Buckle up, y’all. As gorgeous and intricately detailed as the Herman Winters house is, it’s got an equal amount of long, dramatic family history to go with it. We whittled down the stories, but you may still want a mimosa or a fresh cup of coffee for this.
Built in 1890 in Sacramento, California, the house was the showplace for wealthy merchant, Herman Winters (1834-1904). It is significant for its size (around 4500 SF), Queen Anne-Eastlake architecture and incredible amount of ornamental details.
Winters, a native of Germany, made his way to California via New York to take advantage of the California Gold Rush. He made a killing, eventually establishing a grocery store with a business partner, John Batcher. The store was a success, too, and in 1869, the partners split the money, enabling each of them to own their own stores.
Winters’ first wife, Catherine, was initially referenced in 1860. They had three children, one of whom died during infancy. Very soon after Catherine’s 1886 death, Winters married Effie Parke, who was about the same age as his children. And this is where the drama begins — their relationship was tumultuous.
After one marital spat in 1889, Effie moved back in with her mother and went on a $1,000 shopping spree. Herman then filed a petition to deny his wife’s debts with local merchants.
Herman claimed Effie “was not at the time of the purchase of the goods, or any time prior thereto during their marriage, in need of wearing apparel; that she had, at the time she abandoned him as aforesaid a large quantity, and a great variety of wearing apparel of an excellent quality and of costly material.” He added that Effie took at least 12 dresses, in addition to seven trunks filled with stuff, much of which belonged to him. Effie had so much with her, Herman said, that the Expressman had to call another guy for help getting the items in his wagon.
There were no records of how the court case ended, but they patched things up and Effie lived with him until his death in 1904.
Herman’s estate was worth around $38,000, which was split up amongst Effie and his two children, Anna and John.
Effie was eccentric, and some say, insane. But when she inherited money and this house at the age of 40, she maintained it well and made improvements. Still, her brother, Frank Parke, petitioned the court in 1911 to have Effie deemed incompetent, presumably so he could take over her assets.
The court ruled in her favor, but when she died a month later at 48, Frank contested her will, saying she wasn’t dealing with the full deck when she wrote it. Frank had previously been the benefactor but after he tried to have her declared insane, she changed her will, leaving the bulk of her estate to her Methodist minister, L.S. Jones.
A trial ensued; the court deemed Effie sane prior to 1901, when she was thrown from a buggy, smashing her head on a street car track. She was unconscious for a few days and then found wandering, aimless and disheveled.
Another resident at the asylum told Effie she would never be released if she kept writing letters to Jesus and signing them from the bride of Christ, so she was self-aware enough to stop.
These days, we realize she probably had a traumatic brain injury. But back then, she was institutionalized.
Effie was released, but continued spiritually communicating with visions and domestic animals and peaking telepathically with people (although they never heard her). She believed she made the stars move and was the bride of Jesus Christ. Previously quite social, Effie began to peel away from friends, calling some of them “nymphs of the devil.”
However, she also dressed impeccably, spoke clearly and was responsible with her money all the way to the end of her life.
Ultimately, the court case over her will was decided after five doctors examined her brain and decided it was diseased, “unusually light,” and that she was, indeed, of unsound mind. Frank didn’t keep the house for very long, though, and it was not cared for by subsequent owners.
Herman Winters has an elaborate plot in the Sacramento City Cemetery. His first wife, Catherine; his daughter, Anna; and a grandson, Samuel, are buried there also. Effie and his son, John, however, were not interred there.
The Winters House was restored in 1996, and added to the National Register of Historic Places two years later.