Description'Lord' Timothy Dexter Archive. One of the more bizarre and interesting collections of Americana we've encountered: a collection of documents signed by or concerning one of America's most storied eccentrics, 'Lord' Timothy Dexter (1741-1806) of Newburyport, Massachusetts and his poet laureate Jonathan Plummer, Jr. (1761-1819). The collection of period documents is accompanied by a 1937 typescript by an anonymous author being a 'revisionist' biography, entitled, "A Concise Life of Lord Timothy Dexter, additional to but part of, The Heritage of Fools".
For those not familiar with Timothy Dexter and his story, we provide some background. 'Lord' Dexter was a classic dreamer in the spirit of Don Quixote. Born of humble circumstances in Malden, apprenticed as a leather-dresser, removing to Newburyport upon his release. By 1770 he had found a moderately-wealthy and homely widow to wed, and for the next two decades engaged in a moderately successful leather-goods business. During the American Revolution, Dexter was one of the few merchants in Newburyport to accept worthless Continental currency, and when the federal government began honoring the currency in 1791, he found himself a very wealthy man. His newfound wealth enabled him to purchase two ships and invest in a variety of profitable ventures (including some bizarrely impossible ones that are now part of American folklore). His new-found wealth enabled him to purchase an enormous mansion where he styled himself a gentleman. To complete the landscaping, Dexter engaged a ship carver to sculpt larger-than life wooden statues including Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Adam & Eve, Benjamin Franklin, Nelson, Louis XIV and others. The most prominent was a likeness of himself, and like the others, suspended on a tall pole so it could be seen easily from the street. Inside the great house, Dexter presided over a retinue of poor half-wits who sponged off the Lord's largesse, including his own "Poet Laureate", Jonathan Plummer, a former fish peddler turned pamphleteer who roamed the streets of Newburyport and the surrounding towns hawking his works together with spectacles, pins, scissors, combs, needles and pins. The two met after Dexter's rise to wealth and occasioned Plummer to print a broadside: The Author's Congratulatory Address to Citizen Timothy Dexter on His Attaining an Independent Fortune (1793). According to Robert W. Higgin's essay in the Dictionary of American Biogeography: "Dexter, craving notoriety, exploited Plummer's peculiar genius. Styling himself 'Lord,' he employed the ballad-monger as poet laureate, and decked him out in a long black frock coat garnished with silver stars and fringes, an imposing cocked hat, large-buckled shoes, and a goldheaded cane..." Dexter's death in 1806 was a cruel blow for the poet, now reduced again to peddling, his sermons becoming increasingly personal and bitter.
The stories of Dexter and Plummer, the subject of two full-length biographies and numerous essays, make for wonderful American folklore. We would love nothing more than to recount more of his story, but we would like to leave something for the purchaser to discover! This collection last appeared on the market at Goodspeed's in 1951 and was the subject of a wonderful article in their January catalog of that year. The documents appear to have been collection as documentation for the anonymous and unpublished 1937 biography of Dexter that is part of this collection. The collection includes:
Nicholas Pike partly-printed D.S. "Nich. Pike" 1 page, 8" x 6", Aug. 9, 1800. The author of the first American arithmetic textbook, then serving as a justice of the peace acknowledges a $200 bond guaranteeing that Timothy Dexter and his son, Samuel Lord Dexter "shall keep the Peace toward all the Citizens of the said commonwealth, more especially towards Eliza Dealer, his Mother & his Sister Nancy Bishop & John Tracey Esq. & his Family..." Dexter was well known for run-ins not only with the local toughs who stole fruit from his orchards, but also with his own family whom he abused regularly. An A.L.S. of E.L. Norfolk, 1 page, 8" x 10" Newburyport, April 29, 1846 transcribes one of Dexter's broadsides threatening his tormentors, declining to forward the original as it was the only copy known. The text of Dexter's broadside is absolutely hilarious, threatening those who would steal from his fruit orchard: "...I will hunt you through Europe, Asia, Africa and America, till I enter you in a cavern under a great tree in Newfoundland, where Bebselbub [sic] himself can never find you. Heary ye, heary thieves, reptiles, tadterdumatians[?], vagrants, vagabonds, lank-jawed, herring-gutted, and tun-bellied plebeians, that if ye...set your feet in my house or garden, I will deliver you to Charon who will ferry you over the river Styx, and deliver you to the Arch Devil Lucifer..." Dexter's business activities are documented in several pieces including a Manuscript D.S. "Timothy Dexter" 1 page, 8" x 13", Newburyport, September 12, 1795, with several holograph emendations, a deed of sale for "one full right of Land in the township of Barkerstown in the County of Cumberland...and now incorporated by the name of poland [sic]..." This is present-day Poland, Maine, home to the noted spring water company, making this one of Dexter's few 'unsuccessful' business deals. Even Dexter could have imagined people paying for water in bottles! Accompanied by a second partly-printed D.S., 1 page, 8" x 13", [n.p.] September, 20, 1779 acknowledging Dexter's purchase of "on Full right, Share or Portion of Land...in Barkerstown..." Other business matters are documented in several pieces including a Manuscript Document. 1 page, 6" x 8" [Newburyport] June to August, 1791 being Dexter's account with Newburyport cabinetmaker, Jonathan Kettell who bills Dexter for mending chair bottoms and "staining two pair of bellows"; Manuscript document, 4 pages, 6" x 8" [Newburyport] Sept. 5, 1772, an account kept my an anonymous cordwainer that includes an entry for "1 Shoe" charging 9 shillings. Samuel Tenney, A.L.S., 1p., 8" x 10", Newburyport, March 2, 1816 to Samuel Parkman concerning a series of stock certificates "in Essex Merrimack Bridge...expressly secure the Shares to Nancy Bishop 'fro her improvement during her natural life.' To make the matter more certain I have taken pains to obtain a copy of Mr. Dexter's will..." Together with a February 14, 1816, A.L.S. concerning the same matter.
Dexter's poet laureate, Jonathan Plummer, is also well represented here including a rare edition of his printed autobiography, [Jonathan Plummer, Jr.] Sketch of the History of the Life and Adventures of Jonathan Plummer, Junr... (Newburyport: "Printed For, and Sold in the Streets of Newburyport, By the Author", 1796) viii, p. 9-22 [23 & 24 missing], 12mo. (11 x 17.5 cm) Original titled wraps. Dampstained, some marginal losses affecting some text, else just good. OCLC (#17884600) references but one institutional copy at Lehigh University. American Book Prices Current reference no sales since 1975. Even in official town business, Plummer was a true jester, even in the last year of his life: Jonathan Plummer, Jr. Partly-printed D.S. "Jonathan Plummer." 1 page, 8" x 13", [Newburyport], May 1, 1819 being an "INVOICE of Taxable Polls and Property possessed by Jonathan Plummer..." listing his real and personal property which amounted to $1,607.54, mostly in bank stock and no real property. At the bottom where the word "Sworn" has been printed, Plummer adds: "This in my opinion is about what I was worth on the first day of May 1819; but I wish not to swear at all. Jonathan Plummer". Plummer's writings were not appreciated by all, [Jonathan Plummer] Ms., 1 page, 7" x 5.5", [n.p., n.d.] a mid-nineteenth century copy of a piece by Plummer that reads, in part: "Jonathan Plummer Junr. desires to return thanks to the transcendently Patent Controller of the Universe for his marvelous kindness to him in raising him from a desperately low and perilous indisposition to such a measure of health and strength that he is again able with transporting raptures of mind to wait at the celestial portals of wisdom..." The passage was read aloud by a preacher, who according to one old-time resident of the town, occasioned him to comment, "O Lord, have mercy on this over-pompous brother, whose wordy rhetoric has just startled our ears; save us from cant, bombast, and all the wiles of the devil. Amen." (Roger W. Higgins, "The Memoirs of Jonathan Plummer, Jr...." New England Quarterly, (Mar. 1935) p. 88.)
The collection is capped of by the (Anonymous) Typescript "A Concise Life of Lord Timothy Dexter, additional to but part of, The Heritage of Fools", 36 pages, 8.5" x 11", [Newburyport?, 1937]. A fairly bitter and biting assessment of Dexter's life, revealing some interesting facets of his life and challenging some of accepted cannon on his life and exploits. The typescript is expertly cataloged by Norman L. Dodge in The Month at Goodspeed's (January 1941, Vol. XXII, No. 4) p. 75-80. A copy is included in this offering. Also included are a few pieces of ephemera including mounted news clippings bearing engravings of Dexter's Newburyport mansion, two period engravings of Dexter and related material. Ex. Henry E. Luhrs Collection.
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