This is a summary of over 2 1/2 years of research I did on the legend of the Beautiful Stranger of the Hotel Del Coronado, located in Coronado, California. I am truly indebted to Ancestry.com for providing critical resources that aided in producing this story.
The Beautiful Stranger legend dates to November 24, 1892 when a young woman presented herself at the swanky Hotel Del Coronado. To all accounts she appeared to be alone. She was recorded in the register as "Mrs. Lottie A. Bernard".
She conversed with few people at the hotel, remained mainly to herself. The woman claimed to be sick, saying to most people that she suffered from neuralgia.
The day after she checked in the woman asked the hotel's Chief Clerk - Mr. Gomer - how she might claim her bags as her travelling companion had the baggage claim checks. She said she had become separated from this man on her trip to San Diego. Mr. Gomer told her she could simply identify her trunks at the train station, describe their contents, and the bags would be handed over. The woman told him she planned to do this the following Monday, November 28.
On Monday morning she slipped in the bath tub and rang for her porter, Mr. West, to come dry her hair as was the custom at that time. She asked Mr. West to bring a morning whiskey. This attracted the attention of Mr. Gomer who spoke with the young woman that same morning. The most information we have regarding who she might have actually been comes from that conversation.
Mr. Gomer found the woman in bed in her room. He offered to make her a fire but she declined. He asked if she had claimed her bags. She said she had not yet done so as she was not feeling well. When Mr. Gomer asked if he could call the hotel doctor, he was told that she had already seen the finest doctors and they had given up on her. At this point she claimed to have stomach cancer, and not neuralgia as she had said earlier. She also told Mr. Gomer that she had travelled with her brother, who she said was a Dr Anderson, and that it was this man from whom she was separated on their trip to San Diego. She did not know his whereabouts. She seemed to think he might show up soon. Mr. Gomer suggested that she must need funds which she acknowledged. Since she did not know the whereabouts of her travelling companion, he asked if there was anyone else they might contact in that regard. She told him to contact a Mr. G. L. Allen of Hamburg, Iowa. This gentleman should be able to authorize funds on her behalf. Mr. Gomer telegraphed Mr. Allen indeed received authorization to withdraws funds from his Iowa bank account the following day.
In the meantime however, things turned for the worse for the young woman. Monday evening she asked her porter for matches to burn some papers. The following morning she was discovered by a hotel employee dead on steps leading down to the Pacific Ocean shore behind the Hotel. She appeared to have committed suicide with a revolver that lay nearby. There was a single bullet in her head.
The travelling companion did not appear in the ensuing days, despite the story circulating throughout Southern California and even to Detroit from whence she had claimed to have come. In the next weeks, two different young women had been identified as potentially being the Beautiful Stranger. The first was named Lyzzie Wyllie - she had disappeared with a married man for whom she had worked in a Detroit book bindery. However it was discovered that she had returned to her native Canada by December 1892 and her relatives stopped communicating with the San Diego authorities. The second woman seemed by all accounts to be the proper person. Her name was Kate Morgan. She was married to a Thomas Morgan in 1885 in Riverton, Iowa near Hamburg, Iowa. She had come West to California in 1890 without first divorcing her husband Thomas. She had worked in Los Angeles in the ensuring years for three different families. Her most recent employer had been the Grant family. It was this family who first alerted the San Diego authorities to the possibility that Kate Morgan (who they knew by the name Katie Logan) might be the true identity of the Beautiful Stranger. Convincing yet circumstantial evidence seemed to suggest that Kate Morgan was indeed the Beautiful Stranger.
This is the identity which to this day is still beleived correct by most people who have studied the history of this legend. But all may not be as obvious as it seems. The devil is truly in the details.
The hotel staff at the time did not believe the woman had been of ordinary birth. She seemed to be more refined. This staff was accustomed to dealing with the elite and upper classes; the Hotel Del Coronado regularly accomodated royalty, heads of state, and captains of industry. It was not a hotel where book bindery girls, farm girls and housekeepers took accomodations.
Two months before the young woman appeared at the Hotel, the General Manager issued a memo to the desk staff entitled "Characteristics of Persons of Propriety". This memo cautioned the desk staff to be on the lookout for people who simply do not belong. It described the typical confirmation procedure most guests used with this hotel and other fine hotels of the period. This all suggests that it would have been difficult for someone simply walking in the door.
Kate Morgan is known to have been working at the Grant household in Los Angeles up until the morning of November 23, 1892. That morning she left saying she had to have some papers signed. She was never seen again. The next day the Beautiful Stranger checked into the Hotel Del Coronado. But was it the same woman? Not so, according to one Mr. Joseph Jones, whose name appears in the Hotel register immediately after that of the Beautiful Stranger. In fact, Mr. Jones told Mr. West two days after the young woman's body was discovered that Jones had seen the woman "in the company of a well-dressed gentleman" on the train from Denver to San Diego. Jones further indicated the had seen the man leave the train at Orange, California, just as the young woman had told Mr. Gomer a few days earlier. Not only this, but Mr. Jones was certain that he saw this same woman in the hotel the weekend after he checked in and on the train at Denver. If this were all true, there is no way that woman could have been Kate Morgan. She had to be someone else.
But was Mr. Jones trustworthy? Or was he, as some other authors have suggested simply using an alias? Using Ancestry.com resources, I found that Mr. Jones was an export agent living near India at the time and came into the country October 10, 1892. He was also a Consular officer with a home in Great Neck, New York. He appears to have visited his parents in his native Boston before continuing his journey westward to Denver. He visited an old business partner named Mr. Arnold before he left the San Diego area. His credentials are impeccable, he does not seem to be related to the young woman in any way, and therefore he seems trustworthy.
The telegrams exchanged between Mr. Allen and Mr. Gomer are quite instructive. Here are the actual texts between the two men. First the message from Mr. Gomer to Mr. Allen:
"Mrs Lottie A Bernard seeks your assistance in funding her stay in the amount of $25.00. Please responds as soon as possible."
Here is Mr. Allen's response to Mr. Gomer:
"While I do not know the woman, I do know her husband having gone to school with him. I therefore authorize a draw of $25.00 upon my bank, Farmers and Merchants, of Hamburg, Iowa."
The important line in the text above is the note that Mr. Allen does not know the Beautiful Stranger but did go to school with her husband. This gives us a direct unambiguous clue as to her actual identity.
Every author thought the woman was Kate Morgan because, among other reasons, she had come West in 1890 with George L. Allen's elder brother, who seems to have vanished thereafter. So it made perfect sense that Kate Morgan would have asked George Allen for assistance. The Allens had grown up on a farm adjacent to where Kate Morgan's husband Thomas Morgan had grown up. So on the surface it all seems to fit together. But all is not always quite that simple.
Thomas Morgan was fully twenty years younger than the Allen boys. Not only that, in Sangamon County Illinios where they all grew up, the schools were uncharacteristically segregated by grades; this was uncommon in this period. Thus it was unlikely if not impossible that Mr. Allen had ever been in school with Mr. Morgan. In fact, the Morgans left the area in 1871, about the time Thomas Morgan would have first entered school. This is how the Morgans came to reside in Southwestern Iowa. Mr. Allen remained in Illinois until he sold his family farm around 1885. At that time he relocated to take over his late uncle's house in Hamburg, Iowa. That is how he came to be in Hamburg in 1892.
Clearly the Beautiful Stranger knew Mr. Allen was in Hamburg Iowa. And Mr. Allen would have known both Thomas and Kate Morgan as he came to live in this close-knit farm county years before Kate Morgan left the area. Something is clearly amiss.
I looked to see who else was living near the Allens and Morgans in Sagamon County in 1860. It turns out there was a "Barnard" family not far away. There were boys in this family of the correct age to have gone to school with Mr. Allen in those years. So it was beginning to appear the young woman's name might have been "Barnard" and not "Bernard". Careful inspection of later census records at Ancestry.com seemed to favor the "Barnard" variation.
But how did this different spelling appear in the Hotel registery? The young woman's name was recorded by the on-duty desk clerk; the signature is not hers. He could have easily misheard the name. And it is also significant that Mr. Allen indicated his relationship to the woman to Mr. Gomer even though he was not asked about this. Mr. Allen would have known that telegraphic errors were not uncommon in the late 19th century. A single signal error would transpose a Morse code "A" into an "E". So he wanted to be sure they were speaking about the same woman before authorizing a draw on his bank account.
Looking at the 1890 Detroit directory we do indeed find a woman named Mrs. Charlotte Barnard living by herself in a rooming house. She vanishes from the area not long thereafter. There is another Barnard family in the area, but she must not have been related as this family is found later in Northern Michigan. One boy from this family was a clerk for decades for a regional railway company.
If this woman was married to one of the Sangamon County Barnards, she might well have known that Mr. Allen was a trustworthy individual. It appears she was a widow. Likely her husband had kept in contact with Mr Allen in the ensuing years, which explains how she knew of Allen's relocation to Iowa.
Being a widow she may have travelled on the train not with her brother but with some other man, perhaps a fiance. When asked she may have purposely misidentified this man to Mr. Gomer to stop further inquiries. It is curious that the woman I discovered who I believe is the actual woman involved had a brother named Norman Anderson. This man was living with his family on farm in Colorado in 1892. Mr. Gomer thought the young woman said her travelling companion's name was "M.C. Anderson". This is quite close to the brother's actual initials, "N.C. Anderson."
The actual identity of this other man is not known for sure, but some anciallary information that has come to my attention suggests his surname might have been "Barnett".
I finally determined that the woman was most likely Canadian born with the Anderson surname, had come with her family to the United States at a young age and had married a Barnard sometime around the mid to late 1880s. By 1890 she seems to have either been divorced or more likely widowed, and met her travelling companion in or near Detroit. Thereafter she accompanied him on their trip to San Diego where she tragically died at the Hotel Del Coronado November 28, 1892.
The most intriguing piece of evidence is a letter discovered in the young woman's room the day she was found on the steps near the beach. This letter was addressed to her by name and was characterized as "an invitiation to come to the Hotel Del Coronado, signed by Louise Leslie-Carter and Lillian Russell."
Both these ladies were famous stage actresses of the period. Lillian Russell was perhaps more well-known in her time than Cher or Madonna today. Neither woman came anywhere near San Diego at the end of 1892 according to their biographers.
The biographer of Louise Leslie-Carter said that she only signed private correspondence in that manner. Public corresponence was always signed Mrs. Leslie-Carter. So it appears this letter was not a marketing piece as most have thought, but was instead a private letter to the young woman herself.
Furthermore, the baggage tags - as reported in the San Diego Union newspaper - suggested she made a stop between Detroit and Omaha, Nebraska en route to San Diego. Accoriding to railroad historians, the most likely stopping point would have been Chicago, Illinois. Both women lived at the time in Chicago. It is quite possible she picked up this letter at one of the two woman's homes probably from a footman or servant. That would explain why her name was on the envelope, since both ladies were on tour at the time.
This letter has never before been explained satisfactorily. Now we have not only a suitable explanation, but another clear indication that, despite circumstantial evidence to the contrary, Kate Morgan simply could not have been the Beautiful Stranger of the Hotel Del Coronado. Kate Morgan (nor Lizzie Wyllie for that matter) simply did not travel in these social circles.
Thomas and Kate Morgan seem to factually have nothing to do with this Legend, despite many books having told and retold this erroneous story over the years.
But what of Kate Morgan? In some strange ways, Lottie Barnard's story is not really complete unless we can account for the eventual demise of Kate Morgan.
Kate Morgan is known to have been fascinated by San Francisco, which was a vibrant city in 1890s California.
It is likely she was called away or simply left Los Angeles for reasons we will never know. Her departure was entirely coincidental to the events at the Hotel Del Coronado.
Kate Morgan was trying to remain undetected. She was still married to her husband Thomas. She didn't know he had written her off and could not have care less about her. She most likely took the alias "Katie Logan" in Los Angeles for this exact reason. People on the run dream of some circumstance that will permenantly convince others they are gone for good. The San Francisco papers carried the story of the Beautiful Stranger. Kate Morgan had to know about it. She probably could not believe her luck; Fate had handed her what she needed - a plausible story of her own demise. There was no reason to contradict it. She was able to live her life in California in piece.
But did this really happen? In the 1900 Census of San Francisco I do find a Kate Morgan living near the financial district. She is working as a clerk in an insurance office and has one son who is about the correct age had she had a son during this early period. Curiously, the father's place of birth is Unknown. She claims to have been born in Colorado of Colorado born parents. She is exactly the right age for Kate Morgan born in Iowa. The signs are all there. She vanishes not long thereafter and cannot be found again. It is possible that she died in the 1906 earthquakes in San Francisco. Her neighborhood and in fact the entire financial district was devastated; many people died whose hames were never recorded. This would have been a most tragic end to the life of this woman whose identity has confounded so many for so long. Her son seems not to have survied either. While this story cannot be corroborated in-depth, at least it provide a plausible possible outcome.
There are two salient points to take away from this story besides the fascinating history and the clear role played in the research by Ancestry.com.
First, many people have tried to understand the real story and most have failed in their attempts because they did not take the time to fact check their assumptions carefully enough. During my research I checked each version from others; I wanted to understand where they had gone wrong if so. And I found significant but understandable errors in each case.
Second, this story shows how a faulty history can persist for decades and even centuries unless we who care about historical truth rigorously pursue it no matter where the facts may lead. Had I found another version of the story that seemed more likely, I would certainly have recounted it here.
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