Friday, April 15, 2011

The First in the East and Me

I first encountered Lord Timothy Dexter when, at age 10 or so, I was devouring my parents' bookshelves. There, I found a book called The Square Pegs*. In it, author Irving Wallace explored the lives of several wonderful American eccentrics, including John Cleves Symmes (who theorized that the Earth was made up of hollow concentric spheres, that a far different race of beings lived in the middle, and that this world-within-a-world could be accessed through a hole in the North Pole; he petitioned Congress for finances to allow him to find and enter the hole), George Francis Train (the man who, among other things, was the real-life inspiration for Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne's novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and "Emperor" Norton of San Francisco.

But the last chapter in the book was devoted to one Lord Timothy Dexter, who seemed the most colorful of them all. He had shipped New England-style warming pans, cats and wool mittens to the Caribbean and coals to Newcastle (England), and profited from each cargo. He was not considered worthy of respect or liking, was not even thought to be especially intelligent, but acted as if he was all those things and more. He staged his own funeral some time before his death, and seemed to be enjoying the festivities until he noticed that his wife Elizabeth (the Ghost) wasn't showing signs of remorse, whereupon he caned her. His shouts and her screams put a damper on the wake.

Above all, there was A Pickle for the Knowing Ones. Only slightly harder to decipher than the Dead Sea Scrolls, it was a revelation to me, a budding author. Wallace tended to clean up the spelling and "peper and solt" the text with punctuation in his excerpts, but I wasn't fooled. I was enchanted by the snippets of the original he published verbatim. Eventually, I read it all.

In sum, the Dexter saga was good medicine for someone whose level of self-esteem varied, then and now. I took Dexter's words to heart: "forder a grate good man Came to see me Not Long sence I told sade man I had many Innemys he sade be Cos you are toue onnest to be beloved you dont gine in Comon ways with Rougs"

Even before I came to Sandy Bay, D. knew that I was a Dexterphile of the first order. She promised to take me to Dexter's stomping grounds at the first opportunity and sent me a copy of Pickle to keep me happy until I got there.

So on Sunday last, just a few days after my arrival, we drove to Newburyport. And there, at the corner of High Street and Dexter's Lane, was the house. It had survived the years well; save for the loss of Dexter's Mouseum -- sold at auction in 1807 -- it looked just as it did in his day. I could almost feel his presence.

It was, in sum, my own pilgrimage to Graceland. I made a solemn vow to the Lottery Gods that, given the right numbers for a large enough jackpot, I would not only buy the house, but would also recreate the Mouseum as it was, perhaps adding only a statue of myself. I think Dexter would approve.

The day was not over. D. knew how to get to Old Hill Burying Ground, where Dexter's mortal remains are interred. We entered the graveyard and began a search for his stone. We spent quite a bit of time hunting for him, found many fascinating grave markers along the way and even found his name on a plaque on the "gate," but seemed destined to leave finding him for another day.

At last, as we were almost ready to admit defeat, I found him.

The marble over his grave showed the wear of 205 years, but I was able to (barely) make out his name. Next to him, a near-identical stone for the Ghost, who died three years later in 1809. His son Samuel (1807) and "dafter" Nancy (1856) are there as well, but their graves are unmarked.

I like to think the shade of Lord Timothy Dexter knew we were there to visit him.

*The book is still available from time to time through such booksellers as or similar sites. I recommend it.


John0 Juanderlust said...

I think we should get together and hold a seance at the gravesite.. I may have trouble understanding him, but you seemed versed in whatever his language of choice was, so maybe we are set.

Dorrie said...

you seemed to have actually found the place you were meant to live.... I hope things are looking up now for you.

The avant garde tweener said...

I really love that their are other people who appreciate the genius of Lord Timothy Dexter. I am in the midst of reading a Pickle,it is somewhat difficult to decipher.