The legend of the ghost of the Hotel del Coronado has been floating around the landmark seaside resort ever since the mysterious death of a woman garbed in black more than 110 years ago.
The famous hotel near San Diego, a glamorous stopover for kings and presidents, isn't the only one with a resident ghost. The Hollywood Roosevelt supposedly has at least two -- Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. But the Hotel del Coronado, known to its fans as "the Del," is probably unique in having a whole book dedicated to a single ghost.
Various "sightings" of the female apparition gliding down a corridor, or standing by the same window as if waiting for someone, fill a hefty file in the office of the 115-year-old hotel's historian, Christine Donovan.
Intrigued by the mysterious death, Donovan spent more than a year researching newspaper accounts, coroner's records and archives at several libraries, as well as the hotel's own documents. She recently wrote "Beautiful Stranger: The Ghost of Kate Morgan and the Hotel del Coronado," published by the hotel's heritage department.
Donovan admits that she has never seen the ghost, but says she decided to set the record straight after so many different versions of the story began taking on lives of their own. "Our goal was to tell a true story, something a history department could stand behind," she said,
According to Donovan, Kate Morgan was 24 when she showed up without any luggage at the hotel on Thanksgiving Day 1892. She registered under a false name and was assigned Room 302, which has since been changed to 3327. Five days later, she was found dead with a bullet in her head on the hotel's staircase down to the beach.
The story of Morgan's final days begins in Los Angeles, where she was a servant for Judge Robert Maclay Widney, "father" of USC, and later for L.A. Grant on South Hill Street. She gave both employers the name Mrs. Katie Logan and said she was from Omaha.
On Wednesday, Nov. 23, 1892, she told the Grants that she needed to go to San Diego to get some papers signed. Promising to return the next day to cook the Thanksgiving meal, she hopped aboard a train for San Diego, leaving all her possessions behind in a trunk.
On the train, she was seen and heard having a "lover's quarrel" with a man later identified as Tom Morgan. He got off the train in Orange County. Kate continued on to San Diego and the Del, where she registered under the name Lottie Anderson Bernard, saying she was from Detroit. She paid $3.80 a day for her third-floor room, three meals included.
At the beginning of her stay, she reportedly went horseback riding and indulged in a few "whiskey cocktails." Later in the week, according to various hotel employees who would testify at the inquest in San Diego, she appeared to be in ill health. One worker said she had confided that she was suffering from a "hopeless stomach cancer." Another time she said she had neuralgia but added that her brother was a doctor who would be arriving any day. He never came; she had no brother.
The day before her death, she went shopping in San Diego, where she bought a .44-caliber American Bulldog pistol, saying it was a Christmas gift for a friend. A few shop owners would later testify how slowly she walked and how weak she appeared.
On Nov. 28, a stormy Monday night, she went out to the wooden stairs and apparently shot herself in the right temple. The hotel's electrician found her body the next morning.
To help identify her, police circulated a sketch of her face along with a description of her black clothes, including her black underwear, and an expensive ring she wore. Although the sketch made her look nondescript, newspapers began calling her the "beautiful stranger" and speculated that she may have been pregnant, unmarried and deserted.
A few days later, the San Diego coroner received a letter from an unknown source that identified Lottie A. Bernard as Kate Morgan and said she was from a fairly well-to-do Iowa family. About the same time, the Grants in Los Angeles reported her missing, and the Los Angeles police began piecing together more information from items they found in her trunk.
Her marriage certificate stated that she was indeed from Hamburg, Iowa; that her maiden name was Katie K. Farmer; and that she wed Thomas E. Morgan in December 1885. A tin box marked with the name "Louisa Anderson" -- possibly another alias -- was also in her trunk.
It contained a letter of recommendation from a previous employer stating that she was "honorable and trustworthy." There were also several photographs, including one of her husband.
Other servants at the Grants' home told police that Kate was very private about her past, but had mentioned that her husband was a gambler and that she was unhappy in her marriage.
No one said anything about her being in ill health, as others in San Diego would later testify.