Despite her parents’ opinion of him, Eliza Howes loved Edwin Otis Dow. She was 18 and he was 21 when they got married in Maine in 1854. Two years later, their daughter Helen was born. Now the Howes began to really hammer on their accusation that Edwin simply didn’t have what it took to properly support a wife and child.
One day he simply disappeared. He didn’t tell Eliza he was leaving, but passed along to a friend that he was going to seek his fortune and would return when he had enough money to provide his wife with the life she deserved.
For the next two years, Eliza waited for Edwin’s return. Finally, she caved under the pressure of her parents’ insistence that she obtain a divorce and get on with her life. Filing a charge of desertion, her short marriage to the man she adored was legally ended.
A few more years passed, and Eliza took her daughter and relocated to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where she took a position of employment within the household of William Norton, a wealthy sea captain. Eventually, she and Norton married.
Over time, she would hear rumors of her first husband’s fate. Some told her they thought he had died while on travels out west. Helen grew up and fell into a love of her own, marrying Rodolphus Swift and setting up housekeeping with him.
One day, Helen received a letter in the mail and was shocked upon opening it to discover that it was from her father. In the missive, he begged her to promise that she would not tell her mother of the communication. He simply wanted Helen to know that he had never stopped loving Eliza and had remained faithful to her since the day they exchanged vows.
Although Edwin wanted to resume his relationship with his daughter, he did not want to upset Eliza’s life. He had indeed gone out west many years prior and then went on to New Jersey. When he returned to Maine, he had been informed that Eliza had obtained a divorce and moved to New Bedford.
At that time, he had hurried to New Bedford only to learn that she was very happily married and had given birth to three more children. He stayed in town just long enough to get a secret look at her after all the years that had passed. Then he quietly left.
Edwin had initially come back to tell Eliza that he’d made his fortune and could now provide for her all the things her parents had wanted her to have. He’d engaged in a manufacturing business in New Jersey and was now a wealthy man. But she already had a wealthy man and he was her husband.
Edwin and Helen continued writing their letters to each other. In February of 1901, 84-year-old Norton died of heart disease, leaving Eliza a widow. After allowing a suitable period of mourning, Edwin told Helen he no longer wanted their secret kept. He asked her if she thought it would be all right if he paid a visit to her mother. Helen said yes.
Edwin journeyed out to New Bedford, where Eliza set her eyes on her once-young love for the first time in over 40 years. After a very short courtship, the two were engaged and Edwin immediately built a cottage for them in Edgewood. The wedding soon followed, void of music or flowers or other fanfare. Those in attendance included only their daughter and grandson.
Before her death at the age of 69 in 1905, Eliza and Edwin got to experience three years of the wedded bliss denied them for nearly a lifetime.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.