Fascinating Tales from History: The Winchester Mystery House

Recently I finished reading this book, The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer: My Life at Rose Red, which is the novel prequel to Stephen King’s Rose Red, a mini-series that aired in 2002. If that’s not complicated enough. I never saw the mini-series but a friend thought I would get a kick out of the book (love me a good ghost story) so I bought it and promptly left it sitting on a shelf for over ten years. But, I have been going through a rash of haunted house stories this Halloween and this title seemed to fit in with the group so I picked it up, dusted it off, and gave it a chance. It was decent. Certainly entertaining. The fictional home, Rose Red, bore a great resemblance to Hill House in Shirley Jackson’s phenomenal The Haunting of Hill House. But it was also clearly based on another house, a real house. The Winchester Mystery House.

The Winchester Mystery House from above, as it looks today.

The Winchester Mystery House from above, as it looks today.

The Winchester Mystery House was built, starting in 1884, by Sarah Winchester, window of William Wirt Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. After her husband’s death Winchester consulted a medium who told her she should move across the country and build a home for herself and the victims of Winchester rifles. She did just that, moving to San Jose, California and started construction on her home. Of course, with most building projects there comes the time that the building stops. That didn’t happen with Sarah Winchester’s house until her death in 1922. At which point she had spent approximately $5.5 million dollars (roughly $75 million when adjusted for inflation) and built the mammoth building up seven stories. However, the 1906 earthquake, which devastated San Francisco, claimed three of the top floors of the Mystery House.

The Winchester Mystery House before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

The Winchester Mystery House before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

Throughout her life Winchester became more and more paranoid about the ghosts and spirits she believed were haunting her and her money. To confuse and deter the phantasms, she built her house to be deliberately confusing. Not only its vast size and sprawling layout, which she designed herself without the use of an architect, but windows in the middle of rooms, doors that lead out a second story wall, and staircases that lead to nowhere.

The famous "Door to Nowhere"

The famous “Door to Nowhere”



In the end the house ended up 24,000 square feet, with 160 rooms; 40 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, six kitchens, two basements, 47 fireplaces, 52 skylights, 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 3 elevators, and one shower. [statistics courtesy of the official website]

Dining room

Dining room



The Winchester Mystery house is now open to the public and available to tour. Needless to say the house is considered haunted by countless ghosts including the ghost of Sarah Winchester herself, who built the house that just wouldn’t quit.

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Book Review: ‘Bitter Greens’ by Kate Forsyth

bitter greens(**** 1/2 of five)

I have nothing but good things to say about this book, except for some shaky parts towards the end. It mixed a bevy of my favorite things together, boiled them in a cauldron and somehow made it work better than I could have imagined. This is a remarkable work.

At the end of the seventeenth century Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force is exiled from the court of King Louis XIV due to some scandalous writings, and sent to the convent at Gercy-en-Brie. Despondent over her circumstances, Charlotte-Rose finds solace only in a story told to her by Soeur Seraphina; the tale of a young girl taken from her parents in exchange for a handful of bitter greens. Locked in a tower Margherita (now called Petrosinella, or ‘Little Parsley’ in Italian) she has the hair of eight other captive girls sewn into her own locks. Her captor, the beautiful courtesan and witch, Selena Leonelli, baths in her blood every full moon. But what do these three woman, their collective stories spanning three centuries, have in common? A lack of choice in what happens to them and their bodies. A courtier, a captive, and a courtesan; all prisoners of some kind.

Three fantastic leading ladies form a story that’s part fairy tale and part historical fiction. Our historical figure, Charlotte-Rose, I confess, I knew nothing about. In fact, she doesn’t seem a lady that is particularly easy to get to know. Her wikipedia page is rudimentary and there doesn’t seem to be a copy of her writings, that isn’t in French, to be found. None the less, it is clear that Ms. Forsyth has done her research. Charlotte-Rose is richly realized, as is the world she lived in; teetering between wealth and ruin. People find courtiers to be glamorous, but here we are shown just how perilous court can be.

Margherita we grow up with. She is a girl from a fairy tale. Rapunzel. Named Persinette in de la Force’s version of the tale and later renamed by the Brothers Grimm. [An aside, it seems that a lot of people don't know that rapunzel is a type of green. It is, she was named after the greens that were stolen from the witch.] She is innocent, she is victimized, she is childlike as all versions of Rapunzel tend to be. However, is is not boring. Margherita’s suffering is very well done here. The reader feels, at once, very sorry for her and impressed by her ingenuity.

Selena is… awesome. Like all the greatest villains, she’s not all bad. Her actions could suggest otherwise, but Selena has suffered as all do in this tale. She was orphaned young, brought up by a witch and taught the trades, she has been forced into prostitution and fears her waning beauty, as it was part of her mother’s undoing and eventual death. Forsyth makes an admirable choice to include Selena’s story into this book. The fact that no one is pure evil without a reason and that no one is above redemption. It was, perhaps, my favorite segment.

The only negative I have about this book was the end. It was fine, but didn’t seem to follow the exquisite quality of the rest of the book. Margherita’s story is that of Rapunzel and we all know how that ends. However, her sudden use of magic, and her lover’s tumble into the blinding thorns below seemed false in this context. The rest of the story used magic but in the sort of way that can almost be believed. Spells that are cast through diligence and work, not the flick of a wrist. Margherita’s giving birth to twins of a mountain road also seemed a little… easy. Perhaps these are petty complaints but I LOVED everything before the finale and I was a little disappointed. Finally, the revelation at the end of the story seemed so obvious to me that it would have been nice if it hadn’t been spelled out. It didn’t change the story at all if the reader didn’t understand and having it told explicitly lost some of it’s appeal for me.

But my disappointment at the end did not translate into disappointment in the book. I closed the cover feeling satisfied and exhilarated at the finely woven story I’d just read. I would recommend this to anyone, particularly those who enjoy fairy tales, historical fiction, or the supernatural.

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Fascinating Tales from History: The Female Stranger

Something I have long known is that history is filled with the greatest stories. Stories that I collect and keep in filing cabinets in my brain only to be removed every once in awhile, looked at and then re-stored. I decided it was about time to share some of these stories and if my blog isn’t the perfect place to do so then I don’t know what is.

In the spirit of the month I decided to kick it off with the tale of the Female Stranger.

female stranger

Though accounts have differed over the years the best version of this story goes as thus: In 1816 in the town of Alexandria, Virginia a ship was diverted up the Potomac to drop off a sick passenger, a woman cloaked in veils accompanied by a man thought to be her husband. She was brought to Gadsby’s Tavern where a room was procured. A doctor and several females attended her until his death, at which point they were sworn to secrecy as to her identity. The promise was kept.

The Female Stranger was buried in St Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Alexandria in an elaborate grave. Her funeral was attended by only her male companion. The inscription reads:

“To the memory of a Female Stranger

Whose mortal suffering terminated on the 4th day of October,1816 Aged 23 years, and 8 months

“This stone is erected by her discon- solate husband in whose arms she sighed out her latest breath, and who under God did his utmost to soothe the cold dull hour of death.

“How loved, how honor’d once avails the not, To whom related or by whom begot, A heap of dust remains of thee

‘Tis all thou art, and all the proud shall be.”

female stranger inscription

Her husband left immediately after the funeral and left behind him almost two hundred years of speculation. In some reports it was found the bank notes used to pay for the Tavern and grave were counterfeit.

Of course, this sort of bizarre story has posed a lot of questions over the years.

Some reports describe the woman as being a young foreign woman with tears in her eyes, while others claim her face was never seen. Another account states she was Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Aaron Burr (U.S. Vice President under Thomas Jefferson though frequently remembered for his duel with Alexander Hamilton which resulted in Hamilton’s fatal wounding), who was lost at sea. Though most agree that the dates don’t quite match up. Speculation has included everything from Napoleon Bonaparte in drag to a captured European princess and pirates.

Another theory, relying heavily on detail of the counterfeit money, is that the whole thing was simply a ruse for publicity or an elaborate con and that the grave remains empty.

And like any good tale the yarn has been spun so many times that it’s hard to wade through all the knots. Accounts arose all through the 1800s until 1913 when the most detailed account (which is the bulk of what I shared above) emerged in the Ladies’ Home Journal, nearly a hundred years after the events took place.

Whatever the answer to this two century old mystery the grave has not been changed in all that time. Perhaps someday it might be decided  to exhume the remains (if there indeed are any) and test the DNA. But, that hasn’t happened yet. But DNA only goes so far and the chances of every learning the whole truth about this puzzling occasion are very remote.

For me, this story is too good to ruin with even the chance of truth.

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Book Review: ‘Tsarina’ by J. Nelle Patrick


(**** of five)

Good god, I loved this book. I gave it four stars, which I think is the correct number, but if I was going on how much I loved it I would have given it five. I loved this book. That being said, I’ve been in love with the Russian Revolution since I was a kid and that was even before the film Anastasia (cartoon classic!) came out and I loved it even more. That whole part of history was, in a word, fascinating. It doesn’t really need embellishment from magic and fictional characters, but a hearty dose never really hurt anyone. This story was pretty damned unique and was told about as richly as anyone could ask for the book which is technically YA (Ms. Patrick [do we really need to call her that as we all know the author is, in fact, Jackson Pearce of the retold fairytales fame] writes much better than most other YA authors). The elements of magic are extraordinary, of course, but this setting so mythic at this point that I had no problem believing it.

Natalya Kutepova has known nothing but luxury. The daughter of a military general she’s a member of the Russian nobility and as the intended of the tsarevich, Alexei Romanov, there are no doors which she may not enter. But when the people of her country rise up in revolution Alexei is suddenly taken away to Ekaterinburg; and the magical Fabergé egg, spelled by the powerful mystic Rasputin before his death, which protects the imperial family goes missing. Natalya knows she must find the egg and keep it out of the hands of the Red revolutionaries, but that is easier said than done for a noble girl in a sea of Red. Together with her friend Emilia and a young revolutionary named Leo, who might just have his own agenda, Natalya travels from St. Petersburg to Moscow in search of the only other person she knows of that knew of the egg’s existence.

Several things, of course. I wont get into any changes to history. We all know Alexei Romanov was thirteen and did not have anything like a ‘girl’ at the time of his death. Time was compressed. There definitely wasn’t any sort of magic egg that protected the imperial family (though I wouldn’t be surprised if Rasputin tried to sell them one). But of course, this is fiction. Ms. Patrick goes through a nice little list of fictions in her afterward, which I found very responsible of her. Fiction, even historical fiction, needs some license and if this book inspires one kid to be as interested in the Romanovs as Anastasia did me then I think the authors work is done. Still, I am in no way convinced that if the tsarevich did have a girl that their marriage would be a foregone conclusion. He would, surely, have been required to marry a princess, duchess, or countess at the very least. Though it was a turbulent time, things were changing, and who really knows since it never came up.

Another thing, the author is able to capture two things about this time period. The Romance of the imperial court (as all things that are long gone and seem very pretty are Romantic) and the how complicated the Revolution really was. It is very easy to sit on our twenty first century perches and point towards the Bolsheviks as being foolhardy and overly violent, when the matter was far more complicated. Yes, we know that Communism doesn’t really work on a scale as large as the USSR attempted, but that doesn’t make the ideals any less attractive. Patrick brings up some very good points on this matter in the character of Leo, but Natalya’s own imperialist views are on the forefront and the conclusion of this story comes off that way. I would probably have written it the same way as I am hopelessly attached to the Romanovs and a sucker for courts and nobles. Especially when they are coupled with samovars and snow.

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2014 Autumn Bucket List

Because my Summer Bucket List turned out so incredibly well (and I will post about all the amazing things I did, I swear; as well as my promised Cleveland Ice Cream Guide) I decided to continue the practice for at least a year. Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring. Having a list of things to do over the summer (all of which I completed by the way) truly made me get out and do things while the weather was nice. Cleveland really shines in the summer, when the lake glimmers and festivals pop up every which way, but there is a lot to love about this little overlooked city in other months too. So here it is; a smaller list of everything I am going to do this fall.

- Eat a delicious apple fritter the size of my head and pick a few apples at Patterson Fruit Farm.


There are plenty of fruit farms scattered around the country but non quite so beloved to me as Patterson’s. A Cleveland area institution this Chesterland farm is just far enough into the country to feel like another world without being an excessive drive. Plus you can’t beat the aforementioned apple fritter (I have never had one better) and their amazing Dutch apple pie. Their nearby orchards are perfect for picking. 

- Complete the as yet untitled Cleveland Coffee Tour. 

After the Cool as Ice (Cream) Tour ended all three of us Shillelagh’s were pretty sad about it and decided we needed to come up with something else to do during the fall. Coffee was the logical choice. So we came up with a list and when we’re done I’ll tell you all about it. 

- See the exhibit The Great War: Women and Fashion in a World at War at the Kent State University Museum. 

great war

I wasn’t aware that there was a Kent State University Museum, but when I saw an advertisement for this particular exhibit I knew that I needed to make a visit. I love old fashioned clothes and I love the early twentieth century so this is sort of a no brainer. 

- Go to one other museum in the surrounding area that I have never been to. 

I know they exist, but I never go to them. There are plenty to choose from.

- Go on my yearly trip to the Berkshires with bonus Hudson Valley. 


Usually around this time I am getting ready to go to the Fall Family Festival, a mini-reunion, at camp. And on the way I stop in western Massachusetts to check out some of the gorgeous views but mostly to visit some of the grand old mansions that were built in the area and are now open to tour. But since this year was the full blown reunion and I’m not going to camp my mom decided to accompany me. Two days in Berkshire County and then down the Hudson Valley to check out some of those houses as well. Some of them I have already seen, but I am always happy to see them again, and some I haven’t. There’s nothing better than small idyllic towns in the fall. 

- Go to Ingenuity Fest and the Voix de Ville Tent’s Boffo Show. 

voix de ville

Ingenuity Fest is one of those things that just keeps getting better. It was always a great idea, a celebration of art and technology in generally unused Cleveland spaces, but it wasn’t until last year that I thought it’s potential was starting to be realized. Now located in two warehouses at the Port of Cleveland, right on the water, there is more art, performance, discussion, and technological advances than you can shake a stick at. And last year the experience was only enhanced by by the introduction of the Voix de Ville Tent. Run by my favorites, Pinch and Squeal, a vaudeville duo known for songs on accordion and banjolele, terrible magic tricks, and more than a few laughs, the Voix de Ville tent showcases music, curiosities, magic, and cabaret. Sounds like my kind of night.

- Take a walk on the Blue Ridge Parkway when the Shillelagh’s take their yearly sojourn to Virgnia.


Every year the other Shillelaghs and I go to K’s family’s property in Virginia. This year all three of us are attempted to get a little more fit and so we thought a walk would be in order. There are some gorgeous trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway, naturally, so that seems like the best place to go, especially since we drive up there to gaze at the views every year anyway. 

- Read Turn of the Screw by Henry James and at least one of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories. 

turn of the screw

I’ve been meaning to read both of these things for ages and since it’s the Halloween season and putting reading goals on my Summer Bucket List worked pretty well I am doing it again. Plans to see Edith Wharton’s mansion, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts probably will help.

- Explore the Cleveland Cultural Gardens

cultural gardens

Located in Rockefeller Park along Martin Luther King Drive Cleveland has a series of gorgeous cultural gardens. I have driven through them many many many times, but I have never gotten out of the car to explore them. Of course, this probably has something to do with the fact that there’s not really any parking around the area and that it will probably be kind of a hike to get to, not to mention the chain of them is a bit of a walk too. But, it’s definitely time for me to give these gardens a look and now’s the right time when it’s still crisp and warm enough to spend some time outside. 

- Go on a hayride. 

When I was little my mom and her friends always organized a big hayride. We would picnic and take a ride and this was one of the funnest things that I remember from my childhood. I’ve wanted to do another one for a long time but I don’t have a group of friends big enough. But this year I found hayrides that you can join at the Chalet Metroparks. Sounds good to me!

- See a play. 

I used to see live theatre all the time but in recent year I have tappered this a bit. Mostly for financial reasons. But that needs to change because there is nothing better than seeing a play. There are quite a few that I want to see coming up and there are always ways of finding cheap tickets so onto the list it goes. 

- Go on walks!



As I said earlier, in attempts to get a little more fit I am trying to go walking a lot more. There are plenty of places in the area that would be perfect for some gorgeous walks and I’m including three of them on my list. 

1) The Shaker Lakes

Probably Lower Lake as it was always the lake I went to in my youth, but Horseshoe is lovely as well (I might even do both). Here in the Heights we’re pretty lucky that those crazy ass Shakers decided to dam Doan brook to power their mills and in the process carved out a few lakes, cause they sure are beautiful. The Nature Center is located in the marsh between the two aforementioned lakes, which also include Marshall and Green Lake. 

2) The Cleveland Metroparks

There are so many to choose from in our emerald necklace! And plenty of trails. I mentioned in my Summer Bucket List that I wanted to take a picnic in one of them but this time I want to get out and explore the surrounding woodlands. 

3) Cuyahoga National Park

How lucky am I to live as close as I do to a National Park? Sadly, I haven’t spent much time exploring it. Oh, I have been to Hale Farm and Village, located in the park, and I have traveled on the railway that cuts through, listened to tales of the petitions that made the park, but I have never walked in it. This needs to be remedied. I would also like to make Brandywine Falls a stop. 

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Fleur-de-Lis Camp 85th Reunion and Three Shillelaghs: Cape Crusaders



This year was my camp’s 85th anniversary, so as we are apt to do a good portion of alumni gathered together to celebrate all things Fleur-de-Lis. This was one of my summer bucket list things to do. I’ve always had a difficult time explaining how important camp is to me to non-camp people, so we can just leave that at that. However, we did have a very splendid time over the weekend. We had regular camp activities we could participate in, like archery, swimming, sailing, and riflery (though I couldn’t actually participate since I was volunteering and in the store the majority of the afternoon). We had a regular camp meal with the campers, we took down the Fleur-de-Lis and American flag at the end of the day, and then to cap the night off we had a party in town at the Fitzwilliam Inn. The next morning we had a nice brunch, a service where everyone and anyone could read or sing about camp, and then capped off the day with the silent auction and raffle. I swam in the lake three times, won a piece of stained glass made at camp, and wished I could stay the whole summer.

But then, of course, there was vacation. My camp is in New Hampshire, about a ten hour drive from home so it’s a little bit of a drive for one night. So, I always pair my camp visits with a little vacation and this year K and J decided they would join me. We headed south towards the beaches of Cape Cod and Islands.


I’d been to Nantucket before a few times (and love it immensely) but I had never been to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket’s neighboring island. K had spent some time there as a child, due to the fact that her uncle lives there, so we were on our way.

We had a wonderful host in K’s Uncle Ned who fed us delicious food, gave us a place to stay, and steered us towards some great things to do. We went to the beach both days, saw some awesome cliffs, and danced on the porch. It was a great time.


(Gay Head Clay Cliffs [Okay, so there is some debate on the name here. The town has since changed back to it's original name of Aquinnah from the, um... suggestive sounding Gay Head. Online the cliffs are alternately called Gay Head Clay Cliff or Aquinnah Clay Cliff. However, the sign at the actual clay cliffs said Gay Head so I am sticking with Gay Head. Get over it.])


(Gay Head Light [same issue] is the number 11 most endangered historical location. It needs to be moved before it falls into the ocean.)


(Menemsha has a pleasant beach and an adorable little fishing village lined with lobster and clam shacks.)


(I had some fried clams at The Bite.)

IMG_20140714_113109It rained on the day we left (so this is from when we came in on the ferry) but we were still sad to leave on the ferry back to Woods Hole where we were all set to drive to Provincetown out on the Cape.


Where women are the minority and they love their bears. The first day it was raining and a little bit miserable since we were camping. There wasn’t much to do and we ended up reading in the car for a rather long time. But the second day was gorgeous and we spent practically the whole time at Herring Point Beach.


I ate three lobster rolls, which was also on my bucket list.


(This is from Spanky’s Clam Shack in Hyannis Port, which we had before we went to the Vineyard. It was probably in the top three lobster rolls I’ve ever had. Yum.)


The final night we ate at Pepe’s Wharf, which was fine as far as food goes and aces as far as view go.

A great trip was had by all. Too many laughs, too many instagrammed pictures, and too many bottles of Seltzer later and it felt like we were gone for a month when it was only a week. A good way for a vacation to go.

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Book Review – “The Garden of Dead Dreams” by Abby Quillen


(four of five stars)

      Sometimes I find myself thinking about writing review while wearing two hats. The hat that sat through oh so many creative writing workshop courses in college and the hat (I imagine a sort of court jester’s cap here) that just wants to be entertained. This book was wildly entertaining. I am a sucker for a good literary mystery, bonus points if it also deals with literary people (as it does here), and this was one hell of a good literary mystery.

Nestled in the trees of Oregon is an institute founded by Vincent Buchanan, one of the nation’s famous sons. An author so brilliant that his novel, The Western Defense, propelled the nation into victory over Japan at the end of the second World War. Etta Lawrence arrives at the academy seventy years after the publication of that famous book. Searching to redefine herself at the prestigious school Etta plans on writing a story so good it will win her the Buchanan prize, and another year (sans fee) before returning to the real world where she will undoubtedly have to build a whole new life for herself. But Etta soon realizes that winning the prize is the least of her problems. When her roommate starts displaying some erratic behavior and then disappears completely, Etta starts searching for some truths. But when reputations are at stake truths are not always forthcoming. Soon Etta is embroiled in a conspiracy that has been buried for almost a century and the question becomes not if she can find the truth but rather if she can survive it.

I will be honest. This book was not on my radar until the author found me on Goodreads because of my love of several like stories. I was happy to write a review, of course, because I’m both vain enough to imagine someone would want my opinion and desperate enough for those old college days when it was part of a grade. However, I was a little nervous. I mean, what if I didn’t like the book? And here the author was nice enough to look at my blog and find a reference to mention that would actually prove she read the blog. I knew I would be honest. If the book stunk up the place I was going to say so, in an honest review, but I knew that I would feel pretty bad about it. Luckily, that didn’t happen and I am pleased to report that The Garden of Dead Dreams was a fantastic read (despite a title that’s a tad over dramatic for my liking).

There were a few things, of course, that detracted from my love. Etta, for example, is harboring a secret that is referred to repeatedly throughout the first part of the book and then when the reveal comes it’s…. just not that big of a deal. Also, towards the end a stand off takes place but then the action moves elsewhere and I was left wondering how exactly that got resolved for the rest of the cast once the lead had exited stage right. And I felt like plot lines regarding some of the characters were left dangling. Though, of course, there were a lot of characters. There’s also the problem that happens when a novel is written about others writing novels. Or poetry, play, et cetera, where the author then has to create the work of several different people of varying talents. It rang true about eighty percent of the time here, but the other twenty pulled me out of the story a little. Especially with the poetry, which I do not like and can never figure out what is good or not. Though I am almost certain Robert North was intended to be pedantic and completely up himself with his verse.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book. The setting was very fun, the scenery rich, and the characters great. I especially loved Reed. Poppy was pretty good too. Artists are a strange group of people, especially en mass. And I think writers may be the strangest of all. Get a bunch of them in the same room and you never know what might happen. If Quillen has anything to say about it, they may just solve a mystery or two.

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