Dead Move: Kate Morgan and the Haunting Mystery of Coronado
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by John T. Cullen
Category: Mainstream/True Crime
Description: The Kate Morgan story is a true-life mystery--an enigma, a 'riddle of the sands'--involving a famous ghost that even today still haunts a great resort in a spectacular tourist destination. On Thanksgiving Day, 1892, a beautiful and graceful young woman checked in alone at the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, California. She signed in under a false name, and to this day her real identity has not been established beyond doubt. Five days later, she was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head on the back steps of the hotel. Several identifications were made and discarded. Her story instantly became a national sensation in a hysterical 'Yellow Press' based on rumor, elevated by hype, trumpeted by scandal mongers. She was touted as an angel, a 'Beautiful Stranger,' who had been brought low by some man shrouded in shadows and evil. Then rumors began to circulate that she had been involved in dark and illicit shenanigans with the city's power elite--but nobody could pin down where those sordid and dangerous circles might spin. More than a century later, the complex web of mystery and intrigue continues to baffle investigators. Here is a book of fiction that tries to crack the code in a speculative and imaginative manner, entertaining yet based on true facts. Those facts reach beyond Coronado and San Diego to girdle the globe, from Honolulu to London, from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.--because, remarkably, the Beautiful Stranger's blackmail target--John Spreckels--was a San Francisco-based sugar mogul (and owner of the Hotel in which she stayed the last five days of her life)--and Spreckels at that very moment was involved in shuttle diplomacy between Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Honolulu, to try and save the Hawaiian monarchy. The Iolani Palace in less than 60 days would be toppled in a coup engineered by Spreckels' corporate rivals, led by mogul Sanford Dole, the 'Pineapple King', who would soon be 'President' of a short-lived Hawaiian Republic before the islands became a U.S. possession. This book examines the global implications of the so-called Kate Morgan story, and offers a new explanation of the mystery, in which not one woman, but two women and at least one man were involved in a blackmail plot gone horribly wrong, with the worst possible timing during an international crisis that actually reached from London to Honolulu. This true crime mystery and historical event lives on in today's ongoing ghost story at the Hotel del Coronado.
eBook Publisher: Clocktower Books and Far Sector SFFH (magazine), 2007 Clocktower Books
eBookwise Release Date: August 2007
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [362 KB]
Reading time: 221-310 min.
Introduction: The Story That Will Not Die
This novel is a book of imaginative and entertaining fiction, based on a true story. I believe, from my experience as a tour guide for thousands of visitors to San Diego, that visitors and locals both will enjoy reading a story set in our city, with interesting historical background from Victorian times.
In recent years, working part-time at the Hotel Del, I became interested in the hotel's resident ghost. I tackled the mystery of 'The Beautiful Stranger' as a pleasurable and challenging intellectual puzzle, foremost, and secondarily for its interest as a famous ghost story at a famous resort--the Hotel del Coronado on the Peninsula of San Diego.
The woman commonly remembered as Kate Morgan lived a murky life, of crime and adventure, and died a violent, tragic death at the Hotel del Coronado in 1892. The case was a national sensation that dominated newspaper headlines around the United States for weeks. If it happened today, the story would play night and day on all the major news channels.
She is commonly thought to have been Kate Morgan, and it is said her ghost haunts the great 1888 hotel, resort, and spa to this day. Her identity was never confirmed with absolute certainty, and my contemplation led me to a startling new theory that may help solve the mystery. The first I.D. on the body wasn't Kate Morgan, but a beautiful young woman from Detroit named Elizabeth Wyllie. My research has taken me back to Lizzie (as she was called to distinguish her from her mother, also Elizabeth). I believe she was the real victim of that 'dark and stormy night.' One might say that the ghost has been trying to tell us who she really was, for over a century. * * * *
Some Like It Spooky
My fictional project is not without precedent, regarding spooky doings at the Hotel del Coronado. Richard Matheson, an esteemed California author, who in his long career has collaborated with giants (like Rod Serling on Twilight Zone episodes), and who has created numerous bestselling novels and movies, in 1975 wrote the novel Bid Time Return, which was made into the classic 1980 movie Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, and William H. Macey among others. Matheson wrote the screenplay for the movie. The novel is set in the Hotel del Coronado, although the movie was filmed at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. The book and movie differ somewhat. The plot roughly boils down to this: a modern man falls in love with a beautiful actress who lived and worked at the hotel during the 1890s; using self-hypnosis, he time-travels a century back to be with her.
The Hotel del Coronado, of course, has been the source and the object of much fictional attention, including the movies Some Like It Hot, filmed there and starring Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis; 1980's The Stunt Man with Peter O'Toole, Barbara Hershey, et al; and 1990's My Blue Heaven, with Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, and Joan Cusack. It has been featured in many television episodes including one in 1980s Hart to Hart, where Stefanie Powers and Robert Wagner ride bicycles through the underground shopping galleries. Aside from that, it has received as guests many kings, princes, and presidents. It is often alleged that the affair between the King Edward VIII of England and American divorcee Wallis Simpson, leading to his abdication, began as early as 1920, when he was visiting the Hotel del Coronado, and she was married to a U.S. Naval officer living nearby in Coronado. The first royal visit to the hotel happened at Christmas 1890, when the hotel was just under two years old--by the doomed King David Kalakaua of Hawai'i, who would die less than four weeks later (a bit of history woven into this novel).
In 1900, the famous American actor William Gillette (re: Gillette Castle of Connecticut) stayed at the hotel on a desperate mission. He was to become famous as the stage actor of Sherlock Holmes, and it was he who added many of the standard devices to the Holmes persona, including the deerstalker cap, cloak, and curve-stemmed briar pipe. The disaster that brought him to the Hotel del Coronado was the loss of his manuscript for the stage play of Sherlock Holmes. He had recently received official authorization from Arthur Conan Doyle to create the stage play for an American audience, but all his notes and the manuscripts (both Doyle's and Gillette's) were lost in a hotel fire in San Francisco. Gillette locked himself in a room at the Hotel del Coronado, and rewrote the play from memory over several feverish weeks. At one point, I was going to write this novel as a Sherlock Holmes investigation, but that didn't pan out. So my book began as a mystery story (combined with a ghost story, a very difficult proposition to pull off, and abandoned); briefly turned into a nonfictional investigative mystery based on all my notes; but, given the conjectural nature of so much of the material, and the loss of so much evidence from 1892 (like the gun and the bullet that may or may not have matched), that finally I am relieved and satisfy to release it as a work of fiction and let it speak to each reader as he or she sees fit.
Another famous name associated with the Hotel del Coronado is L. Frank Baum, creator of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This first book of the Oz series of children's books appeared in 1900. Baum, who was originally from upstate New York, lived in the Dakotas and had a lifelong interest in theater. The success in 1900 brought him to California, where he became involved in the early movie industry. He wintered at the Hotel del Coronado and came to live in the San Diego/Coronado for some years, writing many of his sequels in the area, and ultimately finishing his years in the movie capital of Hollywood. He died 1919 at age 62. It is said he designed the large crown-shaped chandeliers that today still hang in the Crown Room at the Del. Carefully conforming to the timeline of Baum's life, I managed to shoehorn Baum into the novel, not only for the fun of it, but also based on cryptic notes left by the dead woman in her hotel room. * * * *
The Mystery, in a Nutshell
A great resort hotel, a famous ghost, and the enduring mystery of a beautiful young woman's violent death. These are the makings of a story that has now endured into its third century--and the haunting ghost story is as sensational today as when it swept the nation during the closing months of 1892.
The Commonly Given Story: On Thanksgiving Day, 1892, a young woman named Kate Morgan checked into the Hotel del Coronado--reason unknown. She checked in under the false name Lottie A. Bernard and never checked out. Five days later, she was found dead of a gunshot to the head on the back steps of the hotel. After her death, rumors swirled that she had been abandoned by her wicked husband, a ruthless cardsharp named Tom Morgan, with whom she had victimized gullible men on the transcontinental railway system. Some say she'd become pregnant, and he didn't want her anymore, and when he did not come for her as promised, she committed suicide. Others claim he not only abandoned her, but for some reason came and killed her. This novel follows a new and different path, based on careful research and a thorough study of the rich background. * * * *
The Hotel del Coronado has been recognized officially as a U.S. National Landmark. It is one of the only surviving large, wooden Victorian resort hotels in the country. It is situated in Coronado, along a pristine stretch of beach that could be on a South Seas island, with the dark green mass of Point Cabrillo to the west. The beach was several hundred feet narrower in 1892 than it is today, so the hotel was closer to the ocean. The Hotel Del, as San Diego area residents call it, has a rich and storied history that includes visits by kings and princes, movie stars and financial moguls, since its completion in 1887-8.
Most visitors to the Hotel del Coronado are never personally aware of supernatural goings-on. A small but steady number do report hair-raising experiences. Many such events are recorded in the hotel's official book about the ghost (cited earlier). Books fly off the shelves and across the room for no reason in a gift shop in the hotel basement. Guests awaken to find their belongings rearranged. A woman's body imprint is said to often appear on the bed covers in Room 3327, the room occupied by the deceased--and smoothing the covers doesn't necessarily help, because the impression can reappear. Some guests demand an immediate change of rooms--a 'dead move'--in the middle of the night because of flickering lights or strange noises--anything that goes bump in the night.
On Thanksgiving Day 1892, an attractive but mysterious young woman checks into a famous resort hotel under a false name. Immediately, she attracts attention from hotel staff. Why is she traveling alone? Why is she staying at such a great hotel when she seems to be neither rich nor famous? Her behavior over the next few days is increasingly erratic, and she goes from glowing vigor to rapidly deteriorating health. When confronted about her unpaid bill, she claims to be dying from various ailments, and says she is waiting for a mysterious man (doctor, brother). But the doctor never arrives, and the following Monday she is found dead on the back stairs of the hotel. She has a gunshot wound to the head, and a nasty looking revolver lies by her side. The case is wrapped up with great haste, despite many loose ends--like the question about mismatched calibers between the bullet in her brain and the gun by her side. Has pressure from high powers been brought to bear on the Coroner's office to hastily call it a suicide and be done?
A media circus begins. It's not modern cable news or the Internet, but the nationwide telegraph network of 1890s that barks sensational headlines and scandal tidbits. It is the notorious Yellow Press, whose moguls include William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. It is the same Yellow Press that will soon exploit a probable accidental boiler explosion aboard U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor for propaganda and to boost newspaper sales, portraying the incident as a sensational act of sabotage to propel the United States into the Spanish-American War (1898).
Within days after the mysterious shooting death at the Hotel del Coronado in 1892, the entire nation in focused on the unfortunate woman's corpse. Who was she? We don't know. Why did she come to the Hotel del Coronado? We don't know. Endless questions. Moment by moment, the case becomes more complex, more convoluted, as names and suspects and witnesses and locales keep being added in the deepening investigation. Every day--hour by hour--news bulletins and rumors and guesses, even blatant lies, radiate from this idyllic spot that seems to mix bits of the U.S.A. with the South Pacific. All over the nation, citizens eagerly await the next shred of news.
It won't be long before stories begin to emanate from the Hotel del Coronado that her ghost walks the halls at night. Stories persist into the 21st Century about mysterious pranks the ghost pulls to terrify hotel guests--even a Secret Service agent for Vice President George H. W. Bush in 1984. The agent called the front desk in the middle of one night to complain about a noisy party upstairs, only to be told he was on the top floor. The Secret Service agent demanded to have his room changed immediately--which is called a Dead Move. * * * *
Dead Move: A professional hotel term for a change of rooms without re-registering the guest. A 'dead move' (simply moving the guest's luggage from one room to another) may occur for many innocent reasons, but is a particularly appropriate and chilling term for a sudden and perhaps panicked change of rooms due to a ghostly presence--which happens frequently in Room 3327 at the Del. * * * *
When an unaccompanied woman of about 24 walked into the lobby and registered as Lottie A. Bernard. She immediately attracted the attention of clerks and bellboys. She was lively and attractive, if a bit withdrawn. She was traveling alone, which was unthinkable for a young woman in Victorian times. And she checked into the region's most exclusive resort hotel without signs of financial means--why? There were many good hotels across the bay in San Diego, like the Hotel Brewster at Fourth and C. Why the exclusive Hotel Del?
For five days, her presence made its impression on hotel staff. There was suspicion about her finances, since she was booking day by day and charging all her expenses to her room account, and there was no reason to think she was a woman of means. Her health seemed to plummet day by day, until she was weak and barely able to walk. When questioned by the hotel's chief clerk, she said she was dying of cancer and of a vague ailment known at the time as neuralgia. She kept checking at the front desk to see if a mysterious man had called for her--her brother, a doctor, whose arrival would solve everything. The doctor, however, never came. Her anxiety grew. Her ashen and shaken appearance radiated that some terrible crisis was imminent.
On Monday, November 28, the atmosphere darkened as one of the century's most frightening and destructive storms approached. The air was gray and laden with moisture. An ominous wind kicked in, and ships made for shelter as their sails rattled overhead. Barometric pressure dropped severely as the gloom closed in, with dark, mood-altering side effects.
Everywhere, citizens hurried to get home to a warm fire behind shuttered doors--but not the Mysterious Stranger, the woman who had signed in under the pseudonym of Lottie A. Bernard. So weak that she had to be helped on board the trolley, she ventured one last time across the bay into San Diego--to purchase a hand gun. She returned almost immediately--her movements would later be detailed in testimony at the Coroner's inquest--on one of the last trolleys to run that evening before all transportation between San Diego and Coronado ceased during the growing storm. Mrs. Bernard was last seen Monday night by bellman Harry West, standing with other guests on a balcony, looking out to sea where a massive wheel of black storm clouds, flickering with lightning and growling with thunder, came spinning toward land. The storm would batter the newly built hotel all night long. Then, as happens in the balmy San Diego climate, the weather quickly softened. The storm passed into the mountains and deserts eastward, leaving an eerie calm.
By morning, on November 29, an electrician making his rounds in the quiet fog around the hotel whistled softly to himself amid the dripping eaves and the twitter of birds coming out of hiding. The electrician suddenly stopped and gave a yell as he came around the seaward side of the Grand Ballroom. There, lying on a stretch of concrete steps leading to the beach and sea, lay the attractive young woman of whom the staff had been abuzz for days. Like a classic figure in morbid romantic paintings of the era, she lay on her back looking up into the sky with half-open, sightless eyes. Her hands lay open by her thighs, and her skin was grayish-blue. The electrician rushed to her aid, at first thinking she had fainted. But when he slapped her cheek and felt her pulse, it was immediately evident that she was long gone. Her flesh felt rubbery and cold. Her clothing was soaked and chilly. The electrician and a gardener, both near hysteria, ran to summon the hotel's chief clerk. Thus began one of the sensations of the decade.
The Deputy Coroner (summoned by newly installed telephone line between Coronado and the mainland) arrived on the ferry by midmorning with a crew of men to take the body to the City of San Diego. Next morning (Nov. 30), a formal inquest with nine jurors was convened. The facts as they were immediately available were rushed through the hearing process. By afternoon, the jury decided the verdict: suicide. Oddly, the deceased's identity was not yet known, so that by modern standards it would be impossible to determine motive, and therefore impossible to close the legal proceedings in one day. The body lay in state, in an open casket at Johnson & Company Mortuary in San Diego, for several weeks. Thousands viewed her in a display of Victorian morbidity. San Diego police circulated a sketch, nationwide, of the dead woman's facial profile. They hoped to find someone who knew her, was missing her, and would speak up to claim the body. There were at least four different identifications of the body. In order, they were Lizzie Wyllie of Detroit, Jessie Brown (an alias of Kate Morgan), Katie Logan (another alias used by Kate Morgan), and finally Kate Morgan. The circulating sketch, plus speculation about her last hours and her motives, fed the media tempest. First the San Diego newspapers--owned by San Francisco mogul John Spreckels, who had bought the Hotel Del and much of Coronado and San Diego)--and soon, Hearst and other newspapers around the West, began a telegraph-hyped campaign of daily and hourly bulletins, rumors, guesses, and glamorized half-truths. It was the era of the Yellow Press, the sensation-seeking and opinion-bending media that swayed with the money currents in the sea of propaganda, emotion, and popular hysteria. She was elevated to a beautiful and tragic figure, almost superhuman in her grace and charms. Her death--portrayed as that of a pretty and innocent girl torn by the icy clutches of a stormy and cruel sea--became high drama in circulation-starved newspapers.
Generations later in the 21st Century, many people feel that her ghost keeps crying out for attention--and perhaps for justice. * * * *
Note for Fictionwise customers: The print edition of this book contains four maps that explain the period geography of Coronado and San Diego. Unfortunately, only the eBook renditions in MS-LIT and Adobe PDF formats could be formatted to contain readable, manageable images these large files. Buyers of renditions supporting other formats, including Mobipocket and Palm, can freely access these maps in a conveniently large and readable size online at www.johntcullen.com/deadmove/maps.