, Newburyport, MA

January 23, 2013

A downright entertaining eccentric -- with heart

As I See It
Melissa Berry

---- — 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?

Dexter, now the nouveau riche, purchased his palace on High Street in Newburyport and opened it to the public. His new digs were lined with statues from George Washington to King George, and one of himself titled: “I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western world.” The interior was lavish, well stocked in spirits and verse. A menagerie, a paradise of sorts, emerged and he boasted to his carpenter, “My house and gardens will make my stuck-up neighbors burst with envy!” With the townies whispering, “Lord Dexter,” he dubbed himself such, declaring his ennoblement as the first American “lord” according to “the will of the people.”

Being a lord, it made sense to Dexter that he travel like one. His carriage was decorated with his artifacts of clothing and gaudy property. His royal crest — a warming pan — boasted his credo, “By this I Got Ye!” His eccentric presence made “enemies grin like a cat over a hot pudding.” He hired a poet laureate, Jonathan Plummer, to sing his praises. He roamed the streets in crazy garb with his adored four-legged companion Pepper, a Mexican hairless, black dog. As socialites snubbed him, he became an imperial hit on the Hampton Beach scene, his favorite hot spot to frolic and chase local nymphs.

He hosted soirées with all the ne’er-do-wells grasping a piece of the pan fortune and a royal residence to lay their hat. His entourage included Madame Hooper, famous clairvoyant, and Lucy Lancaster, the notorious seer. His wife became increasingly suspicious and green-eyed over his sudden influx of fame and cast of characters intruding her home. Even the statues became a threat. To prove to his wife he was worthy, he faked a mock funeral. More than 3,000 showed and when his wife did not shed a tear, he set her out to pasture. He placed an ad for a new wife, but no bites, so he invited her back via a tidy sum. However, when she returned, he told visitors she had died and “the drunken nag that inhabited the house was her ghost.”

But this “lord” was not above the law. A spirited Dexter caught a local leering at his statues. He chased the peeper with his pistol and shot, missing by a hair. The man, Babson, pressed charges and Dexter was sentenced to the brig in Ipswich. He coerced constables to let him go “in style” in his own carriage. As he arrived, the town’s children cried: “Make way for his Lord Dexter.” Dexter had a few short days of amusement with conferment, but the novelty soon wore off and he purchased his freedom for the sum of $1,000.

As fun and entertaining as Dexter’s life was, his great deeds and readiness to help those less fortunate can not go untold. Dexter always spread the wealth. He paved roads and fed the hungry from his palace kitchens. His consult, Lucy Lancaster, noted he “created an aura of goodwill and charity.” In his will, he left a generous donation to be expended on the poor in town. He wanted his burial on the front lawn, but the town officials, for “sanitary reasons,” would not abide. He is buried in the public grounds of Frog Pound. If you really want to get the whole skinny, read his famous “Pickle for the Knowing Ones “ — a very embellished, but candid and amusing account of his “noble” existence.


Melissa Berry lives in Beverly.