Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Timothy Dexter

Reader Chase was reminded by my post about the Great Molasses Flood of a wonderful eccentric named Timothy Dexter. I had never heard of him, but he definitely deserves a post of his own! Dexter (1748-1806) was raised in Massachusetts and by the age of 8 was working on a farm instead of going to school. He became an apprentice leather-dresser at 16 and struck out on his own 5 years later. He was successful enough at his trade to afford a large house and attract a rich wife, but his peers thought it funny to give the unschooled man bad business advice in an attempt to discredit him and cause his financial ruin. He proved, however, to be extraordinarily lucky, as some of his successful investments prove:
  • After the American Revolutionary War, he bought large amounts of worthless Continental currency, which regained its value when trade connections resumed.
  • He exported warming pans and mittens to the tropics. The locals of the West Indies used the warming pans as ladles for the molasses they produced and Asian merchants exported the mittens to Siberia.
  • He sold coal to Newcastle, but managed to defy the idiom because the supply arrived during a coalminer's strike.
  • He sold Bibles to the Asian countries of the East Indies.
  • He exported stray cats to the Caribbean islands.
  • He disposed of a surplus of whalebone by selling it too the makers of corsets.
Dexter tried to fit in by buying a large house in Newburyport (pictured), but received only disdain from the New England socialites. He was also apparently underappreciated by his wife, and told visitors that she had died and the drunken nag that inhabited the house was her ghost. At one point, he staged his own death to see what people would say about him and drew 3,000 people to his wake - at which his wife refused to cry. He decorated the house with statues of 40 illustrious men - one of whom was himself. His household staff included a fortune-teller, his own poet laureate, and a housekeeper he claimed was the daughter of an African prince. Despite his lack of education, "Lord" Dexter - as he styled himself - self-published a memoir at the age of 50. Entitled A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress, it was full of complaints about politicians, the clergy - and his wife. The 1st edition of the 8,847-word autobiography had no punctuation at all. In the 2nd and subsequent editions, he inserted a page containing 13 lines of punctuation marks and suggested to readers that they "peper and solt it as they plese."

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