Monday, October 31, 2022

A Pickle for the Knowing Ones: A brief account of Lord Timothy Dexter

Lord Timothy Dexter with his dog.
From Kapp's biography
Happy Halloween from the State Library! ‘Tis the season to explore the legends, folklore, and odd tales of the Commonwealth. To celebrate, we are highlighting one North Shore tale from the mid-18th century that still to this day entertains many. The tale revolves around the life and times of one Lord Timothy Dexter of Newburyport. Dexter was a wealthy businessman residing in Newburyport around 1769 until his death in 1806. Dexter made his fortune in unconventional dealings and some would say his fortune was made through happenstance rather than smart business sense.

To start, Timothy Dexter was not a Lord, it was a title he granted himself and this best sums up Dexter’s eccentric nature and grandiose self-image. Dexter was not originally from Newburyport and was from a very modest background. Born in Malden in 1743, Dexter received little formal education and apprenticed in a leather workshop. Always driven by his desire to make money and be part of high society, Dexter first made his fortune by buying Continental currency during the Revolutionary War. At the time, the new paper money held little to no value, but once the war ended, Congress was able to make good on the new money and Dexter amassed quite a fortune. We do not know if Dexter had the foresight to know this transaction would turn in his favor, but in any case this started Dexter’s string of “lucky” business dealings.

Example of a bed-warmer.
Via Digital Commonwealth
One business venture included Dexter’s accrual of bed-warmers that he sent in bulk down to the West Indies. Mocked by his contemporaries for sending a tool used to keep beds warm during cold New England nights to a tropical climate, this business venture proved profitable for Dexter. The bed-warmers sold, not for their intended purpose, but to be used as ladles to scoop the West Indies' popular export, molasses. At the same time, Dexter sent mittens to the West Indies, and again this seemingly illogical idea proved fruitful. It just so happened that a vessel docked nearby destined for the Baltic, an area known for its long, cold winters, bought them up for the voyage (Marquand, p. 98).

With his fortunes, Dexter invested in his own mansion on Newburyport’s High Street. Dexter adorned the outside of his property with wooden statues resembling the nation’s leaders and prominent figures. In his Life of Lord Timothy Dexter, Dexter’s personal biographer, Samuel L. Knapp, writes “ his rage for notoriety, created rows of columns, fifteen feet at least, high, on which to place colossal images carved in wood. Directly in front of the door of the house, on a Roman arch of great beauty and taste, stood General Washington in his military garb. On his left hand was Jefferson; on his right, Adams, uncovered, for he would suffer no one to be on the right of Washington with a hat on” (p. 25).  

View of Dexter's mansion and statues.
Via Library of Congress

In another example of Dexter’s antics, he faked his own death. Complete with a coffin, funeral services, and reception at his mansion. During the reception, Dexter “entered the wake-room with the highest glee; shared in the wine, and threw small change from his window to the gaping crowd of boys who had gathered to witness the last solemn scene” (Knapp, p. 53).

Punctuation page from "A Pickle"
Finally, Dexter sought to add author to his resume and he did just that. First published in 1802, Dexter’s “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones,” is mostly a run-on compilation of Dexter’s thoughts and philosophies with no plot or punctuation. Dexter published a second edition, and addressed his critics in the appendix, adding one full page of punctuation, suggesting readers, “peper and solt it as they plese” 

A lot can be said about Dexter’s eccentricities, but he was a noted benefactor to the town of Newburyport. He commissioned and bought a new bell for the town meeting house. He bequeathed a large donation to the town after his death and also to his native town of Malden. Newburyport accepted the donation with “gratitude and thankfulness” (Coffin, page 274). Dexter was known to partake in municipal matters such as being named a proprietor for the erection of the Essex Merrimack Bridge. See the 1791 Act Chapter 35 naming him as such.

All of Dexter’s odd endeavors have cemented him as a notable figure in the annals of North Shore history books. For more reading on the one and only Lord Dexter, see below: 

April Pascucci
Reference Librarian