Ephraim Kirby, son of Abraham Kirby, a farmer, and Eunice Starkweather, was born on February 23, 1757, in Judea Society, Ancient Woodbury, CT. About 1763 his parents moved to Litchfield, CT. His boyhood days were spent in work usually done by a farmer's son, but details of these years and of his early education are lacking.
However, he had learned well the meaning of patriotism, for on the news of the battle of Lexington he joined a company of volunteers and arrived at Boston in time to take part in the battle of Bunker Hill. In the latter part of 1776, together with other young men of Litchfield County, he assisted in forming a company of volunteer cavalry. The men furnished their own horses and equipment and served about two years. That company of cavalry was engaged in several battles and a great many skirmishes, one of which being when Kirby was wounded and left for dead. Nearly all the members of this company lost their lives before the close of the war. Kirby is sometimes credited with serving at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, but this would not have been possible, as per the following narrative from Dr. Garlick, his nephew, which he received from Mrs. Ann Kirby Barnum, of Baltimore, (his mother's and Kirby's sister):
The house at 113 South Street in Litchfield, CT
completed around 1773 for Ephraim Kirby
"At the time when our army lay somewhere south of Philadelphia, perhaps on or near the Brandywine, the British under Lord Howe sailed up the Chesapeake and landed a little south of Elk River on the 25th of August, 1777. Some of our troops were left in the rear of the main army north of Elk River for the purpose of keeping Washington advised as to the whereabouts of the British army under Lord Howe. Among the troops so left was the company of cavalry of which Kirby was a member. A portion of this company, I do not recollect how many, were ordered to cross Elk River fur the purpose of reconnoitering, and to ascertain, if possible, the whereabouts of Lord Howe's army. This was in the fore part of September. They had to swim the river, and after crossing, dismounted, and were engaged in getting the water out of their boots. Many of them had drawn off their boots for that purpose when they were surprised by a large force of British dragoons and captured. After giving up their arms they were robbed of what little money they had, and also of their watches, and every man except Kirby and a man by the name of Lewis were killed in cold blood. Kirby was supposed to be dead, and Lewis, like old Jack Falstaff, fell on the ground in the melee, and feigned death so well that he escaped. Kirby stood by and under his horse's head, while a British dragoon was belting away at his head with his sword, Kirby dodging the blows as best he could, and fending off with his arms, which were badly wounded. The wounds on his head were fearful, cutting through both tables of the skull and into the brain, a portion of which was lost. Thirty odd pieces of his skull were removed by the surgeon.
After the British dragoons left, Lewis got up, and after examining his comrades, he found everyone dead except Kirby, who was breathing, but unconscious. Not far from the place where this happened was a log cabin, in which resided an aged widow, who consented to let Lewis bring Kirby to her house, and leave him there until a surgeon could be sent to dress his wounds. Word was immediately sent to his father at Litchfield, that his son was mortally wounded, but contrary to all expectations, his wounds healed kindly, and rapidly, though he still remained unconscious. In the month of December following his father went after him (a great journey in those days), and took him home to Litchfield. His wounds had all healed, but he still remained unconscious, and no one supposed he would ever recover his mental faculties.
But sometime in the following May he suddenly sprung from his bed, exclaiming, "Where is Eagle!" meaning his horse. From that moment he was all right in his mind, and remained so until his death. Very soon after this he re-entered the army, and remained in it until the close of the war. Kirby could not have been in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, as he was lying insensible from his wounds received at Elk River at the time these battles were fought, remaining so until the following month of May. The battle of Brandywine was fought September 11, 1777; the battle of Germantown, October 4, 1777; the battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778. I have no doubt he was engaged in this last battle, as he re- entered the army very soon after he recovered from his wounds."
Kirby continued in active service until independence was achieved. At one time he was an ensign in a Rhode Island company and also a lieutenant in a Connecticut company. In all he is said to have been in nineteen battles and skirmishes, receiving thirteen wounds, including the saber cuts already mentioned. These honorable evidences of service he carried with him to the grave. He was discharged Aug. 7, 1778. He later became a colonel in the 17th regiment of the Connecticut militia. He presented his sword to St. Paul's Lodge, Litchfield, CT, where it is now proudly displayed. He was an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati of Connecticut.
Returning to civilian life, he decided to study law. He returned to Litchfield, and studied law under Judge Reynold Marvin, who before the war had been King's attorney, but who had relinquished his official station to ally himself with the cause of the colonists. Mr. Kirby entered the office of Mr. Marvin, and under his instruction he was soon admitted to the bar.
It was at this time, having entered upon the practice, that he married Ruth Marvin, the only daughter of his patron and tutor. She was born in Litchfield on December 20, 1763 and died there on October 17, 1817. She and Kirby were married on March 17, 1784. Over the years, he and Ruth had eight children. (It is interesting that one of his grandchildren, Edmund Kirby Smith, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican-American War, later resigned his commission and joined the Confederate army, rising to the rank of full general in 1864.)
After the war, Kirby had attended Yale University, but left college without a degree. By his own diligence and labor he earned his education as a lawyer. In recognition of his legal talents and growing reputation, in 1787 the honorary degree of Master of Arts was conferred on him by Yale.
Following American independence, the need for a written record of court decisions developed in order to distinguish American common law from English common law. Ephraim Kirby is best remembered for compiling the first volume of law reports in America. When the Connecticut legislature passed a law in 1785 requiring judges to prepare their decisions in writing, Kirby had already begun his own compilation for private use. He was persuaded to enlarge his task for publication. Published in 1789, Kirby's Reports of Cases Adjudged in the Superior Court of the State of Connecticut, from the year 1785, to May, 1788, with some Determinations in the Supreme Court of Errors is a record of the legal history of Connecticut's courts. Kirby wrote in his preface, "I have avoided technical terms and phrases as much as possible, that it might be intelligible to all classes of men." Thus, Kirby might well be considered as America's first court reporter.
Ephraim Kirby was one of the original thirty-five proprietors of the Western Reserve, which was a portion of land claimed by the Colony of Connecticut and later by the state of Connecticut in what is now mostly part of the northeastern region of the state of Ohio. The Reserve had been granted to the Colony by King Charles 2nd. Following the Revolutionary War, Connecticut gave up claim to some of its western lands, but sold the Western Reserve to a company of developers initially. This company was known as the "Connecticut Land Company," Kirby being a member of the first board of directors, and the company's legal advisor. It finally ceded control of this portion to the United States, and the area was organized under the Northwest Territory, until Ohio was admitted as a state. In 1789 Kirby took the initiative in another matter of great interest in that era. He wrote the pledge and organized the first society ever formed in America, for the promotion of temperance.
From Dr. Garlick's account, we learn further that "In 1791 Colonel Kirby was elected for the first time a representative to the Legislature, a post of honor and responsibility to which he was subsequently re-elected at thirteen semi-annual elections. As a legislator he was always distinguished for the dignity of his deportment, for his comprehensive and enlightened views, for the liberality of his sentiments, and for his ability, firmness, and decision.
On the election of Mr. Jefferson to the Presidency in 1801, Colonel Kirby was appointed supervisor of the National Revenue of the State of Connecticut. About this period he was for several years the Democratic candidate for governor, but as a matter of course, he was always beaten. The late Dr. Jared P. Kirtland had recollections of an enthusiastic State Democratic Convention held at Wallingford, Connecticut, at which Judge Kirby was nominated for Governor. It was held in the meeting house, and the crowd was so great that the galleries showed signs of giving way. Some rails were brought in as props, and the Convention proceeded to finish its work."
We turn now to a brief history of Kirby's Masonic career as recorded by Denslow in his 10,000 Famous Freemasons book: He became a member of St. Paul's Lodge No. 11, Litchfield, CT, in 1781, but it is not known if this is his original lodge. It is said that he had a part in organizing a lodge at Woodbury, CT in 1782. On December 27, 1871, he was elected secretary of St. Paul's Lodge. Representing that lodge at the convention of July 8, 1789 to form the Samuel Kirkland Grand Lodge of CT, he was elected its secretary. He was Grand Senior Warden of that Grand Lodge from 1795-97. He served three terms as master of his own lodge. Little is known of his chapter record except that he was a member of the Mark Lodge located at New Town, CT, and was a signer of the by-laws of Hiram Chapter No. 1 of the same city, March 31, 1792. When the Grand Chapter of Connecticut was organized at Hartford, May 17, 1798, Kirby was elected its first Grand High Priest. He was also elected first General Grand High Priest in 1798, serving until his death in 1804. He was thus Grand High Priest and General Grand High Priest at the same time.
Politically, M.E. Companion Kirby was an admirer of Jeffersonian political philosophy and thus was an adherent of the Democratic principles championed by Jefferson. Living in a region where the Federalists were predominant, this was a dangerous viewpoint, especially if one wanted to advance in political circles in the state. Most likely this is also why he was defeated for the post of governor several times. He was the champion of Jefferson, and so brought down upon himself the whole weight of the Federalist power, then dominant and overwhelming On occasion, the magistrates and clergy of Connecticut would rant and rave against Jefferson and his supporters, and the clergymen in Litchfield would sometimes be so personal that all eyes in the meeting-house would be turned towards Kirby, as he sat in his pew, as being the one hit on, and since he could not talk back, and unable to bear it any longer, he left the (Congregational) church, and was one of the principal founders of the Episcopal Church in Litchfield.
Congress, by an act of March 27, 1804, created an additional judge for the Mississippi Territory due to the increasing influx of settlers into that region. Under this act President Thomas Jefferson, on April 6, 1804, appointed Ephraim Kirby as the additional judge. Having accepted the office, he went directly to his new post, Fort Stoddert, on the Alabama River north of Spanish-held Mobile, Alabama, near the present-day town of Mount Vernon. He left his wife and eight children behind in faraway Connecticut. In this sparsely settled wilderness, he began the foundation of a new court system for what would become the State of Alabama. At best, Judge Kirby could not have held more than one term of Court, for he died of yellow fever on October 4, 1804, at Fort Stoddert. As the U. S. government maintained a military presence there, his remains were interred by the soldiers with all the honors of war and other marks of respect. In 1850, a visitor to the cemetery claimed to find a red cedar board at the head of a grave incised with the words "Ephraim Kirby, died Oct. 4th, 1804." He later re- visited the place, and found that the board had been destroyed by forest fires. And so it is that there is now no monument to mark the grave; and the exact location of the grave remains unknown. Sadly, he died before learning that President Jefferson had appointed him Governor of the Mississippi Territory.
A nine-foot tall granite monument designed by Col. Woolsey Finnell, PGHP of Alabama (1928) was dedicated with appropriate ceremonies in the town of Mount Vernon, AL, on Sunday, August 23, 1953. To construct the monument, Most Excellent Companion Finnell solicited funds from Royal Arch Chapters in Alabama as well as other Masonic groups in Alabama and across the country. Velmer Meadows, Sr., then Grand High Priest of Alabama, presided at the dedication event. A speech on Kirby's Masonic history was given by General Grand Scribe James Jordon of Louisiana; followed by one covering Kirby's judicial history given by Judge Robert T. Simpson, associate justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Kirby's military history was then described by Col. William Carpenter, president of the Alabama Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. A response to these addresses was given by Massie Gibbs Kirby of Virginia, Ephraim's great-granddaughter. The inscription on the monument is as follows:
In Memory of Col. Ephraim Kirby First General Grand High Priest of The General Grand Chapter Royal Arch Masons of the U.S. 1798 - 1804 Born Woodbury Conn. Feb. 23, 1757 Died Ft. Stoddert Oct. 20, 1804.
Col. Ephraim Kirby was appointed additional judge of the Superior Court of Miss. Territory April 6, 1804, by President Jefferson. He took station at Ft. Stoddert and presided over the first superior court held in what is now Alabama until his death.
Col. Ephraim Kirby beginning at Bunker Hill fought in 17 battles and was wounded 13 times during the Revolutionary War. Entered the army as an enlisted man and was discharged as Lt. Col. of the Connecticut Militia.
The monument is located on Old Military Road near Highway 43 in Mount Vernon, Alabama.
A fitting tribute to Ephraim Kirby was given in a paper read by Thomas M. Owen before the Alabama State Bar Association, June 29, 1901: "Colonel Kirby was a man of the highest moral as well as physical courage, devoted in his feelings and aspirations, warm, generous, and constant in his attachments, and of indomitable energy. He was withal gentle and winning in his manners, kindly in his disposition, and naturally of an ardent and cheerful temperament, though the last few years of his life were saddened by heavy pecuniary misfortunes. As a lawyer he was remarkable for frankness and downright honesty to his clients, striving to prevent litigation and effecting compromises. He enjoyed the friendship of many of the sages of the Revolution."
M.E. Companion Marshall is a PGHP, PIGM, and PGC of Alabama. He is a Past General Grand Custodian of the Work for the General Grand Chapter, RAM, and was awarded the Gold Medal for Distinguished Service by the General Grand Chapter in 2011. He is also a 2014 recipient of the General Grand Chapter Ephraim Kirby Award. He can be reached at email@example.com.
" Transactions of the Alabama Historical Society, Vol. IV, pp. 550-553. Online at http://www.archives.state.al.us/al_sldrs/k_list.html
" The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, August 23, 1953. Online at http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1817&dat=19530823&id=lA8dAAAAIBAJ&sjid=NJgEAAAAIBAJ&pg=7088,4763089
" Dr. Theodatus Garlick, A Biography of Ephraim Kirby, Cleveland, Ohio, January, 1883. Online at http://www.archive.org/stream/biographyofephra00garl#page/184/mode/2up
" Alabama. D.A.R. Lineage Book, Vol. 107, page 233.
" Thomas Jefferson Papers from the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/mtjhtml/mtjhome.html
" William R. Denslow, 10,000 Famous Freemasons, Vol. III, K-P, Published by
Macoy Publishing & Masonic Supply Co., Inc., Richmond, VA, 1957. Online at http://www.phoenixmasonry.org/10,000_famous_freemasons/Volume_3_K_to_P.htm
" Everett Turnbull and Ray Denslow, A History of Royal Arch Masonry Part One, Kessinger Publishing, 2004.