Few who stay in the five-star Hotel Del Coronado know of the eternal guest who lives here until they run into her late at night. Kate Morgan checked in at the ornate hotel on Thanksgiving Day, 1892. She checked out with a gunshot wound to the temple five days later. The case was a sensation in local and national newspapers for weeks afterward, and writers have speculated on aspects of the case for over a century. Contemporary headlines obsessed over the mystery of “The Beautiful Stranger.”
Morgan traveled the railways with her husband Tom, working as a team. Introducing themselves are siblings, Kate would distract the mark by flirting with him, while Tom played sleight of hand with cards. His swindle of choice was Three Card Monte. They made a good living at it, but this charmed existence came to an end on a trip from
Los Angeles to San Diego. The couple apparently had a barn-burner and Tom got off in a huff at the station in Orange. It was the last time they would see each other. She may have been pregnant, and some historians have speculated that she was ready to file for divorce—a tough road to travel for a woman in 19th-century America.
Kate continued on to San Diego and arrived at the “Del” on the afternoon of November 24th. She entered through the “unaccompanied ladies” entrance, and had the clerk sign her in as “Lottie A. Bernard.” She claimed that she was waiting for her brother to arrive. Over the next few days, she complained to the hotel staff of headaches and pains. She asked a bellboy to get her wine, and later a jigger of whiskey from the bar. On Monday, the 28th, she took the train to San Diego and bought a pistol from Chick’s Gun shop, an establishment also frequented by Wyatt Earp while he ran various gambling houses in the “Stingaree” district downtown after his more famous stint in Tombstone, Arizona. Morgan returned to the hotel and was found the next morning by David Cone, the hotel electrician. Her body was lying on the stairs leading to the beach, a gun by her side, and a bullet hole in her right temple. The coroner guessed that she had been dead at least six or seven hours.
In his 1990 book The Legend Of Kate Morgan, trial lawyer and author Alan May theorized that Morgan was murdered by her errant husband, citing evidence such as corrosion on the supposedly new gun found next to her body, and the hasty coroner’s inquest which failed to ask key questions about the circumstances surrounding Morgan’s death.
“Kate is our most famous ghost,” says Hotel historian Christine Donovan. “We get more interest from the media on that one subject than anything else.” And why wouldn’t they? Whether it was murder or suicide, her violent end is custom-tailored for a haunting.
On the last five days of her life, Morgan stayed in Room 302. After a century of restoration and remodeling, the room has been redesignated #3327. According to hotel staff, it is usually booked months, even years in advance, especially around Halloween. Guests have reported swinging fixtures, flickering lights, telephone and TV malfunctions, and dark figures pulling sheets off the bed. One gentleman became so exasperated by phantom phone calls that he finally shouted at Kate Morgan to leave him in peace. The alarm clock buzzed three times (this was at 4:00 a.m.) and the calls stopped. Another guest stopped to unlock her room late at night and saw a pretty woman mirroring her actions a few feet away next door. The figure smiled at her. She hadn’t realized that she’d seen a ghost until she went inside and noted that the woman was dressed in turn-of-the-century period clothes. Parapsychological snoops have attested to activity in the room as well.
After years of reports and complaints, Room 3519 has also been extensively studied by psychic investigators. Ashtrays and other objects fall off tables, and the noise of footsteps and voices can be heard from the floor above. The problem here is that the next floor is the roof, as an unnamed Secret Service agent discovered in 1983 while staying in the hotel on assignment with then-VP George Bush. He immediately demanded to be moved elsewhere.
Manifestations have been recorded in other rooms besides 3327 and 3519, but seem to be confined for the most part to the third floor. The hallways here are much narrower than on the floors below. It is not a place for claustrophobics. This one will keep you up late: In 1999, a family staying in Room 3343 were driven to hysterics when the mother’s reflection in a bathroom mirror laid a singular moment of cognitive dissonance on them: “…her eyes were the size of Orphan Annie’s (two or three times their normal size) and each appeared to be configured like a bull’s eye.” (Cited in Ghostly Encounters At The Del: The Spirit of Kate Morgan And The Hotel Del Cornonado by Christine Donovan.)
Another unexpected center of activity is the Del’s gift shop. Donovan and the staff noticed that, “Things started happening when we began to sell Marilyn Monroe merchandise. [Monroe stayed in the hotel while working on Some Like It Hot, filmed here in 1958.] I think Kate might have gotten jealous when some of the attention was taken away from her.” Store employees have seen books fly off shelves, shadowy figures behind the counter after the place is locked up, and souvenir mugs that jumped off a ledge and landed on the counter below—all right side up. Donovan recently found an entire row of books in her office tuned around so that the spines were facing the wall. Some were upside down.
“Many of the sightings are from people who have some sort of sensitivity to this kind of thing,” Donovan has noticed. “They’ve been experiencing psychic things all of their lives and the hotel had been around so long that it’s full of psychic impressions for those who can experience them.” Non-sensitives seem to have an advantage if there are no expectations. “People who check in looking for the ghost don’t really have much luck. Kate seems to like catching people who aren’t looking for her. I don’t think these spirits want to be conjured.”
If you do decide to tempt Kate Morgan, it’ll cost you: “Victorian” rooms go for $250.00 or more, but it’s a small price to pay for a good bet to see a ghost, and a babe at that.