April 23, 2011

A Pickle for the Knowing Ones: Lord Timothy Dexter

Lord Timothy Dexter (1748 - 1806)

Work has been super busy, so unfortunately I didn't get to update my blog last week. So here, delayed a little bit, is my final post inspired by our trip to Newburyport. It's a town that has a lot to offer: ghosts, Bigfoot, and a famous American "nobleman."

Timothy Dexter was a Newburyport merchant who lived in the 18th century. The town had lots of merchants at the time, so that's not why he's famous. It's because he was so very, very, very eccentric.

When Dexter started his mercantile career his rivals, thinking him an idiot, deliberately gave him bad advice. Apparently being an idiot, Dexter took it, but through good luck things always worked out to his benefit.

For example, he sent a ship full of bed-warming pans to Jamaica, a tropical island where obvioulsy no one needed warm beds. However, the locals bought them as molasses dippers for the sugar plantations. On the same trip he also sent dozens of cats. Luckily, the island was experiencing a plague of rats and people snatched them up at high prices.

He later sent a shipment of mittens to Jamaica. Again, this would normally be a terrible decision, but Asian merchants visiting the port bought them to re-sell in Siberia.

Have you heard the saying, "Selling coals to Newcastle?" Newcastle was a coal producing area in England, so it means doing something pointless or doomed to fail. Dexter actually did ship coals to Newcastle. Once again, he was lucky. The miners were on strike, and his coal sold at a high price.

Dexter soon became one of the wealthiest merchants in Newburyport, which enfuriated the town's wealthy elite. They ostracized him, and in return Dexter, who was always a little eccentric, became downright outlandish.

For example:

He declared that he was a Lord, a title that was totally meaningless in the U.S. The title stuck, though, and most local historians now refer to him as Lord Timothy Dexter.

Lord Timothy's first large home in Newburyport

He bought a large house in town (now part of the public library), but when he upgraded to an even larger house he filled its garden with 40 statues of important historical figures like Adam and Eve, Napoleon, and himself.

He told everyone his wife had died, and the nagging woman they saw in his house was just her ghost. His wife was still very much alive.

He hired a large retinue of servants, which included a personal fortune teller, poet laureate, and a professional idiot.

An inscription outside his house read: "I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western World."

To prove his philosophical learning, Dexter eventually wrote a book, A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress. Here's a brief sample from this rambling tome, which contains no punctuation:

IME the first Lord in the younited States of A mericary Now of Newburyport it is the voise of the peopel and I cant Help it and so Let it goue Now as I must be Lord there will foller many more Lords pretty soune for it dont hurt A Cat Nor the mouse Nor the son Nor the water Nor the Eare then goue on all is Easey...

Although it's almost incomprehensible, it went through multiple editions. Was it Dexter's luck again? You can decide for yourself by reading the full thing online.

Later in life, Lord Timothy staged his own funeral so he could see how it would all play out when he really shuffled off this mortal coil. Although thousands (!) of people came, it didn't go to his liking. His wife didn't cry, which angered him so much he beat her. Honestly, what did he expect after telling everyone she was just a ghost?

Lord Timothy Dexter died in 1806, a few years after his mock funeral. There's no record of whether his wife cried, but I'm guessing she didn't.

I got a lot of this information from Joseph Citro's book Weird New England, and also from Wikipedia. This site, LordTimothyDexter.com, has a ton of information as well.


Shuko K. Tamao said...

Hello Peter,

In my mind, Lord Dexter is kinda cult figure. An eccentric genius type. Regarding his portrait, I always wonder what is the "creature" next to him. A hybrid of a dog and....rat...?

Peter Muise said...

Hi Shuko!

Thanks for the comment. An eccentric genius needs an eccentric pet, I guess. I always thought it looked kind of pig-like...


Jennie said...

Thanks so much for the info. I was trying to tell my son (14) about this distant relative of ours... this helped alot!

Peter Muise said...

I'm glad this was helpful, Jennie!