Tales of Sarah Winchester and her Famous San Jose Mystery House
Resting in the quiet shadows of San Jose’s urban spread is the Winchester mansion, a house filled with closed doors and darkened corridors and crowned with peaks, gables and turrets that play host to haunting images.
Local folklore as well as the dimensions and architecture of Sarah Winchester’s unique house set it apart from any other. So different, in fact, that it was granted state landmark status as a unique embodiment of elaborate architectural details no longer possible to reproduce in any one structure.
It was once surrounded by well-tended acreage.
The Eastlake, Queen Anne styling of the mansion, its rooftop of multiple gables and its 160 rooms are constant reminders of our city’s late, eccentric citizen.
Following the death of her husband, William Wirt Winchester, Sarah Pardee Winchester left New Haven, Conn., and came to the Santa Clara Valley. It was in 1884, when she inherited a reported $20 million, that strange additions to the house began to appear.
It was around 1905 when my great-grandfather Vincenzo was hired to prune and graft the trees on the Winchester estate. Even back then, the Winchester house was shrouded in mystery. Great-grandpa himself heard talk among the servants of Sarah’s late-night seances and attempts to contact the spirits of her late husband and child, and of the supernatural powers that supposedly instructed her to continue adding on to her house.
All this mystery gave him many interesting tales to tell his family when he returned home each night. The story he loved to tell the best was about the day President Teddy Roosevelt passed through town and paid a visit to the Winchester place.
Additional servants were hired, extra gardeners employed and a bevy of activity was taking place inside the house.
Instructions went out to caretakers to keep the grounds especially neat and tidy that day, for the carriage of President Roosevelt was soon expected. In a display of respect, the caretakers were ordered to line up alongside the carriage the moment it arrived.
When the president’s sleek, horse-drawn carriage appeared, Great-grandpa scrambled to line up and pay his respects. Unfortunately, the entourage disappeared so quickly into the house that he got only a glimpse of the president’s top hat. Later that day, as Great-grandpa was working high atop a ladder in the orchard, he felt a tap at the base of his ladder. He looked down to see a smiling Teddy Roosevelt looking up at him. “Fine job, my man, fine job,” said the president.
Great-grandpa, using his best English, gratefully acknowledged his stately visitor. Great-grandpa repeated this story at every family gathering and holiday celebration thereafter.
In later years, around 1920, my Grandpa Salvatore (Vincenci’s son) had occasion to visit the Winchester house. At the time, he was a butcher’s apprentice working for Wentz’s downtown meat market. One of his duties was to deliver large orders to the Winchester estate. A strange foreboding crept over him every time he entered the house. A kindly old cook welcomed him at a side door, in the subarea of the kitchen. It was her habit to invite Grandpa to stay for a biscuit and a cup of tea after he finished putting away the deliveries.
Grandpa asked the friendly old servant how she could bear to hear the constant rat-tat-tat of the carpenter’s hammers, noises that sounded to Grandpa like a thousand woodpeckers constantly at work. It was then the cook confided that she was almost deaf. Grandpa believed her hearing loss was actually a blessing.
Sarah Winchester never made an appearance while Grandpa was around, but she made her presence known by the constant ringing of the servant’s bell. Other times, Grandpa could see Sarah’s small, lonely figure standing at a third-floor window, peering down at him as he made his deliveries.
The hammering stopped on Sept. 5, 1922, when Sarah Winchester died at the age of 85. Some people say the repeated sounds of a carpenter’s hammer and a servant’s bell can still be heard echoing through the forlorn mansion on Halloween night. The creaks, cracks and distant echoes heard inside this timeworn house inspire a ghostly mystery – a small, shadowy figure, sometimes seen lingering at the third-floor window ( a window where no visitors are allowed to go) keeps this mystery alive.