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First U.S. School Shooting Occurred at the University of Virginia

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UVA Rotunda (FILE IMAGE) UVA Rotunda (FILE IMAGE)
George Gilliam George Gilliam
UVA Lawn (FILE IMAGE) UVA Lawn (FILE IMAGE)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) -

With school shootings seemingly on the rise, we're taking a look back at the history of how they got their start.

We didn't have to look far.

The first school shooting on record in America happened in 1840 at the University of Virginia. There were maybe less than 100 students at UVA at this time, and most of them were slave owners, raised to give and not take orders… Especially not from professors.

Students, instead, passed the time rioting to express their "perceived" victory against authority.

“It wasn't like an outside person, or even some mad person coming in. This was just a hell-raiser,” said history professor George Gilliam.

It was late in the evening Thursday, November 12, 1840. “They [the students] were getting ready to have the weekly riot.... seriously...and there were several professors who were very upset,” Gilliam said.

There were only about five professors on staff who lived on the UVA Lawn.

“So one of the kids was adjusting his mask, because they all wore masks,” Gilliam explained. “And he says to one of his friends, ‘I'm gonna shoot the first person who tries to take off my mask.'”

That person was a law professor named John Davis.

“And he pulled up his pistol and just shot him right in the heart,” said Gilliam.

Joseph Semmes, an 18 or 19 year old, was arrested. He posted bail, “Which was $25,000, which in 1840 was like half a million today,” according to Gilliam.

Semmes jumped bail, and went to Texas. That's the last anyone here ever heard of him.

“They never caught him again,” Gilliam said.

Historians say to frame this story in the context of recent school shootings is not the same: It’s in an entirely different realm of cause and impact, but it is said to have been the birth of the University of Virginia’s honor system of reporting.