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The young woman shot in the head on the steps of the Hotel del Coronado was a looker. The newspapers called her the “Beautiful Stranger,” bestowing a timeless nickname on a mysterious lady whose life ebbed out on a stormy November night in 1892.
The rest is informed (or perhaps not-so-informed) speculation.
She might have been a grifter known for conning men with her husband in railway cars. Maybe she was pregnant and fell into despair after giving herself an abortion. Perhaps she did herself in; she’d bought a handgun across the bay just the other day.
The authorities thought it was suicide. But they came to a decision quickly, and future generations of authors and crime buffs wondered if they missed a murder.
Whatever happened, the fate of Kate Morgan became Coronado’s most famous mystery, at least until last summer when another young woman’s death in the Crown City drew national attention.
Over the past couple of decades, several authors have pored over the Morgan mystery. One became so obsessed that he bought a gravestone for Morgan and wept over the tragedy of her short life. Meanwhile, ghost hunters still try to get a glimpse of her spirit at one of the grandest hotels on earth; they regularly book the room in advance on Halloween.
Morgan’s afterlife in local lore began during the night of Monday, Nov. 28, 1892, just a few days after Thanksgiving. Dressed in black with a lace shawl on her head, she left her room at the four-year-old Hotel Del and walked to a staircase that led to the beach. A huge storm had engulfed the coast, and the tide nearly made its way to the steps.
The next morning, an electrician found her on those steps with a bullet wound in her right temple. The rain had washed the blood away. But the gun next to her body — a .44 caliber bulldog revolver — remained.
A couple days earlier, Morgan had bought a .44 caliber handgun and ammunition at Chick’s gun store in San Diego, telling the store owner that it would be a Christmas present for a friend.
She looked sick, and had complained of illness to the staff back at the hotel. Still, she waited anxiously for her brother, whom she described as a doctor. She refused to talk to the hotel physician, however, and told a clerk that she suffered from terminal stomach cancer.
Nonsense, declared an anonymous physician who examined her body and then talked to a San Diego Union reporter. She was only 24 or 25, he said, too young for stomach cancer. And besides, she showed “no trace of intense suffering” — at least physically.
Instead, the physician said, it was more likely that she’d been pregnant and had tried to “effect miscarriage” — an abortion — with the help of “strong medicine.”
Within days, a coroner’s inquest quickly determined the cause of death (the gunshot) and its manner (suicide). Determining her identity took longer.
She’d signed the hotel register as Lottie A. Bernard of Detroit when she checked in on Thanksgiving. Then it appeared that her name was Lizzie Wyllie or Katie Logan, which may both be aliases she used.
Finally, she was identified as Kate Farmer Morgan, a housekeeper from Los Angeles, and the estranged wife of a gambler named Tom.
The Los Angeles Daily Times painted her life in a sympathetic light, saying she was good at her job, never went out at night and “did not have any men around her.” But there were rumors too about a scandalous past.
Morgan wasn’t buried for days until an Iowa man identified as her grandfather sent a telegram to authorities. “Your telegram received regarding Kate Morgan, nee Farmer. Bury her and send me statement,” it said.
“He Owns Her,” read the headline in the Union on the next day, Dec. 12, over a story about the telegram. “She will be buried today, just two weeks after she put a bullet in her brain.”
Ghosthunters don’t think she has rested easily.
Supernatural investigators continue to look for Kate Morgan’s spirit at the hotel, which happily perpetuates her legend. Hotel visitors often ask to stay in her room and report a variety of strange happenings.
One woman told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1992 that she heard a “faint rhythmic murmur, like the sound of someone snoring and slurping through a straw.” (Perhaps the ghost was enjoying a midnight snack while sleepwalking?)
There’s a tale repeated in newspaper and book accounts that a Secret Service officer working for Vice President George H.W. Bush freaked out while staying in Morgan’s room in 1983 and demanded to be relocated.
Meanwhile, theories have abounded, seeming to reflect the desire of crime and history buffs to find alternatives to the sad and not-very-sexy story of a depressed woman who killed herself.
The theories, some of which have been promoted by books, are variously filled with suggestions of infidelity, mistaken identity, conspiracy and murder. Maybe the body wasn’t Morgan but someone else. Maybe she wasn’t killed with the gun found next to her body but used it to shoot at her attacker.
Perhaps the weirdest theory of all came from the late Alan M. May, a local attorney and author of a book about the case: He declared that Morgan was his great-great-grandmother. In her honor, he bought a plaque and small memorial statue for her grave at San Diego’s historic Mount Hope Cemetery.
She lies there still, regularly visited by history buffs on walking tours. The words on her gravestone hint at the mystery within: “Kate Morgan/Also Known as/Lottie A. Bernard/Died Nov. 29, 1892/At Age 24 Years.”
The details of the case in this story are based on contemporary reports in The San Diego Union and the Los Angeles Daily Times.
Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.