John Gorman Barr was born in North Carolina in 1823. After his father’s death, his mother brought him to Tuscaloosa in 1835, where she died soon afterwards, leaving her son penniless. He was apprenticed to a local printer at age 14. David M. Boyd, a Tuscaloosa clothing merchant, granted him a scholarship to the University of Alabama. He was only 18 years old when he earned a degree in 1841 and 19 when he earned a second degree in 1842. He subsequently became a mathematics tutor. Being an eloquent speaker, he also served as master of ceremonies for University functions, such as graduation. Later, he privately studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1845. He soon began writing for the Tuscaloosa Observer. E.A. Powell, writing in Fifty-Five Years in West Alabama, described him as “a very brilliant young man.”
At the outbreak of the Mexican War, he raised a company of local volunteers and served as captain from 1847 until 1848, eventually achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he became editor of the Tuscaloosa Observer. Some of his humorous short stories were reprinted in the Spirit of the Times, a nationally distributed, New York-based, weekly newspaper, under the pseudonym “Omega.”
Barr’s characters were often real Tuscaloosans of all social classes, ranging from slaves to aristocrats. Some became the victims of elaborate practical jokes. One of his best-known stories is the “New York Drummer’s Ride to Greensboro.” It tells of a self-important traveling salesman who, with the aid of alcohol, is led to believe he is traveling from Tuscaloosa to Greensboro. Almost everyone in the community participates by adding “special effects” – while he spends the night in a horseless stagecoach that goes nowhere.
In 1857, Barr launched a campaign for a seat in Congress, but later withdrew. President James Buchanan, a fellow Democrat, was impressed, and in 1858, he appointed Barr as the U.S. Consul to Melbourne, the capital of the newly created British Colony of Victoria in southern Australia. There had been a huge gold rush, and Australia’s population had tripled in just a decade. Many of the gold miners were American and thus might need the help a representative of their native country could offer. Barr sailed for Australia but died of sunstroke. He was buried at sea in the Indian Ocean.
John Gorman Barr arose from a poverty-stricken background and enjoyed a multi-facetted career. Although best remembered as a humorist, he had varying degrees of success as an academic, journalist, lawyer, army officer, politician, and diplomat. His achievements are significant by the standards of any era, especially since he accomplished these things during a life of only 35 years.
Suggested additional reading:
Rowdy Tales from Early Alabama: The Humor of John Gorman Barr. G. Ward Hubbs, editor.
Humor of the Old Southwest. Cohen and Dillingham, editors.