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Ghost Story : Solving a Hotel Del Legend Becomes an Obsession

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The legend of the ghost of the Hotel del Coronado has been kicking around the landmark resort ever since the death of a black-clad woman at the hotel 97 years ago.

But an Orange County lawyer obsessed with the mystery-shrouded death of a female stranger at the hotel on Nov. 29, 1892, has gone beyond just trying to put the puzzle to rest.

Alan May, who claims to have seen the ghost, became so entranced with the young woman’s story that he bought a headstone and statue for her unmarked grave, which he visits frequently. The former Green Beret also has written a pamphlet on his findings and is about to publish a second pamphlet.

May says the ghost itself is not what motivated him, but rather the search for the ghost’s story.

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“The thing that fascinated me is that you had a 97-year-old legend that for years people had been talking about and writing about and nobody took the time to research it out,” said May, who began his search in early September.

The story begins with 24-year-old Kate Morgan, a member of a wealthy Iowa family, according to May’s pamphlet titled “The Legend of Kate Morgan: The Hunt for the Haunt of the Hotel del Coronado,” and ends in a violent and bloody death shortly after Thanksgiving Day.

May, a self-confessed “bizarre eccentric,” said he believes that a ghost of a woman dead for 97 years has called upon him to discover the true story surrounding her death.

“Perhaps the lady wanted a lawyer, and she chose me to do it,” he said.

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No one was sure of the identity of the woman whose body was found on a stairway leading to the beach. She was in the early stages of pregnancy.

The most prominent theory at the time was that a Los Angeles woman named Kate Morgan had committed suicide at the hotel, where she had registered under another name.

Other theories abound, however. First there is the story of a single girl named Lizzie Wyllie who ran off with a married man and either committed suicide or was killed after becoming pregnant. Then there is the story of a sea captain whose mistress stayed at the hotel and was killed by his wife. Finally, there is the theory that the mistress of the hotel general manager was impregnated and either disappeared or committed suicide.

At any rate, the woman was buried in an unmarked grave at Mt. Hope Cemetery; only strangers attended her funeral. Cemetery records indicate she was put in Grave 28, Row 6, Section 1, Division 5.

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May conducted his research at several San Diego archives, digging up old newspaper stories and coroner’s records before concluding that the real ghost was that of Kate Morgan.

After researching the death over three months, May feels that his quest is almost over.

Relying on newspaper accounts and coroner records, and digging through the archives of the San Diego State University’s Love Library Special Collections, the San Diego Historical Society, the San Diego Public Library, and Mt. Hope Cemetery, May pieced together what he believes is the true account of the stranger’s death.

In 1892, Kate Morgan and her husband, Tom, were traveling by rail across the country, running a hustle. Kate would act flirtatiously toward a man and Tom, posing as her brother, would fleece him at the gambling table, according to May’s research of newspaper accounts.

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That autumn, however, the Morgans had a parting of the ways when Kate became pregnant.

She wanted to have the child; he did not, since that would jeopardize their con.

On a train ride to San Diego from Omaha via Denver and Los Angeles, Tom Morgan disembarked in Orange County while Kate continued on to San Diego and the Hotel del Coronado, where she registered on Thanksgiving Day as Lottie A. Bernard.

She waited for her husband to join up with her, but he never arrived.

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The following Monday, Nov. 29, on a stormy night on the coast, she was shot in the head with a .44-caliber American Bulldog pistol.

A hotel employee found her body the following morning on the outside steps leading to the beach, according to records of the coroner’s inquest that May obtained from the Historical Society.

Two weeks later, she was buried with no headstone at Mt. Hope Cemetery on Market Street.

Newspaper accounts of the time called her “the beautiful stranger” and “the unknown girl,” and the popular belief was that she had committed suicide.

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May refuses to accept that theory, insisting instead that she was murdered. She had purchased the gun to kill Tom Morgan, May theorizes, who instead killed her. May will detail this theory in his sequel pamphlet.

Tom later burned all of Kate’s identification at the hotel and in her Los Angeles apartment, May contends.

He said that, had the death been a suicide, the large-caliber bullet shot from such close range would probably have shattered her skull, instead of being lodged in her brain, as the coroner reported.

Furthermore, May believes that Morgan’s body had been dragged up the stairs next to the ocean because of the rusting on the gun that the coroner’s inquest reported. The rust, he theorizes, was caused when the gun fell into the water but was retrieved by Tom Morgan.

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“There is enough circumstantial evidence to point to that she was killed and that Tom Morgan probably did it,” said May, who specializes in defending accused killers.

However, May said there probably is “not enough evidence to convict Tom Morgan” had this been a live case.

Since the young woman’s death, creaking noises and flickering lights have been reported in the room where she spent her last night.

“The hotel has kept a respectful eye toward whatever is happening,” said Patrick Hennessey of the hotel’s communications office, who admits that, “after a woman disappeared from the hotel around the turn of the century, there was a series of various strange occurrences, unexplained occurrences.”

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“Any self-respecting Victorian hotel should have a ghost,” he said.

Hennessey declined, however, to comment on May’s investigation.

But May’s conclusions have been challenged. Richard Carrico, a historian who teaches part-time at San Diego State University and plans to publish a book called Ghosts of San Diego, feels that May “made some pretty strong leaps of logic” in unraveling the mystery of the ghost of the Hotel del Coronado. Carrico said he doubts that the ghost is that of Kate Morgan.

“I find some evidence that it could be Kate Morgan, but . . . the fact that the train came out of Denver and the East,” among others, rules out Morgan as the ghost, Carrico said. “It wasn’t physically possible for Kate Morgan to get on it in Denver, since she lived in Los Angeles.”

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Carrico, who has been studying the case for four years, believes that a switch occurs between Lizzie Wyllie and Morgan somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego. His theory is that each woman was running from something when they met on the train and decided that a switch of identities would benefit them both.

It is Wyllie who is buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery, Carrico believes.

Carrico, however, does agree with the murder theory because of the bullet lodged in the brain. Besides, he said, “it makes a better ghost story.”

The skepticism about May’s theory failed to stop him from putting his ideas in stone. When he visited the young woman’s grave, finding it only by tracing the plot number, May was so disturbed that no one had marked the site that he paid $800 to have a headstone engraved with Kate Morgan’s name and placed a statue of an angel at the grave.

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May also left his mark on the people he met during his investigation.

“It was very entertaining, very interesting having him here,” said Lyn Olsson, archives assistant at the Love Library Special Collections, where May studied the hotel’s original floor plans. “He’s quite a character, and he certainly has a lot of energy and sinks into his work. . . . He really did quite a bit of detective work about the hotel.”

In the course of his research, May joined the San Diego Historical Society, where he gained access to the coroner’s inquest into Morgan’s death.

“He’s the type of guy who would walk out of here, and somebody would come up to me and say, ‘Who is that guy?’ ” said Rick Crawford, archivist at the society. “He looks like he’s working on 20 cups of coffee all the time.”

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Despite May’s enthusiasm, Crawford finds it difficult to swallow the ghost story.

“He’s done some good research, but no, I do not believe a ghost haunts the Hotel del Coronado,” Crawford said.

That bothers May not at all.

“Whether one believes in the ghost part or not,” he said, “it’s a very romantic and sad story.”

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