Harrison County

The Hermit of Deer Island was keeping a secret. A researcher just revealed what it was.

Undated photo of John Guilhot, a native of France who moved to Biloxi and became known as the Hermit of Deer Island. Research shows he may have come to Biloxi with a secret past.
Undated photo of John Guilhot, a native of France who moved to Biloxi and became known as the Hermit of Deer Island. Research shows he may have come to Biloxi with a secret past. Courtesy of Biloxi Bay Area Chamber of Commerce

The “Mysterious Life of Jean Guilhot” was revealed Thursday night by E.W. Suarez, a research assistant at Biloxi’s Local History & Genealogy Department.

Suarez accidentally stumbled on the man’s past on the internet.

“New information is being put on the internet every minute,” Suarez said.

Suarez found the first clue in a prison record from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Through newspaper articles, U.S. Census data and other documents, Suarez traced the man’s trail, starting from when he sailed from France to the United States in 1898 at about age 21, to when he made his way to Biloxi, where he died in 1959.

The documents show that Guilhot and Francois Merlier allegedly shot two policemen in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, just outside Scranton, in July 1899. According to a report in The Scranton Tribune newspaper, the Frenchmen, who police say spoke broken English, were prowling outside a home when they were confronted by Dunmore patrolmen Henry Snyder and Patrick Kays. After they shot both patrolmen, the report says, they dropped the pipe bomb they were carrying and fled.

One of the policemen was seriously injured but both lived and identified the men, Suarez said. A $500 reward for their capture was offered.

The break came in spring 1900, when the superintendent of police in Montreal, Canada, contacted the Dunmore police. Suarez said Montreal detective overheard a pair of Frenchmen in a saloon bragging about shooting two policemen in Pennsylvania. They were arrested and confessed their guilt, the report said. The men arrested gave their names as Antoine Robert, which Suarez said Guilhot used as an alias, and Auguste Morel.

Articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Scranton Tribune said the men accused of shooting the police officers and extradited back to Pennsylvania were Jean Guilhot and Francis Merlier. They were sent to prison for five years in Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the oldest prisons in America, Suarez said.

“You were not allowed to leave you cell at all during your sentence,” Suarez said.

Suarez also found an Associated Press report from November 1900 that said Francois Merlier, who was in jail with Guilhot for the shooting, “is now suspected to be identified with the anarchist gang which is alleged to have plotted the death of President McKinley.”

In 1901, while the men were in jail, William McKinley was shot at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York, by a 28-year-old anarchist and Polish immigrant Leon Czolgosz, and later died from his injuries.

Suarez said the documents show Guilhot was one of the early domestic terrorists, mostly factory workers, who targeted wealthy factory owners.

Guilhot and Merlier were released from prison a year ahead of schedule in 1904, and Census records show they stayed together after their release from prison. Guilhot married his first wife, Charlotte, in Key West Florida in 1907. They separated in 1920, and that’s when Guilhot headed to Biloxi, Suarez said.

Suarez doesn’t have the one piece of evidence that would make the story ironclad. Out of 80,000 prisoners at Eastern State Penitentiary, mugshots exist for only 4,000 of them, Suarez said.

“I hope somebody can give me proof this was not the same person,” Suarez said.

Suarez has only found only three people who spelled Guilhot that way — the Hermit of Deer Island, his wife Charlotte, and Edmund Guilhot, whose name pops up with Charlotte’s after Jean left her.

“It’s important to know the entire story,” Suarez said.