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.
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.