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Jean Guilhot, The Hermit of Deer Island

The Hermit of Deer Island

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The Hermit of Deer Island

Biloxi has never been short on colorful characters. The most intriguing of them all may have been Jean Guilhot, known as "The Hermit of Deer Island." While technically not a resident of Point Cadet, Guilhot was well-known to Point residents. For years, local children were fascinated by -- and terrified of -- the grizzled eccentric.

He is such a legend that it is hard to separate myth from reality. It seems he cultivated much of his legend himself.

This much is known. Guilhot, a native of France, moved just off shore to Deer Island in the 1920s. A former barber, he was, according to my uncle and Internet research, at one time a businessman who grew oysters and owned and operated a small oyster plant on the island. After his wife died, and his house was destroyed by the hurricane of '47 he preferred to live alone with his dogs in a small shelter on the island. And thus the legend of "the hermit" was born.

Jean Guilhot, The Hermit of Deer Island

It is also fact that local tour boat operator Capt. Louis Gorenflo delivered Guilhot's groceries to him on his Sail Fish tour boat and left his mail and newspaper tied to a pine tree "mailbox" out in the water. This mutually beneficial arrangement was a matter of convenience for Guilhot and a promotional opportunity for Gorenflo's tour boat business.

Gorenflo featured "the hermit" as an attraction on his boat tours and even featured Guilhot's hairy, wild-eyed likeness in his advertising. As a bonus, when the ship went by Deer Island, sometimes Guilhot poled his skiff out and serenaded the tourists onboard with French folk songs. Often they threw money down to him. Eventually, Guilhot didn't want to be bothered anymore and rigged up a cup and pulley system to the tree for his mail and newspaper and just waved to the boat from the safe distance of the island.

While the tour spiel -- and the media -- made much of his "Robinson Crusoe" existence, Guilhot, though decidedly eccentric, was not a true hermit. Those who knew him, said that in company he could be gregarious and witty.

My mother recalled that he often came to town. A gaggle of children always followed behind-- giggling and whispering from a safe distance. They screamed and scattered when he so much as looked their way.

That said, Guilhot was fiercely protective of his solitary lifestyle. When the Hurricane of '47 threatened, he refused all attempts to bring him to shelter. He rode out the storm -- and survived it --- high up in a tree on the island.

His crusty, tattered appearance notwithstanding, the hermit was reputed to be a ladies' man with some alleged 4, 6 or 8 wives in his past, depending on which account you choose to believe.

As he grew older, Guilhot often seemed impatient with the attention he received, but there is no denying that he also courted it. 

Guilhot passed away in 1959, aged 81. Nearly 10 years later Hurricane Camille destroyed the remaining homes on the island, and the island has not been inhabited since. Over the years, casinos and condo developers have eyed Deer Island for development. However, the State of Mississippi acquired the land in 2002 and now maintains it as a nature preserve.

The hermit would probably like that.