The Shooting of John A.G. Davis: a Student's Perspective (1840)
    by Ellen Adams

In 1840, Chairman John A.G. Davis was murdered by one of his students, in “an act of blood and villainy, without example in the annals of College excesses.” The event deeply affected the student body and influenced the creation of the Honor System two years later.

One student who witnessed the event was Hunter Marshall, a fourth year student from Caroline County, Virginia.  He gave his account of the event in a letter to friend and fellow Virginia student, William Carrington.  Through Marshall’s letter, we not only get a very detailed retelling of one of the most infamous events in the University’s history, but also a glimpse into the attitude of the student body after the murder of a well-liked faculty member.

In the opening of his letter, Marshall asks Carrington if he is, “aware of the relationship between the 12th of Novr. & the students— are you not?”  Answering his own question, Marshall says, “Yes—you are!!! This Session only two students engaged in the celebration of this anniversary.” 

The date November 12 was very significant to students at the time.  In 1836, a group of students formed a Military company and intended to practice drills on the Lawn.  Upon hearing this, however, Chairman Davis banned the students from carrying muskets on the Lawn, issuing the notice on November 10th.   The students disregarded this, and resolved to carry on with the drill.  Davis made the decision to dismiss the students who had not obeyed his orders, resulting in a riot involving the whole school.  The destruction became so severe that Davis invoked the riot act and called in civil authorities, after which the riot died down.

In the years following, November 12 became a sort of holiday, during which students rioted in commemoration of the dismissed students and in celebration of rebelling against the faculty.  In 1837, students fired pistols and broke into the belfry to ring the bell, while students in disguise danced in front of Professor George Tucker’s room and made a bonfire on the Lawn.  The next year, students again celebrated the riot, though in fewer numbers; Chairman Harrison reported only 8 or 10.  By 1840, as the students said in a later address, “the disturbance [had] grown less and less, until the approach of the last 12th excited little or no general attention in College.”

Marshall named William A. Kincaid and Joseph Green Semmes as the two perpetrators of the riot, though at the time the students did not recognize the rioters.  Kincaid was “disguised in a suit of Drab—with his face black (& very successfully),” while Semmes was, “disguised by putting his shirt & draws over his clothes & a calico mask on his face.”  The two students walked down the East Lawn, shouting and shooting pistols.  The noise attracted a group of onlookers, including Chairman Davis, who discouraged other students from going down to the rioters.

Kincaid and Semmes greeted students on the Lawn, stating, “they [cared] not for Davis,” and continued walking down the Lawn to Charles Bonnycastle’s residence.  At Bonnycastle’s, Kincaid stopped to fire his pistol, while Semmes kept walking.  As Davis approached Semmes – or as the onlookers knew him, the “figure in white,” – to try and remove his mask, Semmes fired a shot at Davis, and ran away from the Lawn.

Kincaid, still by Bonnycastle’s residence, had apparently not witnessed the event, and walked down to the commotion to ask another student “what was the matter.”  To this the student simply replied, “Somebody shot.”  After this, Kincaid reportedly went to wash his face paint off, dressed in his own clothes, and went to Col. Ward’s Tavern to “see the ladies.”

After fleeing the scene of the crime, Semmes went to his room to remove his disguise, and later returned pretending to be an innocent onlooker.  Though “He had nerve strong enough to keep from betraying any emotion,” a few students suspected him, however they “did not make known their suspicions.”  Marshall noted how Semmes gave, “attention which he gave to every word that was uttered concerning the probable effect of the shot.”

Kincaid also quickly fell under suspicion, and a committee was formed to find him and determine his guilt or innocence.  The committee eventually caught him, still at Ward’s Tavern, and asked about his involvement in Davis’ shooting.  He admitted his involvement in the riot but proclaimed his innocence in Davis’ death, producing his drab coat as proof – the group knew the person who shot Davis was dressed in white.  He refused, however, to give up the name of his accomplice.

The next morning, two students carried Kincaid into the woods to prevent him from “informing on his friend,” and to help him evade authorities.  Meanwhile, another student named Pope suddenly remembered having loaned Semmes his pistol and one ball, “that ball not perfectly round owing to a deficiency of lead when moulded.”  Semmes behavior to Pope was especially suspicious; when Pope asked for his pistol back, Semmes, “said he had let someone else have it—but refused to say whom.”

This was enough evidence for the students, who sent for a magistrate to take Semmes into custody.  When the magistrate asked Semmes to take an oath on the Bible, he refused, “alleging that it was contrary to his principles—He was an atheist & did not believe in the bible.” Despite this, the magistrate still asked Semmes to take an “affirmation,” and took Semmes into custody.

An examining court was held to determine the evidence against Semmes.  Davis’ nephew claimed to have witnessed the shooting, and another student claimed that the hat worn by the perpetrator was the same hat Semmes had worn earlier.  On Saturday, “the whole scene was changed by Mr. Davis’ death.”  The bullet that killed Davis was retrieved and proved to match the one in the pistol lent to Semmes.  This was the damning evidence, and Semmes was put in “strict custody.”  After this, students gathered in the Rotunda. Each was made to prove his innocence in regards to Davis’ death, and a punishment was given to those who had assisted Kincaid's escape.

Kincaid was still at large but was soon found hiding near the Midway Hotel.  Some students followed him, apprehended him, and brought him before the examining court, where he confirmed his side of the story, saying he saw the “figure in white” fight with Davis but claimed he did not see the actual shooting.

Marshall commented that Semmes’ spirits during this whole process were remarkably high for someone accused of murder.  He says, “while in custody he would laugh & joke-- was unmoved even when he heard of Davis's death - at least he'd not show his emotions.”  After this initial examination, Semmes made bail and was scheduled to go to trial in October 1841.  When the trial came, however, he never showed up in court, and several accounts reported that he committed suicide at his brother's home in Georgia in 1847.

Marshall concluded his letter with a worried sentiment about the state of the University: “The University is almost gone I’m afraid.”  This sentiment was not unique; several students left the University as a result of Davis’ death, some “not being content to continue a student under his successor.”  The year had been a tumultuous one for the University.  Former Chairman Charles Bonnycastle had also died just months earlier, and Professor of Modern Languages, George Blaetterman, was dismissed for publicly beating his wife.

In the days during and after the shooting, the students released several statements to the public regarding their stance on the events.  They alluded to the recent tragedies in a call for public support, saying, “These disasters should only prompt to redoubled efforts on the part of all who love learning, on behalf of our Institution.”

The students firmly condemned Davis’ killer, and stood together in their resolve to bring justice to the situation.  If there was a bright spot to the event, it is that the students were so united in their efforts.  This is noted in one of the public statements: “Resolved, That, amid the feelings of grief, horror and indignation which fill our hearts, we find some solace in the fact, that the students as a body, have made such active, ardent, and indefatigable efforts to discover the skulking assassin, and to subject him to the impartial sentence of the law.”

In the years prior to Davis’s death, the relationship between the students and faculty had been tense.  Riots like those on November 12 were not uncommon, and unpopular rules about uniforms and wake-up times caused resentment among students, as well as a negative public perception of the University.  Enrollment had been declining, and Davis’ death only exacerbated this – clearly Marshall was not the only student with concerns for his school.  The students were aware of their reputation, but asked the public not to let Semmes’ crime affect their opinions of the University: “A prejudice against the University- how groundless its students well know - has long prevailed. It was fast fading before the light of truth and experience. We fear that late deplorable events will do to revive it. It ought not however to be so.”

The introduction of the Honor Code, as well as the repealing of uniform and early-rising rules, came from the effort to improve student morale and public perception of the university.  The University would have its fair share of problems in the future, but Davis’ death pushed the students and faculty to improve their institution, and helped established one of UVa’s most important traditions.