Justice  /  Narrative

The Lessons of a School Shooting – in 1853

How a now-forgotten classroom murder inflamed the national gun argument.
Hatchetfish/Wikimedia Commons

Though little remembered now, the first high-profile school shooting in the U.S. was more than 150 years ago, in Louisville, Kentucky. The 1853 murder of William Butler by Matthews F. Ward was a news sensation, prompting national outrage over the slave South’s libertarian gun rights vision and its deadly consequences. At a time when there wasn’t yet a national media, this case prompted a legal conversation that might be worth resurrecting today.

The deadly encounter between the two men was triggered by a trivial matter: eating a bunch of chestnuts during class. William Butler was a 28-year-old teacher, a Yankee immigrant to Kentucky who had helped found the Louisville School, an institution that attracted students from some of the best families in town. One of those was William Ward, the son of a prominent cotton merchant. Butler, a stern teacher, confronted the young Ward about eating in the classroom. Ward denied it. His teacher called him a liar and administered a whipping. This was a severe form of punishment, but not unusual in the mid-19th century, an age when corporal punishment in schools was the norm in many places.

The punishment did not go over well in the Ward household. The next day the boy’s older brother, Matthews Ward, purchased two small pistols and returned to the school with William and another brother, Bob. Butler had no inkling that his actions had incensed the elder Ward brother, and he greeted all three brothers cordially. Matthews confronted the teacher, calling him a “damned scoundrel” and a “coward.” Matthews and William Butler scuffled, and in the course of the altercation, Ward pulled out his pistol and shot his opponent. The Ward boys fled the building; students rushed to Butler’s aid, carrying him to his house, where a doctor attended him. But to no avail. Butler died within days of the incident.

Ward was arrested and charged with murder. The trial was a news sensation, garnering headlines in papers across the nation. As today, the public was horrified at the thought of deadly violence in a school, a protected place of learning, and the very embodiment of civilization and order. And the idea of a student killing his brother’s teacher was almost an unthinkable violation of the social order.

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