The Loves of Miss Lil

Dale Fehringer

© Copyright 2013 by Dale Fehringer 


Photo of Lillie Hitchcock.

Everyone who has spent time in San Francisco is familiar with Coit Tower, the distinctive landmark at the top of Telegraph Hill. But few people know about the loves of the woman who made it possible.

It started in 1843 when Elizabeth (Lillie) Hitchcock was born in West Point, New York to Martha and Charles Hitchcock. When Lillie was eight, her father, an army surgeon, was transferred to San Francisco. In those days, San Francisco was a bawdy gold-rush town inhabited by wild and reckless men, and Lillie fell in love with it! During her first year in the City, Lillie was rescued by San Francisco volunteer firemen from the upper floor of the hotel in which she and her family were staying. That left an impression on her. Seven years later, when she was 15, she was walking home from school when she saw Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 racing to a fire. She dropped her schoolbooks and joined the firefighters to help pull the fire engine. That was the beginning of a lifetime love affair between Lillie and the San Francisco Volunteer Fire Department. From then on, the townsfolk enjoyed watching Miss Lil, as they called her, accompany the firemen to fires and ride atop her favorite fire engine in parades. She was elected an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Company, a distinction she regarded as the proudest of her life, and she wore the gold badge given to her with whatever outfit she had on. She had the number “5” sown into her clothing, and her signature included the number “5” after her name.

Lillie’s mother, Martha, was embarrassed when Lillie chased fire engines and she tried to stop her from it. “You are making a spectacle of yourself,” she declared. “We are Southern aristocrats and you are shaming us.” She sent Lillie away to boarding school in the wine country as punishment, but Lillie ignored her protests and continued to pursue her passion.

A stranger once asked how Lillie could get away with such behavior and still be respected. The answer was “everyone loves Miss Lil.” San Francisco newspapers called her “the belle of San Francisco,” and she was widely quoted. A well-known bore once said to her, “I wish you’d pay a little attention to what I’m saying.” She answered, “I am – as little as possible.” Asked which prominent residents had been at a party she had attended, Lillie said, “Why everyone in town was there—even those who were invited.”

Lillie was sent to Europe for “finishing” during the Civil War, and she returned to San Francisco a beautiful and refined young lady. She attended important parties and dined with the right people at the right restaurants. But Miss Lil had another side, too – she smoked, gambled, and wore men's clothes when it suited her, and she rode like a cavalry officer and played poker like a pro.

San Francisco had many wealthy bachelors, and Miss Lil was widely wooed. At one point she was engaged to two men at the same time. But she fell for just one – Howard Coit. He was dark, handsome, and elegant in dress and manner. The first time they met Howard swept her into his arms, kissed her, and told her he had loved her from the first instant he had seen her. He intrigued and mystified her and Lillie passionately loved Howard. She confided to her diary that she had found the one man she could love unreservedly. “This is he,” she wrote.

But Martha didn’t consider Howard worthy of her daughter’s love, and she told Lillie she would not tolerate a continued relationship with him. So Howard and Lillie were secretly married, which caused a new round of wrath from Martha, and for years she avoided her daughter and refused to talk to Howard.

But Lillie and Howard were deeply in love, and their friends spoke of the happy marriage. They were inseparable and thoroughly enjoyed each other.

It was Martha who broke them up. She began to implant in Lillie’s mind the notion that Howard was untrue to her, and over time, Lillie began to suspect he was having affairs. First, it involved a popular and beautiful actress, and later the daughter of a local real estate mogul. Yes, Howard spent time with other women, who were attracted to him, but it was harmless, and he was dedicated to Lillie. But the venom Lillie’s mother put in her head poisoned her, and Lillie became irrational and accused Howard of infidelity. He denied any indiscretions and proclaimed his undying love for her. But Lillie couldn’t shake her doubts and with her mother continually nagging at her, she had a nervous breakdown. Her father became ill, and Lillie went abroad to be with him. Howard remained in San Francisco and missed her. “I love my wife better than all else on earth and would go to hell for her,” he wrote in his diary. “Dame Hitchcock slanders me and tells vile lies about me … and Lillie’s head is chuck full of these lies and there is no one to deny them.”

Lillie and Howard lived separate and miserable lives for four years, and Lillie retreated more and more from society. Howard became seriously ill with a heart condition and resigned his job with the San Francisco Stock Exchange. He died in his hotel room May 14, 1885. He was only forty-seven. In his will he left his considerable fortune to Lillie.

Howard’s death brought Lillie to the edge of another breakdown. She sat in her wine country house for days at a time and wept for Howard. She did not go to Howard’s funeral; instead, spending the day tramping through the woods near her house. Howard’s diary was delivered to her, and as she read it, she realized the truth: it was her mother, not Howard, at fault. Lillie was devastated. She spent much of the rest of her life wandering the world, or pining away at her wine country retreat. She never re-married, and she had no further interest in romance. She invited authors and artists to join her at her country home, and she immersed herself in activities that dulled her loneliness for Howard. She grew more eccentric and reckless. She suffered a stroke and died in San Francisco on July 22, 1929 at age 86. She was buried with the treasured gold badge pinned to her dress. Fifty firemen composed the honor guard at her funeral.

In her will, Miss Lil left part of her estate to her two remaining loves – volunteer firemen and the city of San Francisco. The funds for San Francisco were used to build two memorials to her: a statue in Washington Park of three firemen, one carrying a woman to safety, and the more notable Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill.

In some respects, Miss Lil pioneered a new way of life for females. She ignored societal norms and did what she wanted; including gambling, smoking, wearing trousers, and riding on fire engines. She was frank and independent, but also passionate and loving. She was a real woman.

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