If you’ve ever had the chance to visit Newburyport and take a tour with Untapped History, you will usually hear a story or two about Lord Timothy Dexter, the eccentric millionaire who dominated gossip circles in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, very few people know about his poet laureate Jonathan Plummer Jr.
Jonathan Plummer Jr. was born in 1761 Newbury, Massachusetts and was the oldest of eight children. According to historian Roger W. Higgins, Plummer was “sickly through infancy and early childhood was mentally weak and easily imposed upon.” As a teenager, he acquired a “reputation records from for being a strange and wayward boy with a flair for revival meetings.” Even Plummer himself noted “my reading, traveling, and thirst for knowledge, too … began to operate to my disadvantage . . . to make me what they called an odd fellow — that is, different from the young fellows who were not readers . . . I was already so insufferably unfashionable as to begin to talk in young company of religion, virtue, poets, philosophers, lords, generals, statesmen, kings, battles, sieges, &c. &c. . . . this made the young people think that I thought myself better than them, and made them resolve to make me feel the torturing effects of their vindictive vengeance.”
Nevertheless, he was a remarkably intelligent young man who had a photographic memory. As a young teenager, Plummer would often recite poetry in the Newburyport marketplace in exchange for tips. Although Jonathan’s mother was impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit his father was embarrassed by what he perceived as his son’s shortcomings. He forbade any further poetry performances, acquired a wheelbarrow for the boy and forced him to work as a fishmonger. According to Plummer, he was “poorly qualified to endure hardships” and was mercilessly taunted by the other vendors he encountered.
Humiliated, the teenager abandoned the job in 1776 and enlisted in a temporary militia company raised to support the Siege of Boston. He garrisoned a fortification in Dorchester for ninety days but saw no action. “At this business we made a pretty lazy appearance. Nothing in it fired us with ambition or captivated our fancy.”
At the end of his enlistment, he returned home. “Not relishing the trade, I returned to my father and resumed the farming business, which though not very agreeable, suited me better than handling leather.”
The following year, Plummer tried to join a Newburyport privateer. According to Plummer “hard usage from my father, the love of Daphne, the want of money and a regard for my country prompted me to go forward.” Plummer asserts he joined the privateer Hero, but deserted the day before the ship left port.
The Hero and its crew were lost at sea in August of 1777.
Later that year, Plummer enlisted in a militia regiment raised in response to Burgoyne’s invasion from Canada. As with Dorchester, Plummer saw no combat and was discharged from service in the Fall of 1777.
Upon his return to Newburyport, he became a peddler and sold “spectacles, scissors, thimbles, combs, needles, pins,and verses” to local residents. He often spent his time “trading and chatting with the ladies here and there, being kissed and hugged by some females and, disdained on the account of the lowness of my business by others.”
However, following a very public and cruel practical joke, Plummer closed his peddling business and left Newburyport to become a teacher in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Unfortunately, he lost the job due to an insufficient number of students. He quickly lost other teaching posts for a variety of reasons, including complaints of odd behavior. “Finding that I sung a great number of songs and tunes in my apartment alone, they concluded that I was insane”
He then bounced from odd job to odd job until he was hired as a boot cleaner in a local tavern. Unfortunately, the job was short lived as the tavern keeper informed him one day “we’ve found a better Negroe than you.”
Plummer then decided he wanted to become a Congregationalist minister. He quickly branded himself the “lay bishop extraordinaire” and tried unsuccessfully to have various rural congregations hire him. Unfortunately, most were either underwhelmed or unimpressed by his ministerial skills. Apparently, Plummer often argued that millions of other planets were inhabited and claimed that God was too busy dealing with alien life than to care about mere Earthlings. Plummer also promoted his belief in the science of dreaming. “I often continued my discourse on dreams after people told me to my face, in plain words, that I was crazy.” As one exasperated Newburyport minister declared from the pulpit upon receiving correspondence from him: “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.”
To his credit, Plummer refused to be deterred and continued to plod ahead. He returned to Newburyport and once again took up a variety of odd jobs, including “farming, repeating select passages from authors, selling holibut, sawing wood, selling books, ballads, and fruit in the streets, serving as a porter and post-boy , filling beds with straw and wheeling them to the owners thereof, collecting rags, &c. &c.” One period account suggests he even peddled pornography to make ends meet.
Plummer eventually found success through the self-publishing of books, broadsides and sermons. His popularity grew even further when he started to release poetry and essays he composed to woo a variety of New England women. One such work, entitled Plumer's Declaration of War with the Fair Ladies of the Five Northern States, swore off young women and argued for the courting of "vigorous and antiquated virgins.”
Of course, despite his literary talents, he found little success in the romance department. It appears this may have been the result of his chronic bad breath. As Plummer recalled “they thought a ballad feller too mean to associate with, and often insulted me on account of my offensive breath, cruelly despisin me because I was unwell.”
By the mid 1790s, Plummer caught the attention of Timothy Dexter, the eccentric Newburyport merchant who made a fortune through imaginative business deals such as exporting mittens, warming-pans, and stray cats to the West Indies. He recognized Plummer’s intelligence and offered to set him up as either a physician or minister. Plummer couldn’t decide and instead accepted the post of Poet Laureate. The merchant provided him with a handsome annual stipend, a black suit adorned with stars and fringe, a large cocked hat, shoes with silver buckles and a gold headed cane.
Plummer’s poetry about Dexter was not necessarily cutting edge and rarely impressed the elite of Newburyport. In 1806, Timothy Dexter passed away and the annual stipend ended. To support himself, Plummer apparently returned to peddling goods in the streets of Newburyport.
Nevertheless, he still managed to enjoy continued attention and was an honored guest among many literary circles. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier recalled “twice a year, usually in the spring and autumn, we were honored with a call from Jonathan Plummer, maker of verses, peddler and poet, physician and parson,—a Yankee troubadour,—first and last minstrel of the valley of the Merrimac, encircled, to my wondering young eyes, with the very nimbus of immortality. He brought with him pins, needles, tape, and cotton-thread for my mother; jack-knives, razors, and soap for my father; and verses of his own composing, coarsely printed and illustrated with rude wood-cuts, for the delectation of the younger branches of the family. No lovesick youth could drown himself, no deserted maiden bewail the moon, no rogue mount the gallows, without fitting memorial in Plummer’s verses. Earthquakes, fires, fevers, and shipwrecks he regarded as personal favors from Providence, furnishing the raw material of song and ballad . . . we listened with infinite satisfaction to his readings of his own verses, or to his ready improvisation upon some domestic incident or topic suggested by his auditors. When once fairly over the difficulties at the outset of a new subject, his rhymes flowed freely . . . He was scrupulously conscientious, devout, inclined to theological disquisitions, and withal mighty in Scripture. He was thoroughly independent; flattered nobody, cared for nobody, trusted nobody. When invited to sit down at our dinner-table, he invariably took the precaution to place his basket of valuables between his legs for safe keeping.”
Plummer eventually launched a New England speaking tour and combined his assorted talents into a single, dazzling performance. Witnesses described it as a combination of preaching sermons, reciting or singing topical ballads (often made up on the spot) and a show and tell of his basket of sundry goods which often included medicines, toiletries, sewing notions, and his own broadsides about the latest murders and disasters.
Unmarried, Plummer spent his final days living with several of his cousins. He fell into a depression and at least one historian has suggested that the poet made several attempts at self mutilation or suicide between 1816 and 1818.
Jonathan Plummer Jr. passed away in 1819.
Following his death, Newburyport poet Henry S. Ellenwood published Elegy and Eulogy, and Epitaph, of That Famous Poet, Mr. Jonathan Plummer. In his introductory comments, Ellenwood noted “it may be proper here to remark, that the character of Jonathan was, as far as I know, irreproachable in every particular. He was most scrupulously conscientious; flattered nobody; cared for nobody; was seldom long in a place; and, with as unaffected an independence as ever was known, despised all the fashions of this world, and minded his own business. I wish it were it my power to say so much in favor of any other person upon earth.”