Eccentric and naïve he might have been, but Lord Timothy Dexter was also shrewd enough to sell coal to Newcastle, bed warmers to the West Indies and Bibles to India and managed to become a successful author despite being semi-literate.
Dexter was born in Malden Massachusetts in 1747 to a family of farm labourers when America was still a British colony. He had little or no schooling and was working in the fields at the age of eight.
When he was sixteen he was apprenticed to a leather dresser and although this was considered a menial occupation, the money was good and having learned his trade, Dexter decided to set himself up in business making leather gloves and moose hide breeches.
He moved to Charlestown, the centre of Boston’s leather trade, where he had his first stroke of good fortune. Dexter met Elizabeth Frothingham, the wealthy widow of one of his former leather associates. She was a wealthy woman by any standards and he wasted no time in wooing and marrying her.
He was then rubbing shoulders with neighbours that included John Hancock, then Governor of the Commonwealth, and Thomas Russel who was one of the richest men in the country, but they looked down on such an uneducated and unsophisticated parvenue. Determined to prove himself their equal, Dexter bombarded the authorities in Malden with petitions for a title he could call his own until they eventually relented and made him ‘Informer of Deer’ which required him to keep track of the town’s fawn population, even though a deer hadn’t been seen in the locality for the best part of twenty years.
Dexter then set about making his fortune in one of the riskiest, some would say foolhardy, of gambles. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress issued the Continental dollar, but there was little confidence in the currency and while $1 would buy $1 dollar’s worth of goods in 1776, by 1779 the same transaction was to cost $40.
The soldiers who had fought in the war were paid in these dollars which were effectively worthless and Dexter’s rich neighbours took it upon themselves to buy up the devalued currency ‘to boost public confidence and do a good deed’.
Determined not to be outdone, Dexter gathered his savings (and those of his wife) and threw the whole lot into buying up mountains of dollar bills for fractions of pennies. It was an idiotic or bold gamble depending on your point of view but Dexter got lucky. The United States Constitution of 1790 stipulated that Continental dollars could be traded for treasury bonds at 1% of their face value and Dexter became astronomically rich overnight.
But even such wealth was enough to gain him entry to Boston’s elite circle and having been snubbed so often he turned his back on Boston and moved his family to Newburyport where his business ventures flourished.
Dexter built himself a princely chateau overlooking the sea complete with forty wooden statues, each depicting a character from America’s short history. And alongside the likes of Washington, Jefferson and Adams was a statue of Dexter himself with the inscription: ‘I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western world’. This from a man who couldn’t even spell the word philosophy.
Such crass ostentatiousness did not endear him to his neighbours and when he announced his intention to buy a fleet of ships and embark on international trade, they gave him the most idiotic business advice in the hope that he would bankrupt himself.
One neighbour recommended that he should invest in bed-warming pans to sell in the West Indies and Dexter promptly bought 42,000 of them and set sail. His fellow traders thought this was a great joke to play, but Dexter had the last laugh. When he realised that bed-warming pans were hardly necessary for the tropics, rebranded them as ladles and sold them all to sugar and molasses plantation owners at 79% profit.
Another trader convinced him that there was a market for coal in Newcastle, England, a place unbeknown to Dexter as a leading exporter of coal. When he arrived there with his shipment, again luck was on his side. The local coal miners were on strike and he was able to sell his cargo at a profit.
Dexter’s business plan was simple – find out what goods were scarce, buy up as much he could to corner the market, then double the price – which led to some bizarre speculation. For example, he bought 340 tons of whalebone which he then off-loaded at a profit for use in ladies’ corsets, collar stays and other items. As he was to write: ‘I found I was very lucky in spekkelation. Spekkelators swarmed me like hell hounds.’
What Dexter was to discover was that even great wealth cannot buy acceptance as a man of worth in society. In fact, his attempts to prove himself often backfired. He emulated his neighbours by buying a lavish library and yet he hardly ever read a book. Then he appointed his own poet laureate in imitation of the King of England, a hapless lad he’d come across in the market selling fish. But even this was not enough and he declared himself ‘Lord’ Timothy Dexter and insisted that was how he was to be addressed.
In an effort to find out what the public really thought of him, Dexter decided to fake his own death to see what the reaction might be. He had a tomb built beneath his summer house and ordered the finest mahogany coffin and then invited the great and the good to attend his ‘funeral’.
Over 3,000 attended the lavishly catered event to Dexter’s delight, but then he spotted his wife’s tearless, smiling face even though she had been in on the ruse. Her husband confronted her in the kitchen and caned her for her lack of effort in the grieving department. The commotion brought the other mourners who found themselves face to face with the recently deceased who then joined the party as if nothing had happened.
To achieve his goal of immortality, Dexter set about writing his memoirs to rival the great authors and playwrights. ‘A Pickle for the Knowing Ones, or Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress’ was a jumbled mess of nearly incomprehensible writing, atrociously misspelt and entirely devoid of punctuation, but he had the money to have it printed and distributed free of charge. Bizarrely, demand was so great that a second edition was published, this time with a full page of punctuation marks at the end, with a simple instruction for the reader: ‘pepper and salt them as you please.’
Dexter died for real in 1806 and although I do not believe a word of his coals to Newcastle or bed-warming pans as molasses ladles stories, there is no doubt that he was one of history’s more colourful characters.