A poised, striking young woman, remembered as the Beautiful Stranger, is at the heart of this great mystery and ghost story. She died a violent and mysterious death in 1892, amid rumors of dark crimes and infidelities involving men in high places. She is the famous ghost who haunts the U.S. National Landmark Hotel del Coronado, near San Diego.
Gorgeous and dignified, she checked into the Hotel del Coronado, near San Diego, on Thanksgiving Day 1892. She used a false name (Lottie A. Bernard. She carried herself like a great stage actress, as witnesses testified, at a hasty and incomplete coroner’s inquest that the author suggests was part of a coverup to protect the hotel’s owner, mega-wealthy John Spreckels.
Five days after checking in, she lay dead on a beach stairwell. She had a single gunshot to the head, and the revolver lay beside her. Was it murder, or suicide? Ample reason exists for either scenario.
In the 1890s, the telegraph was the Internet of its day, fueled by competing press barons, and a public ever hungry for scandal and dark stories (what else is new?). Instantly, the story became a national sensation in the Yellow Press. Her identity was never established for certain—was she gorgeous young runaway Lizzie Wyllie from Detroit, pregnant out of wedlock and ‘ruined’ by Victorian mores, or was she the ruthless and scheming housemaid Kate Morgan from Iowa?
According to legends, the dead woman was the wife of a gambler named Tom Morgan. Together, they were grifters and cardsharps, robbing men on Transcontinental Railroad coaches and escaping at the next stop each time before they could be caught. By some accounts, Tom Morgan was a murderer, who killed men in cold blood when it suited him.
Rumors instantly swirled in the national press—that she was a woman of loose morals, that she consorted with men in the highest circles, that her dark deeds were part of high-level conspiracies. There are hundreds of promising threads, tantalizing clues, and ultimately just baffling and disappointing dead ends—mystery piled upon mystery, including the Mystery of the Missing Day encapsulated in the larger tale.
Larger the tale does become, and truth as always is stranger than fiction. For a fast, atmospheric thriller, read Lethal Journey. If you want more detail, read the author’s painstaking, scholarly analysis in the nonfiction Dead Move: Kate Morgan and the Haunting Mystery of Coronado, Rev. 2nd Ed. (Clocktower Books, 2008). His careful analysis ties every loose end together, unlike any other book on the subject. His is the first plausible explanation of the Coronado enigma of 1892.
The Beautiful Stranger, in death, became the epitome of that greatest of Victorian heroines, the Fallen Angel. Mourned by millions around the nation, she ironically ended up in a humble and unmarked grave outside San Diego. Her numbered graveside, in the Market Street Cemetery, can be viewed today.
About John T Cullen
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Published September 11, 2010
by Clocktower Books.
History, Mystery, Thriller & Suspense, Literature & Fiction.