Dr. Mrs. France Hiller's new light

Dr. Mrs. France Hiller has a new light atop her old lamp post at Wilmington's Wildwood Cemetery.

There’s a new light on Wildwood Street. Actually, it’s a restoration of an old light.

The light is at the first en­trance to Wildwood Ceme­te­ry, at a gate originally bought by Dr. Mrs. France Hiller in the 1890s. Dr. Hiller, Wilming­ton’s famed “Casket Woman” provided for many improvements and expansion at the cemetery.

She had long had a fixation with death, and the money to make elaborate funeral prep­arations. In the 1880s, she hired a Scottish woodcarver to prepare elaborate mahogany coffins for her and her husband. Dr. Henry Hiller, though, died before his outer coffin was ready.

The coffin maker worked in a building on Middlesex Ave­nue. Dr. Mrs. Hiller would go there in her funeral clothes and lie in her coffin, looking at herself in a mirror.

The Hillers had moved to Wil­mington from Cape Cod about 1875. Dr. Henry Hiller sold a patent medicine and be­came quite wealthy. He served the town as auditor of ac­counts in 1877, and again in the mid 1880s. He was a li­brary trustee in the late 1870s. When the town started a ce­metery committee, he was elected to that in 1886. He died on Nov. 5, 1888, but was still listed on the committee in the 1889 town report.

In 1890, Mrs. Hiller became the first woman to hold town town office, taking her late husband’s seat on the Ceme­tery Committee. She served one term, until 1893.

In 1892, the widow Dr. France Hiller married her young coach­man, Pierre Surrette. She had him change his name to Henry Hiller. She died in 1900, and he outlived her by more than a half-century. For the rest of his life, he was the caretaker of the Hiller plot in the cemetery. For many years, he hired watchmen to guard the tomb.

The town’s early burial ground, next to the Congre­gational Church served the town until shortly before 1800. The first section of the present Wildwood Cemetery is di­rectly opposite the old burial ground. The tombstones there include several Revolutionary War veterans. The cemetery gradually expanded as needed. Mrs. Hiller undertook a great expansion about 1890, buying land out to Wildwood Street.

At the cemetery entrance on Wildwood Street, there is a low stone wall with two granite gateposts. Next to the en­trance is an iron pole which at one time had a light. Not much is known about that light, but if it was an electric light installed before Dr. Mrs. Hiller’s death in 1900, it may have been powered through a connection to the trolley car wires that once ran along Wildwood Street. Wilmington did not have AC power lines until 1911.

For many decades, there was a light on the pole. At some point, the light stopped working and was removed, possibly after the street car line stopped running.

The pole is very near the urns marking the graves of the Hillers. The Hiller caskets were first entombed in a large burial mound which Mrs. Hiller had built near the en­trance. However, by the 1930s, the tomb had begun to leak so the mound was leveled and the coffins were buried.

The new light is powered a solar panel. It was installed by Bob Mallett, a member of the Wilmington Historical Com­mission.

The Hiller story has drawn new attention with a story that someone reported seeing a ghost in the Market Basket store at Wilmington Plaza. The story has “gone viral,” with people thronging to the store. This led to a front page story in the Boston Globe 10 days ago, with many old images from the Globe files and one photo of a casket from the Town Crier files.

How anyone made a connection to the Hiller story is a mystery itself. Reports of a Hiller ghost have been as elusive as a ghost in the 119 years since her death.

Now there is a lamp on the pole, which may shed new light on the story.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.