Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Lord Dexter is a smart old man: Just try to catch him if you can!"

Submitted by Melissa Davenport Berry
The story of a North Shore fellow even Hancock would envy!

If you travel to Newburyport, take a stroll by the former residence of one Timothy Dexter, the self-entitled first Lord of America and eighteenth century rags-to-riches mythical figure. Although they called him eccentric, outrageous, and crazy, he was actually a genius and crafty entrepreneur.  He is by far one of the most entertaining, inspiring, and amusing men in New England.  I grew up hearing of his deeds, enterprises, and colorful antics from my father; he thought Dexter was one of the greatest men ever to roam the earth.  This “Yankee hustler” sold warming pans and wooly mittens in the Caribbean, coal in New Castle, and even managed to negotiate a suspended sentence at the Ipswich House of Corrections. With his “nothing ventured, nothing gained” attitude, Dexter cornered the market with wild speculations and a flair for selling “ice to the Eskimos.” If you want the whole skinny on Dexter, read his famous book, “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones: Or, Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress,” which offers a candid, amusing, and much embellished account of his “noble” existence.

So how did this poor farmer’s son from Malden make it big? It was all by chance, and perhaps a few sly moves! Before the end of the American Revolution, he bought up large amounts of depreciated Massachusetts state bonds and Continental paper currency while everyone rushed to unload it.
Naturally, the giggles and gossip ramped up around him. As the wealthy privateers prospered from the war, Dexter was stuffing a trunk with worthless paper money and notes. However, then the magic happened: the war was won, and the new Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, restored confidence in the American dollar. Dexter became a very wealthy man. He made one more reliable business transaction early on by marrying a rich widow, Elizabeth Lord Frothingham, who had inherited a handsome sum and ran a successful business on her own.
With his matrimonial windfall and “tons of silver,” Dexter loaded his newly invested commodities – mittens, warming pans, and crates of live cats – onto the sailing vessels of Newburyport, bound for the West Indies. Who could have known such profits were to be his! All thought Dexter was mad, but as one captain whispered to his crew, “What the Hell? Dexter is footing the bill, but what on earth will the plantation owners and natives do with mittens, warming pans, and cats?”  However, the venture was a surprising success! The warming pans were a hit on the sugar plantations for straining molasses and sifting cooking sugar. The cats were instant celebrities, flushing out the over-populated plague rats menacing the stockrooms. The Portuguese merchants who just happened to be visiting the port bought all the mittens to sell in China. Dexter was elated, bragging that all his goods, including the cats, “sold like hot cakes.”
He then invested in English Bibles, shipping them out in 21 separate vessels to the East Indies. He stamped each holy book with the message: “All of you must have one Bible in each family, or you will go to Hell!” Dexter turned a large profit with this Holy Grail scheme. No one imagined that missionaries were out of stock, and a wealthy patron made the purchase.
The locals were always trying to get a good chuckle and teach this “lucky fool” a lesson in humility, but their plans never seemed to pan out. They encouraged him to invest in Virginian coal to sell to the New Castle merchants. This would have been a hilarious tavern tale – the great coal hoax – but it backfired on these dodgy fellows. When the coal landed in port, a serendipitous event favored Dexter. The coal miners were on strike, and “New Castle merchants were thrilled with Dexter’s insight.” Once again graced by the fates, word on the street was that his ship had come in. Dexter began hoarding a warehouse of whalebone based on another “tip” offered to discredit him, but   thanks to his Midas touch, he managed to turn a hearty profit as the new fashion of corsets used whalebone as “stays.”
Now a part of the “nouveau riche,” Dexter quickly acquired property. He purchased two palaces, one in Newburyport and another country residence in Chester, NH.  Next Dexter became Informer of Deer in Newburyport.  Everywhere he went, his named echoed “Lord Dexter,” so he dubbed himself thusly and then declared his ennoblement as the first American “Lord,” according to “the will of the people.” He lined his exclusive High Street mansion in Newburyport with wooden statues of George Washington, General Knox, King George, William Pitt, and other famous men. He placed himself among this congregation with a title: “I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the western world." He outfitted his interiors with elaborate French design and sumptuous art and stocked his home with spirits and verse.

A menagerie paradise emerged, and Dexter boasted to his carpenter, “My house and gardens will make my stuck-up neighbors burst with envy!” He opened his house to the public, and many ventured to see the “Lord’s” brilliance. Of course, he made a tidy profit by charging admission!
Since he considered himself a Lord, it made sense for Dexter to travel like one. Driven by two exotic cream-colored horses, his carriage sported artifacts of clothing and other gaudy property. He had a coat of arms, but no real crest, so he fashioned one out of a warming pan. His credo became, “By This I Got Ye!”
His eccentric style soon became the talk of New England, and he made his presence known, especially in the local paper. He filled the pages of “The Impartial Herald” with self-promotions, protestations, and poppycock so outrageous that “it would make [his] enemies grin like a cat over a hot pudding.” Although the socialites dismissed and snubbed him, Dexter was a hit on the Hampton Beach scene. This steamy resort became his favorite hot spot to frolic and chase the local nymphs. The hotels and taverns adored him, rolling out the red carpet and giving him the royal treatment.
With all his new glitter, Dexter expanded his imperial essence with an entourage of the strange and metaphysical. He dabbled in the occult sciences and consulted astrologers. He was fascinated with mystics and philosophers. His list of experts included Madame Hooper, the famous clairvoyant, Moll Pitcher, and Lucy Lancaster, daughter of an African prince, who was known as a great seer. He wrote several verses and stories, and hired Poet Laureate Jonathan Plummer to sing his praises. He bought exotic animals to roam his grounds and filled his purse with spectator fees. On his good days, he hosted fine soirées, and on his not-so-good days, he retired to the temple tomb erected in his greatness.

Aimlessly he roamed the streets in crazy garb, with a gold tipped cane and his four-legged companion “Pepper,” a black Mexican hairless dog that won all his warmest affections. His spent his leisure time with idle drunks and ne'er-do-wells, all grasping for a piece of the pan fortune and a royal residence to lay their hat. His wife became increasingly suspicious and green-eyed over his sudden influx of fame, not to mention the constant cast of characters intruding into her home. Even the statues became a threat. To prove to his wife he was worthy of all the attention and grandeur, he faked a mock funeral. Over 3,000 showed up, and when his wife did not shed a tear, he “caned” her and sent her out to pasture. He placed an ad in the Newburyport paper for a new wife, but with no bites to speak of, he invited her back, paying her a tidy sum, which she willingly accepted. However, when she returned to the house, he added her to the list of museum entertainment, telling visitors she had died and “the drunken nag that inhabited the house was her ghost.”
Dexter could not quite hide behind his royal fortress when it came to the law. A curious old man, Babson made the mistake of leering too long at the statues on his estate, and Dexter went on a rampage. After too many cocktails and a bad night with the wife, legend has it that Dexter and his son Samuel chased the peeper with a pistol and shot at him, only missing by a hair. The old man pressed charges, and Dexter was sentenced to the brig in Ipswich. He coerced the constables into allowing his transport to the slammer to be “in style.” They consented, and Dexter arrived in Ipswich in his posh, ornate carriage with all the pomp and splendor a Lord was due. The town’s children yelled through the streets, “Make way for his Lord Dexter.” Dexter had a few short days of amusement with his confinement, but soon the novelty wore off, and he purchased his freedom for the sum of $1,000.
Although Dexter’s life story is certainly fun and entertaining, I wish to conclude with proof of his great deeds and readiness to help those less fortunate than himself.  Perhaps it was the reality of poverty in his younger years that inspired Dexter to share the wealth. He paved roads, roofed the poor houses, fed the hungry from his palace kitchens and stately gardens, and continually donated to church and community. Even his friend and consult Lucy Lancaster noted he was a good-natured man who virtuously paid his debts on time and emitted an aura of goodwill and charity. Upon his death on October 26, 1806, he left a generous donation for the poor in Newburyport, as well as money for a new church bell for his homies in Malden. Though he wanted his burial to take place on the front lawn of his Newburyport home, town officials would not abide for “sanitary reasons”. Instead, he is buried in the public grounds of Frog Pond.

The inscription on his resting place reads:
   He gave liberal Donations
   In the support of the Gospel
   For the benefit of the Poor
   And for other benevolent purposes

Cahill, Robert Ellis, “The Newburyport Nut,” 1984.
Marquand, John P., “Timothy Dexter Revisited,” 1953.
“The New England Historical and Genealogical Register,” Volume 40: 1886.

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