Harrison County

The infamous Hermit of Deer Island ‘lied about his life,’ historian says

The Hermit of Deer Island John Guilhot has been a mysterious character, and his legend is about to get a new chapter.
The Hermit of Deer Island John Guilhot has been a mysterious character, and his legend is about to get a new chapter. C.C. “Tex” Hamill Down South Magazine Collection Islands & Lighthouses

What began as a sneak peek for this year’s Old Biloxi Cemetery Tour has led to a discovery that could shock South Mississippi.

“I found out why the Hermit was so elusive about his past,” said E.W. Suarez, research assistant at Biloxi’s Local History & Genealogy Department. “It is a doozy!”

The Hermit of Deer Island, Jean Guilhot (pronounced Gee-O), died almost 60 years ago, spending his last years living on the tiny island just off the coast of Biloxi. Louis Gorenflo, a tour guide on the Sailfish, befriended the Hermit and wanted to help him, Suarez said.

Guilhot was too old to row back and forth from the island, the story goes, and Gorenflo would bring him groceries. Gorenflo also allowed the eccentric-looking man with his disheveled hair to row up to the Sailfish and entertain passengers with a song or a dance.

It added a little spice to the tour and romanticized a person nobody really knew, Suarez said. “I don’t think even Louis Gorenflo knew the whole story,” he said.

Suarez will present his evidence and documentation at the free Sneak Peek from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Biloxi Visitors Center.

“What I found shocked me,” he said. “He was not a nice man at all.”

“His life was very much his creation,” Suarez said. “He kept his life story secret.”

That was easier to do in those days. Guilhot’s tombstone at the Old Biloxi Cemetery said he was born in 1877 and died in 1959.

Before modern identification, you could call yourself any name to hide what you’d done, Suarez said. For example, Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes had three identities, he said.

Today’s technology and advanced in digitization are digging up old secrets.

“It’s bringing up the bad stuff that nobody talked about,” he said, like criminal cases and prison sentences.

In the case of the Hermit, “Using the resources we have here at the library is how I found it,” he said.

“It’s shocking,” he said. “He lied about his life.”

Suarez knows that historians and residents of South Mississippi may not want to hear what he’s dug up and may doubt the truth, he said. He helped the Sun Herald find proof that showed the resort on the Isle of Caprice, the lost island off the coast of South Mississippi, actually opened in 1925 rather than 1926 as was believed for decades. Despite published proof, the widely-accepted date hasn’t changed.

He’s making a project board with all the evidence he found of the long-buried secret and said, “I’m telling everybody on Thursday night.”

This year’s Cemetery Tour is Oct. 22 and 24, and it will focus on those who make great contributions to the local tourism industry, along with Guilhot. Three of those characters — Tony Ragusin, Jean Delauney and Cora White — will be portrayed on the tour and will have a conversation about Biloxi’s past during the Sneak Peek.

If you go

What: Sneak Peek of Old Biloxi Cemetery Tour

When: 5:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Biloxi Visitors Center, 1050 Beach Blvd.

Details: Biloxi Cemetery tours are 2-4 p.m. Oct. 22 and 5-7 p.m. Oct. 24