School Shootings Are Not Just A Modern Phenomenon

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, August 5, 2014
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“Victory won by violence is tantamount to defeat, for it is momentary.” —Mahatma Gandhi, Satyagraha leaflet

In A Nutshell

With the relatively recent rash of school shootings in the United States, educators, psychologists, parents, and politicians alike have struggled to rationalize just what drives a young person to commit such a horrible, horrible act. Bizarrely, school shootings and violence aren’t a new thing, and looking back through the centuries will show that schools have always been a hotbed of violence. From a bombing in 1927 that killed 45 people in Bath, Michigan to a 10-year-old girl who was shot in the face on a playground in 1890 by her angry classmate, school violence has haunted us for generations.

The Whole Bushel

There aren’t many events that will evoke a national sense of sorrow, community, support, sadness, and grief like the news of a school shooting. It’s one of those things that is seemingly a recent development, with people eager to blame violent movies, video games, and other modern ideas like easy access to guns or parents more preoccupied with careers than their children.

While some of those issues may certainly be worth discussing, the tragic truth is that school shootings are not a new phenomenon.

One of the worst examples of school violence in the United States happened in 1927, when a farmer named Andrew Kehoe loaded a school with dynamite and set it off while class was in session. He killed 45 people, including 38 children. Kehoe spent several months discreetly hiding dynamite in the school, wiring it to explode with one trigger; when it was time, he started his killing spree with his wife. And when it was done, he set off a car bomb that killed himself and the superintendent of the school. When investigators cleared the rubble, they found unexploded dynamite still in the school, along with sacks of gunpowder. The wiring had shorted out, or the death toll could have easily included most of the town.

By all accounts, Kehoe was an angry man. He was known by the neighbors as one to experiment with dynamite, and as a man who had once killed a barking dog and a horse that was unwilling to work. His hatred toward the school started when, angry about the amount of school taxes he had to pay, he joined the school board and failed to get taxes lowered. He tried running for town clerk, too, and—unsurprisingly—wasn’t elected.

There are, sadly, also plenty of instances of school violence that have been enacted on students and teachers by others students.

In the April 25, 1890 issue of the Daily Alta California, there’s a painfully short article about a 10-year-old girl named Cora Brubach who was shot in the face by a classmate, angry that she had tattled on him for an unnamed offense.

In a 1919 edition of the Washington Times, there’s a similarly short article about a 19-year-old student named Robert Warner, who shot and killed his teacher in a jealous rage after she spurned his advances.

And in 1949, Ohio State University fraternity pledge James Heer shot and killed a member of his fraternity after he was stopped from dragging his unwilling date back to his room. He offered the simple explanation that drinking made him trigger-happy.

The farther back you look in history, the more instances of school violence you find. In 1595, a normally harmless prank turned violent when William Sinclair led the traditional annual takeover of Edinburgh, Scotland’s high school in an attempt to get the faculty to start their holidays early. Normally, the students would bar the doors and occupy the school (hence the name of the tradition, known as “barring-out”). This year the students, who were no older than 14, were refused in their bid to start the holidays early. Before entering the school, they had armed themselves with swords and pistols. When men of the town broke down the doors to the school and attempted to end the occupation, Sinclair fired at the men and killed one of the town’s officials, a man named John MacMoran. Bizarrely, it was the principal of the school who was held responsible and fired, while the students, all sons of notable Edinburgh men, weren’t punished in the slightest.

Show Me The Proof

Slate: ‘We Still Look at Ourselves as Survivors’
Daily Alta California: Shot by a Schoolboy
Washington Times: Boy Kills Teacher In ‘Wild Jealousy’
The Denisonian: Tragic Shooting Dims Homecoming for O.S.U.
Murder, Mayhem and the Muse in Jacobean Edinburgh