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North of Boston Historical Figures – A Pickle for Your Thoughts

November 15, 2013

As we have mentioned before, the North of Boston region has a rich history of maritime adventures, witch trials, textile production, and so much more.  But there is a sort of “dustbin” of history full of forgotten legends, stories, and some of the strangest folks you’ll ever come across.  Last week, we shared the story of Hannah Duston – this week, we switch from the recklessly brave to the…well, different.

220px-Timothy_DexterWhen he wasn’t bestowing phony titles upon himself, “Lord” Timothy Dexter kept himself busy with other endeavors.  Born in Madlen, MA, Dexter made his initial small fortune as a tanner – a fortune plumped when he moved to Newburyport and married a rich widow, Elizabeth Frothingham, in 1769 (who, looking back, probably regretted the marriage. We can’t say we blame her…but more about that later).

Lord Timothy Dexter Mansion Newburyport

A vintage postcard showing the Dexter House as it looked way back when.

The house was, to say the least, ornate.  It was decorated with with minarets, a golden eagle on the top of the cupola, and, to make the place cozy, a mausoleum for himself.  On the lawn stood 40 wooden statues of famous men, including George Washington, William Pitt, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Jefferson, and himself.  Inscribed on Dexter’s statue was “I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western World.”  According to some sources, Dexter would change the names of the statues as he felt necessary – Washington would become Pitt, Napoleon became Jefferson, etc.  One of our co-workers at the CVB, a descendant of Dexter, says that he would also name the statues after his enemies.  Today, the statues are long gone, but the house is still there.

To say that Timothy Dexter was not popular among his peers is a vast, vast understatement.  He harassed the local government with volumes of petitions to be appointed to public office.  It wasn’t simply  the amount of petitions that irritated town officials, but rather that Dexter, an uneducated man, wasn’t terribly literate and the petitions were largely unintelligible. Finally, they gave in and Lord Timothy Dexter was named “Informer of the Deer.”  Because, as we all know, deer need to be informed, too.  Luckily, Timothy Dexter was there for the deer if and when they ever decided to show up in Newburyport.

Dexter’s peers, clearly unsatisfied with giving him a ridiculous title, attempted to further their ridicule by giving him horrible business advice.  They advised him to hoard whalebone, bring wool mittens and warming pans to the West Indies, and ship coal to Newcastle, England.  Dexter took this advice and…became a millionaire.  While the people of Newburyport may not have been on Timothy Dexter’s side, luck was.  Whalebone was in high demand as an essential part of ladies’ corsets.  The wool mittens in the West Indies were purchased by merchants who brought them to Russia and the warming pans were sold as ladles for the local molasses industry.  But what about the coal?  Newcastle was world renown for it’s coal industry.  Alas, unfortunately for the people of Newburyport and Newcastle, there was a big miners strike.  Relieved, Newcastle purchased all of Dexter’s coal.  All in all, thanks to the seeingly bad business advice, Timothy Dexter became a millionaire.

Now, back to Mrs. Dexter.  At some point, ole’ Timothy decided that he didn’t really like his wife.  He would tell people that she was dead.  When they saw her walking around the house or through town (very much alive and doing quite well, thank you), he would claim that it was a ghost.  At one point, Dexter faked his own death and staged a funeral to see who would come and what they would say about him, as we all do at one point or another.  The mourning was interrupted when Dexter burst into the room at yelled at Mrs. Dexter during the service because she wasn’t sad enough.  We’d like to think that Mrs. Dexter told him that ghosts can’t cry.

And so, Timothy Dexter came back from the grave and wrote a book –  “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress.”  In the book, he complained about politics, the church, and his wife (who clearly never caught a break).  Did we mention the book had no punctuation whatsoever and random capitalized letters?  Despite being nearly impossible to read, the book became popular and ran for many editions.


In the second edition, after complaints about the lack of punctuation, Dexter added a page full of punctuation marks and told readers to “peper and solt it as they plese.”

After reading about and researching Lord Timothy Dexter we can’t help but wonder – why hasn’t there been a movie made about him?

…that and what is the Informer of the Deer? Seriously.  We did a Google search – nothing.


Newburyport has honored Dexter by naming the city’s industrial park after him.

(A special thank you to – and for information on Lord Timothy Dexter).

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