived in California’s SF Bay Area during the '70s I’ll bet you can remember the radio commercials with the eerie voice, ‘Keep building, keeping building …’ beckoning all to visit San Juan’s Winchester Mystery House. If you took them up on it and toured the house, as I did after I got my driver’s license, you were regaled with spooky stories about the crazy haunted lady, heiress to the Winchester Repeating Rifle fortune. Losing husband and child sent her off the edge of the cliff and moving out to California, away her East Coast home and hauntings. The house was genuinely mind-blowing to me. The "Séance Room” and repetition of 13 windows, bathrooms and what not, sealed the deal.
I happily passed along the story of sad haunted recluse trying to assuage, and hide from the tormented souled of victims to the source of her fortune. Plus the fascinating house she built.
Then yesterday I stumbled upon a video,
that sent me straight to googling mode, in the search for more information.
Well it turns out most of what I knew was a lie. For instance, the repletion of 13 architectural elements turn out to have been built in after she died. She was not a crazy ditz, instead:
… None of this quite scans, as Dickey points out. For one thing, Winchester’s husband and daughter died 16 years apart; it’s not quite the double-whammy the “grieving widow” story suggests. For another, Sarah Winchester was highly respected by her business associates — one described her as better than most men when it came to affairs of finance.
She was also an unusually fair employer, paying her workers twice the mandated minimum wage, and furnishing the house with three elevators — including one for the servants. …"
Her own investment savvy wound up dwarfing her initial inheritance, making her one of the richest independent woman in America, mind you this was late 1800s America - that didn’t sit well with our insecure macho macho society. (she was born 1839, died 1922).
The home itself is not creepy as Lili Loofbourow’s points out in her “The Week” article.
Or — depending on how you think of it — the house is a cool experiment in turning space into something like lace. The house is filled with unexpected sources of light and odd perspectives: The ceilings are peppered with skylights. Walls often become occasions for semi-transparency thanks to windows and doors with no clear function except to render the house a kind of wondrous architectural doily. Sometimes you see through multiple rooms at once: (with pictures to underscore her point)
Turns out that many of the real oddities have more to do with the San Francisco Earthquake’s long reach and the extensive damage inflicted on the house, forcing builders to remove some wings and even some of the top floors of the house. Others are the result of the fact she was a wannabe architect with no training, but lots of ideas, and more money than god.
Oh and construction did not go on “around the clock” as we were told.
While construction was underway, Sallie continued the large-scale philanthropy she’d begun in Boston. This included hundreds of thousands of dollars to Yale University, and later nearly a million dollars to hospitals for tuberculosis research. She was also a singularly successful property investor, in an era when few women did so. She purchased many properties throughout the bay area, both residential and agricultural, and operated them profitably. She divided her time among some five homes. She hired countless workers, invested more and more, and nearly always came out ahead. But Llanada Villa was her pet project.
… She enjoyed being her own architect, but not being trained and having more ideas than experience, the construction was often a patchwork of remodels and changes and architectural kludges. The reason the house has one stairway to nowhere (just the one) and one door that opens onto nothing (again, just the one) is nothing more than constant changes of plan during design and construction. She hated wasted space, and any accidental gap became an oddball cubby or closet, even if impractically small. …
She had the money to play with and she also seemed to feel obligated to keep her workers employed.
Karen Stollznow’s Skeptical Inquirer article was a big disappointment, spending more time reinforcing myths than telling the woman’s story and setting the record straight. Although now reflecting on long ago experiences at Skeptical Inquirer Forum, guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Fortunately, Skeptoid’s “Demystifying the Winchester Mystery House” does much better.
Also one, Jaclyn Anglis shows that the need to titillate & deceive remains a strong in 2022 as ever, in her article that totally disregards a couple decades worth of fact finding, and myth busting, instead embracing and embellishing the “Tormented Heiress” and her terrifying house myth (er, Fraud)
I’ll give the last word to Brian Dunning who wrote the Skeptoid article:
Public relations never worked in Sallie’s favor. She was extremely private, if not reclusive, and much of her philanthropy was anonymous and thus unappreciated by others.
The local press in San Jose was particularly unkind. Her enormous house was regarded as a wasteful extravagance, rubbed in the face of a struggling population by a snobby Eastern millionaire.
An 1895 newspaper article “Strange Story: A Woman Who Thinks She’ll Die When Her House Is Built” was the original source of many of the disparaging stories about her. Suddenly she was a weirdo with bizarre obsessions.
Author Colin Dickey, in his wonderfully researched book Ghostland , wrote “She was the 1 percent, and the city resented her for it. And so it punished her through gossip and myth.”
Honorable mentions go to:
Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California – Legends of America