An Unladylike San Francisco Lady: Lillie Hitchcock Coit, Gambling and Watching Fights

Lillie Hitchcock Coit, 1862

Lillie Hitchcock Coit arranges for a boxing match to be held in her room at the Palace Hotel. On her death she leaves $100,000 to San Francisco.

Horse Races and Poker Parties

Lillie Hitchcock Coit had other interest besides being an honorary San Francisco firefighter at the Knickerbocker Number Five fire station. Some of her other pastimes included playing poker and betting on horses.

Pugulists at the Palace

On another occasion, anxious to see a prize fight, such as all of her male friends were enjoying and that women were not allowed to attend, she arranged for a pair of boxers to be brought to her suite in the grand and elegant Palace Hotel. After having the room cleared of furniture and breakables, the two men stripped and began to slug away at each other. Lillie observed the contest, enthroned in a plush chair atop a table. After a few rounds the referee asked it the fight should be declared a draw. Lillie refused to call it so and signaled for the fight to continue “to its conclusion, a bloody knockout.”

This latest antic of Lillie Hitchcock naturally made headlines. The Boston Globe gave her the thumbs-up for “pioneering a new way of life for women.” However, the New York World printed their indignation, calling the whole thing “a staggering shock.”

Perhaps anywhere else besides post-gold rush San Francisco, California could a woman carry on such activities and still be considered a lady. Evidently, Howard Coit considered her so; the two were wed in 1868 and became the center of San Francisco’s society.

Loss of Love for Lillie

Lillie may have won her wedded hearts desire but wedded bliss was not to last. All too soon, husband Howard’s roving eye was off and running. Lillie attempted to keep him from going astray. She even once disguised herself as a man and went with him to watch a cockfight. Even this extreme did no good. The situation dragged on until the early 1880s. Then Lillie left him to go live in a country place her father had built for her.

More Money and More Antics

In 1885 Howard Coit died, leaving Lillie a $250,000 estate, an amount that seemed to have brought her out of seclusion and back to performing her unladylike antics. These antics went so far as going on an overnight camping trip with five men and disguising herself as a man and tramping through the lowest dives on San Francisco’s waterfront.

San Francisco finally drew the line on accepting Lillie’s unladylike exploits when, at the beginning of the century, when a relative attempted to shoot her for not allowing him to manage her financial affairs. Another man stepped in to rescue her and was killed.

A Legacy for San Francisco

Soon after this final and deadly episode Lillie Hitchcock Coit left San Francisco. She spent most of the rest of her life abroad. In time, she did return and when she died at age 85 she left $100,000 to San Francisco. The city used the money to erect a monument to fire fighters to stand in Washington Square. They also built an observation tower, naming it in Lillie’s honor, on top of Telegraph Hill.


  1. Reiter, Joan Swallow. The Women: The Old West. Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1978.