Welcome to John T. Cullen's Coronado Mystery main website


John T. Cullen's two books about the ghost at the Hotel del Coronado, and the 1892 crime that created her legend.Lottiepedia

John Spreckels, Owner of the Hotel Del in 1892

John Diedrich Spreckels (1853-1926). Oldest surviving child of Claus Spreckels, he was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but moved with his family first to New York and then to San Francisco. By the time he reached adulthood, his father was probably a billionaire in the sugar, beer, and transportation industries. John was his father's right-hand man, though in 1987 he discovered San Diego and built there a great commercial empire of his own.

Rise to Power in San Diego. John remained at the helm of his father's fortune until at least 1893, the year the Hawai'ian monarchy was overthrown by U.S. commercial, religious, and political interests headed by the Dole dynasty, of pineapple fame. Although Claus, John's father, rekindled his fortune in sugar beets near Monterey, California, Claus died in 1908 at age 80. At that point, second son Adolph Spreckels took over his father's interests (still based out of San Francisco). This freed John up to pursue his interests in San Diego. And those interests were a vast fortune in their own right.

San Diego Boom Years 1880-1889. There was a false boom in San Diego, fueled by reports that (a) the Panama Canal would be finished soon, which it wasn't, and that this would make San Diego a major shipping node; and (b) that the Santa Fe Rairoad or other company would push a direct line of the Transcontinental Railroad (network) through the mountains into San Diego. Neither event happened, and by 1889, the boom collapsed. It was the worst economic disaster in San Diego history, and bankrupted everyone including San Diego's wealthiest man, Alonzo Horton. Horton was a businessman from Connecticut, who saw the city's great natural harbor, its underused beach front, and its decaying old Mexican-era capital (today Old Town) near the crumbling Presidio. Horton bought up much of what is today downtown, prime real estate, and launched the New City. Horton all but went bankrupt in the 1889 bust. John Spreckels was the only man left standing.   TOP

John Spreckels Buys Up San Diego and Coronado, owns the Hotel Del Coronado. In 1887, while restocking his yacht Lurline in San Diego, John Spreckels fell in love with this quiet backwater. At that time, San Diego was in the midst of a wild real estate boom that doubled its population from a tiny (perhaps 20,000 souls) town in the 1870s, near the U.S.-Mexican border, to a relative metropolis of over 40,000. It had always been overshadowed in trade by Long Beach and Los Angeles. Most likely, John saw it as a place where he could get out from under his billionaire father's shadow and create a fortune of his own. For a long time, John kept his headquarters in San Francisco, and helped Claus run the family business. At the same time, John owned a considerable mansion in downtown San Diego (much of that owned by Alonzo Horton at the time). Relevant to our story, in 1892 John traveled to Washington, D.C. in a futile attempt to negotiate with President Benjamin Harrison and Congress to prevent the takeover of Hawai'i, which meant the loss of Claus Spreckels' vast sugar cane plantations and the last of his influence with the reigning monarch, King David's sister, Queen Liliuokalani. In connection with this is the story of another tragic women, the young Crown Princess Victoria Ka'iulani.   TOP

John Spreckels owns the Hotel Del Coronado. John Spreckels maintained a house in San Diego proper for years, with a direct telephone line between it and the Hotel del Coronado (after it was opened in February 1888. In 1889, the bottom fell out, the real estate boom crashed, and the population plummeted back under 20,000. Spreckels seized the moment, and bought up everything in sight. He became a partner around 1891 when he bought out one of its two builders, Hampton Story, and his partners. He bought out the remaining owner, Elisha Babcock, by 1892, to become sole owner. This is the precise time period when Kate Morgan plotted her ill-timed blackmail conspiracy, while Spreckels was in Washington, D.C. negotiating to save his father's Hawai'ian sugar empire. At this time, Spreckels owned the entire 'island' (actually part of a peninsula) of Coronado and much of San Diego. He owned the banks, the newspapers, the light rail system, the telephone company and other utilities including the water flume, and much else besides. Most importantly for our story, he was sole owned of the hotel when the Beautiful Stranger checked in under the false name of Lottie A. Bernard on 23 November 1892. A day later, she would order her empty water bottle and sponge from Harry West, mix her pessary potion, and begin the painful journey to her decline and death within a few days. As the blackmail plot developed, we can be sure that Spreckels had an army of operatives ready to protect him. As an added note: San Diego did not then have a detective force, and its police department was very rudimentary. In other words, the Spreckels Machine (as I call John's operation on his new home turf) was free to call its own shots.   TOP

John Spreckels' Later Years. Following the Great Earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco, John Spreckels and his family permanently moved to San Diego. He built a great mansion opposite his hotel on Orange Avenue in Coronado, today the Glorietta Bay Inn. He built a summer home on the Pacific ocean front a few blocks away, now famous as the house in which Rebecca Zahau and Max Shacknai tragically died in 2011. John Spreckels contributed a great outdoor organ to Balboa Park, and the main park in Coronado is named for him. Perhaps most importantly, he finally did bring the Arizona and San Diego Railroad directly to San Diego across the mountains by a seemingly impossible feat of technology by 1919. In 2012, San Diego begins celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Panama-California Exhibition, richly funded by John Spreckels, which left a legacy of ornate buildings and cultural centers in the heart of Balboa Park.   TOP