There was something unmistakably different about one of the shoppers in the Wilmington Market Basket last month. Fully turned out in Victorian-era garb, the elderly woman seemed troubled. And she was unaccountably lingering near the frozen peas — until, abruptly, she wasn’t.
“A ghost?” wondered Christiana Bush, the bakery employee at the store who spotted her, first to herself and then on a Facebook page. Has anyone else seen anything like it?
A sensation ensued, with media coverage, local and national, and streams of shoppers drawn to the store in hopes of a spectral sighting. Wilmington police posted a video of a cartoon ghost floating through the store’s parking lot, and a spokeswoman for the ordinarily tight-lipped grocery chain even issued a statement that its locations are “ghost-free.”
No one could spot the ghost again — or guess who she might be. But might not this mystery be solved? Who, among all of Wilmington’s dead, might have a reason to haunt the spot?
Fortunately, there are clues: Bush got a good look and recalls her vividly — wearing an old nightgown, her curly gray hair pinned up beneath a sleeping cap, her expression “a mixture of anger and melancholy,” she told the Globe.
Could it be a woman who had a strange connection to this place — a woman renowned for her fascination with the afterlife?
In the late 1800s, Wilmington was home to an eccentric figure known as much for her lavish lifestyle as for her obsession with immortality — a larger-than-life character who was determined, as the end of life approached, to be larger-than-death as well, to literally transcend the grave.
Her name was France B. Hiller — but to many, she was simply “the Lady of the Caskets.”
“Mrs. Hiller was quite a strange character,” said Tina Stewart, director of the Wilmington Memorial Library. “She is a legend in town.”
Hiller, who was born in Gloucester, England, is said to have moved with her husband, Dr. Henry Hiller, to Wilmington in 1873.
They had a large house on Main Street, a short stroll from where Market Basket stands today, according to a 19th-century Wilmington map. They owned 16 acres of property, which would come to include a successful cranberry bog and processing operation.
A 19th-century Globe reporter described the Hillers’ home as “probably the most expensively garnished house of its size in the world.” Inside, according to the Wilmington Town Crier, were elaborate carvings, including one of a large crocodile that stretched down the bannister along the stairs. (You can see this carving at the Wilmington Town Museum.)
Both self-described doctors, the Hillers were swimming in wealth acquired from Henry’s patent-medicine pills, which discreetly promised to cure “Errors of Youth” (possibly syphilis), remedy “Lost Manhood,” and bring “renewed life and vigor.” Sold through the New England Medical Institute, his business in Boston’s Scollay Square, they purportedly contained coca, the basis for cocaine.
France Hiller said they were worth millions. “Everything we touched turned to gold in our hands,” she told the Globe of her day, which covered her doings copiously and with breathless enthusiasm.
At night, the couple liked to amble down Main Street, according to a history of the couple written by Ann Berghaus, a former member of the town’s historical commission — probably passing right by the future Market Basket site.
But what brought France Hiller renown wasn’t her wealth and the flamboyant ways she used it, but her morbid concern with death. All her life, she told the Globe, she was “haunted, not by the fear of death itself, for she believes in immortality, but by the horrible thought of interment in the earth and the consequent mouldering putrefaction of the body.”
Dreading the idea of decaying underground, the couple agreed that “they must be placed in caskets above the ground,” Berghaus explained.
So began their “Scheme to Conquer Death,” according to a 19th-century Globe headline.
The Hillers hired a woodcarver to create four magnificent caskets for the couple: two structures each, with coffins nesting inside monumental sarcophagi weighing 2,000 pounds.
Henry Hiller died unexpectedly in 1888, when only his inner casket was finished. His remains were placed in a special tomb built above ground, in a mound created at Wilmington’s Wildwood Cemetery. A regal catafalque transported the body as 2,000 people flocked to the funeral — “all of Eastern Massachusetts,” declared the Globe.
Work proceeded on Mrs. Hiller’s grand vision, and a year later, she mounted a lavish exhibition in Boston of her funerary plans, revealing the caskets and a design for a great mausoleum.
“Whoever goes into the upper room of Horticultural Hall this week, will behold what was never seen before in any hall or in any place under the sun,” read a full-page spread in the Globe. “Lying robed in a $22,000 dress, inside of a $50,000 casket, which in turn is placed in a $50,000 sarcophagus, and all these under a $10,000 case, inside a $100,000 mausoleum, Mrs. Hiller will rest until the angel of the resurrection shall call her with the other billions of sleeping dead to immortality.”
Hiller treasured the caskets so much that she liked to lie inside hers, dressed in her funeral gown and decked in jewels, gazing at herself in a mirror suspended from the ceiling.
Hiller courted publicity and was a magnet for the newspapers of the era.
“No ghost that ever walked or stalked by midnight was an object of so much awe and wonder-making curiosity,” wrote the Globe in 1889.
No ghost, did you say?
The coverage of her doings was not always — how to say? — fact-driven. Hiller, by various accounts, was an heiress from South America and fluent in ancient Greek and Latin. She said that she knew all the biggest English literary celebrities, and that Queen Victoria herself complimented her on her husband’s funeral.
In 1892 she even apparently sent a letter to the Globe announcing her own death, as a hoax. Amid the ensuing scramble, someone recognized the handwriting on the obituary listing request.
A year later, France Hiller startled the town by marrying again, with her much younger coachman, Peter Surrette. A French Canadian who could not then read or write, he was described as “the picture of health and strength.”
News accounts of their wedding were florid: “Cupid triumphed when the world scorned and laughed,” wrote the Globe. None of those who saw the pair “imagined that a $5,000,000 woman was eloping with a coachman.”
As part of the arrangement, Surrette agreed, bizarrely, to change his name to that of her late husband, Henry Hiller. She set Henry Hiller II up with a fruit and general store — and after that closed, a cigar, confectionery, and soda shop.
In May 1900, the woman who had thought so long of death passed away. There was dispute about her age, but a niece said she was 62.
The day of her funeral was “practically a holiday in the village,” according to a Globe account. She was interred with Dr. Henry Hiller at Wildwood Cemetery. Their burial mound was roughly 10 feet from the road, right within the gate.
While her body rested according to her plans, legal wrangling over her will revealed much she’d kept secret: She’d spent her final days as a morphine addict and alcoholic, prone to dark moods and even violence, according to witnesses. Court battles also revealed that despite all her big talk, she left behind just $12,240 in personal property and real estate worth an estimated $31,820.
Eventually her tomb fell into disrepair and started to leak. With permission from her widower, the above-ground tomb was removed in 1935, the hill razed, “and a new tomb was built below ground-level for the precious caskets,” according to the Globe.
So “the Lady of the Caskets” was buried underground, after all — the thing she most abhorred.
The Hiller house, and the grave markers for Dr. Henry Hiller and Dr. France B. Hiller, still stand, though the house has since been moved. Henry Hiller II went on to work as a crossing tender for the railroad and then for the town, and he died in 1958.
Those who know France Hiller’s legend well said it never crossed their minds that reports of a ghost at Market Basket could have anything to do with her.
“Nobody has ever said anything about a ghost [of Mrs. Hiller] that I’m aware of,” said Terry McDermott, curator of the Wilmington Town Museum. “I will say, though, it’s an intriguing thought.”
Larz F. Neilson, the former editor of the Town Crier, who has since retired from the local paper and moved to Maine, also batted away the idea.
“I have not ever heard of anything allegedly happening with any spirit connected to her,” he said.
The same can’t be said for Bush, the Market Basket worker who set off all the curiosity about the ghost. When shown a portrait of France Hiller that appeared in the Globe more than 100 years ago, she said she noticed some eerie similarities with the woman she saw.
Could it be?
Could the ghost of France Hiller be lingering in Wilmington, displeased with her reburial below ground? Unhappy that her widower allowed this to be, where might she have gone looking for him? Why not the nearest market — his livelihood when she last knew him?
“That definitely could have been her,” Bush told the Globe in a telephone interview. “It looked like the same face.”