Edith Cavell - Nurse and WWI Martyr | Margaret Sanger - Pioneer in Birth Control and Women's Rights | Lisa Potts - Schoolyard Heroine | Flora Sandes - Heroine of the Great War | The Night Witches - Russian Combat Pilots of World War Two | Lillie Hitchcock-Coit - Firefighter | Emily Wilding Davison - Suffragette | Caroline Chisholm - The Emigrants' Friend | Grace Darling - the Lighthouse Heroine
I love courage in a uniform.
- Lillie Hitchcock-Coit
Lillie Hitchcock-Coit was only fifteen years old when she helped a struggling San Francisco fire engine company racing to put out a fire in 1858. Her bravery and resolve served as an inspiration to the firefighters of the city.
A Young Hothead
Elizabeth 'Lillie' Hitchcock, the only child of Martha and Dr Charles M Hitchcock1, was born on 23 August, 1843. Her father, a successful graduate of West Point Academy and a respected army surgeon, who had famously operated on the leg of Colonel Jefferson Davis2, moved the family to San Francisco in May 1851 when Lillie was just eight years of age. Not long after arriving in the city, Lillie was involved in one of San Francisco's early fires when she and several friends were in a vacant house that caught alight. Though she managed to escape, two others did not. It was perhaps this first encounter that sparked her passion for firefighting.
One afternoon in 1858, pioneer fire company Knickerbocker Engine Company Number 5 had a short staff on the ropes3 as it raced to a fire on Telegraph Hill. Because of the shortage of manpower, the engine was falling behind. Two more crews attending the fire raced past, teasing and hollering at the Knickerbockers. Fifteen-year-old Lillie Hitchcock, on her way home from school, witnessed the event. She was the first to lend a hand as she threw her schoolbooks aside and ran to a vacant place on the rope. There she hauled and puffed and shouted to other passers-by:
Come on! You men! Everybody pull and we'll beat 'em!
Everyone nearby heard the girl's cries and raced to the aid of Knickerbocker No 5. The engine was the first to the fire. From that day forward, Lillie's father had a difficult time attempting to keep his daughter from dashing away every time a fire alarm sounded. She was always at the forefront of fires, cheering and helping the firefighters when she could. Lillie became such a conspicuous figure among the firemen who were battling to subdue flames that she was soon regarded as their mascot. Lillie became so strongly identified with the Knickerbocker Company that there never was a parade in which Lillie was not seen atop Knickerbocker No 5, both engine and girl covered in flags and flowers.
San Francisco society of the day was particularly exclusive, and as the Hitchcocks were valued members, Lillie's exploits were often frowned upon. She even left a wedding reception in her bridesmaid's dress to leap on board Knickerbocker No 5 as it careered to another fire. However, she seemed to have been able to do as she pleased without offending too many gentle sensibilities. Since she was possessed of a quick wit and immensely likeable character, it was difficult to become dismayed or angry with 'Firebelle Lil'.
A Fully Fledged Firefighter
On 3 October, 1863, Lillie was elected an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Company and presented with a badge, tunic and fireman's helmet. Her certificate of membership to Knickerbocker Engine Company No 5 bears the date 5 October, 1863. As Lillie grew older, she gave up the chasing of fire engines. But she was forever tied to the Knickerbocker Company, and indeed all the firefighters of the city. If any member of the company fell ill, it was Lillie Hitchcock who visited and offered a laugh. And if any firefighter died, either in the course of duty or otherwise, Lillie was the first to send floral tributes.
After her marriage in 1863 to Howard Coit, a successful caller and financier at the San Francisco Stock and Bond Exchange, Lillie did not take to the domestic lifestyle and norms of feminine high society at the time. She smoked cigars, played poker, drank whisky and shot guns. She was an avid gambler and often dressed like a man in order to play in the men-only establishments along San Francisco's North Beach. She even shaved her head so that her wigs would fit better. But she never forgot her links with the Knickerbocker Engine Company: she had a '5' embroidered on her clothes and signed her name 'LHC5' — Lillie Hitchcock Coit 5.
After her husband died in 1885, Lillie also travelled extensively in Europe and Asia. She was a notable figure at the court of Napoleon III and a friend to the Maharaja of India. When she returned to San Francisco to live, she brought with her a remarkable collection of gifts including gems, art and all kinds of souvenirs, some of them priceless. When in San Francisco, Lillie stayed at the Palace Hotel, but the Hitchcock-Coits also owned a large home at Larkmead in Napa Valley, California.
In 1904, a distant cousin of Lillie's broke into her room while she was entertaining a Major McClurg. The major boldly defended Lillie, subduing the would-be assassin, but later died of his wounds. The insane relative was imprisoned for life but Lillie, distressed, left San Francisco and retreated to Paris, France for the next twenty years, only returning to America when she was sure her potential murderer had died.
When Lillie passed away on 22 July, 1929, at the Dante Sanatorium, she left one-third of her amassed fortune to the city:
...to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.
The executors of her will used the money to erect two memorials. One was dedicated to Lillie herself: Coit Tower, an 180-foot cylindrical tower that stands atop Telegraph Hill, San Francisco. The other was unveiled in Washington Square on 3 December, 1933. It is a sculptured block representing a life-sized group of three firemen, one of them carrying a woman in his arms. Lillie Hitchcock-Coit remains the unofficial patron saint of all firefighters in the city of San Francisco.