Let’s pretend for a moment. Imagine it’s April 18. The sun has yet to rise on this Wednesday morning. In fact, it’s so early that, unless you’re a farmer, you’re asleep. And, although it’s early spring, the weather has been hotter than normal over the past week in San Jose, California.
Your alarm clock is set to ring at 7 a.m., but it isn’t going to wake you today. The earth is. That’s because we’re imagining not a day in the future but one in the past. We’re time traveling to April 18, 1906 when the clock strikes 12 minutes after five. It’s then that a loud noise rips you from your dreams into a scene equally unreal: mayhem. The ordinarily sturdy structures that you depend on for their stability and support are being tossed about. Floorboards buckle. Plaster from the walls crumbles. Bricks from chimneys tumble. Your water glass slides off the night table, shattering to the floor. Your bed bounces you like it’s a trampoline. It’s as if the house is falling. It is—it has.
In about 60 seconds, the intense shaking stops. The shouts and screams are clearer, the creaks and groans continue. As you feel your way through your dark room where nothing is where it used to be, you realize that the only way out, the bedroom door, is pinched shut. You are trapped.
According to legend, Sarah Paradee Winchester, the grand dame of the Winchester Mystery House, who was asleep in the Daisy Bedroom, is eventually rescued from the bedroom by a servant who pries open the door with a crowbar.
The native East Coaster wasn’t a stranger to temblors, the small shakes of California life: a book falling off a shelf, a rattling in the China cabinet, a piece of art lopsided. While she had heard the stories from those who lived through the “Great San Francisco Quake” in October 1868, they seemed fantastical. She didn’t live here then.
On April 18, a new Great San Francisco Quake was christened with the slip of the San Andreas Fault. The 1906 Earthquake, a 7.8 on the Richter scale, was 16 times more powerful than 1868’s 7.0. Because the Richter scale is logarithmic rather than linear—and that concept is complex, USGS has created the aptly named “How much bigger…?” calculator. You’ll also find that the 1906 was 22 times stronger than the Loma Prieta in 1989.
In the days that followed, news would have reached the Winchester Mystery House via broadsheets and announcements that papered San Jose. Here’s what you might have read:
“San Francisco Annihilated”
“Many square miles in San Francisco are reduced to smoldering mass of blazing debris.”
“Half of San Francisco is Now in Ashes. Total Destruction of City Probable.”
-New York American
“Scores of the demented escaped from the boundaries of the institution and are wandering, many half clad, about the surrounding country.”
-Santa Cruz Sentinel
(The biggest loss of life in the Santa Clara Valley was at Agnews State Asylum, about 7 miles from Sarah’s house.)
NOTICE IS GIVEN that any person found
Pilfering, Stealing, Robbing, or committing
any act of Lawless Violence will be summarily
-San Jose Vigilance Committee
Sarah’s spirits crumble
At the Winchester Estate, the northern wing of the house was crumbling. And so were Sarah’s spirits. “She lost heart after that. Her life’s work was a shambles,” says house historian Janan Boehme. “She didn’t tear it down, but she never restored it to what it had been. She did what was necessary to make the structure safe and water-tight, then stopped.”
In the immediate aftermath, Sarah moved to her houseboat in the mudflats of Burlingame. You can’t get closer to the ground than this.
Although Sarah did return to Llanada Villa, she limited her movements to the west wing, says Janan. She left the north wing unfinished and closed up the remainder of the house. Eventually, she moved to Atherton full-time. Llanada Villa remained a working ranch only, the day-to-day operations managed by Sarah’s ranch foreman, John Hansen.
Today, visitors to the Winchester Mystery House can see the damage in the Daisy Bedroom, where Sarah was jolted awake 114 years ago.