Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Year the Newspapers Killed Sarah Winchester

 The Year the Newspapers Killed Sarah Winchester

Sarah (Pardee) Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, became fodder for the local newspapers a few years after she moved to San Jose, California, and began building her mansion. In the winter of 1885, four years after her husband, William, had passed away, Sarah moved to California to start a new life. Her sister and brother-in-law, Nettie and Homer Sprague, had recently moved there because Homer had been hired as the president of Mills College in Oakland. Sarah lived with them for a while as she searched for the perfect spot where she could build her home.


Finding a beautiful piece of property in the Santa Clara Valley with the help of a Winchester Repeating Rifle Company employee, Ned Rambo, Sarah immediately purchased the property in 1886. It already had an eight-room farmhouse on the property, but Sarah planned to add more space because her two other sisters, Belle and Estelle, and their families, planned to move to California and live with Sarah. With the help of an architect, twenty-six rooms were added to the house over the next six months. After that, Sarah decided she’d prefer to design the new additions herself, and that was when the mansion began to expand by leaps and bounds.


Sarah loved her privacy. She didn’t invite neighbors to her house nor accept invitations. She was not a hermit—she just enjoyed building her home, visiting with her relatives, and minding her own business. But as word spread about her supposedly snobbish behavior and the building continued on her mansion, the area residents began making up stories about the widow. It didn’t help that she always wore black and still wore Victorian dresses long after they were out of style. She also wore a veil over her face when she was out in public. There was no mystery about that—she simply had bad teeth that she was embarrassed about and didn’t want anyone to see. But the newspaper reporters took all of this into account to make poor Sarah sound crazy.


While Sarah had been described as insane and communing with spirits, among other terrible things, one of the worst stories was when newspapers from San Jose to New York City reported on June 11, 1911, that she was dying. In fact, Sarah had been enjoying exceptionally good health at the time, but that didn’t stop the newspapers from making up stories. And while they reported the widow was dying, they made sure to add a few jabs at her saying she had suffered from a nervous breakdown after the 1906 earthquake and had become mentally ill. The newspapers also perpetuated the myth of Sarah talking to spirits by saying she had received a message from spirits telling her all would be well if she continued to build on her home.  


Of course, none of this was true. Sarah wasn’t even living in the San Jose mansion in 1911—and hadn’t since the 1906 earthquake. She was living in her home in Atherton (she had three properties there) and had written recently to her lawyer of many years, Frank Lieb, that she was enjoying good health.


Unfortunately, the report upset many who did know Sarah well. Her employees at the San Jose mansion—even though she didn’t live there, it was still being run as an orchard and had several full-time employees—had seen the report and called her house in Atherton to inquire about Sarah’s health. They were relieved to hear she was fine. Sarah also had to contact her Winchester and Pardee relatives in New Haven, Connecticut, to let them know she was alive and well.

Sarah Winchester was maligned by the local press for years, and long after she died in 1922, the stories became even more exaggerated, to the point where most people today only know her as the crazy woman who built the haunted mystery house. The truth is, Sarah lived an extraordinary life for a woman of her time and she deserves to be remembered for how she really lived, not for what the public read in the press.

You can learn more about Sarah Winchester’s life in my historical fiction novel, Mrs. Winchester’s Biographer, now available for preorder on Amazon.


Release Date: October 3, 2023.

Buy now: Amazon Kindle




  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. God! Bless! You!!!
      Wanna give-up on
      thy salvation that
      easily, gorgeous,
      for this dying world?
      C'est la vie.

  2. Not gonna kill my indelible soul, dear.
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    Cya soon, girl gorgeous...