Local writer Bennett Jacobstein discusses his fascinating new biography, Sarah Winchester: Beyond the Mystery.
Sarah Winchester was a brilliant, creative and generous woman. She lost her only child, Annie, at six weeks old. Her beloved husband William, heir to the Winchester Rifle fortune, died at a young age from tuberculosis. Sarah never recovered from her two heartbreaking losses. Yet through all her pain she was focused on helping those in need.Sarah spent major parts of her adult life on two building projects. Both of them live on today, 97 years after her death.In San Jose, California, Sarah built an architectural marvel, a mansion in the American Queen Anne revival style reflecting great beauty and great innovation. The mansion has operated since 1923 as a tourist attraction known as the Winchester Mystery House. The house is a California Historical Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Throughout the years rumors have been associated with Sarah and her house. The rumors suggest that the grief-stricken widow sought comfort from a medium in Boston who told her she was being cursed by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle. She should move west, the medium said, and build a house and never stop building. As long as construction continued, she was told, she would not die. The rooms would shelter the good spirits and the sound of hammers would drive away the bad spirits. These rumors led to Sarah being portrayed as eccentric and crazy.In West Haven, Connecticut, Sarah funded the building and operation of a hospital for patients with tuberculosis. The hospital, honoring her husband, was named the William Wirt Winchester Annex for Tuberculosis. Sarah was especially concerned with helping those of limited economic means. Over the years thousands of lives have been saved through the work of this hospital. Although the hospital no longer exists, the fund Sarah created continues to support the Winchester Chest Clinic, now part of the Yale New Haven Hospital.Sarah's hospital remains virtually unknown, whereas Sarah's mansion is toured by a steady stream of visitors from around the world. The mansion was the setting for the 2018 film Winchester, a paranormal thriller starring Academy-Award-winning actress Helen Mirren. The movie was advertised as "inspired by true events." It is true that Sarah and the house both existed, but that is where the "true" events end. The rumors surrounding the house continue to be told. Historical research including newspaper and magazine articles, personal correspondence, and interviews with Sarah's contemporaries reveals an alternative explanation of Sarah Winchester and her mansion.