, Newburyport, MA


January 23, 2013

A downright entertaining eccentric -- with heart

Newburyport’s famous former resident, Timothy Dexter, self-titled first “Lord,” is an 18th century phenomenon. This Yankee hustler cornered the market with wild speculations and lady luck his tipster. Residents of Newburyport and books around the world fondly pay homage to this rags-to-riches hero, whose birthday was marked on Tuesday.

Dexter’s wealth came by mere chance; even Hancock would envy. He bought up large amounts of depreciated Continental currency while everyone rushed to unload it. Naturally, the giggles and gossip were ramped as Dexter filled his trunk with worthless paper. But then the magic happened; the war ended, American dollars were restored and Dexter was now the one giggling. And he no doubt had a smile on when he sealed himself to rich widow, Elizabeth Lord Frothingham.

With the money gods on his side, Dexter speculated on another sure win and loaded his newly invested commodities — mittens, warming pans and crates of live cats — onto the sailing vessels of Newburyport bound for the West Indies. The warming pans were a hit on the sugar plantations straining molasses. The cats were instant celebrities flushing out plague rats menacing the stockrooms and all the mittens were sold to Asian merchants on route to China. An elated Dexter bragged the goods “sold like hot cakes.”

Dexter also made a Holy Grail Bible venture in the superstitious Indies, stamping the message, “All of you must have one Bible in each family or you will go to Hell!” Missionaries were out of stock and a wealthy patron made the big purchase.

The locals wanted to teach this “lucky fool” a lesson in humility, but it never panned out. They encouraged him to invest in Virginian coal to sell to New Castle merchants. What would have been a hilarious tavern tale, the great coal hoax backfired on these dodgy fellows. When the coal landed in port, a serendipitous event favored Dexter, the coal miners were on strike! Dexter had the Midas touch and the word on the docks was, “His ship had come in.” Dexter got another big tip and hoarded a warehouse of whalebone, but who knew that corset “stays” with whalebone would become the fashion?

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