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.