The Latest From The History Museum

Posted on February 25, 2010 by  
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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, scheduled through June 6, uncovers the true story behind the Mystery House’s architect, Sarah Winchester, and her sister, Isabelle Merriman … “Through Thick & Thin: A Tale of Two Sisters”

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 similar sociopolitical environment.

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.

Laura Bajuk, executive director of the Los Altos History Museum, said the public spread unfettered gossip that Sarah’s fervent and eccentric construction was due to the spirits of her dead relatives haunting her.  Buoyed by people’s superstitions, the stories made their rounds in the local press.

Around the turn of the century, the Southern Pacific (SP) Railroad Company informed Sarah that it planned to lay tracks through her Los Altos ranch property.

Sarah subsequently 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, outspoken and spunky. 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.

In the end, the exhibit helps to dispel some of the many myths about the sisters.  I encourage you to visit the museum and enjoy the exhibit.  For more information, click here.

Note: This is a slightly edited version of a recent article by Elliott Burr in the Los Altos Town Crier.

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