The Pandemic that Sarah Winchester Witnessed

If recent events have you feeling unsettled, remember that you’re not alone. It’s normal to feel upset during times of economic, social, or political upheaval. The resiliency of the human spirit is amazing, though, and will ultimately see us through.

Just take a look at a few of the truly stirring events—some good, some bad—that Sarah Winchester, the tiny heiress to the Winchester fortune, saw and lived through during her 83-year lifespan.

  • The carnage of the Civil War—in fact, Sarah and William Winchester married just a few weeks after the Battle of Antietam, to this day the single bloodiest day in US military history.
  • The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, and two other presidents as well: James Garfield in 1881, (the same year that William died) and William McKinley in 1901.
  • The death of Queen Victoria in 1901.
  • The birth of the automobile industry in the US, and the shift from horse-drawn carriages to cars. Sarah owned both a 1909 Renault limousine, and a 1917 Pierce-Arrow limousine. 
  • The transition from gas lighting to electrical lighting in U.S. homes. 
  • The Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903
  • The building of the Panama Canal (1904-1914).
  • The birth of the telephone, and its spread into US homes. 
  • The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which destroyed 80% of San Francisco, and also caused extensive damage to Sarah’s beloved San Jose home, now known as the Winchester Mystery House. The death toll of that day is still the largest of any natural disaster in California’s history, and one of the biggest disasters in the history of our country.
  • The 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, in which some 1,600 souls perished. 


In addition to all of this—and most important in terms of our current situation—Sarah also saw one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. As the United States was pulled into the vortex of the First World War—the “War to end all Wars,” troop movements were helping to rapidly spread the so-called “Spanish Influenza” around the world. Once the Spanish flu gained a foothold, it ravaged the world’s population, bringing normal life to a standstill in many places around the globe. Communities shut down, and the entire world economy was disrupted as the death toll spiraled out of control. After peaking in December of 1918, new cases of the Spanish flu began to slow and eventually peter out.

Sarah herself wouldn’t have had much trouble with “social distancing” as she was already 79 years old and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis—she probably wasn’t getting around much by then. But she was a socially aware woman—a quiet philanthropist who throughout the years had used her money for the good of others. She also knew that it was sometimes necessary to put aside personal needs and desires for the good of others.

Each one of us have ancestors who lived through that time, and knew the fear of contracting a potentially deadly virus. They helped stop it by keeping away from each other. We need to do the same, and help ourselves and each other to get through the current crisis. 

Social distancing? Sarah would definitely approve.

Sarah up close