The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The first U.S. school shooting was in 1853. Its victim was a teacher.

Police tape outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., on May 24. (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg News)

Until Matt and Robert Ward walked in, the schoolhouse on Chestnut Street in Louisville on Nov. 2, 1853, was engaged in the routine morning business of words, numbers and questions. Then in a quiet voice, Matt Ward demanded to see Mr. Butler, one of the teachers at the high school.

William H.G. Butler walked in and approached Ward. Butler, 27, with a trim black beard, was adored by most of his students, some of whom were as young as 13.

“I have a little matter to settle with you,” Ward said. He became animated. They exchanged words that were hard for witnesses to make out. Ward then called Butler “a damned liar!” His brother Robert reached for a Bowie knife. There was some kind of movement; some students tried to hide behind Butler.

Matt Ward, who was short and slight, pulled out a small pistol that he had concealed in his coat pocket and shot Butler in the chest. Twelve students watched in horror.

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The Wards scattered. Butler was lifted up by several of his students and taken to a nearby house. A doctor was summoned, but Butler’s wound was too grievous and he died after hours of suffering.

The attack was the first documented shooting at a U.S. primary or secondary schoolhouse. (In 1840, a University of Virginia teacher had been shot by a student. And in 1764, during Pontiac’s War in the colonial era, four Native Americans killed a schoolmaster and around 10 students in what would later become the state of Pennsylvania, though accounts differ on whether the victims were shot or clubbed.)

Matt Ward, 28, whose father was a six-time Kentucky state representative who lived in an $80,000 mansion with nine enslaved Black workers, was arrested along with his brother, who was 19.

The Courier-Journal reported that Matt was upset with Butler because he had beaten his other brother, William, with “5 or 6 licks with a leather strap” the previous day in school after William had been caught eating chestnuts in class.

Teachers from all over the country came to Butler’s funeral. His students helped organize the service. He left behind a wife and infant daughter.

The Ward trial began April 18, 1854, in nearby Elizabethtown, having been moved to an adjoining county because of the public outcry. Matt Ward was represented by 18 lawyers led by Sen. John J. Crittenden, a former U.S. attorney general and Kentucky governor. The lead prosecutor was Alfred Allen, who had just turned 30. The newspapers reported that Allen was also Matt Ward’s best friend.

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The prosecution portrayed Butler as a kind man who had devoted his life to education. One by one, his students testified to how he had helped them. The revelations about Matt Ward were more damning. He had bought two self-cocking pistols the morning of the shooting at Dickson & Gilmore, a local gun store, and had a history of violent threats and angry letters to teachers.

The defense told a different story: that Butler was a power-mad educator who subscribed to tenets of rigid order and abuse. The testimony of the traumatized children didn’t precisely agree, so the defense argued that Butler had mesmerized them with his presence. Ward’s lawyers said he had acted in self-defense after Butler had struck him.

When the prosecution pointed out that Butler could not even make a fist because of a childhood burn, the defense countered that Ward, a Harvard graduate and young author, was “peaceable,” “gentle” and “kind.” (Like Butler, Ward suffered from an infirmity, rheumatism, which caused him to use a crutch in court.) The defense called some 70 witnesses, including two sitting members of Congress.

Butler was revealed to have previously worked in the Ward mansion as a private tutor. There were accusations by the prosecution of bribery and jury tampering, as well as claims that the schoolchildren were being coached in their testimony by another teacher. Wives and mothers testified and fainted.

In his closing argument, Crittenden said that Ward had shot in self-defense and that “the blood that flows in his veins has come down from those noble pioneers who laid the foundations for the greatness and glory of our state.”

On April 27, 1854, the jury issued its verdict: not guilty.

Townspeople were incensed. Eyewitnesses had seen Ward shoot Butler. The man who had sold him the guns had testified under oath, and the ammunition matched the pistol.

A mob approaching 8,000 people burned Ward and his defense team in effigy outside the Ward mansion. Windows were broken, and the mob threatened to put the torch to other buildings. Ward was eventually forced to escape to Arkansas to live on the family cotton plantation.

On Sept. 30, 1862, Ward walked out the front door of his plantation. According to newspaper accounts, he was killed by a group of men, probably Confederate raiders, who were trying to steal his enslaved people. When Ward ran out to stop them, he was wearing a blue coat, which might have made them think he was a Union soldier.

He was killed by a bullet from a gun.

Brad Ricca is an Edgar Allan Poe Award-nominated author of several books of nonfiction.

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