Ah…”Lord” Timothy Dexter, the man who easily personifies bat sh*t crazy. How this atrocious speller and outrageously eccentric character slipped through the cracks of American lore is beyond us.
Timothy Dexter was born in Malden, Massachusetts on January 22, 1747. He apparently had little schooling and by the time he was eight years old he was employed as a farm laborer. As a teenager, he was an apprentice to a leather-dresser. When Dexter turned twenty-one, he left the apprenticeship and opened his own shop in Charlestown. While there, he met and somehow charmed a wealthy widow named Elizabeth Frothingham. By 1769, the two had married, relocated to Newburyport and purchased a mansion.
Towards the end of Revolutionary War, Dexter took all of his savings and bought vast amounts of depreciated Continental dollars. He sat on the currency for years. When the United States Constitution was finally ratified, the federal government stipulated that the worthless paper could be traded in for treasury bonds at one percent of face value. Dexter became rich overnight.
With his newly found fortune, he built two ships and began an export business. He also purchased a stable of brilliant cream colored horses, a coach emblazoned with his initials and a “princely chateau with tasteful and commodious outhouses” that overlooked the Atlantic. Dexter then hired artists to carve and mount over forty massive wooden statues on his property. According to period accounts “the tasteless owner, in his rage for notoriety, created rows of columns, fifteen high feet at least, on which to place colossal [statues] 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 was Jefferson; on his right, Adams. On the columns in the garden there were figures of indian chiefs, military generals, philosophers politicians, statesmen...and the goddesses of Fame and Liberty.”
Not surprisingly, the final statue Dexter erected was a monument to himself. On the pillar was the inscription: “I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western world.”
Mortified by Dexter’s behavior, his wife Elizabeth moved out and took up residence in another part of Newburyport.
After his separation, Dexter began to host his social gatherings which quickly devolved into odd spectacles. Women of “ill repute” came and went throughout the night and the fine interiors of Dexter’s mansion, including curtains once owned by the Queen of France, were soon covered in “unseemly stains, offensive to sight and smell.”
Disgusted with his antics, many of his neighbors intentionally offered erroneous investment advice in the hope he would go bankrupt and have to move away. One suggested Dexter sell bed warming pans in the West Indies. Dexter took the advice and shipped no less than 42,000 pans. Upon arrival it was discovered there was no need for them in the hot climate. Undeterred, he had the pans re-labeled as ladles and sold them to sugar and molasses plantation owners. The demand was so great that Dexter significantly marked up the price and returned with a massive fortune.
He was also duped into shipping wool mittens to the same islands. As luck would have it, Asian merchants were in the West Indies at the time and bought them to export to Siberia.
Yet another neighbor convinced Dexter that there was a great demand for coal in Newcastle, England. What he did not know was large coal mine already existed there and any foreign shipment of coal was unnecessary. Of course, when Dexter arrived, Newcastle miners were on strike. Dexter immediately jacked up the price of his coal and sold it to desperate locals. He was so successful in the venture one account suggests he returned to Newburyport with “one [barrel] and a half of silver”.
On another occasion he was encouraged to ship gloves to the South Sea Islands. His ships arrived there just in time to sell the items to Portuguese sailors en route to China.
When a Caribbean island experienced a rat infestation, Dexter rounded up Newburyport stray cats and shipped them off to the island for considerable profit. He also mistakenly hoarded over three hundred and twenty tons of whalebone, but ended up with a monopoly because of a sudden high demand for the item in women’s clothing.
Dexter may have been far more intelligent than he let on. He later wrote “I found I was very lucky in spekkelation . . . Spekkelators swarmed me like hell houns.” Historian Sarah Anna Emery suggested “Though ignorant and illiterate, and doubtless somewhat indebted to luck for his good fortune, still it is evident the man was both shrewd and sagacious.”
In 1797, Dexter authored A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress, in which he complained about politicians, the clergy, and naturally, his wife. The book lacked punctuation but contained random capitalizations. Dexter initially handed his book out for free. It was so popular it had to be reprinted eight times. In the second edition, Dexter added an extra page which consisted of thirteen lines of punctuation marks.
By the end of the 18th Century, Dexter completely went around the bend. When a painter made a mistake on one of his statues, Dexter tried to shoot him. Dexter often told Newburyport residents that his estranged wife had died and the woman they saw walking around town was actually her ghost. Outraged that Newburyport high society refused to accept him into their social circles, Dexter suddenly declared himself “the first Lord in the younited States of A mericary Now of Newburyport.” He insisted everyone refer to him as “Lord Dexter”. He even copied the King of England and hired a poet laureate to publish verses extolling his greatness. Unfortunately, unlike His Majesty's poet who hailed from Italy and was an accomplished writer, Lord Dexter's poet was a witless purveyor of pornography and a fishmonger who sold halibut out of a wheelbarrow in Market Square.
True to his nature, Dexter even faked his own death just to see who would show up to the funeral. He forced his wife and children (yes, this guy reproduced) to participate in the scheme and gave them specific instructions on how to behave during the service. More than 3,000 people came, most only out of curiosity. Of course, he was discovered alive and well immediately after the ceremony as he beat his wife for not grieving sufficiently at his passing.
Dexter died on October 26, 1806. Some historians have suggested his wife and children refused to accept the body and as a result Dexter was buried in a simple grave. In his will he left his fortune to the poor of Newburyport.
In 1848, Attorney Samuel L. Knapp shared his personal thoughts on Dexter and his legacy. “There are but few men who are sufficiently attentive to their own thoughts, and able to analyze every motive or action. Among these, Timothy Dexter was not one.”
In a final postscript, most of the gaudy statues on his property were damaged in a hurricane that struck Newburyport in 1815. Two of the carvings, entitled “Peace and Plenty”, survived and recently sold at auction for almost $60,000.