February 9, 2001

Gambling, Guns and True Love

Historic Hotels of America offers a look at the scandals and romances of bygone days.

Every era has its own idea about what constitutes a great romance or scandalous behavior. What might be considered risqué at one time is positively staid at a later date. Members of National Trust Historic Hotels of America are great venues for taking a glimpse of both the romantic and sordid aspects of the past. On the seamier side of bygone times, the Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, Calif., witnessed a suicide of a "ruined" woman. The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, N.H., was the scene of a gambling raid. Other hotels, including the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis., were hosts to more romantic occurrences. The Brown Palace in Denver, Colo., combines both themes - a romance gone awry ending tragically. Here is a sampling of the romances and scandals that have occurred at historic hotels.

Romance Gone Awry

In the past as today, the road to true love does not always run smoothly. Guests of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel in Jekyll Island, Ga., can view the last remnant of a romance that ended in sorrow. In the 1880s, handsome, young McEvers Brown inherited a vast banking fortune and became a member of an exclusive new club built on Jekyll Island. He was so charmed by the island that he used some of his inheritance to build a splendid cottage for his fiancée.

However, the home was never occupied, as the marriage never occurred. Brown was so devastated by the loss of his love that he abandoned his life in the United States and lived the remainder of his days as a recluse in Essex, England. Today, all that remains of Brown's great romance is the chimney of his cottage on the grounds of the hotel.

A romance gone badly ended in a more shocking fashion in 1911 at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Colo. Married hotel resident Isabelle "Sassy" Springer began an affair with one of her husband's business associates while carrying on another clandestine relationship with a gentleman from St. Louis. The two men met one night at the hotel, much to Sassy's dismay. Their meeting ended tragically when the new boyfriend shot the old boyfriend (as well as two innocent bystanders) in the barroom.

"Ruined and Deserted"

The desperate tale of the suicide of a beautiful stranger at the Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, Calif., captivated and scandalized California residents near the end of the nineteenth century. Kate Morgan arrived at the hotel on Thanksgiving evening and spent four days, despondent and sickly, as she told hotel staff that her brother, a doctor, would soon be joining her. Instead, on November 28th, Kate traveled into San Diego and returned to the hotel with a pistol, which she turned on herself that evening. A local physician, allowed to examine the body, revealed that she was most likely "enceinte," the more polite-sounding French word for pregnant. The "ruined and deserted" woman was laid to rest in San Diego, after her family in Iowa left her body unclaimed. Today, the spirit of Kate Morgan is said to linger at the hotel. Guests have been puzzled by odd noises, spirited breezes, strange faces and the ghostly figure of a young lady dressed in a black lace dress near the room Kate once occupied.

An Unsuccessful Gamble

Illicit romances and unexpected pregnancies were not the only events that caused a scandal in days gone by. At the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, N.H., illegal gambling landed the hotel in hot water 50 years ago. The hotel had been a popular resort for business leaders and socialites in the years immediately following the Second World War, but as the automobile and airplane made exotic locales more easily available, traditional destinations suffered. To offset this trend, the owners began offering gambling as a guest amenity. In 1951, during a crackdown on gaming, the Balsams was raided and cards, dice, roulette tables, slot machines and other gambling equipment were seized. Within the next few years, the owners entered bankruptcy as occupancy continued to decline. Today, the Balsams is a successful year-round resort without gambling.

A Romantic Elopement

In 1895, a well-dressed young man from Illinois arrived at The Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis., and registered for himself and his wife, but indicated he was not certain they would want a room for the night. A few minutes after being shown into the parlor, the gentleman sent the bellman to the front desk with a request that the Justice of the Peace be summoned to the hotel. In a few moments, the justice arrived and married the couple. Registering as husband and wife may have been premature, but the ceremony corrected the brief untruth. The new Mr. and Mrs. Kelley spent the day at the Pfister.

These stories of romance and scandal are but a few of the tales that await visitors at members of Historic Hotels of America. National Trust Historic Hotels of America is a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. HHA has identified 167 hotels in 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico that have faithfully maintained their historic integrity, architecture and ambience. To be selected for this program, a hotel must be at least 50 years old, listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places or recognized locally as having historic significance.

A 224-page directory of member hotels can be purchased for $3.50 by sending a check to National Trust Historic Hotels of America, P.O. Box 320, Washington, D.C. 20055-0320. Rooms at any of the member hotels can be reserved by calling 800-678-8946. When reservations are made through this number, a portion of the cost is returned to the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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