Skip to main content

The History of Nearly 250 Years of School Shootings in America

Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.

Memorial dedicated to the children of the Pontiac School Rebellion Massacre of 1764

Memorial dedicated to the children of the Pontiac School Rebellion Massacre of 1764

The History of School Shootings in the US

America is seeing an obscene amount of school violence. Conservatives are blaming a lack of prayer in school, liberals are blaming a lack of gun safety laws, but did you know we have been battling this issue since the 1700s? We have seen not only students go crazy and kill each other, but an overwhelming amount of lover’s quarrels gone wrong, teachers shooting teachers, random strangers shooting children, bombs being detonated on school property, and even accidental shootings! No sex, age, race, or creed of person has avoided this problem. Even our own government has been responsible for the shooting deaths of students as well as the civilian casualties of war on our own grounds! Below are some of the more interesting shootings, many of them were first at something.

The First School Shooting in 1764

The first public school in America was founded in 1635 and for almost 130 years there was the longest stretch of peace in the schoolhouses that we have ever seen. At the time only boys could attend school. There were no gun laws at all and many of these boys came off of farms and rural areas where guns were a necessity. It’s not clear if no one ever got hurt or if there just wasn’t anyone recording it when they did.

Either way the first reported school shooting happened on July 26, 1764. It was a normal day for the students in this Pennsylvanian school house in what is now known today as Greencastle. No one would have suspected anything was about to go down. The shooting took place during the French and Indian War when four Lenape warriors stormed in and commenced in a wholesale slaughter. The schoolmaster Enoch Brown was the only adult to lose his life in the tragedy along with ten children. Only three students survived and of them one had already been partially scalped.

Upon return to their chief the Lenape warriors were far from considered war heroes. Here they were publicly called cowards for killing innocent cornered children and the settlers at the time reinstated a price on Native American scalps. Many Native American women and children were killed in retribution. As you can see the first school shooting was caused by bad politics and warfare, not the cold merciless heart of a sociopathic teenager.

Children Shooting Children (1853 and 1867)

The first child to cause a school shooting was Mathew Ward, a 13 year old attending school in Louisville Kentucky. On November 1, 1853 he was disturbed by the excessive punishment of his brother by schoolmaster Mr. Butler. The next day he shot Mr. Butler at point blank range, killing him on school property. Later he would be acquitted for his crime.

The first child-on-child shooting occurred in June 8, 1867 when a thirteen year old boy shot another classmate. Details of this crime have been impossible to find. I do not know the names of these boys, the motives, if the shooter was punished, or if the victim died.

First Female Shooter, 1886

The first female shooter was Ms. Emma Connelly on July 4, 1886. She felt that whipping was not a good enough punishment for another student at her Sunday school, John Steedley, for gossiping about her and spreading slanderous rumors. His injuries were fatal.

First School Suicide, 1887

On April 12, 1887 the first suicide took place when Edwin Bush shot himself in the head at the Potsdan Normal School in Watertown New York.

The First Mass School Shooting, 1891

April 9, 1891 marked the first mass school shooting were more than one victim was targeted. However it was not a student that caused the melee it was a 70 year old man by the name of James Foster who decided to take his shotgun out to a playground of St Mary’s Parochial School in Newburgh New York. Five male students suffered minor injury while the rest got away without a scratch.

First Teachers Shooting Teachers and Students, 1902

February 26, 1902 was an unusual case as it was the first teacher on teacher shooting. Fletcher R. Barnett made a fateful visit to Eva C. Wiseman, who was teaching a class at the time. He shot her dead and injured a student who ran to her aid before eventually killing himself later that day. The shooting was thought to have been caused by Ms. Wiseman’s rebuttal of Mr. Barnett’s romantic advances.

Another short-tempered male teacher, Reuben Pitts, shot and killed one of his 17-year-old students after the boy allegedly tried to take a rod from the teacher’s hand to avoid another beating. Corporal punishment at the time was very common and completely legal. Mr. Pitts never paid for this deadly snap decision as he was acquitted.

Female School Shooters, 1908

By now finishing schools for girls had been set up and of course there was much drama to be seen amongst the all-female students. The Laurens School in Boston Massachusetts was the one to first show how dramatic this could get when on March 11, 1908 Sarah Chamberlain Weed drew a gun and shot her close friend Elizabeth Bailey Hardee before turning the gun on herself. Their bodies were both found in their beds. News reports at the time blame the crimes on Sarah’s “melancholia,” something probably diagnosed today as a mixture of clinical depression and mental illness, which she had already been previously sent to sanitarium for. Records there said she suffered from “nervous prostration” (currently known as a nervous breakdown) due to overwork.

Parents Shooting Students, 1908

Dr. C. O. Swinney was probably the first parental school shooting as he went to his 16 year old daughter’s school Normal and Collegiate Institute in Ashville North Carolina and shot and killed her. He committed suicide later that day, April 15, 1908.

The Back of the Bath Schoolhouse after the 1927 bombing.

The Back of the Bath Schoolhouse after the 1927 bombing.

Read More From Soapboxie

The Deadliest School Shooting Ever, 1927

May 18, 1927 marks the deadliest school shooting. With one shot school treasurer Andrew Kehoe was able to kill 42 people. How is that even possible, you must be asking. Well earlier that morning, after beating his wife to death and torching his farm, he came into the school and loaded the basement with dynamite. The one shot was to light the dynamite which exploded and instantly killed 38 people. Survivors who had fled outside approached his car as he drove in and it was in this way that he managed to lure four more people into a death trap when his car then exploded taking him and the last victims with it. In the wake of the tragedy the Bath township of Michigan mourned the deaths of thirty-eight elementary students, two teachers, four other staff members, and Andrew Kehoe himself. Firefighters who may have aided in the explosion were already trying to put out the flames that were engulfing the recently foreclosed upon Keyhoe farm. Keyhoe blamed the raise in property taxes (intended to pay for the building of the new school) for his dire financial problem and took revenge as he saw fit.

Drive-Bys and Disgruntled Employees, 1934 and 1936

On September 19, 1934 drive-by shootings came into school life as Headmaster Elliott Speer of the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill Massachusetts was shot through a window in his study. He died from the shotgun blast and since no one came forward to confess or add clues to the crime, it went unsolved.

Schools were not exempt from disgruntled employees either. After learning about his dismissal at the end of the semester Professor John Weller shot and injured Professor Harry Kurz in the University of Nebraska on April 27, 1936. Later after being surrounded by cops he shot himself in the chest.

Gang violence entered a Brooklyn New York School on June 26, 1946 as a 15 year old schoolboy was found dead in the basement at 11:30AM, killed by seven other students who were trying to extort pocket money out of him.

Accidental School Shootings, 1948 and 1955

December 24, 1948 was the first accidental school shooting. 17 year old Robert Ross was shooting a target near the lake on school property. His .22 caliber rifle shot a 14 year old boy in the head.

Twenty-year-old Bob Bechtel had had enough of fraternity hazing when on January 11, 1955 he returned to Swarthmore College toting a rifle. Bechtel accused Holmes Strozier, as well as several other students, of pissing on his mattress. I am guessing this was the last straw in a series of unpleasant events that ended in Strozier paying the ultimate price.

Charles Whitman - Texas Tower shooter - 1966

Charles Whitman - Texas Tower shooter - 1966

First Famous School Shooting, 1966

August 1, 1966 was probably the first shooting that got national media attention on an enormous scale, even getting TV coverage. Charles Whitman had killed his wife and mother earlier that day before climbing to the top of an observation tower and showering gunfire down at the campus below. His first shot was made at the belly of a heavily pregnant woman who survived but lost her baby. In 96 minutes he killed 16 people and wounded 31. He only stopped when police officers climbed the tower and snuck up on the shooter delivering several fatal blows from their own guns. An autopsy shows that Whitman had a tumor on his brain. Some suggest this may have been the reasoning for his increasingly violent nature while others point to his methodical planning, leaving his domineering father alive to talk about the whole tragedy, as more likely the cause of his own personality and possible mental illness.

The Youngest Victim of a School Shooting (1966)

Likely the youngest born victim of a school shooting was killed at the tender age of three years at the Rose-Mar College of Beauty in Mesa Arizona on November 12, 1966. Shooter Bob Smith first took 18 people hostage before killing four women and the three year old. Another woman and her baby were injured but did not die. He was later arrested.

Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith all died during the first riot related school shooting. They were killed on February 8, 1968 by police officers who were shooting into the crowd under the belief they were under threat by small arms. The students were protesting the segregation of a local bowling alley and several fires had already been started. Twenty-seven additional students were injured by the gunfire during this Orangeburg South Carolina incidence.

The three victims of the Orangeburg Massacre 1968.

The three victims of the Orangeburg Massacre 1968.

Student reacting to another student being shot dead by National Guard at the Kent State Massacre in 1970.

Student reacting to another student being shot dead by National Guard at the Kent State Massacre in 1970.

Kent State Shooting, 1970

May 4, 1970 was “the day the war came home,” or more specifically to Kent State Ohio. Four students were shot dead by the National Guard after protest demonstrations against the Vietnam War went sour. A fifth person shot was paralyzed for life from the waist down. Some of the students were protesting the American invasion of Cambodia but some of them were just passersby.

First Semi-Automatic Shooting, 1976

On June 12, 1976 the stakes grew higher as the first semi-automatic shooting was caused by a mentally ill janitor. He gunned down seven students in the California state University Library in Fullerton California. Two others were injured. Thirty-seven year old Edward Charles Allaway claimed his motives for the shooting were because pornographers were forcing his wife to appear in adult movies on rent at the library. His wife was never actually featured in any pornographic films and he was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

First Female School Mass Murderer, 1979

On January 29, 1979 press were in a frenzy over the first female school mass murderer. Her name was Brenda Anne Spencer. She was sixteen years old and had decided not to go to school the day of the shooting, instead she looked out her window across the street where an elementary school was being attended. Then she took the rifle her father had recently given her and started to pick her targets out. This sixteen year old girl turned out to be a deadly sharpshooter. She killed two people and injured nine others. After the shooting she holed herself in her home for seven hours, threatening to shoot more people if she came out. When the telephone rang and asked her why she had done these things she replied, "I just did it for the fun of it. I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day. I have to go now. I shot a pig [policeman]. I think and I want to shoot more. I'm having too much fun [to surrender]." To this day she has shown no remorse for her actions.

Brenda Ann Spencer - 16 year old shooter of the Cleavland Elementary School - 1979

Brenda Ann Spencer - 16 year old shooter of the Cleavland Elementary School - 1979

First School Shooting-Kidnapping, 1986

Cokeville Wyoming probably had the first school shooting/ransom attempt. On May 16, 1986 David and Doris Young walked into the Cokeville Elementary school and took 168 children and adults hostage. They strapped a gasoline filled bomb to themselves and threatened to detonate it unless they were given $300,000,000. The farce ended two and a half hours after it started when a sharp movement on Doris’ part set off the bomb. She was only injured until her husband came back into the room and shot her along with himself. Everyone escaped though many had burns.

Columbine, 1999

By the time the Columbine shootings happened, we’d already seen almost everything, though this may have been the first school shooting in which more than one person claimed the shooting role. Fourteen students and one teacher were killed while twenty-seven others were injured. Bombs set around the school did not go off and casualties were kept fairly low in comparison to what it could have been if they did.

And So On, Etc.

Many more shooting have happened since then. The United States remains the number one country for school shootings. The statistics are unpleasant at best. In the 2000’s there were 142 deaths caused by school shootings. Just by comparison Canada has only had nine school shootings ever, resulting in 26 deaths starting in 1902. Fourteen of those deaths came from one incident at the University of Montreal in December 6, 1989. Twenty-five-year-old Marc Lepine claimed his reasons for killing were a hatred for feminists. He killed himself before anyone was able to question him further.

What Causes School Shootings?

So why does the US have so many school shootings? And so many deadly ones at that? It can’t be blamed on the lack of prayer in schools as for the majority of our school history, as well as the shooting history, prayers were taught and read at schools, not to mention at least one of these shootings was at a Bible school and several others were at various other forms of religious school. I think one of the biggest reasons is the ease at which disgruntled and disturbed students can get guns. Guns are not only legal in the United States they can be found in abundance and children with a strong enough will or negligent enough relatives can get their hands onto firearms pretty damn easily. Most European countries do not have this freedom; gun ownership there is illegal for the average citizen so their children would have to search pretty hard for a firearm. I’m not saying the US should make firearms illegal but perhaps we should do a better job at keeping them away from children and the mentally disturbed, and maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to have semiautomatics around quite so often either. You can do enough damage with a tiny handgun; do we really need semiautomatics and bomb making materials?

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Related Articles