Tuesday, August 11, 2020

A Different Beautiful Stranger: San Diego Author John T. Cullen and the Ghost of the Hotel del Coronado

Coronado‘s best-known spectral resident may have a surprising new identity.

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The Hotel del Coronado’s infamous ghostly inhabitant, reportedly seen by many guests over the last century, has long been locally held to be the spirit of Kate Morgan, a visitor to the hotel who was believed to have died at her own hand in 1892. However, San Diego author John T. Cullen takes up the enduring mystery and presents an alternate account of the ghost story’s origins. Cullen authored two books the story: Dead Move is a nonfiction account of what Cullen’s research indicates may be the true backstory behind the Del ghost, while the companion novel Lethal Journey presents the same story as a gripping fictionalized thriller. Both books take the reader through Cullen’s very different version of the story behind the Del ghost — a story that begins with a violent death that occurred here in 1892.

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John T. Cullen moved to San Diego in 1974, after attending the University of Connecticut, where he got his B.A. in English. He served in the U.S. Army in Europe 1975-1980. He later earned a BBA in Computer Information Systems at National University in San Diego, as well as an M.S. in Business Administration at Boston University. However, Cullen’s true passion is writing; he has written more than 20 books and articles, and he is an active member of the International Thriller Writers group.

He had begun his professional writing career as a newspaper reporter in Connecticut, and worked for many years as a technical writer and editor in the aerospace and computer systems development industries. In 1999, he began to devote himself full-time to writing and publishing. In 2006, as a fun side job, John started working at the Hotel del Coronado, driving the transportation shuttle. While there, all employees were required to know about the Hotel Del’s history, but the one topic all tourist were interested in was the ghost story.


Most locals are at least somewhat familiar with the Hotel Del’s ghost story, though considerable variations exist in how the ghost came to reside there. The official version of the story is that Kate Morgan died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound just days after checking in to the hotel, her body found on a set of exterior steps. A second, more sinister, theory is that Morgan was viciously killed, perhaps by her husband. Regardless of how she died, many visitors have reported ghostly happenings at the hotel – reflections of. In particular, the ghost is said to haunt all that try to occupy the room, and it has been rumored that most people who attempt to stay in her room, last no longer than a day. In fact, the hotel’s official historian keeps records of all the supernatural occurrences reported by guests.

While John T. Cullen was an employee at the Hotel Del, he read the hotel’s official account of the ghost, Beautiful Stranger: The Ghost of Kate Morgan and the Hotel Del Coronado. The book outlines all the events of the mysterious woman’s death, but Cullen found that, after finishing the book, many loose ends remained. Details were presented in the book that did not seem to be connected to the story in a way that made sense to Cullen.

In 1892, the identity of the dead woman wasn’t immediately known. She had checked in to the hotel under what is believed to have been an assumed name (Lottie A. Bernard). Following her death, the coroner’s office attempted to identify her. Ultimately, the woman was identified as Kate Morgan, but the debate on the veracity of that judgement lingers. Cullen’s books provide evidence to support the idea that the young woman who died was not Kate Morgan, but instead a young pregnant girl from Detroit, Lizzie Wyllie (actually the first identification of the body after the discovery that Lottie A. Bernard was a fake).

Further, in Dead Move, Cullen presents the argument that the centerpiece of this mystery is none other than John Spreckels, who was the owner of the Hotel del Coronado at that time. Cullen believes that the young, beautiful Wyllie was staying at the Hotel Del as the cornerstone of a blackmail scheme perpetrated by Kate Morgan. Cullen argues that Morgan set Wyllie up in an effort to extort money from John Spreckels. Morgan attempted to falsely present that Spreckels was the father of Wyllie’s baby, whereas it is known she was pregnant by John Longfield, a scoundrel who was her factory foreman in Detroit. Cullen argues that the dead woman was ultimately identified as Kate Morgan because it that the easiest way to help cover up the blackmail scheme.

Lethal Journey, Cullen’s companion novel to Dead Move, is a fictionalized version of the same story. Cullen wrote it to thrill readers with a fictionalized but no less gripping account of the death–with one major difference: the addition of Tom Morgan (Kate’s husband) as a major villain, as he appears in some of the traditional legends about this tale.

Learn more about John T. Cullen here, and learn more about the books here. Ready to read Dead Move and Lethal Journey? Buy both books here.


top photo credit: Michelle Gillmartin


Mackenzie Wiley


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