Charlotte (Lotta) Mignon Crabtree was born in New York City in 1847. Her father, John Ashworth Crabtree, left New York in 1851 to search for gold in California. Lotta and her mother, Mary Ann, followed in 1852, only to find that John wasn’t at the docks in San Francisco to meet them. They moved in with friends and soon became acquainted with many of the popular actors who were then present in San Francisco.
The following year, 1853, John Crabtree sent word to his family for them to join him in Grass Valley, Cal. As he hadn’t had much luck finding gold, he had decided to open a boarding house for the miners in the area. Lola Montez, the Countess of Landsfeld and performer of the “spider-dance,” lived just two doors down from the boarding house. She soon became friends with little Lotta and her mother and they spent many hours together. Lola taught the girl some dance steps and songs.
It wasn’t long until Lotta began traveling to the nearby mining camps, performing ballads and dancing for the miners. They would throw pouches of gold dust and gold nuggets onto the stage in their appreciation, which Lotta’s mother quickly gathered up. She was quite the favorite in the northern mines.
The Crabtrees moved back to San Francisco in 1856, where Lotta continued her performing. She added the banjo to her act and could often be found in the city’s entertainment venues. By 1859, Lotta was known as “Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite.”
Lotta continued performing and in 1864, she and her mother left for the East where Lotta toured and performed in New York, Chicago, Boston and the Midwest. She eventually became famous world-wide and began smoking small, thinly rolled black cigars, which became her trademark. Somewhere along the line, she became the nation’s first female millionaire.
Mary Ann continued to manage Lotta’s affairs, booking plays, locations and travels. She was very astute when it came to investing money, which enabled Lotta to retire from the theatre in 1892, at the young age of 45. Her retirement included a summer cottage on Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, where she threw parties, drove horses and pursued her hobby, painting. Mary Ann died in 1905 and Lotta became somewhat of a recluse, making only one last public appearance in 1915 for “Lotta Crabtree Day” in San Francisco. She died in 1924 at the age of 77 and left the bulk of her $4 million estate to veterans, aging actors and animals.