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14. THE “CASKET” WOMAN

Yarmouth Vanguard, April 4, 1989


Pierre Surette was born in lower Eel Brook, June 30, 1869. The house in which he was born still stands, at the top of a hill, east side of route three, now occupied by Ronald Dulong, the garbage collector. His father was Julien Surette, the son of Paul and of Marie Pothier. His mother was Ursule Surette, from Surette’s Island, the daughter of Prospere and Monique Saulnier.


At an early age, he left Lower Eel Brook for the United States. He chose to settle in Wilmington, Massachusetts, about 15 miles north-west of Boston. There were already here a certain number of French people from Yarmouth County, even some of his relatives.


He did not have to wait long before being employed by a wealthy doctor by the name of Henry Hiller. Dr. Hiller had patented a medicine by which he amassed a huge fortune. At a time when the automobile was still in its infancy, Pierre Surette was to become Hiller’s coachman. You can picture this young lad from Lower Eel Brook, proudly perched in the front seat of a luxurious coach drawn by a span of well groomed horses, parading the streets of Wilmington and the narrow roads of the country-side, taking Doctor Hiller and Mrs. Hiller for a spin.


Pierre Surette had only been at the service of Dr. Hiller for a short time, when the doctor died, leaving all his huge fortune to his widow. And then the “incredible” happened; the widow of Dr. Hiller was to marry the young coachman Pierre Surette from Lower Eel Brook. Was it because she did not like the name “Surette” or rather was it because she wanted to keep the name “Hiller”? be what it may, she hired a lawyer to have the Court change the name of Pierre Surette to that of Henry Hiller 2d. Thus, that being said and done, the fabulously wealthy 52 year old widow of Henry Hiller 1st married in 1893 Henry Hiller 2d, the former Pierre Surette of Lower Eel Brook, who had just turned 24; and the widow Hiller was able to keep the name of Mrs. Hiller.


That was just one of her many eccentricities. Her most notable one concerned the $10,000 casket she had made years before she died, which now would cost between 10 and 20 times that amount. Periodically, she would drape herself in funeral garments and with a full retinue of servants in attendance, including of course her young husband, she would stretch out in the coffin, using a full mirror to see how she looked and instructing the servants in exact details how she was to be draped and dressed when she died. One can wonder if she had well understood the priest or minister or whomever telling us mortals to well prepare ourselves for the day we will die.


Well, that day came for her in 1903, only 10 years after marrying her young coachman, her second husband. The funeral and burial were just a trifle, as it had been prepared for years and years. She was 62; he was 34. He inherited all the wealth of his wife, whom he outlived 55 years, without remarrying. No doubt he became the richest man ever born in Lower Eel Brook or Sainte-Anne-du-Ruisseau.


People in Sainte-Anne-du-Ruisseau will remember when he used to visit his native Lower Eel Brook and his relatives. Old people will tell you that, notwithstanding prohibition, he would manage to smuggle and few “quarts” through the border to enjoy a few says with his ancient school-mates and especially with his brother Louis.


These, on their part, whenever visiting the United States, would take a stroll to Wilmington to visit the rich son of Julien Surette and his splendid manor, who had left Lower Eel Brook a number of years ago with empty pockets, but who now, having gone from rags to riches, living the life of Riley.


He must have been in his 80s when he became an invalid. That is when he went to live with his sister, Rose Angelina, nine years his junior. She was well known in Wilmington as Angelina Butters. Her house was located at 83 Middlesex Avenue for those who are familiar with the town. This is where Pierre Surette, alias Henry Hiller 2d, was to die in 1958, between Christmas and New Year. He was fatally burned in bed in a fire which engulfed the simple room where he had lived for several years, just a few doors from his former sumptuous residence, his old gold-fixtured mansion. He died of suffocation and burns shortly after his sister Angelina had lit his pipe. He was 89 years old.


And that is the story of the one who, in Massachusetts, had become widely known as the “Casket Woman” and of her second husband from Lower Eel Brook, the so-called Henry Hiller 2d, the former Pierre Surette, son of Julien.


This incredible but true story has been told over and over again, even in Pierre Surette’s lifetime. Also, when he died, the New England newspapers recounted it in detail.

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