July 30, 2019 The stars themselves proclaimed Timothy Dexter to be a great man, so why wouldn't the Newburyport, Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce? Dexter, a wealthy merchant, wanted nothing more than the respect of Massachusetts high society. And he'd do anything to get it, even if it meant blurring the line between being a great man and a bad guy.
Read a full transcript of this episode on the Something True website.
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Music on this week’s episode:
A. A. Alto – Skip Song*
Kai Engel – Twinkling Stars Won't Answer Me*
Kai Engel – Brooks*
A. A. Alto – Canyon*
Lloyd Rogers – Ground Machine (After Purcell)*
Jahzzar – Storyteller*
*modified for the podcast.
At 94 State Street in the small Massachusetts coastal town of Newburyport, you’ll find a beautiful, expansive 18th century Georgian mansion. Today, it’s a public library. But the man who built it—Patrick Tracey, in 1774—didn’t want it to be a library. He made it so he could give it to his cool son, Nathaniel.
Nathaniel became a successful sea merchant and made good use of his house: George Washington came for a sleep-over! And that was very exciting—Nathaniel laughed, and called him “Snore-ge Washington”. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Aaron Burr—they all hung out there too. And Nathaniel was a good ally to those revolutionary friends. He poured his own money into the war for independence, and developed a healthy side business in privateering. At sea, his ships blew the English away, and returned to their master, carrying neat loot with which he could decorate his mansion.
When the British blockaded Newburyport, Nathaniel’s privateer industry went bust, and his finances collapsed. In a desperate measure, he sold his beloved house to his brother-in-law and business partner, but when he, too, fell on hard times, they were forced to put it on the open market, at a low price for a quick sale.
Newburyport high society—the heroes of the American Revolution, the sons of the city fathers, the shipping magnates—were troubled. Was this how a great, self-sacrificing patriot like Tracey should fall—in poverty? They couldn’t stomach the idea, and his creditors respected him so much, they forgave his massive debts. But what of the house? Could they, perhaps, get some money together and buy him his house back? Could they even pay its true value? Could they—
But before they had a chance to act, in swept Timothy Dexter. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll buy it!’ he cried. ‘I’ll buy it for that low, low price!’
Who was this guy? Dexter was a merchant, like Nathaniel Tracey, but Tracey was known for his honourable business practices, and Dexter for screaming at the people of Africa that it if they didn’t buy his imported bibles they would go to hell. Dexter was no patriot either: When he was flush, he didn't raise a private army against the British but splashed out on wine, costumes, and personal horses.
‘You know, Mr. Dexter,’ said Nathaniel, ‘it really breaks my heart having to give up this house. It’s meant so much to me and my family… please, as a fellow merchant, as a fellow Newburyportman, isn’t there some arrangement we could come to…’
‘Oh, NO, no, no, no, no, no. That’s business, baby! The great game of deals we all love to play. But, if it’s any solace at all: this is a sweet house, and I can’t wait to do things to and in it.’
Nathaniel Tracey left his family mansion and died in obscurity. Timothy Dexter settled into a comfy chair. ‘And now,’ he thought, ‘to simply sit back and wait to be respected.’
You’re listening to Something True – stories from the footnotes of history. Written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Corbett Ashby. This week’s episode: Citizen Tim.
Timothy Dexter’s tenure in the Tracey house got off to a tacky start. He plopped a big gold eagle on the roof. He filled the library with smart books that he hadn’t read and stuffed a room with so many clocks he had to hire a full-time winder.
And then there were the statues. Outside, on the grounds, he dictated his vision to a sculptor.
‘All around the house, let's put in some statues of famous heroes. I want them to be eight feet tall, larger than life!’
‘Okay, cool,’ the artist said. ‘And whom did you have in mind?’
‘Oh, well, all of the greats: Washington, Napoleon, a lion, Thomas Jefferson... me, Timothy Dexter... actually go ahead and throw in a second one of me, Timothy Dexter. And put a plaque on it and write: “I am the first in the East, the first in the West and the greatest philosopher in the known world”!’
The artist made the statues, and they were fantastic.
‘Some of my finest work, don’t you think? Don’t be shy to tell me how much you love that lion.’
‘Yes, yes, yes, but what’s this? You’ve got Thomas Jefferson holding the Declaration of Independence. He should be holding the Constitution!’
‘But, Mr Dexter, Thomas Jefferson is known for the Declaration, not the Constitution!’
‘I demand that you change it! Do you refuse me?’
‘Well, it would be incorrect!’
Dexter could not believe the disrespect. He vanished into the house, emerging moments later with a gun. He fired at the artist but missed. Luckily, Nathaniel Tracey was not around to see the bullet deface the exterior wall of his beautiful mansion.
So, why did Timothy Dexter care so much about this house? And what was with all the statues? Well, he looked at them as accessories for the man he was destined to be. As he would later write, he was born “when great powers ruled, on January 22nd, 1747. On this day, in the morning, a great snowstorm; the signs in the seventh house; whilst Mars came forward Jupiter stood by to hold the candle. I was to be one great man.”
In many ways, he was great. He was, at least, lucky and successful. He’d gone from being a leather-tanner to the fourth richest man in Newburyport: a merchant shipowner with his fingers in everything from whalebone corsets to government securities. When he married the widow Elizabeth Frothingham, he inherited her late husband’s small fortune, and her family connections. But was that enough, for an American man in the late 18th century, to make a good living? It wasn’t for Dexter. This was the age of Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Franklin—great men! Timothy Dexter could be one of those great men! He could be governor! He could be president! Why not him?
He had done everything he thought he was supposed to do. He had pulled himself up by his bootstraps and become a successful capitalist and philanthropist. He was willing to put his fortune into the city: invest in its development and throw lavish parties for the community. He could have been the classic American success story, except for one thing: The high society of Newburyport, into whose ranks he yearned to be admitted, thought he sucked.
Sure, Dexter wanted to invest in the city, but only if he got the credit. He was constantly offering to fund or repair local infrastructure, if the city named it after him. Every time, he was turned down. Why? Well, for one thing, he just didn’t seem like a serious person. He rode around town in a horse-drawn carriage, wearing an extravagant costume of his own design: a long coat tied by ribbons around his ankles, and a tasselled cushion upon his head.
Dexter didn’t get it. He had all this money, he was offering everyone his money, so what did it matter how he dressed? They tried to explain. ‘Look, it’s not about the money.’
‘I don’t think you understand—I have a large house.’
‘You can buy a house, but you can’t buy class, or dignity, or a good, well-respected and patriotic family. We value all those things much more than money.’
Their obstinance drove him up the wall. If they weren’t going to recognise him as a great and generous philanthropist, then he wouldn’t give them a choice. He would earn their respect by force.
As he rode the streets in his carriage, he would throw coins to and at the local children. When a family member was sick, Dexter asked a clergyman to come and visit, and afterwards, offered him money.
‘No, no, Mr. Dexter, please—there is no need for payment.’
Dexter was so taken aback by the generosity of this clergyman, that he produced a gun and did not let him leave until he took some money.
And still, when he wanted to buy the town a street, or officiate at a wedding, or become the governor, nobody was interested. He was desperate to insert himself into municipal business, even bribing the local church to let him toll the big bells and announce the death of Louis XVI in the French Revolution. But when people saw that the man screaming about a dude’s head getting chopped off was just Timothy Dexter up to his usual bullshit, they took the bells away from him.
‘Look, you don’t understand,’ explained the town once again. ‘You could have all the money in the world—you could have a thousand dollars, or whatever a large sum of money is in the 1790s—and we would still hate you for what you did to poor Nathaniel Tracey. He was a great man, a true patriot, and in his time of misfortune you didn’t hesitate to throw him out on the street. Now he’s dead, and you continue to insult his memory with garish statues of your own likeness in the family home that was built for Nathaniel by his dear papa. You might have money, and you might have that house, but you are not one of us. You will never be one of us.’
‘Ok, ok, I get what you’re saying,’ said Dexter. ‘You’re saying that you don’t respect me now, but you would, if I had a royal title!’
And so, Dexter began styling himself Lord Timothy Dexter. How could you say no to a lord? ‘And the best thing about this great idea is that it will work,’ said Lord Tim. It did not work.
The door was closed to him. That was so unfair! He’d done everything right. He was supposed to be a great man! The stars had said so!
But evidently that meant nothing to the so-called elite of Newburyport. They were never going to like him. And it wasn’t just them. The local teens mocked him constantly: his affected air, his silly costumes.
Dexter grew bitter, angry and paranoid. In the past, Dexter had thrown open his prize mansion to the whole town, for evenings overflowing with wine and song, but now he resented the attention paid to the house by the common folk. Once, when Dexter, looking out from his window, spotted someone across the street, staring at the house, he brought his son and made him look. ‘There, do you see him? He’s gawking at us.’
Samuel, Dexter’s son, nodded. ‘He probably just likes the house.’
‘No, he’s up to something,’ said Dexter. ‘He hates me. I want you to shoot him. Go ahead. I have a gun. You shoot him.’
‘Shoot him? Why?’
‘How about, if you don’t shoot him, I’ll kill you?’
In the aftermath of that incident, which saw nobody injured but Dexter make a brief stay in jail, even Lord Timothy knew there was no route to the respect of the Newburyport elite. Well, that was fine; he was fed up with them anyway. He spurned all the politicians and patriots, and surrounded himself with astrologers and magicians, and hired a fishmonger-slash-author of erotic fiction to write poems about him.
Dexter obsessed over his legacy, seeking, perhaps, to secure in history the appreciation and respect that eluded him in life. The ways in which he went about that, however, were weird. He wrote a book, containing folksy wisdom and frothing screeds against his enemies: “I wants to make my Enemies grin in time like a Cat over a hot Pudding and go away and hang their heads Down like a Dog-Been-After-Sheep—GUILTY.”
He was SO desperate to know what people would think of him after he was gone that he faked his death, and watched his own funeral, studying people’s reactions. The ruse was revealed at the wake, in Dexter’s house, when the guests, upon investigating strange sounds coming the kitchen, found Timothy, very much alive, beating his wife Elizabeth with a cane because he did not think she appeared convincingly sad at the fake funeral. It was, in fact, almost as if she was happy at the thought of him no longer being alive.
He’d stolen a glimpse into the future. But he wasn’t around to see what happened on October 23, 1806, when he actually died, aged 59, from poor health accelerated by alcohol abuse. His wishes were clear: ‘_Lay me in my custom tomb, which has space for fireworks, tobacco, a Bible, and a speaking trumpet—please ensure all those items are included, and do not make any substitutions, I could not be clearer about what I will need. Then bury me in my own garden, in the house that I bought from that great patriot Nathaniel Tracey, who we all loved, you loved him SO MUCH! Sometimes it seemed like he was all you ever talked about! But it’s my house, it’s not his, and I’m going to be a part of it forever!’
The city of Newburyport, however, raised some concerns about Dexter’s tomb. It had live explosives in it, for one thing. Basically it was a bomb. So, they didn’t bury Timothy Dexter in his house. Instead, they dumped him in the park, by a frog pond. And maybe Dexter would have been satisfied with that. Because to a bunch of frogs, any man, even a man like Timothy Dexter, could be king.
That was Something True, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network, written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Corbett Ashby. Music credits can be found in the description and on our website at somethingtrue.net where you can also find a full transcript of this story. Follow us on Twitter @atruepodcast, and join us again for the next episode: Okaasan.