by Duane Scott Cerny
In life, Sarah Winchester couldn’t scare a ghost– or be scared by one.
Sarah Winchester was the original ghost hunter. Widowed and childless at the age of 42, she moved to San Jose, California on the advise of an East Coast psychic who claimed she’d be forever haunted by the deaths brought about by her Winchester Rifle inheritance.
In 1884, Sarah bought an 8 room farm house on 161 acres, drew up her renovation plans… and then spent the next 38 years arguing with building contractors. And that’s the scariest story I think I’ve ever heard. Stephen King at his best/worst couldn’t conjure up anything more terrifying.
By sheer force of will, Sarah who was barely 4’8″, almost always got her way, prodding those in her employ to build, 24/7, (yes, you read that correctly) non-stop until her death in 1922. Under that amount of rehabbing, how could this place NOT be haunted. It should also be noted that Sarah paid very well, so her employees hung around, some apparently long after their carpentry work was needed… and into the afterlife.
160 rooms exist today, though the mansion had once been larger (and taller, as seen in the photo above), but the tower and other parts of the house collapsed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Sarah also kept an “Ark” in the San Francisco Bay due to her fear of an impending “great flood,” but that’s another crazy Sarah story.
I confess this is one of my favorite haunts (sorry), having been there many times. The tiny photos you see below are part of an old souvenir album I stumbled upon many years ago. Most of these images are no longer used in the souvenirs sold at the Winchester Mansion, even though it’s the largest souvenir store I have ever seen for a single attraction– We’re talking Disney-scale merchandising. The new Japanese owners really know how to take this ghost house to market.
I have always been fascinated by the transition between the death of Sarah Winchester and her metamorphosis as the late/great owner of the world’s most famous haunted house. Talk about a White Elephant. Stairways that lead nowhere. Second story doorways that open to a death fall. Windows in the floor. This is one tough residential sell even in an up market.
Of course for years the ghost angle was actually played down, even though there have been hundreds of sightings by many a non-believer over the years. Here is one of my favorite stories…
One day a local news crew was filming at the house, wandering the grounds, trying to get unusual angles on a story too often told, when they inevitably ended up in Sarah’s bedroom. As the camera scanned the room, it caught a workman outside of Sarah’s window, thus ruining the shot. When the newsman complained to the cameraman that the scene would have to be redone, they both realized that the workman had simply been floating outside the window. They were on the second floor; there was no window balcony or ledge on which to stand. This footage was broadcast only once on local television and never shown again. Apparently sometimes even the news can get too real.
And so the myth around grows. Sarah was only photographed once in her life– and it was done by surprise, without her consent. In the picture she has an odd smirk on her face, as if the joke is on everyone but her. See: You.
Beyond building and living in the largest home in California, Sarah’s personal worth in 1880’s was an estimated $20 million dollars from her 50% ownership of the Winchester Rifle Company. Or to put it in today’s value, Oprah money.
Still, in the end, are we not all just ghosts-in-the-making?