School Shootings Are Not Just A Modern Phenomenon

“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

  • inconspicuous detective

    violence in schools might not be modern, but the death tolls are. go through history though and you won’t find an acceleration in the shootings as well as a death count like we have now. we ought to start looking to real solutions, like not drugging people and expecting that to serve as a be all, end all to the issue, but we won’t, because many buy right into the political “knee jerk” campaigns played by both sides. stupid, senseless. people who do this needed help before they did, and sadly never got it.

    • Hillyard


    • Winefred

      True — body counts can be higher where modern guns are involved (although the guy with the meticulously pre-meditated dynamite had a pretty staggering toll), but on the matter or “acceleration”, statistics show no significant increase in numbers of incidents over recent years. The news cycle just rushes to the scene and beats the story to death these days, in a way they weren’t capable of doing a couple of decades ago, and the whole teddy-bear shrine phenomenon heightens and lengthens the public impact. The statistic doesn’t lessen the grief when it happens, but it should lessen the hysterics.

    • Matthew Messerly

      There were school shootings before there was a second amendment, when God, the Bible, and the 10 commandments were in schools and when evolution was not, as well as before anyone had heard of Ritalin, Adderall, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor, Cymbalta, Zoloft or any other of the supposed over prescribed mood altering drugs.

      • inconspicuous detective

        uh, before there was a second amendment…? not entirely sure where you’re trying to lead me with this. to clarify as well: i’m speaking about america and america only, so don’t cite a british school attack and think i’ll bite…

        • Matthew Messerly

          Or the time where America was governed by the Articles of Confederation? As far as where I’m going school shootings are far too extensive to make a neat and tidy solution about medications, it has no easy solution. The perpetrators of the vast majority of school shootings in American history were not on medications.

  • Edinburgh, nice example of class justice …

    • Nomsheep

      The Great Edinburgh!!

  • oouchan

    Heartbreaking to know this goes back so far. People are prone to violence…this is why I prefer animals over people.


    • Carlos_Perera

      Er, sorry to bust your Arcadian bubble, but animals are prone to violence as well, they just do not have access to any but the simplest weaponry (which the primates _do_ use). Have you not seen how, when outside the control of humans, they settle matters of group hierarchy, territoriality, sexual access, and–last but not least–questions of precedence at meals?

      • oouchan

        Yeah…my cats are plotting world domination as we speak.

        • Carlos_Perera

          Nah, they don’t think that big . . . but do watch feral cats’ behavior some hot summer night: the species is not nearly as domesticated as urban humans imagine.

          • oouchan

            I know…what my original comment meant was that I prefer my cats (and one dog who thinks she is a cat) over humans…any day.

  • Clyde Barrow

    Bob Geldof was inspired to write the song “I Don’t Like Mondays” because of a school shooting that occurred near San Diego in 1979. The suspect, Brenda Spencer, who was 16 at the time, reportedly told police the reason she went on the shooting spree was because “she didn’t like Mondays”.

    Madness. When I was 16, I was thinking about girls and guitar solos, surfboards and fast cars. Anything but going on an attention seeking rampage.

  • Shaun Burns

    which high school in Edinburgh. we have loads here and none are called just Edinburgh.

    • heidi

      I *think* in 1595 there was just the one high school there which was indeed just called Edinburgh 🙂