Sarah Winchester still fascinates us 100 years after her death

Sarah Winchester — heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune and owner of the Santa Clara Valley’s most interesting home — died Sept. 5, 1922. And she has continued to fascinate us, some might say haunt us, in the century since.

While she had a large impact on the valley and the Peninsula — Southern Pacific purchased from her 140 acres of land to create Los Altos — her most visible legacy is the 160-room mansion she owned in San Jose, called Llanda Villa in her day and known now as the Winchester Mystery House.

The sprawling tourist attraction, which opened in 1923 just months after her death, is commemorating Mrs. Winchester with a celebration of life on Monday, kicking off a string of events leading up to its own centennial. Tour guests — go to www.winchestermysteryhouse.com for tickets — will receive a commemorative card and are encouraged to leave flowers, cards and other mementos — but nothing with a flame — in the front gardens that day. After dark, a special event will feature medium James Van Praagh leading groups through the estate in an attempt to connect with its former owner and any spirits that may still reside there. (Tickets for that one are $250 each, and for that price, there better be some ghosts).

Sarah Winchester is seen here in an undated photo in front of her San Jose estate, which would open as a tourist attraction on June 30, 1923. The Winchester Mystery House is getting a jump on that centennial with multiple events, starting with a celebration of Winchester’s life on Sept. 5 to mark the 100th anniversary of her death. (Photo courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House)

Over the Winchester Mystery House’s 99-year history, its proprietors have been largely responsible for popularizing the myths around Sarah Winchester — her alleged obsession with the number 13, her desire to confuse the ghostly victims of the Winchester rifle through continuous building, her interest in spiritualism. But some of that mythology sprang up about the wealthy widow during her lifetime, partly because of her reclusiveness. New tours have leaned into the ghostly side of things, but current General Manager Walter Magnuson also has overseen the restoration of several rooms that highlight the mansion’s Victorian architecture.

“We are so proud to have been given the opportunity to be the caretakers of Sarah Winchester’s home for the past 100 years,” Magnuson said. “The centennial is an opportunity to not only celebrate the world-famous house, but to honor Sarah’s incredible legacy.”

The Winchester Mystery House has been recreated as a model on display at Mineta San Jose International Airport and one made of Lego bricks at Legoland Discovery Center at the Great Mall in Milpitas. The house also was used for the filming of “Winchester,” the 2018 supernatural thriller starring Oscar-winner Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester and “Succession” star Sarah Snook as her niece. It’s fair to say the movie had more jump scares than historical facts.

Mary Jo Ignoffo signs her Sarah Winchester biography, "Captive of theLabyrinth," following a reading at the historic Fallon House in downtown San Jose on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. (Sal Pizarro/Bay Area News Group)
Mary Jo Ignoffo signs her Sarah Winchester biography, “Captive of theLabyrinth,” following a reading at the historic Fallon House in downtownSan Jose on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. (Sal Pizarro/Bay Area News Group)

But one person who has done more than anyone to set straight the historical record is historian Mary Jo Ignoffo. Her 2010 biography of Sarah Winchester, “Captive of the Labyrinth,” dispelled a lot of the myths and provided new insights into the reclusive figure, including her unheralded charitable giving. The short notice about Winchester’s death at age 82 published in the San Jose Evening News on Sept. 8, 1922, focused on her philanthropy both here and in her native Connecticut. The only mention of her now famous home “on the Los Gatos rd., west of San Jose” was as her place of death.

For the centennial, an updated edition of Ignoffo’s book is being released, with a new preface and final chapter and 29 additional photos. She will be talking about the book at Books Inc. in Campbell on Sept. 8 at 7 p.m., the San Mateo County Historical Museum on Sept. 10 at 1 p.m., and virtually for the Santa Clara Public Library on Sept. 13 at 6 p.m.

Coincidentally, two other San Joseans of some renown died around the same time as Winchester: artist Andrew P. Hill on Sept. 3 and businessman George McKee on Sept. 5. Both got substantially larger news stories written about their deaths than Mrs. Winchester did — but nobody ever made a movie about them, did they?

YWCA’S SPEAKER OF IMPACT: The YWCA Golden Gate Silicon Valley announced this week that entrepreneur and technologist Shiza Shahid would be the keynote speaker at this year’s Inspire Luncheon on Oct. 28.

Shahid co-founded the Malala Fund with Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and was the organization’s founding CEO. She also co-founded Our Place, a direct-to-consumer kitchen ware startup based in Southern California, and launched NOW Ventures in the Bay Area in partnership with AngelList.

The event is back to being in-person at the Santa Clara Convention Center, but seating is limited to 800 guests. You can register at www.yourywca.org.

TEQUILA TIME: Darrell Cortez, executive director of Shop With a Cop Silicon Valley Foundation, said it has been a tough two years for the nonprofit, best known for its Heroes and Helpers holiday shopping spree. So in bringing back an in-person fundraiser, the emphasis was getting people to have fun together — and raise some money, of course.

That led to the Tacos and Tequila Fiesta, a 21-and-over tasting event on Sept. 30 at the Holiday Inn-Silicon Valley on North First Street. It’ll feature several tequilas and mezcals, plus a Mexican dinner and live music. The auction will feature experiences for San Francisco Giants fans, San Jose Sharks fans, golfers and travel lovers. Proceeds support the Community Reading Buddies, which provides new books for low-income youth, and the holiday shopping spree. Go to www.shopwithacopsv.org for more information and to buy tickets.

SAVE THE DATE: The San Jose Chamber Orchestra is planning a fun time Sept. 25 with its “String Fling,” an afternoon fundraiser at the Silicon Valley Capital Club that will spotlight guest violinist Jeremy Cohen. It’s an open house event, which means you can drop in any time between 3 and 6 p.m. or stay for the full three hours. You’ll certainly be entertained, with live music sets at 3:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. Tickets are $200 each, and that includes parking at 50 W. San Fernando St., and you can purchase them at www.sjco.org.

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