We’re seeing a lot of suggestions today from the right side of the political spectrum that events like today’s massacre at a Connecticut elementary school are something novel in American history — that they’re a reflection of the fact that we took prayer out of schools, or that our society has lost its sense of morality, or something.
Well, a couple of years ago I did some casual research on the history of American school shootings. A conservative scholar on a blog I read at the time had said that he’d looked for evidence of such shootings in the 1940s and 1950s, and found none, so I fired up the search engine for the archives of the New York Times, looking for articles published between January 1, 1940 and December 31, 1959 that included the words ”shot” and “school.”
The search returned 4,940 results.
Most of these weren’t actually articles about school shootings, of course. Many were stories about gun violence that happened to refer to a school that a perpetrator or victim attended. A significant number were sports coverage — articles about target shooting competitions, or shot-put records, or even teams that the Times believed to have a shot at a state or national title.
But as I made my way through the articles, I found that eighteen of the first two hundred were reports of school shootings in which one or more people were killed or wounded.
There were three suicides and six homicides among these eighteen incidents. More than half involved a student perpetrator, and at least three were accidental shootings on school grounds.
Reading these stories, each of which I’ve excerpted below, suggests a world in which gun violence was anything but rare in the school setting. There were premeditated killings alongside instances in which tempers flared or caution was absent, and the Times seems not to have been terribly surprised by any of it. (In March of 1949, for instance, when a student at New York’s elite Stuyvesant High School accidentally shot one of his classmates with a 38-caliber revolver, the story got just five short paragraphs on page 30, and the shooter was charged only with “juvenile delinquency.”)
Anyway, here’s the list of eighteen. Remember, this is only a small sampling of the shootings that occurred — the result of a spot check of about four percent of the hits on a search on one metropolitan newspaper’s archives.
- May 23, 1940: “Infuriated by a grievance, Matthew Gillespie, 62-year-old janitor at the junior school of the Dwight School for Girls here, shot and critically wounded Mrs. Marshall Coxe, secretary of the junior school, on the first floor of the building this afternoon.”
- July 5, 1940: “Angered by the refusal of his daughter, Melba Moshell, 15 years old, to leave a boarding school here and return to his home, Joseph Moshell, 47, of 252 East Girard Avenue, Philadelphia, visited the school this afternoon and shot and killed the girl, according to the State Police.”
- November 18, 1942: “Erwin Goodman, 36-year-old mathematics teacher of William J. Gaynor Junior High School in Brooklyn, was shot and killed in the school corridors on Oct. 2 by a youth whose hand he had clasped in thankfulness for acting as peacemaker a few minutes earlier.”
- February 23, 1943: “Harry Wyman, 13-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Wyman of Port Chester, NY … shot himself dead tonight at the Harvey School, a boys’ preparatory school.”
- June 26, 1946: “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: “A 13-year-old student at St. Benedict’s Parochial School here shot and fatally wounded himself tonight while sitting in an audience watching a school play.”
- December 24, 1948: “A 14-year-old boy was wounded fatally here today 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 12, 1949: “A 16-year-old student at Stuyvesant High School, 345 Fifteenth Street, was accidentally shot in the right arm yesterday afternoon by a fellow student who, police said, was ‘showing off’ with a pistol in a classroom.”
- July 22, 1950: “A 16-year-old boy was shot in the wrist and abdomen at 10 o’clock last night in Public School 141 … during an argument with a former classmate. They were attending a weekly dance sponsored by the Board of Education.”
- November 27, 1951: “David Brooks, a 15-year-old student, was fatally shot as fellow-pupils looked on in a grade school here today.”
- April 9, 1952: “A 15-year-old boarding-school student who shot a dean rather than relinquish pin-up pictures of girls in bathing suits was charged with murderous assault today.”
- November 20, 1952: “Rear Admiral E. E. Herrmann, 56 years old, superintendent of the Naval Post-Graduate School here, was found dead in his office with a bullet in his head. A service revolver was found by his side.”
- October 8, 1953: “Larry Licitra, 17-year-old student at the Machine and Metal Trades High School, 320 East Ninety-sixth Street, was shot and slightly wounded in the right shoulder at 11:30 AM yesterday in the lobby of the school while inspecting a handmade pistol owned by one of several students.”
- October 20, 1956: “A junior high school student was wounded in the forearm yesterday by another student armed with a home-made weapon at Booker T. Washington Junior High School.”
- October 2, 1957: “A 16-year old student was shot in the leg yesterday by a 15-year old classmate at a city high school.”
- March 12, 1958: “A 17-year-old student was indicted yesterday for carrying a dangerous weapon. He had shot a boy in the Manual Training High School March 4.”
- May 1, 1958: “A 15-year-old high school freshman was shot and killed by a classmate in a washroom of the Massapequa High School today.”
- September 24, 1959: “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 teen-ager Monday at Morris High School.”
Update | When I conducted the original research for this post I was investigating school shootings generally, not mass killings. Since I posted this new piece, several people have drawn attention to the fact that each of the shootings I list here had only a single victim.
There seems no doubt that mass shootings are on the rise in the United States, both in schools and elsewhere. Consistent with that, when I did another more thorough search of the 1940-59 New York Times archives today, I was able to find only one mass school shooting — a 1940 incident in which a California junior high school principal shot and killed four people during a Board of Education meeting before committing suicide a short distance away.
It’s likely that there were other mass school shootings during the forties and fifties, since even my newer research is far from comprehensive. But there certainly weren’t many.