Jaques. “Is not this a rare fellow, my lord? He’s as good at any thing, and yet a fool.”
Duke Senior. “He uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit.”
William Shakespeare – As You Like It.
Hi folks welcome back to Tales of History and Imagination. This week I figured it was time to get back to a few one parters. Tonight’s piece is a re-working of a question I answered on Quora a few years ago. Generally most of my writing on that site was off the cuff – 15 minute compositions in quiet time, while I was temping at a job that often had an hour in the doldrums in the middle of the day, and managers who encouraged me to jump on a quiz site or answer a Quora question or two till the phones started ringing again. I did delete, or hide dozens of my answers after this job however in case it looked really bad to a prospective employer. This one is still up. The question that day was.
“Who is the most foolish person ever to live on Earth?”
Other answers were mostly stories of hubris – successful, seemingly clever folk who were doing well – till something stupid, or unfortunate happened. Some guy who let his dream girl get away. Politicians who found that power corrupts (to corrupt Lord Acton’s quote)…. One writer stated anyone who bought modern art – something which doesn’t sit too well with me, I love a lot of modern art – but I get what he means. Two Billionaires going to war over a work of art – the victor spending tens of millions is, in my opinion, not foolish so much as grotesque that two people would have that much money to buy something so functionally ‘useless’ (to corrupt Oscar Wilde’s quote). My thought process: let’s write a short piece on a world class dullard who succeeded in a huge way BECAUSE he was a fool. No folks, I am not taking a sly dig at the 45th president of America – May I present to you ‘Lord’ Timothy Dexter.
Timothy Dexter was born to a poor farming family in Malden, Massachusetts on January 22nd 1747. Seeing I am writing this on the 4th of July (in the USA at least) as a random aside the small town of Malden was an early antagonist of British taxation, and boycotted British tea in 1770. Back to Lord Dexter, his family barely subsisted on their farm, and took Timothy out of school, aged 8, to labour alongside his family. At the age of 16 the emancipated Timothy took off for the coastal city of Newburyport, Massachusetts, where he found work as an apprentice leather-dresser (a job which involved colouring and working tanned leather into a usable state). Aged 21 he met, and fell in love with Elizabeth Frothingham, an older, wealthy widow. Dexter gave up his job at the tannery and moved in to a house on the wealthy side of Newburyport.
How did the wealthy people of Newburyport see Timothy Dexter? Well, think back to the CBS TV series The Beverly Hillbillies – think of the snooty, nonplussed neighbours living next to Kirkeby Mansion, the house used for the series… and Dexter was a Clampett. The circles Dexter found himself moving in found him uncouth, poorly educated – not ‘one of us’. In the spirit of the ‘real housewives of…’ genre, rather than shun Dexter, they decided to be sly, and duplicitous, and feed him bad business advice till he had spent Elizabeth’s fortune, and had to move back to the poor side of town. How did that work out for them? Well… let’s say I could have answered ‘Lord’ Timothy to a Quora question ‘Who was the luckiest person ever to live on Earth?’
In 1775, tensions between Britain and the 13 colonies who would become the first version of the USA broke out into all out war. Needing funds to fight the redcoats, the Continental Congress began issuing paper money, known as ‘Continental currency’ to fill their war chest. They would issue around $241 million in these promissory notes. During the war of Independence these notes took a hiding and become all but worthless, in part down to some people expecting the British would win the war, but mostly cause the Continental Congress printed way too many of these dollars. There was a saying at the time ‘not worth a Continental’ for something of little or no value. At the start of the war Timothy had a little money to play with, and members of the wealthy set urged him to buy as many bills as he could. Dexter bought a lot of Continental currency, and in spite of expectations came out of the War of Independence extraordinarily wealthy. This scenario would play out time and time again.
Warming pans were a wonderful idea in places which had icy winters, long before we had electric blankets. One might imagine them worthless in the tropics. On bad advice Dexter began shipping them to the West Indies. They did become a massive seller there however, as a frying pan shaped object on a long pole was the perfect ladle to stir molasses with in the Caribbean nations. “While you’re at it why not sell them woolen mittens?” someone said, and Dexter, not understanding his incredible luck, sent container loads of mittens there. This time a passing merchant ship on its way up to Siberia saw an opportunity and bought the lot, selling them on for a healthy profit to the Cossacks who had begun colonizing the freezing Siberian Tundra a century and a half ago. What else could the Caribbean Islands need? “Cats would be a capital idea young Timothy! Who doesn’t love cats?” – I imagine a Milburn Drysdale type saying to him. Well I don’t know if they loved cats, but the many ships coming and going from the plantations had left the Caribbean with a rodent problem, and cats were just what they needed. On a whim Dexter bought a huge pile of whale bone, 340 tonnes of the stuff, not even knowing what he had bought. The following season corsets became all the rage on the continent, and again he made a killing.
One day someone said to Dexter, you should put all of your money into sending coal to Newcastle, England. Not knowing coal mining around Newcastle had been a huge part of the economy since the 13th century, and odds were the coal Dexter was looking to buy had come from there in the first place. Dexter sent boatloads back over. Luckily for him there was a miners strike at the time, and Newcastle needed the coal to power its industrial factories and boat yards. Again what should have been ruinous turned a handsome profit.
Now in middle age, Timothy spends some of his fortune on a mansion worthy of the Clampett clan, and began to decorate his home with gaudy wooden statues of great men from history. He took on the appellation ‘Lord’ claiming himself the first ‘lord of the younited states’. Though to date he seemed not to have questioned the advice of others, or picked up any sense of how much others loathed him, the penny began to drop for him. Ironically it appears to have been prompted out of his mistrust of a few recent, real friends he had picked up. In an effort to test them he faked his own death and plotted to watch the reaction of the crowd at the funeral. His family were in on the ruse, and were coached on how to mourn for him. The funeral was a massive affair, with over 3,000 attendees (mostly curious to hear a few stories about crazy old Lord Dexter). When Dexter saw his wife laughing and talking with people at the wake he lost it, and in the kitchen began to cane Mrs Dexter for not mourning him enough. This brought in onlookers and the game was up.
One final thing I should mention about Lord Dexter, towards the end of his life he wrote a book titled ‘A Pickle for the knowing ones or plain truth in a homespun dress’, a thankfully short book (it completely lacks punctuation, and some of the spellings are enough to make someone who studied medieval literature all through university (me) want to pull my hair out at times. The short version is Lord Timothy Dexter planned to leave his wisdom for others to wonder at, but instead complains about politicians, the church, and his wife. The book went through 8 editions, along the way picking up a page full of commas at the end, with instructions to “distribute them as you pleased”. If you are wondering the photo I sent out earlier in the week is an excerpt, and yes, the book is available for download on Google Books. If looking for unintentional comedy I will always recommend Pedro Carolino’s ‘English as She is Spoke’ before ‘A Pickle for the knowing ones’ but it is ok. Lord Timothy Dexter, the man who sold coals to Newcastle died October 23rd 1806 at the age of 59.
Thanks as always for checking out our page, and welcome to our new followers. As always folks please like, comment, share. Recommend Tales of History and Imagination to a friend who digs the quirkier stories from our past. Check in with us again next week for more Tales of History and Imagination – Simone.
Originally published 5th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page, based on an earlier piece I wrote for Quora. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow