The Hiller house,

as it was in the late 1950s. The bank building at left is now the West Real Estate office building. On the site of the Hiller house is the Bank of America.

By Larz F. Neilson

Editor Emeritus

WILMINGTON - The outer coffins rested on brass lions’ paws, stood over five feet high and weighed over 2000 pounds. On the ends of the coffins were many images, including angels, cupids, dragons, bats, lizards and an owl with a mouse in its talons.

On the covers of the coffins there were carved vines wrapping around the edge, leading to a skull, with a lizard creeping out one eye socket.

This was not the setting for an elaborate Halloween party. The coffins were those of Dr. Henry Hiller and his wife, Dr. France Hiller. And they are buried in Wildwood Cemetery in Wilmington.

It has been nearly 140 years since the Hillers moved to Wilmington. In town history, there is no stranger story than that of “The Casket Lady,” a story with many twists and turns.

France Pharaoh and Henry Hiller met at a London hospital where they were both studying medicine in the 1860s. He was from Germany, she from South America. They each graduated with a medical degree, and then they were married.

The Hillers moved to Wilmington in 1873. They first rented the old Flagg farm on Main Street, where the Salvation Army store is today. Dr. Henry Hiller developed a patent medicine business, which he called the New England Medical Institute, with a laboratory on Tremont Row in Boston. He sold an elixir containing oil of cocabia, which could relieve the symptoms of syphilis. Widely advertised, the medicine became quite popular, making the Hillers quite wealthy.

The Hillers built an elaborate house on Main Street. In the front hall was a five-foot carving of a crocodile on the banister. There were other elaborate carvings, inside and out. The property had 16 acres. There was a windmill in the back yard and an elaborate fountain in the side yard. Behind the house was a building with a device that manufactured gas for lighting and cooking. Dr. Henry Hiller later built a building for his laboratory, facing Church Street. It had four turrets, to resemble a Barvarian castle. That building, minus two turrets, is now the Masonic Hall.

Dr. Henry Hiller was appointed to the town auditing committee in 1877, then to the library committee and in 1888, he became a member of the cemetery committee.

As for Dr. France Hiller, there is one record of the town having paid her $5 to set the broken leg of someone at the town farm, the poor house.

Dr. France Hiller had a fascination with the supernatural and was concerned about what would happen to her body after death. She could not bear the thought of being buried in the cold earth. In 1886, the Hillers contracted with a Scottish woodcarver named James MacGreggor to carve two massive coffins of mahogany. Additionally, there would be lined inner coffins, each with a metal hammock. On the cover of the inner coffins were elaborate carvings, including portraits of Dr. Hiller and Dr. Mrs. Hiller.

In the fall of 1888, someone asked Dr. Henry Hiller if his coffin was finished. He replied that it would be ready when it was needed. Not long after that, on Nov. 5, 1888, he died. The story was that he had fallen while exiting his carriage and did not recover. The cause listed on his death certificate was Bright’s Disease (kidney failure) and heart failure. He was 43. The death certificate was signed by Dr. Daniel Buzzell.

The coffin was not ready. His funeral was held 10 months after his death. Work proceeded on the outer coffins and on France Hiller’s inner coffin.

France Hiller took her husband’s seat on the cemetery committee and proceeded to make several improvements in the Wildwood Cemetery. She bought 16 acres along Wildwood Street, donating the land to the cemetery. When the soil at the cemetery needed improvement, she held a party at the town hall, with the price of admission being a cartload of barnyard manure, delivered to the cemetery.

She was very generous, and would buy houses in town, fix them up and then give them back to the former owners. She paid for many improvements in town. A newspaper published by the Methodist Church in 1889 said she had donated $500 to pay off the mortgage on the church.

Three days after the death of Dr. Henry Hiller, Stella Thurston, wife of Rev. William Thurston, minister of the Methodist Church, give birth to a baby boy. He was named Henry Hiller Thurston.

Dr. France Hiller continued the bottled medicine business, and would go to Boston frequently on the train. One change that took place was that the labels now carried her name, F. B. Hiller, not that of Henry. There were eight doctors in the laboratory, compounding the elixir. She also employed several people to run the house in Wilmington. One of these was her coachman, a young man named Peter, or Pierre, Surrette. The Surrettes were one of several French families that had come from Eel River, Nova Scotia.

Then in 1893, nearly five years after the death of Henry Hiller, France Hiller announced that she would marry Peter Surrette, and that he would change his name to Henry Hiller. He was 24; she was at least in her forties.

The wedding was an elaborate affair, and was covered by many newspapers. The town records show two dates for the marriage, March 15 and April 2, 1893. The first wedding was in the law office of Bordman Hall in Boston, where an ante-nuptial agreement was executed. The second wedding was on Easter Sunday. On the marriage license, France Hiller stated that this was her third marriage. Was she counting the March 15 ceremony, or was there a previous marriage?

One complication that arose was with Polly McIntosh, France Hiller’s niece. Her name had been Agnes Mathinson, and she married Schamiel McIntosh in 1892. At one point, she attempted to attack Mrs. Hiller at the Woburn train station. She made an unsuccessful attempt to grab Mrs. Hiller’s hair, and after the widow was safely in her carriage, Polly beat on the window with her umbrella. The incident was reported in the Boston Globe.

France Hiller decided to grow cranberries. She bought land that is now Rotary Park and proceeded to have a bog built. Some of the local farmers laughed at her, knowing there had been a cranberry blight that wiped out all the old cranberry bogs. But with the cranberries gone, the blight had died off, too, and now very few people were growing cranberries. She did quite well with her cranberry business.

She had a warehouse - workshop built on Middlesex Avenue where the cranberry crop could be processed and crated. Also in the same building was the woodcarver MacGreggor and his crew. She would sit near the warehouse under a sunshade umbrella and watch her employees tend the cranberries. That building was later converted into apartments by Henry Hiller 2, and was only torn down in recent years.

France Hiller planned her funeral in great detail. Her burial clothes were prepared long in advance of her death, and she would have herself dressed in them. Then she would lie in the coffin in the parlor and look at herself in a mirror, exclaiming at the perfection. After such a viewing, she would seem greatly relaxed.

France Hiller loved publicity. One newspaper article said that any paper which did not run at least one story a year about her was not a good newspaper. Thus the coffins became quite famous.

There is no exact value given to the coffins, as she loved to tell stories. She supposedly paid the woodcarver $40 a day. Some stories place a value of $10,000 on each of coffins, although higher estimates exist.

She took advantage of that fame and put the coffins on exhibition in Horticultural Hall in Boston. Accounts vary as to her success with that venture. When not on display, the coffins were stored in a small granite building near the house.

When Mrs. Hiller died on May 15, 1900, it was front page news in the Boston papers. The funeral drew a large throng of people, estimated to have been 2000. The Boston Post described the scene as like a big circus, with “no respect for the dead woman.” The wagon that carried the coffin to the cemetery was so tall that 14 inches had to be cut off the posts of the canopy, so that it could pass beneath the trolley car wires.

The funeral does not mark the end of the story. A long court battle ensued over her will. She reportedly drew several wills.

In 1935, the Hiller tomb in Wildwood Cemetery was leaking. Henry Hiller 2 made the decision to level the vault. The coffins were removed, the vault was leveled, and the coffins were buried.

Henry Hiller 2 survived his wife by some 58 years and never remarried. He lived in the Hiller house for years, and later moved in with his sister and her family. One evening, Angelina Butters gave her brother, then 89, his pipe. A few minutes later, his room was in flames.

The house still exists, stripped of many features, although some carvings remain. About 50 years ago, the Middlesex County National Bank bought the house, wanting the site for a parking lot, and that is what is on the site to this day. The house was moved about 100 feet back and to the left, and it now houses a dental practice.

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