Wednesday, February 06, 2008

New England Morning

New England Morning, originally uploaded by PGornell.

The Dexter House, at sunrise.

"Lord" Timothy Dexter (January 22, 1748 - October 26, 1806), as he was sometimes termed by admiring contemporaries, was an American eccentric businessman who was peculiarly lucky and never bothered to learn to spell.

Timothy Dexter was born in Malden, Massachusetts. He had no schooling to speak of and was working as a farm laborer at the age of 8. When he was 16, he became an apprentice to a leather-dresser.

In 1769 he moved to Newburyport, Massachusetts and began his trade. He was successful enough to attract a wife, a rich widow Elizabeth Frothingham, and buy a big house. He was considered a lackwit by his social contemporaries, and they gave him bad business advice in order to discredit him and make him lose his fortune.
At the end of the American War of Independence he bought large amounts of European currencies that were worthless at the time. When trade connections resumed, he had amassed a fortune. He built two ships and began an export business to the West Indies and to Europe.

Because he was basically uneducated, his business sense was peculiar but extremely lucky. Somebody inspired him to send warming pans for sale to West Indies, a tropical area. His captain sold them as ladles for local molasses industry and made a good profit. Next Dexter sent wool mittens to the same place. Asian merchants bought them for export to Siberia.

His next venture was selling coal to Newcastle, which should have been a sure failure. His ships happened to arrive in the time of a coalminer's strike and potential customers were actually desperate.

He exported bibles to East Indies and stray cats to Caribbean islands and again made a profit. He also hoarded whalebone by mistake, but ended up selling them profitably as a support material for corsets.

Members of the New England high society could hardly contain their dislike for this ignorant but newly-rich upstart, and refused to socialize with him. Dexter decided to buy a huge house in Newburyport from Nathaniel Tracy, a local socialite, and tried to emulate them, but did not attract any sympathy. His relationships with his "nagging" wife, daughter, and son were not particularly good, either. This became evident when he started telling visitors that his wife had died, despite the fact that she was still very much alive, and that the "drunken nagging woman" who frequented the building was simply her ghost.

"Lord" Timothy Dexter House, Newburyport, Massachusetts
Dexter bought a huge estate in Chester, New Hampshire. He also bought a new house in Newburyport and decorated it with minarets, a golden eagle on the top of the cupola, a mausoleum for himself and a garden of 40 wooden statues of famous men, including George Washington, William Pitt, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Jefferson and of course, himself. It had an inscription I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western World. People flocked to gawk at this collection.

Dexter also had his own way with household staff. He had a black and protective housekeeper called Lucy, whom he claimed to be a daughter of an African prince. Other servants included a large idiot, a fortune teller and his "poet laureate" Jonathan Plummer.

At the age of 50 he decided to write a book about himself - A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress. He wrote about himself and complained about politicians, clergy and his wife. The book contained 8,847 words and 33,864 letters, but absolutely no punctuation, and capital letters were sprinkled about at random. At first he handed his book out for free, but it rapidly became popular and ran into eight editions in total. When people complained that it was hard to read, for the second edition he added an extra page - of punctuation marks - asking readers to "peper and solt it as thay please".

One day he began to wonder what people would say about him after he died. He proceeded to announce his death and to prepare for a burial. About 3,000 people appeared for the wake. However, Dexter's wife refused to cry for his passing and so he decided not to appear to his guests at all. Timothy Dexter died for real in 1806.
Dexter's house became a hotel, then a library. Storms ruined most of his statues, and the rest were sold or incinerated, the statue of William Pitt being the only identified survivor. His "littel book" remains his primary legacy to this day.