A narrative of financial chicanery and real-estate flimflam that foreshadows our own times.
Kamensky (History/Brandeis Univ.; Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England, 1997, etc.) returns to prominence the once-notorious speculator Andrew Dexter Jr. (1779–1837), a pioneer currency trader and prototypical hedge-fund operator. Always well-leveraged, Dexter laundered and watered money—at one point he issued $600,000 in notes that were backed by only $86 of actual specie. In a time when banks could independently emit currency, he established bogus depositories as distant as a thousand miles from his Boston base, the better to dispense worthless paper at home. A striver who had Gilbert Stuart paint a portrait he couldn’t pay for, reckless and feckless Dexter triggered the young country’s first banking collapse in 1809. He wasn’t entirely sinister, however; all he wanted was to build the biggest building on the continent, and he didn’t mind financing it with subprime mortgages. Often compared to the tower of Babel, the gigantic Exchange Coffee House, “a seven-story structure in a three-story town,” was designed to be a bourse, hotel, coffeehouse and office building. Containing more than 150 rooms, a vast trading floor and an atrium, capped by a tin dome, it rose to change Boston’s skyline. But just as it opened, Dexter’s financial pyramid collapsed, and he fled the country. His combustible skyscraper lasted only a decade, succumbing to a spectacular fire in 1818. (The hand-pumped water couldn’t reach the flames on the upper floors.) What happened to the builder and defaulter? Dexter returned to the United States to found Montgomery, Ala., then died bankrupt.
Engaging social history by a talented scholar with a distinct gift for narrative.