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The Dows and a street name puzzle

Carol Sommer

Publication: The Day

Published March 16. 2014 4:00AM

You probably wouldn't name your baby for a man who never bathed, combed his hair, or changed his clothes, but there were parents all over America who named their sons after Lorenzo Dow. This itinerant evangelist was so eccentric that some people (probably not the parents of his little namesakes) called him "Crazy Dow."

Lorenzo's brother, Ulysses, was a New London educator for decades. Ulysses was more conventional than Lorenzo, but he was controversial, too, making me wonder if either of them could be the person commemorated by Dow Street in New London.

Born in Coventry, the brothers' lives diverged when Ulysses followed a teaching career while Lorenzo became a Methodist circuit preacher, much to the distress of his Calvinist parents. He was never ordained, a decision by church leaders probably related to his unorthodox appearance.

Lorenzo is described as having a beard that reached his waist and small ferret-like eyes. He rarely subjected himself or his clothes to soap and water, and when his only shirt and trousers were ready to fall off his body, a kindly onlooker would usually donate a replacement set. These colorful idiosyncrasies, along with his eloquence and charisma, soon made him a celebrity.

Lorenzo started preaching as a teenager. When he was just 22 years old he went to Europe to bring the Methodist doctrine to Irish Catholics. He walked all over Ireland, attracting considerable attention, some followers, and occasional ill treatment. Finding lodging was difficult, and he was routinely questioned by British agents who thought he was a spy.

Back home in the United States, Lorenzo's ministry took him as far afield as Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana where he was sometimes harassed for his abolitionist beliefs. He was "egged" out of one rough Georgia town where murderous barroom brawls were the norm and (it was rumored) children played with eyeballs they found in the street.

In Connecticut Lorenzo could be seen frequently traveling the Norwich Road or walking along Bank Street. He preached in Chesterfield, on the Parade in New London, and to soldiers at Fort Trumbull. He lived for a while in Montville where he proved to be a good farmer but a bad neighbor. Reacting to a dispute over water rights, he lowered the Oxoboxo Lake dam, causing a destructive flood.

When Lorenzo died in 1834 he was an author whose religious publications were outsold only by the Bible. He'd visited the White House and was nearly as well-known as Andrew Jackson. He had traveled more than 200,000 miles in the service of his God.

Ulysses was less controversial, but he managed to kick up some dust, too. He taught grammar school in New London for more than 40 years, ruling his classroom with an iron hand. His use of corporeal punishment had a tragic result when he crippled one young student by hauling him out of his seat while the boy's legs were wrapped around his desk. At one point most adult men in New London owed their education to Ulysses, and despite his methods many remembered him with admiration.

In a religious brouhaha, Ulysses infuriated many townspeople by selling property to the Universalists who were looking for a site to build their church. The sect was so unpopular and emotions ran so high that a dentist, who supported Ulysses' decision, felt compelled to flee town. (You can view a skit about this on YouTube! Who says the past is dead?)

So, was Dow Street named for a preacher or a teacher? Perhaps it was named for someone else entirely or simply on a whim. My money's on Lorenzo, but public records are silent on the subject. While it's easy to smile at these brothers' eccentricities, it seems to me they were sincerely trying to live according to their principles. Dow Street invites us to remember them both.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.

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