only known image of Lord Timothy Dexter, probably America’s luckiest idiot. from thevintagenews.com. Nice hat by the way
Some days we try hard to archive our goals but fail. Other days were trying hard and succeed. And sometimes we just wing it and hope Lady Luck is in a good mood and BAM! We hit the jackpot. However, as anyone who has spent a long time in Las Vegas would understand, we never know when or even if that will ever happen. After all, if we could control it, it won’t be “luck” after all. So how is it that a total bumpkin became one of the most successful businessmen in the early United States? I have no idea.
“Lord” Timothy Dexter was born in Malden, Massachusetts on January 22, 1748. He had very little schooling and worked as a farm laborer when he was eight years old and an apprentice leather-dresser at sixteen. In 1769, he moved to Newburyport and married a wealthy widow named Elizabeth Frothingham. He did not get along with the social elite of the time and they often gave bad business advice to discredit him and destroy his fortune.
Probably under the advice of others, Timothy imported items that were obviously worthless for the chosen area. He tried to sell warming pans (used to warm bed sheets in cold nights) and mittens to the West Indies but surprisingly made a profit off both as the ship captain sold off the pans as ladles for molasses and the mittens to Chinese merchants who sold then to Siberia. He also shipped coal to Newcastle upon Tyne, England, a major coal mining industry, just in time for a miners’ strike, Bibles to the non-Christian East Indies just before a religious revival erupted (one he may have helped start) and cats to the Caribbean, right before a major rat infestation broke out. He also hoarded whalebone (baleen) and ended up monopolizing the business. Whalebone was the plastic of its day used for anything from corsets to buggy whips. Say what you wish about the whaling industry today but keep in mind there was a need for material.
A couple of classic warming pans. Fill them with hot coals, slip them under the bed and be cozy for the night. Image from invaluable.com
He became rich enough to buy a couple ships and started a small export business of his own. Dexter’s wealth took another surprising rise around the Revolutionary War, when he bought an enormous amount of then worthless Continental Currency. When the US won the war and he became one of the richest men in early America! Was it dumb luck or was he secretly a business genius?
However despite, or perhaps because, of his unexpected successes and probably also of his simple nature, high society rarely socialized with him. Instead he copied it to the point he was probably an unintended caricature of the upper class. He made friends with all kinds of local characters instead including a fortune teller and an amateur poet who Timothy had write bad poems about him. He did all kinds of things to impersonate European nobility including giving himself the title “Lord” and bought a large lavish mansion which he overly decorated in the most tasteless fashion. It had a cupola with a golden eagle on the top, curtains that once belonged to a Queen of France, Muslim minarets, an empty mausoleum for himself (we will get to more of that later) and at least to forty statues in his garden of famous people. His collection including Adam and Eve, George Washington and other Founding Fathers, Napoleon, Louis XVI, William Pitt, “Motherly Love,” and even two of himself which had “I am the First in the East and First in the West,” and “I am the Greatest Philosopher in the Western World,” inscribed on them. His statue collection alone probably cost more then he spent on the house. There was also his massive library he barely ever read. Living in it was described as living in a brothel, maybe the spiritual forerunner of the Playboy Manson in a way. Expect long nights of heavy drinking, women and doing things you’re glad to not remember in the morning (but maybe secretly glad you did them!)
He also was said to have sent notice to Washington D.C. to make himself king of America, or at lest Chester, New Hampshire. He was very upset to have been denied.
Unfortunately his relationship with his wife and children also started to wane. He told people that his wife died and the woman they met in the house was her ghost. His temper could be pretty nasty as well. Lord Dexter once even held a mock funeral at the mausoleum where 3,000 people showed up and served expensive alcohol. Even though his family was in on the joke, he beat his wife with a cane for not mourning enough. Another time he threatened a sculptor with his long rifle over if Thomas Jefferson was author of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The sculptor was right (Declaration of Independence) but was smart enough to not argue with his armed employer’s opinion anyway. He was not much of a father apparently as his son was said to be a fat, lazy bully. Still he was said to be very charitable especially with friends and supporters.
some clips of Lord Dexter’s magnum opus. I keep imagining it sounding like I have marbles in my mouth when reading this. images from barnsandnoble.com, top-opinion.com and interstellar-superunkown.blogspot.com
When Timothy was about fifty, he wrote a book on philosophy entitled, “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress.” The book was known for having Horabl speLkin an RitEen as one sent ance wif rAndom KapiTLizaTonn. He first started handing them out for free but were in such high demand that it sold eight editions. Due to complaints of lack of punctuation he published another edition with a page with nothing but commas, periods, and other punctuation that the reader may “peper and solt as it as they plese.”
Lord Timothy Dexter died for real on October 23, 1806. Instead of his mausoleum he is buried in his family plot in the Old Hill Burying Ground of Newport. His house still stands but is still a privet residence and its famous stature garden has been destroyed storms. Rebuilding the collection would be an interesting project to increase tourism but may decrees the property value and be to expensive. Dexter’s book is still available to read online, if you can follow it.
I never studied architecture, but I do find these mansions fascinating; especially ones of the rich and overly creative. image from ancestoryarchives.com