Today I want to tell you about Lord Timothy Dexter, who was born on this day in 1748 in Malden, Massachusetts. He wasn’t born into the aristocracy, in fact, he wasn’t really a lord at all. It was a title he bestowed on himself. He became fabulously wealthy, more by luck than by design and everyone thought he was an idiot. Everyone except Timothy Dexter.
Dexter left school at the age of eight and worked as a farm labourer. At sixteen he managed to get himself an apprenticeship with a leather dresser in Boston. It was lowly work, but it paid well. So that, at least, was a smart move on his part. He also married a rich widow and began so buy up property including a mansion for himself. So far, so sensible. But he was not a good fit with his new wealthy neighbours. They found him ill-bred and they hoped he would soon loose all his money and just go away.
This annoyed Dexter and just made him work even harder to gain respectability. He knew that a good way to do this was by gaining public office. He wrote letter after letter to the governing body of his home town. Perhaps he wore them down, because they eventually offered him a post. He became ‘Informer of Deer’ which meant that he had to keep an eye on all the herds of deer in the town and let everyone know where they were. There had been no deer at all in Malden for nineteen years.
He also sought to emulate his rich neighbours when the currency collapsed following the War of Independence. Basically, too much money had been printed in order to pay for the war. Then the British also printed fake money and circulated it amongst the population and that made the problem even worse. By 1778, America’s currency, the Continental Dollar, was worth only one sixth of it’s face value. By the following year it had dropped to one fortieth and things were getting worse. In order to shore up confidence in the currency, Dexter’s illustrious neighbours, men such as John Hancock and Thomas Russell, began to buy up the dollars for fractions of a penny. Timothy Dexter did the same, only more so. He sank all his savings into buying up the currency in the reckless hope that it would be re-instated. His neighbours must have been rubbing their hands with glee at the thought that he would almost certainly be ruined. That did not happen. The government voted to buy back the worthless dollars for one percent of their face value in exchange for treasury bonds. Dexter was instantly enormously wealthy.
He built himself a massive house and set about adorning it in the most tasteless and gaudy manner. An architect had designed a perfectly fine house for him, but he insisted upon adding minarets and a large gold eagle on the top. In the garden he had forty life-size statues of his heroes, and himself of course, raised on tall columns. They were made for him by a man who was more used to carving figureheads for ships, so they were brightly painted. The figures included Indian chiefs, generals, philosophers, politicians, statesmen, and also goddesses of Fame and Liberty. He would sometimes have the names on the statues changed to suit his fancy; hence General Morgan later became Napoleon Bonaparte. To his own likeness, he added the inscription: “I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western world”. He made never made any contribution to philosophy. In fact, despite amassing an extensive library, he barely even read.
His neighbours began to try really hard get rid of him. To this end they started offering him bad business advice in the hope that it would hasten the loss of his fortune, but it never worked out as they hoped. When he acquired a fleet of ships, they suggested he ship warming pans to the West Indies. Dexter bought 42,000 of them. A warming pan is a fine thing to fill with hot coals and slip under your bedclothes on a cold night to warm the sheets, but hardly necessary in tropical climes. But his ship’s captain was a smart fellow and he sold them all as molasses ladles to sugar planters. After the warming pans had gone down so well, he sent a ship load of woollen mittens. But luckily there just happened to be some Asian Merchants in the Caribbean when the mittens arrived. They bought up the whole lot to sell in Siberia. Then he packed one of his ships with bibles and sent them to the East Indies. He sent another ship to the West Indies with a hold full of stray cats. People were sure he would fail this time. When his ship arrived in the East Indies, a group of missionaries had just arrived. They really needed bibles for their work. Meanwhile, in the West Indies, some of the islands were overrun with rats. A few cats was just what they needed.
His neighbours didn’t give up though. They suggested he try shipping coal to Newcastle. Newcastle, in northern England was probably best known for having absolutely loads of coal. In fact ‘shipping coals to Newcastle’ is a popular way of saying that you are trying to sell somebody a thing that they already have loads of. It’s a bit like sending an oil tanker to the Saudis. Clearly, Dexter had never heard the phrase because he loaded up his ship with coal and it set sail for Britain. But he had another unbelievable stroke of good luck. There was a miner’s strike in Newcastle. Nothing was being mined at all and his coal sold at a premium.
His business dealings were a remarkable success, but his personal life was less happy. He didn’t like his wife and she didn’t care for him either. In fact, their relationship was so bad that he started to pretend to his visitors that she had died. This was clearly not the case as she was living in the house with him. He told his guests that what they were seeing was her ghost, which was haunting him.
When he was fifty, he wrote his autobiography. It was titled: ‘A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress’. The book was 8,847 words long. The capitalisation is completely random and the spelling is appalling, even by eighteenth century standards. It begins like this: “IME the first Lord in the younited States of A mericary”. It also had no punctuation whatsoever. Dexter knew that people often gave away their books as gifts to increase their readership. So he stood by the roadside giving them out as gifts to passersby. It actually became quite popular just because of its curiosity value. A second edition was printed, but this time he added an appendix. As people had complained about its lack of punctuation, he added several lines of punctuation along with a note suggesting that people could put them wherever they wanted.
Despite his lack of literary tastes, Dexter actually employed his own poet laureate. He had found the young man in question at the market, selling halibut from a barrow. He knew that the great Italian poets had been given a crown of mistletoe. So he made his poet a crown of parsley, because it was the best thing he could find in his garden. Having had himself immortalised with a statue and now in verse, he stared to wonder how people would react to the news of his demise.
In 1800, he faked his own death and invited people to his funeral. Three thousand people turned up. He hid himself away and watched them secretly. It was all very gratifying until he noticed that his wife was smiling and laughing. He was furious that she didn’t look sad enough and he cornered her in the kitchen and caned her for it. Clearly he had a bad temper and, as he had pretended at times that she was dead, it’s hardly surprising that she wasn’t sad to see the back of him. Timothy Dexter died for real in 1806. His wife outlived him.