Transmigration of Dexter to Dragonfly
Dexter's Contexture ~ The Array of Threads that Weave
the Fabric of this Vision ~ Homespun by the Darning Need
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Home ~ Biographical Abstract

 

[Work in progress --- a profusion of facts and fancy based upon several historical accounts of the life of Timothy Dexter, including his Lordship's own anthology.]

Though widely associated with Newburyport, Timothy Dexter was not a native. The son of Nathan and Esther (Brintnall) Dexter was born on the 22nd of January in the year 1747 in Malden, Massachusetts --- a town on the northerly outskirts of Boston. As an offspring in a family of modest means, Dexter's early education was negligible. At a mere eight years of age --- on the exact date he recalls as May 9, 1755 --- he was placed with a local farmer, where he toiled for 6-1/2 years. Subsequently apprenticed to a tanner in "Charlton" (Charlestown) for 7 months, Dexter later removed to Boston until 1769 to serve out his apprenticeship in fine leather dressing.

As Dexter later recalls in his memoir ("Pickle for the Knowing Ones") that he
sold his "free dom sout" (the attire given at the conclusion of an apprenticeship) to a vendor for 5 shillings (the equivalent of "8 Dolars, 20 sents") and made his way to another port on foot, arriving in fourteen days to a "plase all noue." The place was called the Waterside --- once the Third Parish of Newbury, which formed a separate town of Newburyport in 1764. By all accounts, Dexter made an unassuming entrance onto the scene.

Later described as being of average height, with a muscular, "horny handed" physique, a broad-set chin, a long, sharp, straight nose and beady eyes, his appearance was that of a common man. However, having time read "in a book" that he had been born during earthly and cosmic "sines" which foretold he was to be a "grat man" --- Dexter harbored great expectations that someday his ship would come in.

Until such time, the young leather dresser would tack his course wisely. He looked for a reasonable piece of property to set down roots. Dexter soon purchased a lot of land consisting of 33 square rods (1/5 acre) on Prospect Street in Newburyport, conveyed by William Wyer on January 3, 1770 and recorded at the Essex Registry of Deeds. Later that year, prospects of marriage arose.

On May 22, 1770, Dexter would marry Elizabeth (Lord) Frothingham, a widow who was nine years his senior. The union resulted in a ready-made family which included four children by Elizabeth's first marriage to Benjamin Frothingham: Benjamin born in 1761; Gilman born May 17, 1763; John born February 24, 1765; and Betty born February 22, 1767. The Dexters were to later have two children: Samuel Lord Dexter born in September of 1772 and Nancy born August 16, 1776.

For many years, the Dexters would occupy that Frothingham property which consisted of a dwellinghouse with a glover's workshop in the basement. The shop at "the sign of the Glove" was located on the southeasterly corner of Green and Merrimac1 Streets, which is presently the landscaped corner of downtown Newburyport's Green Street parking lot.
Situated directly across from Somerby's Landing where the brackish tide ebbed and flowed in the "flatts" --- a "hie tide" would occasionally flood the workshop. Brisk maritime activity could be seen from the shop windows where Dexter toiled at his leather dressing trade and when traveling along Merrimac(k) and Water Streets, Timothy Dexter would pass beneath the overhanging bowsprits of ships docked at the Waterside wharves and landings. But alas, until his ship came in, Dexter's dealings on the waterside would be confined to the bark house east of the Middle Shipyard, where he would procure raw hides for tanning.

A local advertisement touted that the Dexters diversified their trade by selling blubber and tallow used in the making of soap and candles. To supplement the family income, Mrs. Dexter also sold small goods and produce and lent her fine stitching to her husband's leather work. Elizabeth Dexter was an accomplished seamstress, well known for her talents in the making of "briches."

At that time, the Dexters were parishioners of the First Religious Society whose meetinghouse then stood in Market Square, a triangular lot (or gore) of common ground at the foot of what is now State Street (then called Fish Street) where Merrimac Street follows into Water Street. The parish was devout but practical: It is said that "ye Waterside Parish Meetinghouse" allowed the storage of fish in the meetinghouse basement. Town records indicate that the structure also accommodated secular "town meetings." It was at one of the Annual Town Meeting of March 1776 that Timothy Dexter was first elected Newburyport's "Informer" to enforce the law in regard to the killing of deer. He was annually reelected to the post until March of 1788.

During the Revolutionary War, Newburyport developed a new maritime industry called "privateering, which was the government-authorized pirating of enemy ships. Wealthy citizens purchased shares in vessels equipped for confrontation as well as commerce. Perhaps more out of circumstances than by choice, the Dexters were not in this circle of investors, however. Instead, as their business prospered, the Dexters had apparently saved enough to acquire depreciated Massachusetts state bonds and continental currency in some quantity.2 It is likely that the modest inheritance from his father's estate was invested, as well. In hindsight, Dexter's detractors deny any financial acumen on his part --- instead assuming that he merely mimicked renowned investor/financiers like Hancock and Russell. However, Dexter should be given full credit for his daring speculation: his investment displayed faith and confidence in the budding Republic.

By October of 1789, the Dexters joined the citizens of Newburyport to welcome President George Washington on his stopover to Portsmouth. As a former town official, Dexter might well have been in the audience that heard the address authored by the young lawyer John Quincy Adams --- delivered by Theophilus Parsons at the Tracy House, where Washington and his entourage were accommodated overnight. At the time, the mansion was occupied by Jonathan Jackson: A friend and relative of Nathaniel Tracy, Jackson was leasing the property as Tracy attempted to salvage what was left of his holdings.

The Tracy House was a gracious property built by shipbuilder Patrick Tracy as a wedding gift to his eldest son Nathaniel. Throughout the early years of the Revolutionary War, the stately house was improved using privateering profits and decorated with imported furnishings along with the loot from British ships. At one point, Nathaniel Tracy's fortune was worth millions of dollars and he himself gave $160K to the American cause. But as the war progressed, Tracy (along with other investors in the "trade" of privateering) began suffering great losses to the British. Retiring to his family's Newbury homestead ~ (now the historic site known as the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm link without) ~ he soon lost the Tracy House property in 1791, which was sold to friend and associate Thomas Russell on April 6, 1791. A transfer of the property was made to Dexter within two days.

By the end of the 1780's, Dexter's investment and industry had placed him sixteenth in the ranking of Newburyport inhabitants according to wealth and property. In the year 1790 --- with the threefold course of action negotiated by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton ensuring that the federal government would assume the states' debts --- all of the depreciated securities Dexter had accumulated could be exchanged at face value. His holdings then increased fivefold, and by 1793 Dexter ranked fourth in wealth behind William Bartlett, Moses Brown and Nathaniel Carter. At this point in time, Dexter seemed to defy the law of social gravity --- logistically if not socially.

Selling their humble shopkeep and moving into the Tracy House in the spring of 1791, the Dexters joined the elite whose homes lined upper State Street (Fish Street was by then renamed). The neighborhood included proprietors such as yeoman William Bartlett, the early inventor Jacob Perkins, shipwright Alonzo Morrill and merchant Moses Brown, who had just purchased the home of the bankrupt statesman Tristram Dalton. Unlike Brown though, Dexter was never excused for profiting by Tracy's loss and the Dexters were not accepted by the more patrician Newburyport society. Still, history records that Timothy Dexter's subscription helped defray costs for a publication on "The Strictures on Female Education" and he himself solicited a teacher to assist him in acquiring "knollege."

Dexter entertained nightly at the Tracy mansion, where --- much to the chagrin of a more staid society and a most severe spouse --- the long-winded entourage called "the Knowing Ones" were wined long into the night. Howbeit, Dexter was always sober in the morning: an adroit if unconventional merchant whose Dexterian genius for "spekkelation" had become quite celebrated. The intrepid trader was said to have shipped bed warming pans, wool mittens and "bibels" to the West Indies --- and to have onetime cornered the market in whalebone in a caper he delightfully relates in "Pickle" (link within).

Reportedly, to the astonishment of most everyone but Dexter himself --- even his most nonsensical ventures were to prove lucrative in the end. The warming pans served as excellent strainers for molasses, the wool mittens were traded with another argosy bound for cooler ports and the bibles converted a profit and a few souls. According to Dexter's own anthology, the whalebone was later sold in a much overvalued market for the "stays" in women's undergarments.

While the unembellished "trouth" is strange enough, tales of other exploits entail his legacy. Dexter is also credited with shipping coal to Newcastle and sending crates of felines to the West Indies, though not once does he boast of either commerce. Perhaps both were more the product of legend than of Dexter's ledgers. (The Knowing Ones know the latter to be pedestrian trafficking common to the times, unwittingly attributed to Dexter. As for "selling coal to Newcastle" the Knowing Ones ask the good question: Which came first, the exploit or the expression?) But even in those fictionalized feats, Dexter's legendary luck would not fail him. In the telling, the alleged shipment of coal to Newcastle miraculously coincided with an unexpected miners' strike --- perhaps with the insight of Dexter's spiritualist, Madam Hooper. In the end, the Knowing Ones no longer questioned his judgment and for years thereafter, children chanted at play, alternately ---

"Lord Dexter is a cute (or smart) old man: Just try to catch him if you can!"

For those argosies to distant ports, the adventurer had two merchant ships: the "Mehitabel" was a 171-ton Brigantine built in 1790 --- and by 1792, a 153-ton vessel named "The Congress" was afloat. Dexter's daily constitutionals would include a stroll past the bustle of Market Square to the waterfront countinghouses where his would boast of his recent exploits. Indeed, it was known to all that finally Dexter's ship had come in. In fact, his Lordship oft deployed this metaphor for his "adventures" --- launching each of his successful enterprises as "The Ship." Dexter took the figure of speech a step further when he called his primary investment in the Deer Island bridge just upriver from Newburyport his "Anker." It would be from the Deer Island toll house tavern that Dexter made his famous 1793 Independence Day toast to liberty and progress in America (link within).

Soon thereafter, Dexter would be party (or rather, part and parcel) to some local "industrial espionage" to promote such progress. Placed into historical context, the decade following the end of the Revolutionary War began an an intense rivalry between Britain and the United States of America in other fields. During that stage of the Industrial Revolution (1712 - 1942) the British sought to maintain dominance in the textile industry (and trade) by preventing their inventions and advanced technology (e.g., water-powered milling of cotton and wool) from being exported to the shores of their former colony. These strident efforts proved unsuccessful when two Liverpool brothers, Arthur and John Scholfield arrived in Boston in May 1793, with such ingenuity in mind. Making connections with William Bartlett, the two moved their loom and spinning jenny from Charlestown to Newburyport, when and where it was arranged they set up their innovative carding machine in Dexter's stable. There they tested and refined their machinery until the Proprietors for the Newburyport Woolen Manufactory completed facilities on the Falls of Parker River in October 1794.3

Dexter himself had wisdom to loom and began his earnest attempts as a Man of Letters. With self-deprecation unusual for an up and coming member of The Second Estate, he introduced one of his entries to The Fourth Estate with the plea:

"Mr. Printers, I hope my weak brother won't be disturbed about my scratching a little in the newspaper. I do it to learn myself to write and spell which I never knew how; I am now at leisure and a man of pleasure. I mean no hurt - I let you know what I know without reading - what I know only by experience - clear nature has been my school master - nothing borrowed by reading or very little - nature is my great study."

It is apparent that the newspaper editors initially corrected the grammar, spelling and punctuation of Dexter's early submissions. In one entry entitled "Wonder of Wonders," his Dexterian dissertation exclaims the existence of mankind's "soul," the proof positive being the "bubble" of drowning man. "This is the wind," asserted Dexter, "(and it) is the soul that is the last to ascend out of the deep to glory." Despite the heavy editorial rewrites, these "incautious catechisms for mankind at large" (entries which the author submitted under the title, "Dexter's Catechize for Men and not for Children") never failed to amaze or perplex his audience. But while some had (and have since) criticized Dexter's penned works as the incoherent ramblings of a fool, others see in Dexter's prose elements of great poetry.

While entertaining the muses, the Dexter extended his hospitality to a rather unusual guest. Hosting a "beautiful African lion" for a full week in one of his outbuildings, Dexter announced his foreign visitor in the local press as "really worth the contemplation of the curious" --- (adding that the price of admission would be nine pence). This was not as unusual an occurrence as some imply4 --- for history records that as early as the latter part of the 18th Century, exhibitions with exotic animals would tour the American landscape.5 As ever, Dexter would always strive to be well ahead of the wave here in the Waterside, a tack which would contribute to some untoward sailing on the Dexters' choppy sea of matrimony.

Though "now at leisure," Dexter would not find himself "a man of pleasure" --- and his diversions often provoked much derision (and division) in the Dexter household. During the five years in the Tracy House, the Dexters commenced a domestic turmoil that followed them throughout the remainder of their years together. The confrontations were not always about his enterprise or entertainment. Early in 1792, heated arguments ensued whether and whom Nancy (then fifteen years old) should marry --- with Dexter ever distrusting Abraham Bishop, the beau who had so beguiled his wife and daughter. Furthermore, Mrs. Dexter was decidedly less social than her husband and the spirited salons were unwelcome events. And further still, she thoroughly disliked Jonathan Plummer, the solicitous poet laureate Dexter had by then engaged to promote his reputation.

But Dexter would not be dissuaded. As poet, prophet or profiteer, Timothy Dexter was intent upon not only accumulating the material trappings of his new station in life --- but in fulfilling the prophesy that he was indeed destined to become "a grat man." As the story unfolds, this dream would indeed materialize. Yet first, Dexter was to leave then return to Newburyport --- in a script that was recorded in grand style by his poet publicist, the former fish monger of the former Fish Street, Jonathan Plummer.

It is not completely explained why the Dexters had decided to leave Newburyport, purchasing a seat in Chester, New Hampshire. The possibilities are many. Whether it was the young vandals and burglars who had so vexed Dexter --- or their influence on his son Samuel, who is described by the biographer Knapp as being "rotten to the core"--- Dexter had posted his threats to leave Newburyport in January of 1796. Published historians and biographers propagate the theory that Dexter was offended when the town selectmen had rebuffed his offer in 1795 to build the Market House at his own expense, should it be named for him. This hypothesis was first seeded by Samuel Knapp's biased account --- for the historical biographer seemed unable to remain objective relating "his story" concerning Timothy Dexter. While generally ignored as a footnote in history, an epidemic of yellow fever may well have influenced the Dexters' move. Historian Coffin documents that by October 5th of 1796, forty-four persons had died in the epidemic that ravaged the seaport: It would seem logical that the Dexters would want to escape. Dexter also began suffering from gout and other rheumatic conditions which might have called for him to move inland, away from the Waterside's damp clime. It also should be noted that Dexter had a number of real estate holdings in the state of New Hampshire --- and that Mrs. Dexter was a native of that state, where her well-connected family still resided. In all likelihood, it was a combination of forces. But nevertheless, unlike his later return, Dexter's leave-taking was rather unremarkable.

Real estate records confirm that Dexter sold the Tracy House at a handsome profit in April 1796 and subsequent notices place Dexter in Chester, New Hampshire in September of 1796. Then in March 1797, the press printed Plummer's famed Congratulatory Ode which describes Dexter returning to Newburyport and purchasing the property which still bears his name --- the Dexter House on High Street, the fine mansion built by Jonathan Jackson in 1771. Plummer's ballad hints that in those intervening months spent in Chester, Timothy Dexter was elevated to "nobility" then disgraced as an ignoble roué and scoundrel when publicly beaten by a Chester attorney for his alleged indiscretions with some of the more begetting young women in town.

First given the title "Lord Timothy Dexter, King of Chester" by his new community, Dexter must have been on an emotional and promotional high with the perceived public adoration. He was to later write, "They gave the titel & so let it goue for as much as it will fetch." Apparently, what the title did in fact fetch --- in those initially merry days his Lordship held court in Chester --- was a fair share of pretty faces and comely turns of the ankle. Whether mere attraction or infraction, welcomed attention or improper intentions, Dexter soon found himself in rather awkward social situations.

The whole affair plays out very much like the American "moral novels" that were popular during the post-Revolutionary War era --- culminating in a physical confrontation that Dexter describes in "Pickle" (along with a flat denial of any improprieties on his part). As described, the beating was quite severe: "I was beaten almost to Death" pens Dexter in a piece dated September 29, 1796 (link within). It is no wonder that Dexter considered the indignities he had previously suffered in Newburyport at the hands those light-handed young pranksters he called "bad boys" preferable to those inflicted in his new surroundings. After his ungraceful fall in Chester, Dexter left his New Hampshire seat to come home again to Newburyport. His Lordship prodded his poet laureate to proclaim, "Lite is come from the East" in a triumphant return.

When formerly living in Newburyport, Dexter had been the germinating seed of America's free enterprise, flourishing in a capitalist market and open economy. When residing at the Tracy Mansion on upper State Street, Dexter grew to be an annoying common nettle, though easily contained and cast aside by the well-manicured hand of the local "aristocracy." But upon returning to Newburyport in the early spring of 1797, Dexter took root in a prominent High Street estate and blossomed as a true eccentric ~ as odd and exotic as the flora he began planted in his new gardens. And soon the lovely Federalist mansion, originally built in 1771 for the Honorable Jonathan Jackson, was to become as unique and colorful as its new owner.

Dexter took to redecorating, to horticulture with imported flora, to writing and to his new library --- all with great panache. While Dexter asserted that "clear nature has been my school master, nothing borrowed by reading very little," he also stressed that "sum gud books is best, well understood." Acquiring a library to suit a man of his means, he then opened the shelves to all perusers. The mansion's interior was soon appointed with an expensive European decor and his Lordship acquired paintings by the Masters of that time, though his taste was less traditional than that of his neighbors. Dexter resumed his position as "Informer of Deer" in 1798 and the jolly souls of Newburyport continued the title "Lord" --- though some were clearly annoyed by this newly anointed member of "The Second Estate."

His Lordship had a grand carriage made with a suitable coat of arms, and the coach was drawn by a pair of cream-colored horses. As it passed, the sight always prompted the young boys of this seaport town to shout Huzza!" --- and Dexter was said to encourage them by tossing coins. Often afoot, walking about town with his dog (which was described as a hairless creature more like a large guinea pig than a dog) his signature accessory was a Napoleon bi-cornered hat befitting his prominence. Though considered quite a curiosity, he was thought a gentle soul who appealed to the citizenry in print to "renoue brotherly love, Never fade like the box in my garding." Dexter was to pen, "Nater gave me to doue good by my week brothers" and his generosity was demonstrated in both encouraging words and good deeds.

Dexter's assumption of equal status may have irked some patricians, many who may have aspired to noble title until banned by Article 1 of the United States Constitution. But once again, Dexter is but a reflection of humanity in a magnified looking glass. Noting that an assigned sobriquet of nobility was not unique to Dexter, since residents in the seaport town of Marblehead had a loyalist merchant widely known as "King Hooper" --- Dexter's title was overtly American, since he claimed to have been democratically elected:

"Ime the first Lord in the Younited State of A mericary, Now of Newburyport it is the voise of the peopel and I cant Help it so Let it goue Now 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 no bons broken all is well all in Love."

His Lordship sympathized and emphasized,

"It is hard work to be a king. I say it is harder than tilling the ground --- I know it is, for I find it hard work to be A Lord --- I don't desier the sound but to pleas the people at Large --- let it gou to brak the way --- it dus for A sortment to help to a good Lafe, to Cour the sick, spleany, gouty dul frames Like my selfe with goute and so on."

Indeed, in this passage he acknowledges that it provides "a good Lafe." But on a more serious note, Dexter might well have completed the comparison: adding the fact that as an adolescent he had worked "tilling the ground" as an indentured farm hand. Throughout his anthology, Dexter applauds the "onnest labeer" and reputedly insisted upon paying an honest wage to those laboring in their trade --- even pressing the fee upon the minister who had paid him a visit. It was always said of Timothy Dexter that he was an honest man who always paid his debts and was fair in his dealings --- unlike the swindling "vandour" to whom Dexter begrudgingly sold his "free dom sout" in the latter 1760s.

In all, not all his Lordship's prose communicated favorable reviews. Like most non-Catholics, Dexter reproved the papacy and termed clergy of any denomination prone to dogmatism as "preasts" and "deacons, grunters & whiners." Along with "hipacricks" and "cheaters" and other dishonest personages, Dexter urged them to see the error of their ways. Destined to be tormented by the mischievous young boys in Newburyport, he scribed harsh protestations to the press --- seeking that society and "skouls" remedy the unruly behavior. Subject to his temper and intemperance, his Lordship would indite on matters good and bad. But Dexter ever wrote with his heart on his sleeve and more often tongue in cheek --- even when his indictments of mankind (and womankind) observe a less than positive, "dexter" outlook.

Meanwhile, the perennial social gatherings and soirées continued --- and the stately rooms became salons for confabulation and celebration of a different sort, with an assortment of distinguishing (if not distinguished) guests. Since spiritualist Madam Hooper passing on to the Otherworld in May 1798, Dexter was wont to make some off-site visits to Moll Pitcher of Lynn during this period. However, a schoolmaster identified by Samuel Knapp as "John P --- " was said to assume the role as Dexter's mystical guiding light and tutor. In fact, Dexter was to become quite close to another schoolmaster, Joseph Somerby. When Mrs. Dexter absented herself from the premises, Dexter's poet laureate Jonathan Plummer found himself a more welcomed guest --- at least until the couple had reconciled. For a period of time, William "Dwarf Billy" Burley, a giant whose phenomenal strength was in absolute balance with his strong character and gentle disposition, joined the household staff as Dexter's handy righthand man. And soon came the increasingly dominant force in Dexter's life, Lucy Lancaster.

Often described as an "Amazon Negress" of regal bearing whose father claimed to be the son of an African Prince, Lucy was one of the most respected individuals in Newburyport. But this high esteem was more for her power of perception than her pedigree. Ever since her reputation as a caregiver during the 1796 epidemic of yellow fever, "Black Luce" (as she was called) became a mediciner for the elite. Later attending to Lord Timothy Dexter, Lucy took up residence as medico for the entire family --- and by soon assumed the role of "major domo" at the Dexter House. Lucy served as what we might call in these times, Dexter's personal coach, and it was said that she encouraged the activities that might distract her charge from the physical complaints that led to his drinking and depression.

Lucy perceived that Dexter suffered from an excess of "animal spirits" that needed to be animated, in word and deed. And indeed they were: con anima. For his Lordship's frenzies and fancies became more phenomenal, and whether byproducts of the gatherings of his enlightened crew or his own whimsical conceits, two very exceptional concepts remain Dexter's legend and legacy --- equal to if not surpassing his celebrated adventures in trade.

In 1799, Lord Timothy Dexter began preparing his new tomb under a summer house he called "The Tempel of Reason," which itself measured 12 feet square, 11 feet high, with 158 squares of glass. An elaborate coffin was crafted under Dexter's daily direction, which when finished he proudly escorted home for prominent display. On occasion, the host would personally demonstrate its comfort for friends and visitors. The tomb itself was equipped with "an uncommon Lock, so I can take the kee in side, and have fier works in the toume, pipes and tobaker & A speaking trumpet, and a bibel to read and sum good songs."

Upon the crypt's completion, Dexter conceived the idea for a "mock founnel." Invitations were sent for his funeral services, with only family and friends aware of the ruse. (It is said that about half of those attending were apprised, these we surmise were the Knowing Ones.) The parody included an imitative "minister" who delivered a grave, gratuitous eulogy. Melancholic pall bearers conducted his Lordship's coffin to the final resting place in the grand "toume." In his written account of the experience, Dexter alleged some 3,000 spectators displayed "much criing" --- though perhaps this estimate was exaggerated by the "corpse" who watched the entire affair from an upper story window at the mansion.

After the services of "so solmon a founrel" the mourners then moved indoors to take refreshment in the "paless" of the deceased. Soon after, the reception was interrupted by loud shouting coming from the kitchen, causing the mourners to investigate the mêlée. There they purportedly witnessed "the dearly departed" beating his wife with his cane in a pantomime of sorts, much as a real life Punch and Judy show --- Dexter complaining that she had not displayed sufficient emotion during the services! Keep in mind that until that moment, many of the mourners had no idea that Dexter was in fact amongst the living. And consider the fact that even the bilious biographer Knapp records this scene was enacted as part of the entire farce. Unfortunately, the story was exaggerated then repeated along with gossip about Dexter's temper when intoxicated. The burlesque was subsequently eliminated in the storytelling --- and the anecdote about the "grave beating" has continued to besmirch Dexter's reputation long after his Lordship truly departed this life.

Objectively, the accusation of spousal abuse itself seems unlikely --- although the marital relationship was indeed strained. By his and others' accounts, this was clearly a dysfunctional family and Dexter himself claims to have suffered verbal and physical abuse by his wife and son. Often expressing deep personal anguish about his daughter's suffering at the hands of her own abusive husband, Dexter frequently condemned his son-in-law's actions in print, seeking to embarrass the Connecticut politician. Could Dexter have psychologically detached himself as consonant culprit in his own marriage? Examined from a sociological perspective, note that spousal abuse was then such an unexceptional and accepted occurrence and therefore a casual accusation. Consider the "rule of thumb" that prevailed: Wives were often beaten for minor "offenses" --- (and vice versa, though less often the case). Yet, since this was apparently the first and only instance that a wife had been reportedly beaten by her husband for insufficiently mourning at his "funeral" --- the rumor took on a life of its own. And lives on.

A later notorious incident occurred when Dexter insisted his son target a stranger peering into the Dexter estate grounds from the street --- a transgression for which his Lordship spent time in the county "brig" when the victim filed charges. Another story concerned a pistol shot made at the local artisan named Babson who was in the midst of painting the wooden statue of Thomas Jefferson. This occurred when the painter rebuffed Dexter's demands that he NOT inscribe the scroll with the more historically accurate reference "Declaration of Independence" but with the "Constitution." Of course, Babson logically reasoned that Jefferson had written the former document but was not involved with the constitutional convention or the authorship of the constitution itself. However, Dexter's rationale can be (somewhat) rationalized with review of Dexter's description of the montage Dexter had intended to present the argument for passage of the 12th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution. In "Pickle" Dexter describes arranging the two wooden figures to convey the partisan tension between President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson alongside Aaron Burr, after the electoral college had broken the tie vice-presidential vote between Jefferson and Burr in 1800. That tableau offered his Lordship's strong endorsement of the 12th Amendment to resolve in time for the next presidential elections in 1804.

While it
appears that the pervicacious, strong-willed Dexter was not above using such fiery tactics when other powers of persuasion failed him --- however, it is said that Lord Tim was more affable than his detractors describe. In fact the conjecture still holds true that broad public tolerance for Dexter could be explained by his innate kind and generous nature. He was always tossing coins to the indigent. And his larger donations were profuse, counting among them a gift of a bell to the Second Presbyterian Society and a gift of 100 pounds to the Episcopal Church of St. Paul. Although his offers to build a Market House and to pave the entirety of High Street were both declined by the town, given the perceived condition these be (re)named for him --- undeterred, Dexter still filled a large hollow in the street in front of his home at his own expense. All in the name of progress.

But back to Dexter's bipolar temperament, though perhaps a result of paranoia suffered during a rash of vandalism, the aforementioned shooting incident is curious, unless his Lordship was "in his cups." One of Dexter's most creative fantasies, his "mouseum of grat caricters" was actually designed to encourage spectators. The increased "local tourism" ostensibly increased tolls over the Deer Island bridge in which Dexter was the primary investor as well as promote local tourism. When conceived in 1801, it was initially considered the pieces be carved from marble, but given the cost estimates, Dexter eventually had the enormous wooden figures crafted by a young ship carver named Joseph Wilson. For a period of years, the figures painted in garish colors cropped up around the Dexter "garding" and atop the fence. Painted and repainted by an artisan called Babson, the suite was frequently altered, with "figgers" in the tableaux reassigned: the display of forty or so statues was never static. And much to the dismay of the Newburyport elite, Dexter's mouseum became an attraction, with spectators coming from near and far to see "wots noue." The figures began to propagate ...

As did Dexter's epistles. He continuously dashed off letters to various newspapers. Some correspondences were impetuously scribed advertisements for the sale of his "seat" at a bargain prices. Others were dissertations on a myriad of subjects. In late May 1802, a compilation of these contributions were self-published in the "littel book" entitled "A Pickle for the Knowing Ones." Dexter's anthology of about 24 pages or so was called "a thing" by the Newburyport Herald. Marquand's biography asserts that "Pickle" was just that: "a pickle of words and thoughts steeped in intellectual brine." One of the Knowing Ones now adds a bit more to the compote: In Poor Richard's Almanac, Ben Franklin indicates that "hunger is the best pickle" --- pickles, of course, were commonly served as appetizers in 18th century cuisine. For the Knowing Ones, "Pickle" stimulates the appetite for further food for thought. Dexter himself was reasonable in his littel book's value and described it as ...

"a Littel mousement to mankind at Large --- a littel sortment to poussel mankind for gassing A bout Nater & things of Noue Dis Coverys of men and things. I --- I --- me T Dexter of N Port Desires Any man or men on the gloube to exseede me as to what I have rote in my Littel book; and what I can Rite Consarning Nater and the sole and the frame of man … I am the old plane Tim to see any felosofer on the world Ime (signed) Timothy Dexter"

When criticized for the first publication's lack of punctuation, Dexter dashed of a set of punctuation marks at the end of a correspondence that read, "Fourder Mister Printer: The Nowing ones complane of my book the fust edition had no stops I put in A nuf here and thay peper and solt it as they plese." The instructions were added to subsequent editions.

The work was, in general, a positive philosophy of Life and for Living. Even when Dexter complained, "Man is the best annemal and the worst: all men are more or less the Devel, but there is site of ods --- sum halfe sum three-quarters" he seemed to hold a Dexterous spirit of the drole. He did frequently make a disparaging assessment of "preasts" and claimed most denominations were left with "the blind to lead the blind." Often phrased in such a mirthful manner, only the most egotistical ecclesiastical entities could take offense. Though some certainly did.

Most of the book was filled with pure examples of ignorant courage. Oliver Wendell Holmes professes Lord Timothy Dexter the locum tenens to candidates such as Emerson and Whitman --- as the veritable founding poet of the independent American style of writing --- calling Dexter "the founder of a new school, which tramples under foot the conventionalities that hampered and subjugated the faculties of the poets, the dramatists, the historians, essayists, story-tellers, orators, of the worn-out races which have preceded the great American people." Holmes was known to quote from what he called Dexter's "thoroughly original production" --- though he feared that some of his readers thought he was "trifling with them" when quoting verbatim et spellatim. So too, perhaps was Dexter.

As one of the"candidates" on the ballot, Ralph Waldo Emerson had remarked in his essay, "The Poet" ---

"The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression."

And what of the form of the man called Lord Timothy Dexter? In 1805, James Akin, a local engraver, proffered his full-length portrait of Dexter in full attire, gold-headed cane whirling in hand, "bonne partey" hat upon a head whirling with thoughts and projects (link within). Quoting the Bard, the engraving was captioned thusly:

What a piece of work is man!
How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!
In form & moving, how express & admirable.

Those who ever witnessed Dexter "in form and moving" considered him a "dynamo of energy" and that seemed to reflect his own self-image. Dexter reputedly believed he would be reincarnated to human form though a "Darning Needle" (Dragonfly) because, like himself the insects are so restless. In fact, it was said that for that reason, he never allowed the Dragonfly to be killed in his presence.

It was his avid addiction to the bowl --- to his cups --- that was to eventually kill the spirit, dose the flame, and then the destroy the frame of the man affectionately called Lord Tim. Although he remained the quintessential merchant who was always "good for a shop" and a bit of trade --- Dexter slowly became detached from reality. Dexter continued to pen then unintelligible epistles that ranted and raved about various complaints, or proposed posits which, upon study, often seem most profound. In addition to the embarrassing shooting incident that caused him to be briefly imprisoned in Ipswich before paying dearly for his own release --- Dexter had long begun speaking of remarrying and even wrote an advertisement for a new wife. Estranged for years, his Lordship called Madam Dexter "the Mrs. Dexter that was" or "the gost that walks in my house" and "the gost that was my wife" --- and although he had purportedly given her a "settlement" towards an emotional separation of sorts --- they remained legally married until his death.

Upon his death in 1806 cast (in his gravestone) as the 23rd of October (which his obiter cites as the Wednesday evening of October 22nd and some historians erroneously report as the 26th) Dexter left a lucid will and testament dated 1799. What remained of his estate --- subtracting the prior settlement to his wife --- was left to his ungrateful son, his "dafter" and her child, and two brothers. An assortment of articles were bequeathed to his assorted friends and the schoolmaster, Joseph Somerby. Jonathan Plummer was much dismayed to find he was not mentioned in the will. Setting a precedent, Dexter left an sizable endowment for Newburyport's poor and had also remembered Malden, his place of birth. Because of the fear of disease, Dexter could not be buried in his "toume" in the "garding" and instead was interred at Old Hill burying ground, purportedly with the key to his tomb in his pocket. It was a full moon.

Madam Dexter died in July 3, 1809 and Samuel 3 months later and both were buried in the family plot. Though Nancy Dexter Bishop had survived many years --- living as a tenant in the very Dexter mansion that had been leased and converted into an inn --- she was a sad and desperate figure. Nancy died on September 30, 1851 and joined the family plot in an unmarked grave. Her daughter Mary Anne sold the property belonging to the estate of the late Lord Timothy Dexter in 1852.

The wooden images of Dexter's "mouserum" were toppled in the gale of 1815 and were auctioned thereafter for mere pennies on the dollar. The only carving that survived intact is that of William Pitt, now on display at the Cushing House Museum in Newburyport. Yet, unlike his wooden images, Lord Dexter's legend has long survived him --- and most of his accomplished contemporaries, as well.

The opening paragraph of Dexter's "Pickle for the Knowing Ones" began with the proclamation that "all is well all in Love Now I be gin to Lay the corner ston and the kee ston." The epitaph on this memorable man's gravestone reads simply:

In Memory of

Mr. Timothy Dexter

............

He gave liberal Donations

for the support of the Gospel

for the benefit of the Poor

and for other benevolent purposes

While this epigraph that begins the next chapter in his existence is modest --- Lord Timothy Dexter remains an unceasing part of Newburyport's narrative --- a legend and legacy of Newburyport's nascent past. With all of the epigrams and episodes that are engraved in our hearts and minds, along with the enigmatic epistles compiled in "Pickle" --- Dexter proves to the Knowing Ones of every generation that indeed "the sole is the thinking part"... and that amongst the Knowing Ones he remains "First in the East, First in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western World."

~~~~~~~~~

1 The "highway by the river" was by then called "Merrimack Street," spelled with a "k" which has since been dropped for the street's reference, although the spelling for the Merrimack River remains constant.

2 Quoting from Samuel Eliot Morrison's "Maritime History of Massachusetts," in 1786, Massachusetts exports were ¼ of that 12 years earlier and Massachusetts state bonds sold at two shillings sixpence to the pound.

3 Visit this link without for more details about the Byfield Woolen Factory at the Falls on the Parker River.

4 Ever since John P. Marquand made note of the advertisement6 in his 1925 fictionalized biography about Lord Timothy Dexter --- commenting that "it is strange to think this Napoleonic move attracted such scant attention that all his previous biographers have overlooked it" --- this story has grown out of proportions, often recounted that Dexter had kept a lion (or tiger) as a pet. In fact, the African lion visited Newburyport for only one week when on tour.

5 Noting that in September of 1797, Buffon the Elephant came through port, with accommodations made for viewing the magnificent animal at Mr. Bartlet's shop on Market Street.

6 Material no doubt found by the kindly librarians at the Newburyport Public Library who had assisted Marquand by poring through the old newsprint recently acquired by the library --- and coincidentally stored in the archive room in what was once the wine cellar of the Tracy House. Since transferred to microfiche that material can now be viewed in the library's technology room on the second floor of the library's Tracy House annex.

 

 

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