Who Knew–Lillie Hitchcock Coit

Born in 1843, she smoked cigars, drank bourbon, wore trousers, gambled, and was an avid hunter. She also frequented the court of Napoleon III in Paris and traveled extensively in Europe and even visited with a Maharajah in India. Raised in post-gold rush San Francisco, she became the mascot of one of the volunteer fire departments riding along with the engine company during parades and going to their banquets. When she died in 1929, Lillie Hancock Coit left one-third of her vast fortune to beautify San Francisco, the city she loved. A monument to firefighters and Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill resulted from that bequest.

Lillie Hancock was born in West Point, New York. Her father was an army doctor who later went to serve in the Mexican War where he saved the life of Jefferson Davis. After the war, her father was transferred to the newly acquired territory of California where he became the medical director of the west coast. Lillie and her mother joined her father in 1851. Lillie’s love affair with Engine Company number 5 began when she was rescued from a burning building shortly after she arrived in California. Reportedly when she was about 15, she raced to help the pull the engine to the top of Telegraph Hill winning the love and devotion of the volunteer firemen. By that time, her father had set up his private practice and accumulated a fortune.

On the eve of the Civil War, Lillie and her mother traveled to Europe where they spent three years. The young Lillie made a positive impression in the courts of Europe and was highly sought after as a dance partner at various balls. Upon her return to San Francisco in 1863, she was recognized as belle of the city. Her family had money, and she had a European polish. In October of that year, she was made an honorary member of Knickerbocker 5, her favorite volunteer fire department.

In 1868 Lillie Hitchcock married Benjamin Howard Coit, a caller on the Stock Exchange who in those hectic days earned $1000 a month (more than $20,000 today). Lillie’s parents had opposed their marriage although the groom’s father was a friend of the Hitchcock family. The couple had no children and separated in 1880. Mark Twain commented on their marital situation and hinted that Mr. Coit was less than faithful. As a wife, Lillie’s behavior pushed against society’s norms and at times shocked polite society.

Lillie made her home in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, but also owned property in Napa Valley that she called Larkmead. Originally, the land had been purchased by her parents to use as a retreat for Lillie when her behavior grew too scandalous for San Francisco. It became a gathering place for artists and intellectuals encouraged by Lillie. Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife visited there in 1880. She spent a great deal of time at Larkmead and a great deal of money on landscaping the property. She planted a vineyard and in 1876 produced ‘Lillie’ a white wine.

In 1885 Lillie’s father died and shortly thereafter, her estranged husband also passed away. In her father’s will, she was to receive $250 a month as long as her husband was alive. Once her husband died, she would inherited half a million dollars from her father’s estate in addition to a quarter of a million from her husband.

Now in her 40s, Lillie made no attempt to hide her outrageous behavior. Dressing like a man, gambling, visiting unsavory waterfront dives, even being the only woman camping with a group of men caused people to talk. In 1903, a distant relative burst into her hotel room and attempted to kill her. The businessman with her stepped in and took the bullet meant for her. Soon thereafter, Lillie left for Europe where she traveled for many years.

Eventually Lillie Hitchcock Coit returned to San Francisco where she died in 1929 leaving one-third of her estate to the city of San Francisco for beautification.

While we know some very interesting information about Lillie Hitchcock Coit, there is much we don’t know. The only book I can find about her life is a children’s book focusing on her relationship to firefighters. I hope that someone takes up the challenge of telling her story—if only in fictional form.

 

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