The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The first U.S. campus shooting struck U-Va. in 1840

A statue of Thomas Jefferson stands in front of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia on June 10, 2016. (Norm Shafer for The Washington Post)

On the morning of Nov. 15, 1840, the Richmond Enquirer reported the nation’s first campus shooting on the bottom corner of Page 2.

In a single paragraph labeled “Painful Occurrence,” the paper said John A.G. Davis, a beloved University of Virginia law professor, “was shot by an unknown hand, with a pistol, in front of his dwelling” and “the ball was received just below the navel.”

Davis died. A manhunt was on for his killer.

As the University of Virginia reels Monday from a shooting that killed three people and injured two others late Sunday, the echoes of other school shooting rampages continue to reverberate, from the 13 people who died at Columbine High School in 1999 to the 32 killed at Virginia Tech in 2007 and the 21 murdered this year at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tex. But the history goes back much further, to the country’s first recorded campus shooting, at the very same university.

Three dead in shooting on U-Va. campus

In the years around 1840, students at the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, engaged in regular protests for the right to carry guns.

Matthew Pearl, a novelist who wrote a short story based on the shooting, described the clash in November 1840 in an essay for HuffPost in 2011:

For several years at the University of Virginia, students had an annual tradition of raising hell around campus, burning tar barrels and shooting pistols into the air. The rioters wanted the freedom to carry arms on campus and each year marked the anniversary when restrictions were put into place that resulted in some defiant students being expelled.

On the evening of Nov. 12, gunfire erupted near the campus homes of the school’s professors and staff. One of the students with a gun was Joseph Semmes, who like the others was wearing a mask.

Remembering the deadliest school massacre in U.S. history

Davis heard the shots and “stepped out,” Virginia Magazine said, “to put a halt to the hullabaloo” and things went south from there:

Around 9:00 p.m., he saw one of the masked students hiding behind one of the pillars. Davis jumped for him and reached to unmask the student. The student fled, but turned after a few steps, pointed his pistol, and, without uttering a word, fired at Davis’ gut. The bullet pierced Davis’ abdomen, and he fell to the ground with a groan. Students soon flocked to the pavilion as word spread that a professor had been shot. Several picked up Davis’ limp, bleeding body and brought the wounded man inside.

While students were, like today, skeptical of authority, they were horrified by the death of a popular professor. Siding with administrators and police who asked for help, students hunted down Semmes, finding him a day or so later in a pine grove. Semmes seemed to care little about the professor’s death, laughing and joking while in custody. When a judge asked him to take an oath on a Bible to tell the truth, Semmes protested he was atheist.

The next thing that happened would seem shocking today: Semmes was released on bail.

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

Not shocking: He disappeared.

Rumors spread about his whereabouts for several years. Some students said they heard he moved to Texas. Others said he died by suicide. One rumor was correct, but it was only confirmed fairly recently.

In 2013, Jean L. Cooper, a U-Va. librarian who maintains a blog about 19th-century U-Va. students, tracked down a Baltimore newspaper from July 1847 that reprinted an item from the Charlottesville Republican about Semmes’s death.

“He shot himself with a pistol, the ball entering the left eye and penetrating the brain,” the Charlottesville paper said, describing his body slumped in a chair at his brother’s house in Georgia. “On the table was found an open note, stating, in the form of a certificate, dated July 9th, 1847, that his death was occasioned by himself.”

A version of this story was first published on April 20, 2018.

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