School Shooting 1840


John A.G. Davis

Davis’s gravestone at the University of Virginia Cemetery in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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In the early 19th century, rioting was a common practice in the United States among students who either didn’t like the food, the rules or the punishments meted out to them. William and Mary students rioted in 1802 after professors punished two fellow classmates for dueling. Bad food—old fish and overripe cabbage—ignited Harvard’s Rotten Cabbage Rebellion in 1807. That same year, Princeton students rioted after three classmates were suspended.

The University of Virginia endured at least six riots in its earliest days. During one riot, a professor was murdered—one of the worst crimes committed at the University in its long history.

It happened this way: One of the new traditions at UVA was the celebration of the 1836 military company riot, which the students had interpreted as a victory over professorial authority. Every November the students fired their pistols, set off firecrackers, lit fires and in general spent the night caterwauling.

But on this autumn night in 1840, the disturbance was too much for John A.G. Davis, the school’s law professor since 1830. He stepped out, as he no doubt had many times in the past, to put a halt to the hullabaloo, caused predominantly by two masked students parading around the Lawn firing blank cartridges.

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. On November 14, a Saturday, he succumbed to his wounds at sundown.

respected and well liked by the students, Davis attempted to stop the two students who were causing the disturbance and was shot by one. The killer, although masked, was identified as Joseph Green Semmes.

Students, chastened by the turn of events, joined in the search for Semmes and located him hiding in the forest. Semmes was imprisoned in the county jail for several months while several trial dates were postponed; then, in July 1841, released on $25,000 bond, by reason of deteriorating health. However, he failed to appear for trial in October 1841, and eventually committed suicide, years later.

Young Semmes, who some years since shot Professor Davis at the Virginia University, brought his life to an end by his own hand, the morning of the 9th instant [9 July 1847], at the house of his brother in Washington, Georgia. He shot himself with a pistol, the ball entering the left eye and penetrating the brain and lingered in a state of total insensibility from about 7 o’clock, A. M., when his family was called to his room by the report of a pistol, until half past 1. P. M. of the same day.

— Edgefield Advertiser (SC), 11 August 1847

And so began the search for the student who murdered the professor. This time, the students joined in the hunt for one of their own. Where previous acts of violence had always ended with students closing ranks, this time—for the first time—they sided with University authorities and recognized that there were limits to their insubordinate behavior. They held a meeting the following morning to express their “indignation and abhorrence.”

Young Semmes, who some years since shot Professor Davis at the Virginia University, brought his life to an end by his own hand, the morning of the 9th instant [9 July 1847], at the house of his brother in Washington, Georgia. He shot himself with a pistol, the ball entering the left eye and penetrating the brain and lingered in a state of total insensibility from about 7 o’clock, A. M., when his family was called to his room by the report of a pistol, until half past 1. P. M. of the same day.

— Edgefield Advertiser (SC), 11 August 1847

Expecting a violent confrontation, two students found Semmes hiding in a pine grove and turned him over to the authorities. He offered no resistance. Semmes’ family would later post bail, which he quickly jumped. Soon afterward, he committed suicide.

The murder would meld with a confluence of events—a rise in religious fervor and a growing temperance movement—to tame student behavior. The change was abetted by the birth of the Honor System, which led students—with Davis’ murder still in mind—to decide that reporting misbehavior would be honorable. That change in behavior, coupled with smarter leadership, saved UVA.

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