Thomas Kirkman (1800-1864) was a wealthy merchant in Florence, Lauderdale County, who wrote two anonymously published stories of Old Southwest humor that were read appreciatively throughout the United States and later abroad: “Jones’s Fight” and “A Quarter Race in Kentucky.”
Born in 1800 in Ireland of Scots-Irish ancestry, Thomas Kirkman moved with his father, also Thomas Kirkman, to Nashville, Tennessee, where the father invested in land and established a regionally successful wholesale mercantile business. Thomas Kirkman Jr. moved to Florence in 1821 and thrived as a merchant there for 40 years. He invested in a Tennessee iron furnace, a Mississippi plantation, and locally in the Forks of Cypress stables, founded by thoroughbred horse breeder and planter James Jackson, who constructed the Forks of Cypress mansion and who was Kirkman’s uncle. Kirkman inherited Forks of Cypress and the racehorse stock upon Jackson’s death in 1840. In the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, some of the most famous racehorses in the country were owned by Forks of Cypress, including Leviathan, Glencoe, and especially Peytona, which captured a much-touted win at New York’s Union Race Course in 1845.
Kirkman and his wife Elizabeth McCullough Kirkman were the parents of five sons who lived to manhood, four of whom served in the Confederate Army. Their son Samuel, born in 1832, became one of the youngest graduates of Harvard University and gained a reputation as a businessman and “expert cotton crop statistician.” Although many Kirkmans made their homes in Alabama, the family burial place for generation after generation remained Nashville.
Even though, in the opinion of influential Spirit of the Times editor William Trotter Porter, “Jones’s Fight” was a fine piece of writing, it was in no way comparable to “A Quarter Race in Kentucky.” The former sketch details attempts of the conceited, defeated Col. Dick Jones to salvage his reputation after fighting Bill Patterson, who, Jones claimed, had slandered him. In the tale, Jones claims that he stopped the fight to keep the crowd from getting bored, not because he was being badly beaten.
“A Quarter Race” is an account of that title event by an earnest, curious, naive narrator, a figure that was a staple of Old Southwest humor. This story was lauded by W. T. Porter as one of the finest stories of the genre ever penned. Kirkman went to great lengths to protect his identity, such as having his stories copied in another hand and mailing them 500 miles from Alabama before they were mailed again for publication submission. Kirkman died in 1864 and is buried in Nashville.
Cohen, Hennig, and William B. Dillingham, eds. Humor of the Old Southwest. 3rd ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
“Samuel Kirkman.” In Northern Alabama: Historical and Biographical. Birmingham: Smith and DeLand, 1888.
Yates, Norris W. William T. Porter and the “Spirit of the Times”: A Study of the BIG BEAR School of Humor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957.