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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A FOOL AND HIS MONEY

I will now relate the tale of a genius and a fool, a man who inspired a hatred of curious dementions. Two days after he died, on October 22, 1806, the Newburyport Herald carried his lengthy obituary, under the headline, “Departed this life, on Wednesday evening last, Mr. Timothy Dexter, in the 60th year of his age — self-styled "Lord Dexter, first in the East."
Continued the obituary; "Born and bred in a low condition in life, and his intellectual endowments not being of the most exalted stamp, it is no wonder that a splendid fortune, which he acquired by dint of speculation….(though perhaps honestly), should have rendered him, in many respects, truly ridiculous….His ruling passion appeared to be popularity, and one would suppose he rather chose to render his name "infamously famous (rather) than not famous at all." His writings stand as a monument of the truth of this remark; for those who have read (him)…find it difficult to determine whether most to laugh at the consummate folly, or despise the vulgarity and profanity of the writer. His manner of life was equally extravagant and singular.”
Timothy Dexter never attended school. He had been set to farm work at the age of eight, and at 16 he became an apprentice leatherworker. In 1769, at the age of 29, Timothy Dexter opened his own glove making shop in Newburyport, Massachusetts. A year later Timothy married the widow Elizabeth Frothingham; “…an industrious and frugal woman” who was nine years his senior.
Besides having already given birth to four children, Elizabeth ran a “Hucksters shop”, where she sold second hand items and local produce. After the wedding Timothy moved into her house at the corner of Merrimack and Green streets and opened his own shop in the basement; “…at the sign of the Glove, opposite Somerby's Landing.” There were some in Newburyport who disapproved of the uneducated Timothy Dexter, who were offended by his ambition and ignorance. They noted he drank too much, and spoke clumsily. They scoffed at his luck and were impatient for his fall. They had a long wait.
During the Revolution, Timothy supported the patriot cause. But wartime inflation threatened the life Timothy had built. In July of 1777 a bushel of wheat cost eight Continental dollars. Just a year later it cost almost thirteen. Over the same year a pound of coffee rose from 48 Continentals to 120. It was no wonder then that many holding the shrinking Continentals sold them to speculators at a fraction of their face value, for quick gold, silver Francs or Spanish dollars, or even British pounds. But urged on by the savvy Elizabeth, Timothy gambled on the Continentals. He bought thousands of dollars worth of them, for hundreds. And to the surprise of many, in the “dinner table compromise” of 1790, Congress decided to buy all the outstanding Continentals at face value. It secured the credit of the new nation, and overnight Timothy was made a wealthy man. In fact, at the age of 49, Timothy Dexter was rich enough to retire.
With his new fortune Timothy invested in civic minded projects, like the 1792 Essex Bridge across the Merrimack River. Timothy bought ten shares toward its construction, and was given a prominent place in the opening ceremonies on July 4th. Afterward, he dared to make a public toast; “Ladies and Gentlemen, this day, the 18th year of our glorious independence commences...Permit me, then, my wife and jolly souls, to congratulate you on this joyful occasion. Let our deportment be suitable for the joyful purpose for which we are assembled --- Let good nature, breeding, concord, benevolence, piety, understanding, wit, humor, Punch and wine grace, bless, adorn and crown us henceforth and forever. Amen” Of course, Timothy’s remarks were delivered in fluent French!
It was a harmless speech, made, he supposed, amongst friends, and Timothy sent a copy of it (translated into English) to the local newspaper. He explained the readers should not be surprised he could speak French because “…Frenchmen express themselves very much by gestures…”. But there were those present who were not Timothy’s friends, who insisted he had made a drunken, rambling and barley coherent speech (in English), and that more educated supporters had improved the English before committing it to ink. Wrote one critic; “He has been regarded as the most marked example of a man of feeble intellect gaining wealth purely by luck.”  It almost feels as if certain members of good standing in the local community were determined that Timothy would be a fool - and were offended whenever he proved not to be.
Then in 1795, when Timothy offered to construct (at his own expense) a public market house for Newburyport. But envious men, and lessor sorts who admired them, voted to reject his offer - with thanks, of course. Stung by the insult Timothy decided to leave town.
He sold the new house on State Street (now part of the public library) and moved to Chester, New Hampshire. His home in Chester (above) still stands and is now "The Dalton Club". But Timothy lived in Chester for only two years. And when he returned to Newburyport in 1798 he was a changed man. Any hesitation for what others thought of him had evaporated. In fact Timothy seemed determined he must remind those who despised him, just why they hated him.
Timothy built himself a most unusual new house on High Street, in Newburyport. “He put minarets on the roof…(and) in front placed rows of columns fifteen feet high…each having on its top a statue of some distinguished man….and occupying the most prominent position were the statues of Washington, Adams and Jefferson, and to the other statues he gave the names of Bonaparte, Nelson, Franklin…often changing (their names) according to his fancy.
In a conspicuous place was a statue of him self, with the inscription, "I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western world." All the statues were gaudily painted, and…attracted crowds, whose curiosity deeply gratified the owner, and he freely opened his grounds to them.”
According to John James Currier, in his “History of Newburyport”, Timothy “…would transact no business when intoxicated, and made his appointments for the forenoon, saying he was always drunk in the afternoon.” Timothy took to calling himself “Lord Timothy Dexter”, and had a coat of arms painted on the door of his carriage as if he were nobility. Of course, there were some who missed the joke, and were unaware that  Elizabeth’s maiden name had been “Lord”.  Timothy claimed to have given Elizabeth $2,000 to leave him, and “hired” her back at the same sum two weeks later. He told other visitors that Elizabeth had died and that the "drunken, nagging woman" wandering about the property was her ghost. And then Timothy decided to write a book. He called it “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress”.
The first edition had 8,847 words, no punctuation and was filled with misspellings, but whether that was Timothy's intent or his failure or the printers, is not clear. In any case, that first edition quickly sold out. When the second edition was printed, Timothy added a page of random punctuation marks, explaining, “…I put in a nuf here and (the reader) may pepper and salt it as they please”. 
In his book Timothy claimed to have sold coals to Newcastle (at a profit), warming pans and mittens in the West Indies (at a profit), bibles to the East Indies and stray cats to Caribbean (both also at a profit). None of it was true of course, but anyone with a sense of humor got the joke. Many of his neighbors did not. That year, when a visitor finished a prayer at a meal, Timothy turned to his son and exclaimed, “That was a d----d good prayer, wasn’t it, Sam.”
In 1805 Mr, James Akin did an engraving of Timothy as he was often seen about Newburyport, with tricorner hat and walking cane, and followed by his little dog. It is the only image we have of the man, in his old age.
Timothy Dexter died on October 26, 1806 at the age of sixty. He left an estate valued at about $36,000. (worth about half a million today.) Elizabeth followed him in 1809, aged 72. Said Timothy’s biographer, Samuel Knapp, " Many who attempted to take advantage of him got sadly deceived. He had no small share of cunning, when all else seemed to have departed from him…In buying he gave the most foolish reasons to blind the seller, who thought that he was deceived, when deceiving.”
The website devoted to honoring Timothy points to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice on living; “Be silly. Be honest. Be kind. For indeed, these were three simple dictates which guided Lord Timothy Dexter.”
And I hasten to note that while the name of Lord Timothy Dexter remains a joke in some corners of the globe, nobody remembers the names of any of the prudish, humorless, ambitious frauds who were offeneded by him. 
 
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