Murder, They Wrote

Posted on August 28, 2019

Today's post, written by Tracy Melton '85, member of the William & Mary Libraries Board of Directors, considers the words we use to describe crime and death in archival work. Read on to learn more about a nineteenth-century fatality recounted in the Galt Papers (Mss. 78 G13). 

A summer 2019 search of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscripts and archives database found zero “homicides” but sixty-seven “murders.”

Why the overwhelming preference for one keyword over the other? There are specific reasons—for example, the use of “murder” in the criminal justice system. More broadly, though, the “murder” manuscripts, including letters and diaries, tell narratives. “Murder” suggests conflict and action, extreme human emotion, and moral choice. It suggests a story. “Homicide,” in contrast, is more factual, more scientific, more clinical.

A white apothecary shop in historic Colonial Williamsburg, located along the pedestrian-only Duke of Gloucester Street.
Pasteur & Galt Apothecary Shop, located on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg

One of the “murders” in Special Collections is a letter from the Galt Papers (I) (Mss. 78 G13, Series 2) discussing the fatal shooting of John A.G. Davis—a University of Virginia law professor and chairman of the faculty—by a student, on November 12, 1840. It was an early and sensational American school shooting.

The Galt family had a notable history in Williamsburg. Men in the Galt family often worked as apothecaries, physicians, and superintendents of the Eastern Lunatic Asylum, now known as the Eastern State Hospital. Several attended William & Mary; several served in the military during consequential warfare. Besides Eastern State, the family’s legacy endures today in the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary Shop, the historic Galt houses in Colonial Williamsburg, and the Galt Family Cemetery in Bicentennial Park.

William R. Galt was the son of Williamsburg-born Alexander Galt, postmaster of Norfolk, Virginia. William attended UVA, where his professors described him as “distinguished for his assiduity and success in his studies, as well as for his exemplary habits and winning deportment” (Richmond Enquirer, December 20, 1850).

William Galt witnessed the murder of Professor John A.G. Davis. In November 1836, the school had dismissed scores of students for refusing to relinquish their firearms and conspiring to resist the faculty’s efforts to restrict them. In following years, students commemorated the event by parading and firing weapons. In 1840, a couple of students were out, wearing masks and making a ruckus. Davis grabbed one, Joseph G. Semmes, of Washington, Georgia, and attempted to remove his mask. Semmes stepped back and shot Davis, who died of his injuries two days later.

A handwritten letter, dated November 18, 1840, from Ann Galt in Norfolk, Virginia to her brother William at UVA. She begins her letter by lamenting "the great loss to the college," the murder of Professor Davis.
Ann Galt to William Galt, 1840, discussing "the murder of Prof. Davis"

On November 18, William’s sister Ann wrote him, “We received your letter this morning and were truly shocked at the intelligence it contained—the murder of Prof. Davis by one of the students. I expect he will be a great loss to the college. The perpetrators of the horrible act will undoubtedly be hung I suppose.” His father added, “Your letter to me was the first account of it which reached here. It has produced a great sensation, + the impression is universal that the University will suffer much from it.” He lamented, “I am sorry you happened to be a witness as I fear it will consume a good deal of your time, which is now more than ever precious.” William did miss classes as a result, which he later addressed with the school, and with his father. 

Authorities arrested Semmes, whose family eventually posted $25,000 bail. He permanently left Virginia, never standing trial. He died in July 1847, apparently by suicide.

In 1840, a community was already dealing with a fatal school shooting. The incident was yet another blow to UVA, only fifteen years old at the time, and still struggling to establish itself. It illustrated the pervasiveness of southern honor, and it began to raise questions of justice in the American Republic. Did the death penalty further justice if citizens might decline to try or convict parties they did not want to hang? Could there be justice if the wealthy could buy their freedom, or even their lives?

That’s just one narrative about us living in the Galt Papers in Swem Library's Special Collections.

A handwritten letter from Alexander Galt, father to William and Ann Galt. The letter includes red stamp at the bottom of the page that reads, "Norfolk, Va., Nov. 19"
Addendum to Ann Galt's letter, written by Alexander Galt, William and Ann's father

References and More to Explore:

Finding aid for the Galt Papers (I) (Mss. 78 G13) on the Special Collections Research Center's database. See also the finding aids for the Galt Papers (II), (III), (IV), and (V).

Learn more about Professor John A.G. Davis from Encyclopedia Virginia, a partnership of Virginia Humanities and the Library of Virginia.

Digitized photograph of the Nelson-Galt House (post-1933) in Colonial Williamsburg from the Historic American Buildings Survey collection, provided by the Library of Congress.