Sarah Winchester – heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune and owner of the most interesting home in the Santa Clara Valley – died on September 5, 1922. And she continued to fascinate, some might say haunt, over the century that followed.
Although she had a big impact on the Valley and the Peninsula – South Pacific purchased 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 its day and now known as Winchester Mystery House.
The sprawling tourist attraction, which opened in 1923 just months after her death, commemorates Ms Winchester with a celebration of life on Monday, kicking off a series of events leading up to her own centenary. Tour guests – go to www.winchestermysteryhouse.com for tickets – will receive a commemorative card and are encouraged to leave flowers, cards and other keepsakes – but nothing with a flame – in the front gardens that day. After dark, a special event will feature medium James Van Praagh who will lead groups through the estate in an effort 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, you better have ghosts).
Over the Winchester Mystery House’s 99-year history, its owners have been largely responsible for popularizing the myths surrounding Sarah Winchester – her alleged obsession with the number 13, her desire to confuse ghostly victims of the Winchester rifle through continued construction, his interest in spiritualism. But some of this mythology arose about the wealthy widow during her lifetime, in part because of her loneliness. New tours have looked at the ghostly side of things, but current general manager Walter Magnuson has also overseen the restoration of several rooms that showcase the mansion’s Victorian architecture.
“We are so proud to have had the opportunity to be the keepers of Sarah Winchester’s home for the past 100 years,” Magnuson said. “The centennial is a time to not only celebrate the world-famous house, but also 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 a Lego brick model at the Legoland Discovery Center in the Great Mall in Milpitas. The house was also used for filming “Winchester,” the 2018 supernatural thriller starring Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester and “Succession” star Sarah Snook as her niece. It’s fair to say that the film had more scares than historical facts.
But one person who has done more than anyone to set the record straight is historian Mary Jo Ignoffo. Her 2010 biography of Sarah Winchester, “Captive of the Labyrinth,” dispelled many myths and provided new insights into the reclusive figure, including her unheralded charitable giving. The brief notice of Winchester’s death at age 82 published in the San Jose Evening News on September 8, 1922, focused on his philanthropy here and in his native Connecticut. The only mention of his now famous house “on the road to Los Gatos, west of San Jose” was as his place of death.
For the centenary, an updated edition of Ignoffo’s book is published, with a new preface and a final chapter and 29 additional photos. She will speak about the book at Books Inc. in Campbell on Sept. 8 at 7 p.m., at the San Mateo County Historical Museum on Sept. 10 at 1 p.m. and virtually for the Santa Clara Public Library Sept. 13 at 6 p.m.
Coincidentally, two other San Joseans of some fame died around the same time as Winchester: artist Andrew P. Hill on September 3 and businessman George McKee on September 5. Both received much larger press reports about their deaths than Mrs Winchester. – but no one ever made a movie about them, did they?
YWCA IMPACT SPEAKER: The YWCA Golden Gate Silicon Valley announced this week that entrepreneur and technologist Shiza Shahid will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Inspire luncheon on October 28.
Shahid co-founded the Malala Fund with Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai and served as the organization’s founding CEO. She also co-founded Our Place, a Southern California-based direct-to-consumer kitchenware startup, and launched NOW Ventures in the Bay Area in partnership with AngelList.
The event is back in person at the Santa Clara Convention Center, but seating is limited to 800 guests. You can register on www.yourwca.org.
TEQUILA TIME: Darrell Cortez, executive director of Shop With a Cop Silicon Valley Foundation, said it’s 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 focus was on getting people to have fun together — and fundraising, of course.
This led to the Tacos and Tequila Fiesta, a 21+ tasting event on September 30 at the Holiday Inn-Silicon Valley on North First Street. It will offer several tequilas and mezcals, as well as a Mexican dinner and live music. The auction will feature experiences for San Francisco Giants fans, San Jose Sharks fans, golfers and travel enthusiasts. Proceeds go to Community Reading Buddies, which provide new books to low-income youth, and the Holiday Shopping Spree. Go to www.shopwithacopsv.org for more information and to purchase tickets.
SAVE THIS DATE: The San Jose Chamber Orchestra plans to have fun Sept. 25 with its “String Fling,” an afternoon fundraiser at the Silicon Valley Capital Club that will feature guest violinist Jeremy Cohen. This is an open house event, which means you can drop by anytime between 3-6 p.m. or stay for the full three hours. You’re sure to be entertained, with concerts 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.