Thursday, August 23, 2018

Lillie Hitchcock Coit 175 -- August 23, 2018

Wichita Eagle, 11-October-1889
Lillie Hitchcock Coit was born 175 years ago today, on 23-August-1843. Lillie Hitchcock's parents brought her to San Francisco in 1851. She soon became interested in the volunteer firefighters of San Francisco, especially Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5. They adopted her as a mascot and she became known as Firebelle Lil. She married a useless rich guy, but remained interested in fire fighting all her life. When she died, she left a chunk of her fortune to the City of San Francisco for civic beautification. Her bequest paid for a memorial statue of volunteer firefighters at Washington Square and the famous Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.

Her Ways May Be Astonishing to the World but Not to San Franciscans.

Mrs. Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who recently witnessed a slugging match in her drawing room in the Palace hotel at San Francisco, may have astonished the world by her act, but she has not astonished the 'Friscans. She has been too long accustomed to do as she liked, and has too long liked to do singular things for a woman, to astonish any one in the city of her residence.

Lillie Hitchcock went out to California with her father, who was an army surgeon, and her mother, when they were obliged to go by sea or overland in a wagon. They chose the sea route and their little girl captivated the passengers by her bright, helter-skelter ways and her proficiency in fancy dances. When they got to San Francisco Lillie suddenly developed a fireman's instinct. Whenever she would hear the alarm she would dash away to the fire, and soon got so well known with a certain company that she was often taken up in the seat beside the driver of a hose cart.

One day as Dr. and Mrs. Hitchcock were returning from a walk, who should go by perched on a high seat, her hair flying in the wind, shouting and gesticulating, but their own little Lillie. Naturally they made an effort after this to subdue the spirit that burned in her breast, but it was of no avail. She stuck to the company and was elected a member. She has ever since worn a figure 5 the number of the company and her plaster bust adorns their hall. They never have a dinner but a bouquet from their only woman member decorates the table; and none ever dies but her flowers are laid on the bier.

When Lillie Hitchcock made her debut in San Francisco society in 1867 it was with a silver figure 5 pinned on her shoulder. She took society by storm. Young women possessing a natural dash and independence, against whom there is no suspicion of impurity, are intensely fascinating to the majority of men. Lillie Hitchcock played a part which was natural to her, and which she couldn't help. Other girls may try to imitate her example, but trying will spoil it all, and they will most certainly fail. Of course the young debutante had scores of lovers at her feet, but for a long time she was a rover, with no disposition to go out of the game.

Alas for Lillie, when finally she succumbed, she chose in accordance with her reckless nature and chose consciously. Many splendid men, some one of whom might have worshiped her and made her a good husband, were obliged to give way to a man who could not appreciate the prize he had won. Howard Coit was one of those well born, good for nothing, large, lazy youths with no especial principle, who are apt to get more favor from young girls than they deserve. Dr. and Mrs. Hitchcock, surmising the condition of affairs, whipped their daughter off to Europe. But Lillie was a young woman to circumvent any one. On the evening before her departure 6he stole out and married her lover. A few weeks later he received a characteristic telegram:

"Howard, it's out."

Then she joined her husband, but was not blessed by her parents for several years.

It is said that Mrs. Coit, in company with her husband, once visited a cock fight; that she donned male attire in order to be admitted, but reckoned without her host. The scenes about the pit were altogether too much for her, and she beat a hasty retreat. So strong was her hold upon the hearts of her friends and acquaintances that even this breach of conventionality did her no harm in their esteem.

Coit soon began to show his true character. He was a libertine and first shocked his wife by a liaison with a well known actress. Then he further showed his want of appreciation of the brilliant prize he had taken from better men by special attention to the wife of Billy Emerson the minstrel. This last affair was too much for his wife and she left him. She did not ask a divorce, but went abroad with her father. Coit finally made some atonement for his past acts by dying and leaving his wife a widow. She withdrew from the world for a time, and has recently came out of her 5eclusion and resumed her old habits. Judging from the recent exhibition in her parlors, she was much of a natural sportswoman as ever.

She is a charming hostess, and holds her guests not only by her ability to make them comfortable, but by her own brilliancy in conversation, and by that recklessness, that contempt for conventionality necessarily observed by other women. In her peculiar sphere she is a ort of genius. Nine women out of ten who live such a life never succeed in divesting those about them of the belief that they are not pure. Miss Coit snaps her fingers at the world and the world adores her.

San Francisco Call, 19-October-1896

Annual Reunion of Knickerbocker Engine Company.

The forty-sixth anniversary of the organization of Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 of the late Volunteer Fire Department of this City was duly celebrated on Saturday evening by a banquet at the California Hotel.

The spacious dining-hall was tastily and lavishly decorated with flags, flowers, etc... as also the festive board, the center-piece being n magnificent floral "horn of plenty," the gift of Mrs. Lillie Hitchcock Coit, an honorary member of the company. The fair donor was vociferously applauded for her elegant testimonial.

E. B. Vreeland occupied the presidential chair, and after ample justice had been done the bounteous supply of choice viands and fluids, called the assemblage to order and made the welcoming speech of the occasion. He reviewed the stirring scenes of early days, and the heroic and disinterested services of the veteran fire laddies in fighting the awful conflagrations which so often devastated the tinder box town of wood and canvas. Other felicitous remarks by the gray-haired pioneers revived reminiscences both pleasant and sad, the exercises being meanwhile enlivened by vocal music.

The presence of handsomely-gowned lady relatives of the "Old Knicks" added greatly to the enjoyment of the entertainment, which was prolonged until the midnight Hour.

The following named participated in the festivities of the evening: Mr. and Mrs. E. B. Vreeland, Mr. and Mrs. S. Bunner, J. Satchell and two ladies, E. T. Anthony and three ladies, Mr. and Mrs. C. Kimball, G. W. J. Kentzel, J. Grady, J. J. Mahoney, H. Wheeler, Mr. Giannini, T. J. McCarthy, L Hall, Henry B. Livingston.

San Francisco Call, 08-December-1912

excerpt from "Our Firemen of the Long Ago"

A natural confusion has grown up In distinguishing the different veteran firemen's associations in San Francisco. There ate three such associations at present. The "Veteran Volunteer Firemen" draw their members from all over the world; the "Veteran Firemen's Association of San Francisco" is made up of the veterans of the present fire department, which was organized in 1866, and the "Exempt Fire Company of the City and County of San Francisco" is composed of all that are left of the men who volunteered their lives that the young city might live in those often troublous years from 1849 to 1866. And who will question me when I say that they, perhaps better than any others, represent the nobility, the generosity, and the bravery of the pioneers?  Some of these last are men of one or both of the other companies but there are others who claim membership with the Exempts only...

This brings to mind the stories old timers have told me of Lilly Hitchcock Coit, Lilly Hitchcock at the time she became an honorary member of Exempt Company Knickerbocker No. 5. A society belle, she was often at some social affair when the big bell boomed warning of fire, but wherever she was, and however dressed, she would run out and join her engine. The other day at the Park Museum. Prof. Barron told me of her last run with Engine No. 5. In 1866, Virginia City bought this engine. A number of the members of the company escorted it by stage to its destination; with them went Lilly Hitchcock Colt, the only woman in the party. At Virginia City a dinner was given in honor of the guests, and Mrs. Coit was called upon to speak. "Gentlemen, I'm not a speechmaker," she said, "but I can say that I have one regret in life, that I cannot ride to another fire on Knickerbocker No. 5." As she sat down, one of the Virginia City men slipped quietly out of the room. In a few minutes, there was an alarm of fire. All jumped to the rescue. Mrs. Coit was seated on the engine and according to her wont rode to the fire. The blaze was soon extinguished and, needless to say, the man who had quietly disappeared from the room was not prosecuted for arson.

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