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Home ~ Brief Biographical Account of Lord Timothy Dexter's Life published by the Essex Antiquarian in 1903
[The Essex Antiquarian was an illustrated monthly magazine devoted to the Biography, Genealogy, History and Antiquities of Essex County, Massachusetts. Printed in Salem, Massachusetts at the turn of the 20th Century, the journal was edited Sidney Perley, renowned researcher/author of Essex County history. Each monthly magazine appears to provide a sequel of different works and the following is a transcript from Volume II, published in July 1903, which corrects several inaccuracies found in prior biographical studies of Timothy Dexter, without prejudice.]
Who has not heard of "Lord Timothy Dexter," a citizen of Newburyport, and notorious for his extravagancies and foolish exhibitions? He was a son of Nathan and Esther (Brintnall) Dexter, and was born in Malden, Mass., Jan. 22, 1746-7. He wrote, "I was born when great powers ruled, on Jan. 22, 1747. On this day, in the morning, a great snow storm; the signs in the seventh house; whilst Mars came forward Jupiter stood by to hold the candle. I was to be one great man."
He had limited advantages in the way of schooling, and at the age of eight years, May 9, 1755, his father put him with a farmer in Malden, with whom he remained six years and six months. He then went to Charlestown, the then principal center of the skin or leather dressing business of New England, and learned the trade of a leather dresser, dressing skins for leather breeches and gloves. He stayed there eleven months and then went to Boston, where he remained until he was of age. Fourteen days later, he says, "I went to Newbury Port with A bondel in my hand to A plase all noue to me."
He engaged in the business of a leather dresser in Newburyport; and in May, 1770, he married a widow who was nine years his senior. This was Elizabeth, daughter of John Lord of Exeter, N. H., and widow of Benjamin Frothingham of Newburyport, a glazier. The widow was industrious and frugal and possessed of a house and lot on the southern corner of Merrimack and Green streets. With her, Timothy Dexter, then twenty-three years old, took up his residence. In the basement of the house Mrs. Dexter conducted a shop for the sale of provisions, vegetables and small fruits; and in the garden Mr. Dexter dug vats, and continued at his trade.
He prospered in business; and entered into speculation in various ways. Among the first was his purchase of land at the Penobscot, and as a proprietor in the Ohio company's purchase, being associated in the latter with Dr. Manasseh Cuttler and other prominent men. He prospered in these land ventures. At about the same time, he was advised, as a joke, it is said, to buy a large quantity of public securities when they were selling at about thirteen per cent of their face value. He followed the advice, and the adoption of the new constitution, followed by the Hamilton funding system, caused the securities to advance in value to nearly par. It is supposed that he profited to the extent of ten thousand dollars by the rise of the market.
Many are the stories that have been told during the past century of the ventures that seemed at the time utterly foolish, but which resulted in great profit to Mr. Dexter. He bought a large quantity of warming pans, and shipped them to the West Indies at the instance of some merchant clerks, as a part of an assorted cargo. The Yankee ingenuity of the young commander of the craft that carried them to the sunny South was aroused, and he took off the covers and had handles attached to them. The covers were readily sold as skimmers, and the pans as ladles, to the various sugar making establishments at a good profit.
Before the days of Wall street, he practised (sic) its methods, buying articles when beginning to be scarce and cornering the market. As an illustration of this, the whalebone story is told. Some one told him that the whales were all dying off, and he bought at once all that could be found in the market, and disposed of it at a large profit. He kept his eyes open for chances of this sort, and at one time made a good thing out of a similar speculation in opium. After awhile shrewd merchants were slow in selling their stock in trade to him, being apprehensive from his mere desire to purchase that the goods were about to rise in value, though they could see no reason for such a conclusion. A shipment of red woollen (sic) night caps to the coast of Guinea, suggested as a joke, turned out greatly to his benefit. The same is said of sending Bibles to the West Indies. He was sharp at a bargain but met all his engagements promptly and squarely. In all his speculations, he is said to have had conferences first with Madam Hooper of Newburyport, and after her decease with Moll Pitcher of Lynn before he engaged in them. Such a man as he would naturally be superstitious. He had dream and fortune telling books of his own. Both of the above named sorceresses were shrewd, and their advice, aside from any occult ability they may have possessed, was valuable.
Having secured what was estimated in his time and place an independent fortune, Mr. Dexter turned his attention from money making to money spending, and an endeavor to achieve notoriety. He gave liberally to the poor and religious societies. In June, 1800, he presented to St. Paul's and the Presbyterian church in Newburyport one hundred pounds each for the purchase of a bell for each of their houses of worship; and in October, 1800, he gave an elegant standard to the artillery company of Newburyport. He offered to build a market house and to pave certain parts of the town; and in his will he gave to his native town three hundred dollars for a bell for the meeting house, and two thousand dollars for the support of the gospel there, and two thousand dollars to Newburyport for the benefit of the poor outside of the alms house.
With the acquirement of wealth and desire for notoriety and probably popularity, he changed his abode. April 8, 1791, he purchased, for fourteen hundred pounds, the stately Tracy house, now [and still, ed.] the public library. Here he lived for five years, and April 9, 1796, conveyed the estate to John Greenleaf. He removed to Chester, N. H., where he purchased an extensive country seat. In that new section of the country, he first gave rein to his desire for notoriety. He ornamented his new house in the most fastidious manner, and built "magnificent" stables. He styled himself "King of Chester," and undertook to exercise kingly prerogatives over his neighbors; but they put an end to his audacity and impudence by the aid of the horsewhip.
In 1798, Mr. Dexter returned to Newburyport, and August 15th of the same summer he bought the large house on High street that had been erected by Jonathan Jackson in 1771. Its situation is high, and commands an extensive view of the coast and the Isles of Shoals. The grounds were laid out by intelligent landscape gardeners. Everything about the house was in excellent order; but not to his wish. He raised minarets on the roof, and surmounted them with gilt balls. He caused it to assume a gaudiness and cheapness that was most undesirable to a person of taste.
Directly before the front door of the house, on a Roman arch, he erected a figure of Washington in his military garb, and on his left, a figure of Jefferson, and on his right one of Adams, the latter being hatless. On columns erected in the garden were figures of Indian chiefs, generals, philosophers, politicians, statesmen, and goddesses of Fame and Liberty. He changed the name of the statues by the aid of the painter's brush as he pleased. General Morgan was thus transformed into Bonaparte, and to the latter Dexter always touched his, hat. There were more than forty of these figures, including four lions, two couchant, and two passant. These images were of wood, life size, and fairly well carved. The lions were open-mouthed and looked fierce. The figures were made by a young ship carver who had just come to Newburyport, named Joseph Wilson, and were gaudily painted. The images were all in good condition when Dexter died, and the first to fall was an Indian. The remainder stood until the great September gale of 1815, when all but the presidents were cast prostrate upon the earth. The images were sold at auction, the specimen that brought the most money, five dollars, was the goddess of Fame. William Pitt was sold for a dollar, and the "Travelling Preacher," fifty cents. It is said that the arch and figures of the three presidents, all the presidents there had been in Dexter's day, cost at least two thousand dollars, the lions two hundred dollars apiece, and the other images a similar amount.
In the group of presidents, Jefferson held in his hand a scroll partly unrolled, which represented the Declaration of Independence. The painter was an artist named Babson, and when he painted the inscription for Jefferson he proceeded to write upon the scroll the words "The Declaration of Independence," but when the second word was begun, Dexter ordered him to write "Constitution." To this the artist objected, but a random shot from a pistol brought the painter to terms, and the scroll ever afterwards read, "The Constitution." The three presidents occupied their positions upon the arch until about 1850.
He had a stable well filled with good horses, and frequently procured new animals, having owned a number of spans. He rode in a gaudily painted coach, which had a Dexter coat of arms emblazoned upon it, with the baronial supporters. He also had a footman. He desired to have a library of books that would indicate a literary taste; and he procured the best bound volumes be could find, having little regard for their contents. He rarely read in them. The leaves in many of them were turned down at attractive places, and numerous cuts were taken from the volumes by his curious visitors. Pictures were also suspended upon the walls of the house in profusion, gaudy daubs being most numerous.
Having completed his new house and provided it with appurtenances suitable to a grandee of his stamp, he announced himself, this former dresser of skins, as "Lord Dexter, the first in the east, the first in the west, and the greatest philosopher in the western world." One thing he lacked, however: he must have some one to sing his praises, a poet laureate. Over in Newbury he found the man he wanted. This was Jonathan Plummer, who was fourteen years younger than himself. The man was suitable for the position, the choice was indeed a wise one. For the sake of the notoriety he would gain and the good material things of life given him he was entirely willing to be Dexter's fool. His employment consisted in writing rhymes to the glory of "his lord's " power, wisdom and wealth, and as long as Dexter lived all went well with him. William Barley, a strong man, six feet, seven inches in height, called "Dwarf Billy," was in Dexter's employ as the protector of his orchard at one time.
There was no dullness about "Lord" Dexter. He could not be still, and having little to occupy his mind he fluttered from folly to folly. Liquor was indulged in too freely. He said of himself that he could no more be still than a devil's needle. He had an idea that he would like to be buried, when he died, in his garden. He built a tomb, not a lightless vault, but a basement story, so to speak, of a pleasant summer house. He then had his coffin prepared. He searched for, and found here and there, mahogany boards full of knots, gnarls, and richly colored veins. The coffin was beautifully made lined and pillowed. Massive silver handles were employed. He was delighted with it, and tried it. He then placed it on exhibition in one of his rooms. Now he had his coffin and tomb, he turned his attention to his funeral. But the only thing he could do about that was to hold a rehearsal. Cards were sent to certain persons inviting them to his funeral; and his wife and children were dressed in mourning. Some wag read the burial service and pronounced a eulogy. The procession moved to the tomb, the coffin was deposited therein and the door locked. The mourners returned to the house, and filled up on the choicest wines. Soon, cries were heard in the kitchen; Dexter was caning his wife, because she had shed no tears.
"Lord" Dexter wrote a pamphlet entitled "A Pickle for the Knowing Ones." It is a unique production and in his best style. It principally concerns himself and begins as follows: "Ime the first Lord in the younited States of A mercary 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 Now bons broaken all is will all in Love Now I be gin to Lay the corner ston and the kee ston with grat Remembrence of my father Jorge Washington the grate herow 17 sentreys past."
The author wisely provided for the punctuation of the book by the reader by placing a sufficient quantity of periods, commas, semi-colons, and other points at the end of the book with instructions to pepper and salt it to suit their tastes. It was printed at the office of the Salem Register, and a large edition was issued. He sent them as presents to "the knowing ones" and others. The book had a frontispiece that was engraved by James Atkins of Newburyport. The peculiar dog is said to be a good likeness of the canine companion of his "titled" master. The portrait of "Lord " Dexter was engraved originally by Doyle from a wax figure of Dexter in the Columbian museum, in or before 1810.
"Lord" Dexter wrote many occasional pieces, and the following is, given as a good specimen of his style. This was an advertisement printed and circulated upon the robbery of his peach orchard. "Whereas I, Lord Timothy Dexter, having been truly informed that several audacious, atrocious, nefarious, intrepid, night walking, garden violating, immature, peach stealing rascals, all the spawns of the devil, and cubs of Satan, do frequently, villainously, and burglariously assemble themselves together in my garden, therein piping, fighting, swearing, roguing, duck egg hunting, with many other shameful and illicit acts which the modesty of my pen cannot express. This is to give you all notice Delicarians, Capinicarians, Talarminarians, base born scoundrels, and old rascals, of whatever nation you may be, return ye my fruit and property, or, by the Gods, the Heathen Gods, I swear, I will send my son Sam to Babylon, for bloodhounds fiercer than tigers, and fleeter than the winds; and mounted on my noted horse Lily, with my cutting sabre in my hand, I will hunt you through Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, until I can enter you in a cavern under a great tree in Newfoundland, where Beelzebub himself can never find you.
ye tatterdernallions, thieves, vagabonds, lank jawed, herring gutted,
and tun-bellied plebeians, that if ye, or any of ye, dare set your
feet in my house or garden, I will deliver you to Charon, who will
ferry you across the River Styx, and deliver you to the Royal Arch
Devil Lucifer, at the place of his infernal cauldron, there to be
dredged with the sulphur of Caucassus, and roasted forever before
the burning crater of AEtna.
Dexter had no definite ideas of religion. He sometimes apparently held a peculiar philosophy, similar to transmigration, and again expressed sentiments closely allied to deism. His death was hastened by his intemperate habits, being intoxicated a large portion of the time during his latter years. His will was a wise one in spite of his extravagant life. Reason left him two days before his death, which occurred peacefully in his house Oct. 23, 1806, at the age of fifty-nine. His remains were not allowed to repose in his tomb, and they still lie where they were placed in the Old Hill burying ground by the side of the Mall. A simple marble slab marks his resting place. Near the top is the picture of an urn, the initials, "T. D." being engraved upon it. The inscription reads as follows:
In memory of
His wife survived him until July 3, 1809 and lies buried at his side. Her plain marble gravestone is inscribed as follows:
In Memory of
The Dexter house still stands, and is a stately mansion, with extensive and beautiful grounds. Mr. and Mrs. Dexter had two children, a son and daughter. The son was Samuel Lord Dexter, and he was baptized Oct. ,6, 1772. He lived at home and died July 20, 1807, without issue. The daughter was named Nancy. She was born Aug. 16, 1776; and married Abraham Bishop of New Haven, Conn. It proved to be an unhappy marriage; and they separated. She became a drunkard and finally an imbecile, and died in Newburyport Sept 30, 1851, leaving a daughter.
The Essex Antiquarian Volume VII, Salem, Massachusetts, published
July, 1903, No. 3