This material originally was published in the Oct. 25, 2002 Merrimack River Current. It is reprinted here with permission of Community Newspaper Company.
Dexter in a 'Pickle'

By Rob Marino

Friday, October 25, 2002

Lord Timothy Dexter was certainly a fascinating fellow, for author John J. Currier included him in the "eccentric characters" chapter in his book, "The History of Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1764-1905."

According to Currier, Dexter was born to a poor family in Malden, Mass., Jan. 22, 1747, and learned the trade of a leather dresser in Charlestown. He came to Newburyport in 1769 and purchased a small lot of land on Prospect Street in 1770. In the month of May, he married Elizabeth (Lord) Frothingham, widow of Benjamin Frothingham, and occupied for many years a dwelling house on the southeasterly corner of Green and Merrimac streets, with a glover's shop in the basement.

"His peculiarities and eccentricities attracted attention," Currier wrote, and in March 1776, Dexter was elected as "informer" by the legal voters in town and was ordered to enforce the law in regard to the killing of deer. Although seldom called upon to give information or asked to assist in the prosecution of offenders, he was evidently pleased with the slight distinction that this unimportant office gave him and was annually re-elected until March 1788, Currier noted.

"Following the example of John Hancock and other wealthy men of Massachusetts, at the close of the Revolutionary War, Dexter invested a large sum of money in the depreciated currency that was redeemed subsequently at par by government; and a year or two later he increased his capital by fortunate real estate speculations," Currier wrote, explaining what would be the start of Dexter's newfound wealth.

In 1791, Dexter bought the Tracy House, now the Newburyport Public Library on State Street, where he lived until he moved to Chester, NH, in 1796.

When the Essex-Merrimack bridge was built in 1792, Dexter was one of the largest stockholders, Currier noted. On July 4, 1793, Dexter crossed the bridge with some of his "boon companions" to Deer Island and sat down to a substantial dinner with a bountiful supply of wine.

"Stimulated by the excitement and conviviality of the occasion, he delivered an incoherent speech that his somewhat inebriated friends considered 'truly Ciceronian,'" Currier wrote. "It was, however, a mere jumble of words, subsequently rearranged by one of his youthful admirers and published in the newspapers of the day."

In 1795, Dexter offered to erect at his own expense a brick building on land near where the present police station stands, suitable for a market house. However, the inhabitants of the town, unwilling to accept the gift and recognize him as a public benefactor, declined the offer with thanks, Currier wrote.

Annoyed by the refusal and animated with a desire to make a sensation elsewhere, Dexter sold his dwelling on State Street, and in 1796, moved to Chester, NH, where he lived for nearly two years, Currier noted. It was in Chester that Dexter received the title of lord.

Returning to Newburyport in 1798, Dexter purchased a large three-story house, with about 9 acres of land on High Street, nearly opposite Olive Street, Currier wrote. Six months after receiving the deed of conveyance, Dexter published an advertisement in one of the newspapers of the day, announcing the selling of the property.

A portion of the advertisement read, "In one of the banks of the garden is an elegant new tomb, on the top of which is erected the Temple of Reason, 12 square feet, 11 feet high, with 158 squares of glass in it."

Soon after the published advertisement, Dexter had a mahogany coffin made, with heavy brass hinges and handles, "which he kept in his house and exhibited, on special occasions, to his guests," Currier wrote.

Playing dead?

In one of his numerous communications to the Newburyport Herald, Dexter wrote, "Here will lie in this box the first Lord of America, the first Lord Dexter made by the voice of the Hampshire state, my brave fellows affirmed it, they gave me the title, so let it go for as much as it will fetch ... I have had one mock funeral, it was a solemn day, there was very much crying, about three thousand spectators..."

However, Currier contended that the "mock funeral evidently lacked solemnity and only a comparatively few persons, possibly one hundred or two hundred, witnessed the ceremony. Tradition asserts that Dexter sat at an upper-story window and watched the funeral procession as it moved from the house to the tomb in the garden, and at the close of the services beat his wife severely because she did not shed tears enough to suit him."

Some historians today question whether Dexter really beat his wife. "He had it advertised in the newspaper that he was going to have this mock funeral," says Jay Williamson, curator of the Historical Society of Old Newbury. "To me, there was no surprise. It's not like he pretended to die. I don't think he really faked his own death. It seemed to be more of a big party, and that would be so typical of Dexter. To me, it would be just a big laugh. He wanted to have a good time and get the attention of the more upper class. I think that's what Dexter was all about."

Early in 1801, Dexter had statues carved in wood and gaudily painted, representing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, placed on an arch over the front entrance to his house, Currier noted. Afterward, on the adjoining grounds, Dexter erected pedestals and columns, 15 feet high, surmounted by statues of philosophers, statesmen and politicians, with one to himself, bearing the inscription, "I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the known world."

Not only did these "works of art" give the place a strange appearance, but they attracted the attention of strangers, Currier noted, and gratified Dexter's vanity, who published a partial list of the collection in the Newburyport Herald.

In 1802, Dexter published his "A Pickle for the Knowing Ones," which Currier called "a curious mixture of sense and nonsense, put together without regard to the rules of orthography or the art of punctuation." This being the criticism of many, Dexter added at the close of his second edition, nearly a page of punctuation marks, which he prefixed with the following notice: "Mister printer, the Knowing Ones complain of my book, the first edition had no stops. I put in enough here and they may pepper and salt it as they please."

Dexter lived to be nearly 60 years old and died after a brief illness on Oct. 22, 1806. However, Dexter could not be buried in his tomb on his property, per order of the Health Board of that day, Williamson says, and was buried at the Old Hill Burying Ground instead.

Two days after his death, a not-so-flattering obituary notice was published in the Newburyport Herald. "He lived perhaps one of the most eccentric men of his time. His singularities and peculiar notions were universally proverbial," the obituary read. "Born and bred in a low condition of life, and his intellectual endowments not being of the most exalted stamp, it is no wonder that a splendid fortune, which he acquired (though perhaps honestly) by dint of speculation and good fortune, should have rendered him, truly ridiculous.

"...The fortunate and singular manner of his speculations, by which he became possessed of a handsome property, are well known, and his sending a cargo of warming-pans to the West Indies, where they are converted to molasses ladies and sold to a good profit, is but one of the most peculiar."

Toward the ending, the obituary noted, "his principles of religion (if they could be called principles) were equally odd: a blind philosophy peculiar to himself led him to believe in the system of transmigration at some times; at others he expressed those closely connected with deism; but it is not a matter of surprise that one so totally illiterate should have no settled or rational principles."

Are you a Knowing One?

So what exactly is a Knowing One? In the spirit of Dexter, there's probably more than one interpretation of the meaning. Williamson says the "Knowing Ones" represented the "intellectual elite," who were the clergy and the Harvard graduates of the day.

"I think he kind of thought of it as 'us and them,'" Williamson speculates about the meaning of Knowing Ones. "I think he was someone who rejected the church in a lot of ways because he felt there were a lot of contradictions in what the church actually said and did."

Although Dexter was wealthy, he wasn't born into money and wasn't highly educated, and that automatically put him in a lower social class than those born more privileged.

"The knowing ones were repelled by him for not being polished," Williamson says. "But Dexter felt as though he was just as good as them. He was the first American Dream story. He was the first to make it rich from nothing. He wanted people to like him and respect him, but I think he tried too hard. Praise was like a drug for him, and he wanted it more and more."

"Dexter has always been an intriguing figure and he looms large," says Louise VanBokkelen, who has researched a great deal about Dexter. "He's been quite a figure and there are always people who felt that he was not quality. That's been an issue, and it still is in some people's minds. They reject the idea of Dexter representing anyone in Newburyport. I think he was a believer in fantastical things, as many people were in those days, but I think he was still probably too wild for many people.

"You can raise up that objection today, that Dexter was an outsider and that he was not quality," VanBokkelen continues. "He was not following the normal rules of behavior and he was flamboyant. He was not an educated person, so he was excluded from the group. He was off toward one side in many people's minds and he still is today. A lot of people didn't see the humor in him then and they still don't today."

Dominique Dear, who has written a thesis on Dexter, has her own viewpoint behind the meaning of the "Knowing Ones." While some believe that Dexter is speaking of those who come from higher learning, Dear says that in many passages of his "Pickle" anthology, Dexter addresses all open-minded thinkers as lifelong learners.

"He implies that the source of the Knowing Ones is not a recycled fountainhead of knowledge that occasionally draws from a contained reserve or 'think tank,'" she says. "Nor would you find the Knowing Ones simply spouting erudite wisdom memorized from another's opus.

"The Knowing Ones are those who ask good questions, and then question the answers. They are ponderers and wonderers in touch with the world that surrounds them. Of course, Dexter would include himself in that enlightened echelon, first as a constituent, then a leader - for the very premise and promise of a New World liberal democracy was that anyone could become one of the Knowing Ones."

But is there really one correct answer? "It should be stressed that Dexter's belief structure defied categorization, for he wove a unique philosophy into his own framework, using filaments of many faiths," Dear points out. "He opens 'Pickle' with remarks alluding to the love of Christ; considers himself a 'lipberal' and professes trust in mankind's 'progress towards the glorious point of perfection;' condenses Thomas Paine's and other deist sentiments into a single paragraph; thinks of himself a Quaker but dabbles in elements of Druidry and mysticism, including oblique references to Freemasonry and Eastern religions such as Hinduism; then bespeaks of Earth as a living 'creater.'"

Perhaps, easier to understand, is the meaning of the word "Pickle," which could easily be interpreted "like an appetizer for food for thought," Dear says. "It's a great condiment. It cleanses the palate (during the course of discourse)."

Maybe author J.P. Marquand put it best. "Lord Dexter himself has vanished, with his dog and his preposterous hat. They are gone, yet they still remain, cunningly mixed with the memory of the man who conjured them up," Marquand wrote.

"Timothy Dexter in his life had done something which has fallen to the lot of a few ... Despite all efforts to eradicate it, there is an element so lastingly mirthful and so expansive in his memory, that it has embraced, in a sense, the whole time in which he lived until, to those casual souls who are not students or antiquarians, Lord Dexter has come to represent in himself a whole rich and vanished age."