Everything Was Better When We Had God In Our Schools

Anthea Butler and others have quite appropriately drawn attention to and criticized conservative Christians who blame the Newtown tragedy on God’s absence from our schools. The problem with this approach, however, is that those who make such statements fully expect that they will be criticized and take smug pride in it.

James Dobson, for instance, prefaced his take on this most recent school shooting with, “And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion.” Making people angry and being subject to public ridicule is just the price you pay for doing God’s work, and that includes “telling the truth” in even the worst of situations, when others don’t want to hear it. Dobson, Huckabee, Fischer, and friends can thus chalk up the outcry over their comments to being faithful servants.

Perhaps another, more fruitful approach would be to take the bait, to force their hand asking Dobson, Huckabee, and Fischer, “How, then, were things when God was allowed in our schools?” Certainly before the US Supreme Court’s decisions in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) knocked prayer and state-sponsored religious activities such as Bible readings out of our public schools for good, our schools must have been idyllic places, largely free from the type and extent of violence we see today. Sure, there were the occasional schoolyard fights, but those are a far cry from the premeditated, high-fatality attacks that are seemingly becoming all too common these days. God was allowed in our schools, and the safety of our kids was proof of God’s favor.

The problem is that gun violence has been a feature of school life in the United States since the latter half of the seventeenth century. Although before 1989 most school-related incidents of gun violence in the U.S. did not reach the level of carnage that has unfortunately become familiar to us, mass murder in schools is still not absent. Writing this week in Slate, Justin Peters has brought attention to the deadliest school-related massacre in US history, which happened at an elementary school in Bath, Michigan in 1927. Upset that his property taxes had been raised to pay for the school, Andrew Kehoe, a member of the school board, wired the school with dynamite. On the morning of May 18, he set it off, killing 45 people, 38 of them children. 

There may certainly be something wrong with our culture, as Dobson, Huckabee, Fischer, and the like insist. But it’s not going to be found where they think it is, in some imagined, violence-free religious past. Our schools have regrettably always been violent, whether God has been “allowed in our schools” or not.

In fact, below is a list of school shootings from K12 Academics, all of which took place prior to “the removal of God” from our schools:

1700s 

• The earliest known United States shooting to happen on school property was the Pontiac’s Rebellion school massacre on July 26, 1764, where four Lenape American Indians entered the schoolhouse near present-day Greencastle, Pennsylvania, shot and killed schoolmaster Enoch Brown, and killed nine or ten children (reports vary). Only two children survived.

1800s

• November 2, 1853, Louisville, Kentucky. A student, Matthew Ward, bought a self-cocking pistol in the morning, went to school and killed Schoolmaster Mr. Butler for excessively punishing his brother the day before. Even though he shot the Schoolmaster point blank in front of his classmates, he was acquitted.

An April 30, 1866 editorial in the New York Times argued against students carrying pistols, citing “…pistols being dropped on the floor at balls or being exploded in very inconvenient ways. A boy of 12 has his pantaloons made with a pistol pocket; and this at a boarding-school filled with boys, who, we suppose, do or wish to do the same thing. We would advise parents to look into it, and learn whether shooting is to be a part of the scholastic course which may be practiced on their boys; or else we advise them to see that their own boys are properly armed with the most approved and deadly-pistol, and that there may be an equal chance at least of their shooting as of being shot.” 

• June 8, 1867, New York City At Public School No. 18. A 13-year-old lad brought a pistol loaded and capped, without the knowledge of his parents or schoolteachers, and shot and injured a fellow classmate.

• December 22, 1868, Chattanooga, Tennessee. A boy who refused to be whipped left school, and returned with his brother and a friend the next day to seek revenge on his teacher. Not finding the teacher at the school, they continued to his house, where a gun battle rang out, leaving three dead. Only the brother survived.

• March 9, 1873, Salisbury, Maryland. After school as Miss Shockley was walking with four small children, she was approached by a Mr. Hall and shot. The Schoolmaster ran out, but she was dead instantly. Hall threw himself under a train that night.

• May 24, 1879, Lancaster, New York. As the carriage loaded with female students was pulling out of the school’s stables, Frank Shugart, a telegraph operator, shot and severely injured Mr. Carr, Superintendent of the stables.

• March 6, 1884, Boston, Massachusetts. As news of Jesse James reached the East Coast, young kids started to act in the same manner. An article from the New York Times reads, “Another ‘Jesse James’ Gang”: “Word was brought to the Fifth Police Station to-night that a number of boys were using the Concord-street School-house for some unknown purpose, and a posse of officers was sent to investigate. The gang scattered at the approach of the police, and in their flight on drew a revolver and fired at Officer Rowan, without effect, however. William Nangle, age 14, and Sidney Duncan, age 12, were captured, but the other five or six escaped, among them the one who who did the shooting. The boys refused to disclose the object of their meeting, but it is thought that another ‘Jesse James’ organization has been broken up.”

• March 15, 1884, Gainsville, Georgia. In the middle of the day, a group of very drunk Jackson County farmers left the Jug Tavern drinking and shooting their revolvers as they headed down the street, driving people into their homes. As they approached the female academy, the girls fled the schoolyard into the school where the gang followed swearing and shooting, firing several rounds into the front door. No one was hurt.

• July 4, 1886, Charleston, South Carolina. During Sunday school, Emma Connelly shot and killed John Steedley for “circulating slanderous reports” about her, even though her brother publicly whipped him a few days earlier.

• April 12, 1887 Watertown, New York. Edwin Bush, a student a the Potsdam Normal School committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

• June 12, 1887 Cleveland, Tennessee. Will Guess went to the school and fatally shot Miss Irene Fann, his little sister’s teacher, for whipping her the day before.

• June 13, 1889 New Brunswick, New Jersey. Charles Crawford, upset over an argument with a school Trustee, went up to the window and fired a pistol into a crowded school room. The bullet lodged in the wall just above the teacher’s head.

The first known mass shooting in the U.S. where students were shot was on April 9, 1891, when 70-year-old James Foster fired a shotgun at a group of students in the playground of St. Mary’s Parochial School in Newburgh, New York, causing minor injuries to several of the students. The majority of attacks during this time period were by students on other students or teachers, and usually involved stabbing with knives, or hitting with stones.

1900–1930s

There are very few reports of mass or multiple school shootings during the first three decades of the 20th Century, with the three most violent attacks on schools involving either arson or explosions.

• February 26, 1902, Camargo, Illinois. teacher Fletcher R. Barnett shot and killed another teacher, Eva C. Wiseman, in front of her class. After shooting at a pupil who came to help Miss Wiseman and wounding himself in a failed suicide attempt, he waited in the classroom until a group of farmers came to lynch him. He then ran out of the school building, grabbed a shotgun from one of the farmers and shot himself, before running away and leaping into a well where he finally drowned. The incident was likely sparked by Wiseman’s refusal to marry Barnett.

• February 24, 1903, Inman, South Carolina. Edward Foster, a 17-year-old student at Inman High school, was shot and fatally wounded by his teacher Reuben Pitts after he had jerked a rod from Pitts’ hands to resist punishment. According to the teacher, Foster struck the pistol Pitts had drawn to defend himself, thus causing its discharge. Pitts was later acquitted of murder.

• October 10, 1906, Cleveland, Ohio. Harry Smith shot and killed 22-year-old teacher Mary Shepard at South Euclid School after she had rejected him. Smith escaped and committed suicide in a barn near his home two hours later.

• March 23, 1907, Carmi, Illinois. George Nicholson shot and killed John Kurd at a schoolhouse outside of Carmi, Illinois during a school rehearsal. The motive for the shooting was Kurd making a disparaging remark about Nicholson’s daughter during her recital.

• March 11, 1908, Boston, Massachusetts. Elizabeth Bailey Hardee was shot to death by Sarah Chamberlain Weed at the Laurens School, a finishing school in Boston. Weed then turned the gun on herself and committed suicide.

• April 15, 1908, Asheville, North Carolina. Dr. C.O. Swinney shot and fatally wounded his 16-year-old daughter Nellie in a reception room at Normal and Collegiate Institute. He then committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

• February 12, 1909, San Francisco, California. 10-year-old Dorothy Malakanoff was shot and killed by 49-year-old Demetri Tereaschinko as she arrived at her school in San Francisco. Tereaschinko then shot himself in a failed suicide attempt. Tereaschinko was reportedly upset that Malakanoff refused to elope with him.

• January 10, 1912, Warrenville, Illinois. Sylvester E. Adams shot and killed teacher Edith Smith after she rejected his advances. Adams then shot and killed himself. The incident took place in a schoolhouse about a mile outside of Warrenville after the students had been dismissed for the day.

• March 27, 1919, Lodi Township, Michigan. 19-year-old teacher Irma Casler was shot and killed in her classroom at Rentschler school in Lodi Township, Michigan by Robert Warner, apparently because she had rejected his advances.

• April 2, 1921, Syracuse, New York. Professor Holmes Beckwith shot and killed dean J. Herman Wharton in his office at Syracuse University before committing suicide.

• May 18, 1927, Bath, Michigan. School treasurer Andrew Kehoe, after killing his wife and destroying his house and farm, blew up the Bath Consolidated School by detonating dynamite in the basement of the school, killing 38 people, mostly children. He then pulled up to the school in his Ford car, then blew the car up, killing himself and four others. Only one shot was fired in order to detonate dynamite in the car. This was deadliest act of mass murder at a school in the United States.

• February 15, 1933, Downey, California. Dr. Vernon Blythe shot and killed his wife Eleanor, as well as his 8-year-old son Robert at Gallatin grammar school and committed suicide after firing three more shots at his other son Vernon. His wife, who had been a teacher at the school, had filed for divorce the week before.

• September 14, 1934, Gill, Massachusetts. Headmaster Elliott Speer was murdered by a shotgun blast through the window of his study at Northfield Mount Hermon School. The crime was never solved.

• December 12, 1935, New York City, New York. Victor Koussow, a Russian laboratory worker at the School of Dental and Oral Surgery, shot Prof. Arthur Taylor Rowe, Prof. Paul B. Wiberg, and wounded Dr. William H. Crawford at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, before committing suicide.

• April 27, 1936, Lincoln, Nebraska. Prof. John Weller shot and wounded Prof. Harry Kurz in a corridor of the University of Nebraska, apparently because of his impending dismissal at the end of the semester. After shooting Kurz Weller tried to escape, but was surrounded by police on the campus, whereupon he killed himself with a shot to the chest.

• June 4, 1936, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Wesley Crow shot and killed his Lehigh University English instructor, C. Wesley Phy. Crow went to Phy’s office and demanded that Mr. Phy change his grade to a passing mark. Crow committed suicide after shooting Phy.

• September 24, 1937, Toledo, Ohio. 12-year-old Robert Snyder shot and wounded his principal, June Mapes, in her office at Arlington public school when she declined his request to call a classmate. He then fled the school grounds and shot and wounded himself.

1940s

• May 6, 1940, South Pasadena, California. After being removed as principal of South Pasadena Junior High School, Verlin Spencer shot six school officials, killing five, before attempting to commit suicide by shooting himself in the stomach.

• May 23, 1940, New York City, New York. Infuriated by a grievance, Matthew Gillespie, 62-year-old janitor at the junior school of the Dwight School for Girls, shot and critically wounded Mrs. Marshall Coxe, secretary of the junior school.

• July 4, 1940, Valhalla, New York. Angered by the refusal of his daughter, Melba, 15 years old, to leave a boarding school and return to his home, Joseph Moshell, 47, visited the school and shot and killed the girl.

• September 12, 1940, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. 29-year-old teacher Carolyn Dellamea is shot to death inside her third grade classroom by 35-year-old William Kuhns. Kuhns then shot himself in the chest in a failed suicide attempt. Kuhns had reportedly been courting Dellamea for over a year but the relationship was ended when Dellamea discovered that Kuhns was already married.

• October 2, 1942, New York City, New York. Erwin Goodman, a 36-year-old mathematics teacher of William J. Gaynor Junior High School, was shot and killed in the school corridor by a youth.

• February 23, 1943, Port Chester, New York. Harry Wyman, 13-year-old, shot himself dead at the Harvey School, a boys’ preparatory school.

• June 26, 1946, Brooklyn, New York. A 15-year-old schoolboy who balked at turning over his pocket money to a gang of seven Negro youths was shot in the chest at 11:30 a.m. yesterday in the basement of the Public School 147 annex of the Brooklyn High School for Automotive Trades.

• November 24, 1946, New York City, New York. A 13-year-old student at St. Benedict’s Parochial School shot and fatally wounded himself while sitting in an audience watching a school play.

• December 24, 1948, New York City, New York. A 14-year-old boy was wounded fatally by an accidental shot from the .22-caliber rifle of a fellow-student. The youth was shot in the head when he chanced into range where Robert Ross, 17, of Brooklyn, was shooting at a target near a lake on the school property.

• March 11, 1949, New York City, New York. A 16-year-old student at Stuyvesant High School was accidentally shot in the arm by a fellow student who was ‘showing off’ with a pistol in a classroom.

• November 13, 1949, Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State University freshman James Heer grabbed a .45 caliber handgun from the room of a Delta Tau Delta fraternity brother and shot and killed his fraternity brother Jack McKeown, 21, an Ohio State senior.

1950s

• July 22, 1950, New York City, New York. A 16-year-old boy was shot in the wrist and abdomen at the Public School 141 dance during an argument with a former classmate.

• November 27, 1951, New York City, New York. David Brooks, a 15-year-old student, was fatally shot as fellow pupils looked on in a grade school.

• April 9, 1952, New York City, New York. A 15-year-old boarding school student shot a dean rather than relinquish pin-up pictures of girls in bathing suits.

• July 14, 1952, New York City, New York. Bayard Peakes walked in to the offices of the American Physical Society at Columbia University and shot and killed secretary Eileen Fahey with a .22 caliber pistol. Peakes was reportedly upset that the APS had rejected a pamphlet he had written.

• September 3, 1952, Lawrenceville, Illinois. After 25-year-old Georgine Lyon ended her engagement with Charles Petrach, Petrach shot and killed Lyon in a classroom at Lawrenceville High School where she worked as a librarian.

• November 20, 1952, New York City, New York. “Rear Admiral E. E. Herrmann, 56 years old, superintendent of the Naval Post-Graduate School, was found dead in his office with a bullet in his head. A service revolver was found by his side.

• October 2, 1953, Chicago, Illinois. 14-year-old Patrick Colletta was shot to death by 14-year-old Bernice Turner in a classroom of Kelly High School in Chicago. It was reported that after Turner refused to date Colletta, he handed her the gun and dared her to pull the trigger, telling her that the gun was “only a toy.” A coroner’s jury later ruled that the shooting was an accident.

• October 8, 1953. New York City, New York. Larry Licitra, a 17-year-old student at the Machine and Metal Trades High School, was shot and slightly wounded in the right shoulder in the lobby of the school while inspecting a handmade pistol owned by one of several students.

• May 15, 1954, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Putnam Davis Jr. was shot and killed during a fraternity house carnival at the Phi Delta Theta house at the University of North Carolina. William Joyner and Allen Long were shot and wounded during the exchange of gunfire in their fraternity bedroom. The incident took place after an all-night beer party. Mr. Long reported to the police that, while the three were drinking beer at 7 a.m., Davis pulled out a gun and started shooting with a gun he had obtained from the car of a former roommate.

• January 11, 1955, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. After some of his dormmates urinated on his mattress, Bob Bechtel, a 20-year-old student at Swarthmore College, returned to his dorm with a shotgun and used it to shoot and kill fellow student Holmes Strozier.

• April 17, 1956, New York City, New York. 18-year-old Henry Smith, a student at a Bronx vocational high school, is stabbed to death by 16-year-old Randolph Lawrence, a fellow student. The stabbing was reportedly sparked over a dispute about a basketball game.

• May 4, 1956, in Prince George’s County, Maryland. 15-year-old student Billy Prevatte fatally shot one teacher and injured two others at Maryland Park Junior High School in Prince George’s County after he had been reprimanded from the school.

• October 20, 1956. New York City, New York. A junior high school student was wounded in the forearm yesterday by another student armed with a homemade weapon at Booker T. Washington Junior High School.

• October 2, 1957, New York City, New York. A 16-year-old student was shot in the leg by a 15-year old classmate at a city high school.

• March 4, 1958, New York City, New York. A 17-year-old student shot a boy in the Manual Training High School.

• May 1, 1958, Massapequa, New York. A 15-year-old high school freshman was shot and killed by a classmate in a washroom of the Massapequa High School.

• September 24, 1959, New York City, New York. Twenty-seven men and boys and an arsenal were seized in the Bronx last night as the police headed off a gang war resulting from the fatal shooting of a teenager Monday at Morris High School.

1960s

• February 2, 1960, Hartford City, Indiana. Principal Leonard Redden shot and killed two teachers with a shotgun at William Reed Elementary School in Hartford City, Indiana, before fleeing into a remote forest, where he committed suicide.

• June 7, 1960, Blaine, Minnesota. Lester Betts, a 40-year-old mail carrier, walked into the office of 33-year-old principal Carson Hammond and shot him to death with a 12-gauge shotgun.

• April 20, 1961, Chicago, Illinois. Teacher Josephine Keane, 45, is sexually assaulted and stabbed to death inside a storeroom at Lewis-Champlin elementary school in Chicago. Lee Arthur Hester, a 14-year-old student, is later convicted of the murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison.

• October 17, 1961, Denver, Colorado. Tennyson Beard, 14, got into an argument with William Hachmeister, 15, at Morey Junior High School. During the argument Beard pulled out a .38 caliber revolver and shot at Hachmeister, wounding him. A stray bullet also struck Deborah Faith Humphrey, 14, who died from her gunshot wound.

HPhelps@moc.edu'

Hollis Phelps is Assistant Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, Mount Olive, NC (USA). He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-theology (Acumen, 2013).