AUBURN – As the big bell at the Androscoggin Mill tolled the stroke of midnight on March 21, 1894, Elias Gove – a self-described Prince of Peace – died at the age of 86 in a room overlooking the river in Auburn.

A studio photograph of Elias Grove from the late 1800s in Lewiston. Provided.

The Lewiston Evening Journal called him “the Most Picturesque Man in Maine.”

The Helena Weekly Herald in Montana termed him a “Maine Divinity.”

President Abraham Lincoln dismissed him, simply, as “Crazy-Man.”

It’s possible all three got it right.

Gove was unquestionably, as a newspaper in Dubuque, Iowa, put it, “one of the eccentric characters of the country.”

A Readfield native who lived in Turner before moving to Lewiston and Auburn, Gove appears to have spent most of his time scheming to spend a vast fortune he didn’t possess and plugging himself as “Second Christ.”

He “walked and walked and walked” all over town, buttonholing anyone unwary enough to chat and pulling them into disjointed, oddball conversations that could range from the need for new moons circling the globe to offers to sell tickets to heaven.

Though Gove “was very kindly at heart and harmed no one,” the Journal said, locals generally avoided him. Visitors, though, found him fascinating.

GOVE’S STRANGE GARB

Gove’s appearance seems to have most caught the attention of his contemporaries.

As he walked around in Lewiston, Elias Gove never failed to attract attention with his unusual garb. Lewiston Evening Journal, Dec. 1, 1919

In a story about Gove’s death, the Journal noted that  few people “who ever came to Lewiston have failed to catch a glimpse of him.”

In a poem penned years later, famed Maine painter Marsden Hartley portrayed Gove as “a tall handsome man with sumptuous white hair and a beard like a homeless Neptune’s,” wearing a long frock coat and a top hat, always carrying an umbrella.

He had, Hartley recalled, “a sweet womanly face, soft and deliberate, with something intense inside it.”

“His long, gray beard, reaching halfway to his waist, his gleaming eyes, his tall, erect figure, the air of dignity and sternness, the shawl or cape or robe over his shoulders, the white high hat or the broad-brimmed Quaker hat, the fan in summer, the white umbrella in all seasons, the business-like method to his wandering – all were characteristics,” the Journal said.

E.L. Merrow wrote an account of Gove in 1890 in one of his regular letters to Wade’s Fibre & Fabric, a mill industry periodical.

Merrow described Gove as 5’ 8” in height with a full gray beard and long hair. He said the man had “a tall white hat, long red coat, white cape, light pantaloons, collar, tie and shirt, all in one, and composed of a white handkerchief passed round the neck and crossed over his breast and held in place by four good-sized safety pins.”

“He carries an umbrella of ample proportion of white material and of ancient origin,” Merrow said.

Recalling Gove years after his death, the Journal said his wardrobe fluctuated with the state of his finances, sometimes dilapidated and ragged, especially in winter, and sometimes blossoming “more gorgeous than the lilies.”

In short, Gove always stood out, one way or another.

MORE THAN JUST ODD CLOTHING

Something beyond his clothing choices caught the attention of Hartley in his poem “Elias Gove – or, The Second Coming.”

Hartley, who “well remembered” Gove, related “the terrible look in his eyes, of something majestic and divine about to happen.”

“He could not stand to see the thing we see,” Hartley noted, “and how – how do we?”

Less eloquently, The New York Sun called Gove “one of Maine’s many cranks” in an 1886 piece.

After noting his appearance, the New York paper said that Gove “makes an occasional dime by selling his photography, on the back of which is this inscription: ‘Elias Gove, Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, who baptized himself with the aid of the Holy Ghost.’”

On the reverse of a picture taken in Lewiston, Gove printed a message in a strange swirling script. Decoded, it is a rambling account of his role as a messiah who could deliver a great light, white as snow, and preach “over the new kingdom I create.”

Gove’s writing, in his own view at least, resembled Hebrew.

The Journal said that “his letters, like his conversation, had no particular bearing on any given subject, though now and then, by transposing words, a coherent sentence can be made out.”

An example from October 1886 of Elias Gove’s coded handwriting, one of the many oddities he exhibited. Among the lines in the letter is the sentence “The earth is not turning on its supposed axes” and an offer to “preach revealed mysteries.” Muskie Archives, Bates College

Gove doesn’t appear to have collected any believers along the way, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Still, he made enough of a mark with his preaching to win one of 105 spots on a list of 19th century prophets – alongside such luminaries as the founders of the Mormon faith and Christian Science – compiled in 1905 by Henry W. Mitchell of Melbourne, Australia.

Someone who knew him wrote in a 1902 history magazine called Notes and Queries that Gove “was always talking about what he called religion, and it was as near that as much as that which comes from pulpits and from men who only claim to be servants of Jesus; and his claim was evidently as good as theirs.”

Though Gove mostly chattered about religion – he was a Methodist as a child, a Universalist by inclination and a prophet in his own mind – he had no shortage of odd notions on a range of topics.

The Journal mentioned three of his favorite late-life arguments:

1. “That the railroad locomotives were eating up all the air;”
2. “That the use of fertilizers was responsible for all human decay and disease;” and
3. That an extra sun, rising in the south and setting in the north, would, along with a couple of extra moons, “save big money to the world in the way of illumination.”

The Lewiston Sun said Gove reckoned he could get a second sun in the sky “for a few billion dollars” and often wrote to dignitaries around the world – including Queen Victoria — trying to get them to invest in his scheme. They didn’t jump at the opportunity.

Gove spent a good deal of time hanging out by the American Express office with thick piles of paperwork that supposedly laid out the plans and financing to give the existing moon and sun some companions. He apparently took all of it quite earnestly.

Though he accepted money from passersby, the Journal said, Gove “was no beggar and dealt in no chicken feed. Nothing short of a billion stirred him in any degree.”

In sum, many of the era would likely have echoed Edward Nelson Dingley’s recollection of Gove in the 1924 volume Just Maine Folks as “a harmless but mildly demented man.”

Even so, when former Bates College Dean of the Faculty Harry Rowe wrote up a list of Androscoggin’s Notable Personages more than half-a-century ago, Gove was one of a surprisingly small number to make the list, alongside such luminaries as sculptor Franklin Simmons, Hartley and former Gov. Alonzo Garcelon.

FROM RURAL MAINE TO THE STREETS OF LEWISTON

A rendering of Elias Grove that appeared in several newspapers in 1886, probably from the New York Sun originally. Helena (Montana) Weekly

Gove, who was born in 1807, lived on his family’s farm until he reached adulthood. He later claimed he had a reputation for doing twice as much work as the average fellow.

His eccentricity showed even at a relatively early age.

One day, while sitting in the audience for an event at Kents Hill School in Readfield, Gove suddenly rose, interrupted whatever was supposed to be going on, and embarked on a speech “in which he proclaimed himself to be Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace,” the Journal reported long afterwards.

“His remarks made quite a sensation,” it said, and he never ceased making the claim in all the decades to come.

Merrow said that Gove’s troubles were said to have arisen “from a contusion received by striking on his head when thrown from a carriage by a runaway horse.” Others guessed it arose from a love gone bad.

In 1838, Gove married Betsey Bradford, a daughter of the richest man in Turner, and the pair lived together into the 1860s on a little farm in South Turner.

They had one son together, George, who died in 1866 at the age of 20. He is buried beneath an obelisk in the Turner Village Cemetery beside his mother, who joined him there in 1879.

On the ground above the body of Gove’s son is a small stone that simply says “George.” One nearby, likely carved at the same time, reads “Mother.”

Elias Gove’s father died in 1856 in Readfield and his mother – whom Gove worshiped as “the best woman who ever lived” — moved four years later to Kansas to live with one of her other sons. She never returned to Maine.

Gove’s wife left him at some point “due to his peculiar insanity” that had him running off to religious conventions and giving speeches instead of making sure seeds got planted and harvests taken in, the Journal said.

During the Civil War, probably in 1864 when a court appointed a guardian for him, Gove began living on his own in boarding homes in the Twin Cities, staying in Lewiston until the mid-1880s when he moved to Auburn.

ELIAS GOVE AND ABRAHAM LINCOLN

On Jan. 2, 1865, Gove wrote a letter to the president, addressing him, with careless spelling and occasionally incomprehensible wording, as “your Honoreable Boddy in person The President OVE THE UNITED STATES ABRAHAM LINCON.”

Elias Gove’s signature on a letter to President Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress

He wished Lincoln a happy new year, informed him that he’d had a revelation the Illinois man would become president and that he’d known re-election would follow.

“Therefore you An All who Believe in GOD Must Know that God has laid his plastic hand upon me to Reveal Jesus Christ who says he would come The second time without sin unto salvation,” Gove wrote to the president.

Somehow, Gove thought his words and revelations so valuable that he claimed he should be paid a billion dollars for them, secured by real estate bonds, with $1 million due immediately.

He ended the letter with some sort of mangled prophecy that Lincoln would become a king, one of the men ordained to rule an entire continent.

At the end of the epistle, the Lewiston man signed, “I am Elias Gove, THEE PRINCE OVE PEACE.”

Lincoln doesn’t appear to have responded to Gove’s appeal, but he did write two words on the original letter: “Crazy-Man.”

President Abraham Lincoln wrote “Crazy-Man” on Elias Gove’s 1865 letter, apparently his sole response to the Lewiston man’s request for $1 billion. Library of Congress

In a similar epistle Gove sent to the president a year before, Lincoln simply wrote “Foolery” on the letter, apparently consigning it to a bulging file of silly correspondence he somehow found time to examine as battles raged across the land.

Both of Gove’s letters landed eventually in the Library of Congress, which has not only kept them safe but also scanned them and posted them online for the benefit of scholars worldwide.

A GLIMPSE OF GOVE’S EVERYDAY LIFE

As part of his post-war persona, Gove took to calling himself “Second Christ,” Dingley wrote, something he apparently discussed daily with anyone who would listen for the last three decades of his long life.

The Journal said Gove used careful, chaste language, had an even disposition, and looked noble.

A drawing of Elias Grove that appeared in the Lewiston Evening Journal on the day he died in 1894. Lewiston Evening Journal

The Lewiston Sun said Gove “was always ready to enter into conversation but it was rather difficult for the ordinary mind to comprehend the drift of his remarks.”

Arthur Irving, an 1893 Bates graduate, recalled in a 1964 letter now at the Muskie Archives that a student outside Parker Hall once asked Gove to provide a discourse on divine life.

With a twinkle in his eye, Irving said, Gove responded, “What’s the use to give you more than you can digest?”

Merrow managed to snatch one coherent comment from Gove that he recalled as the man’s best remark: “The highest gift of knowledge is to know God.”

Every Sunday morning, Dingley said, Gove entered the Congregational Church after services had begun, paused in front of former Gov. Nelson Dingley Jr., muttered a few words and then plopped down in a front pew.

Before the services ended, Gove would get up, walk over to Dingley, say a few words and then depart.

“It was exceedingly annoying,” the writer — Dingley’s son — recalled, “and the church authorities were anxious to have the man excluded. But Mr. Dingley would have nothing of the sort, and soon the congregation ignored it.”

Gove was also quick to show up at any event with a prominent speaker, securing a front row for himself. Usually, he listened carefully and wasn’t a problem, the Journal said, but sometimes he’d become “noisy and discursive.”

He had his moments.

Frank Wagg, a 1901 Bates graduate, remembered a time when some boys playing baseball asked Gove if he could pitch them a curve ball.

Instead, Wagg said, he knocked the hats off their heads with his umbrella.

A PASSAGE TO HEAVEN

A ticket to heaven that Elias Gove handed out to those he favored in 19th century Lewiston. Muskie Archives, Bates College

If someone lent him an ear, Merrow said, Gove, billing himself as the Prince of Peace, would hand the person a card that would assure them “a front seat in Heaven.”

A faded orange ticket — Number 196,602 — is nestled in a folder collected by Bates College’s Rowe and secured in the Muskie Archives at Bates College, promising its bearer “one passage from this world of trouble to a mansion in heaven.”

The card cost a dime, Merrow noted.

Merrow said Gove told him he had $28 million coming to him. The Journal said Gove, in his mind, handled sums “that would stagger the Rothschilds.”

Though Gove had considerably less than the billions he imagined, it turned out he had just enough.

The Journal reported in December 1894 that once his estate was settled, and Gove laid to rest in Turner, there were still a few dollars left over.

Where Gove was laid to rest is unclear, though the paper reported that 30 or 40 people turned out to watch at the cemetery. There is room enough beside his son and ex-wife, surrounded by the graves of her family, so he might be there, too. There is, though, nothing to mark his presence.

After his demise — due to “old age,” according to a certificate filed with the city of Auburn — the Journal expressed a real sense of loss.

“In his death, a strange life ends,” the Journal said, “but who of you can say the assumption of asceticism, the pure personal life, the joy in his dementia, the sense of superiority in Christian ways that were the lot of this man of clouded brain were not as happy a lot as yours?”

Looking back decades later, the paper added that Gove  “was a happy man, in his way, and with such self-esteem and such arrogation of importance, that we wonder if, after all, he did not have the best of it.”

The Gove family grave in the Turner Village Cemetery where Elias Gove’s son and wife are buried. He may be interred there as well. Steve Collins


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