Librarian Solves Mystery of First School Shooting in the U.S.

May 3, 2018

School shootings are an unfortunate and all-too-frequent part of American life, and many people may assume they began in the late 20th century.  In fact, the first school shooting in the U.S. occurred in 1840 here in Virginia, and the mystery surrounding it has now been solved by a librarian at UVA.

UVA Law Professor John Davis was the first victim of a school shooting in the U.S.
Credit University of Virginia

In the early days, boys as young as 15 were sent to UVA, and university librarian Jean Cooper says they were a rowdy bunch.

“They started having little militias.  The students liked to go around with arms and pretend they were soldiers.”

They would also drink, and UVA’s Board of Visitors thought boys, booze and firearms were a dangerous combination, so in 1837 guns were banned on grounds, and some students were outraged.

“These were just kids, and they also rich kids, and nobody had ever told them no before,” Cooper explains.

Protests broke out and continued sporadically until 1840 when an 18-year-old student from Georgia, Joseph G. Semmes, led a noisy march across the lawn.  Law Professor John Davis heard the commotion and stepped out to see what was going on.

“And when the people came by Pavilion Ten, which was his office and home, he jumped out and tried to grab Semmes," Cooper says.

Semmes stepped away, lifted his pistol and shot Davis in the stomach.

“Of course at that point in time they didn’t have antibiotics," she adds, "and so Davis died a few days later of peritonitis.”

Semmes was soon caught and imprisoned.  Eventually he got bond and disappeared. But Jean Cooper tracked him down – searching old newspapers to discover that in 1847 Semmes used a gun to take his own life at his brother’s home in Georgia.  Since then school shootings have increased steadily, averaging about ten per decade until 1900.  This year alone the United States has recorded 17.