More than 150 years ago, in Louisville, Kentucky, William Butler was murdered by Matthews F. Ward. It was the first ever school shooting and it was merely 1853.
A Politico Magazine piece recalled Butler, a 28-year-old immigrant teacher from northern states, who moved to found the Louisville School, for the "best" families in town. Matthews Ward was the older brother of a student named William Ward, who was a son of a prominent cotton merchant.
It began when Ward was reportedly eating chestnuts in class. Butler confronted him but Ward denied he was eating in class. Butler called the student a liar and administered corporal punishment, beating him in front of the class.
When Ward's brother learned of what transpired, he purchased two pistols and went to the school with their other brother, Bob. Matthews confronted the teacher and allegedly called him a “damned scoundrel” and a “coward.” There was a scuffle and during the altercation, Ward pulled his pistol and shot Butler. The boys fled the schoolhouse and students carried Butler to a doctor. Still, he died days later.
Ward was arrested and charged with murder. The trial was a "news sensation," Politico reported, with headlines all over the country. At the time, the public was shocked and disgusted with violence in schools. They believed it should be a protected place for children to learn. The idea of a student killing his brother's teacher was unthinkable in societal decorum.
At the time, the American public was growing increasingly frustrated with gun violence. Opposition was growing and the case became an example for activists seeking to regulate guns.
When the Second Amendment was ratified into the Constitution, gun ownership rates were, but the weapons weren't handguns or automatic weapons or military-style guns. Most owned lighter muskets for hunting or guns used for shooting birds. Some even owned guns they used to fight off animals that attacked crops. Americans considered owning a military-grade weapon to be a burden. Yet, the government wanted white men to purchase the weapons for public defense. At the same time, guns weren't the weapon of murder. Instead blunt instruments were more effective.
But when the trial began for Ward, times had changed, with small weapons that could be easily concealed, like the pistols Ward had, were becoming more prevalent.
The defense argued that Ward's confrontation of the teacher had nothing to do with the crime. The only portion that was of concern to Kentucky courts was that he pulled a pistol. Ward's attorneys argued he had a reasonable fear for his life and thus "deadly force" was justified. The jury acquitted Matthews Ward.
The decision sparked condemnation with abolitionists particularly angry. Gun control activists were horrified by the broad interpretation of the Second Amendment by the court and the jury. Legal critics argued that the interpretation "veered too far from mainstream American constitutional thought, which had always balanced the right of self-defense against other rights, such as the right to enjoy peace," Politico explained. Under this legal interpretation, Ward's actions weren't about the Second Amendment but distorting the law and encouraged anarchy instead of liberty.
You can see a diagram of the classroom below:
[caption id="attachment_1242012" align="aligncenter" width="556"] A diagram of the classroom crime scene, in the 1854 book “Trial of Matt. F. Ward, for the Murder of Prof. W.H.G. Butler, Before the Hardin Criminal Court." | Public Domain/Google Books (Posted by Politico Magazine)[/caption]