A tour of San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House reveals its creepy, quirky and ghostly secrets. But the Los Altos History Museum’s latest exhibition, “Through Thick & Thin: A Tale of Two Sisters,” uncovers the true story behind the Mystery House’s architect, Sarah Winchester, and her sister, Isabelle Merriman.
In 1862, Sarah married William Winchester, wealthy son of the manufacturer of the Winchester repeating rifle. After Winchester succumbed to tuberculosis in 1881, Sarah and Isabelle moved to California from New Haven, Conn., seeking a sociopolitical environment similar to the “hotbed for radical thoughts,” that New Haven was, according to Laura Bajuk, executive director of the Los Altos History Museum.
Winchester purchased in 1888 much of what is now the downtown Los Altos triangle, using it as a ranch.
An arthritic and private person, Winchester resided with her sister in San Jose. She fell into a deep depression after losing her husband and her mother-in-law. Because of her sizable inheritance and her passion for architecture, she channeled her grief into building the San Jose house, working at a frenzied pace.
Bajuk said the public spread unfettered gossip that Sarah’s fervent and eccentric construction was due to the spirits of her dead relatives haunting her.
“If she stopped building, they would haunt her,” went the rumors, Bajuk said.
Buoyed by people’s superstitions, the stories made their rounds in the local press.
“During those times, entertainment was based on circus acts and freak shows,” Bajuk said, explaining how the rumors caught fire.
Around the turn of the century, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company informed Sarah that it planned to lay tracks through her Los Altos ranch property.
“That really ticked her off,” Bajuk said.
So Sarah forced SP to purchase all of her land, adding a large sum to her fortune. Later, Paul Shoup developed the land, paving the way for downtown Los Altos as we know it today.
After Sarah’s death in 1922, her grandiose home was immediately sold and converted into a tourist attraction – the Winchester Mystery House.
Sarah’s sister Isabelle was her polar opposite, according to Bajuk. Outspoken and spunky, when she was 74 she beat up a man on a trolley after a political dispute.
Isabelle lived in what is today Los Altos’ oldest home, located on Edgewood Lane. She was a humane officer for the state of California, and hordes of children would find temporary shelter at her spacious house. Bajuk said there are still dinks on the interior walls of the Edgewood house from children playing baseball indoors.
“The exhibit dispels myths and anything you’ve heard about (the sisters),” Bajuk said.
Bajuk wonders, “If they were alive today, what would they be doing, and where would they be involved? Would Sarah be the head of an architecture firm? Would Isabelle be chairing the NAACP? They sure would be active in their own ways.”
Professor and historian Mary Jo Ignoffo contributed new scholarship to the exhibition.
Accompanying programs will program include a tour of the Winchester Mystery House at $36 for members, $40 for nonmembers.
The exhibition closes June 6.
The Los Altos History Museum is located at 51 S. San Antonio Road. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Admission is free.
For more information, visit www.losaltoshistory.org.