The Kip Kinkels of the 19th Century

First Jonesboro, now Springfield–are schoolyard shoot-’em-ups the product of inadequate gun regulation or violence on TV? Let Culturebox stop you before you debate this silly point again! The answer is guns, whatever Sissela “Mayhem” Bok may tell the New York Times. How does Culturebox know? Teenagers have been up to this sort of thing since long before South Park and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Take this scene from Culturebox’s favorite childhood book, Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, based on Wilder’s husband’s memories of growing up in upstate New York in the early 19th century:

Almanzo Wilder, 9, is loath to go to school because he hates watching the school’s five toughest teens beat up yet another teacher and drive him out of town. Ingalls writes: “These big boys were sixteen or seventeen years old and they came to school only in the middle of the winter term. They came to thrash the teacher and break up the school. They boasted that no teacher could finish the winter term, and no teacher had.”

Literary embellishment? The exaggerations of memory? Culturebox called Joseph Kett, a professor at the University of Virginia and the leading historian of adolescence in America. Kett cites an 1837 report written by the father of public education himself, Horace Mann. In it, Mann calls for reform to correct an intractable problem: the “breaking up of rural schools.” “It had the status of a rural folk practice,” says Kett. “Schoolmasters often expected to be tossed out the window. Sometimes it was just a winter ritual to let off steam. Other times it was not so much fun.”

Other school activies common in the early 19th-century, according to Kett: wild student riots on college campuses, sometimes leading to the deaths of professors or locals (in the 1820s, Harvard students set off a keg of gunpowder); high school duels involving knives or guns, sometimes culminating in the deaths of students; scrimmages between higher and lower classes, sometimes leading to massive injuries on one side or the other, or both.

What calmed schools down in the latter half of the century? The introduction of less brutal disciplinary methods; sports, particularly football; the increased presence of girls; the levelling off of class differences between students and teachers. (Students, who were usually wealthier than their teachers, regularly underscored that point by beating the teachers up.)

What about guns? “Guns were not as ubiqitous at the time as you might think,” says Kett. “They were very expensive because they had to be handmade.” That began to change in mid-century, with the development of small-arms manufacturing. So where were the random shooters of the second half of the 19th-century? “You have to remember that the Kip Kinkels of the 1850s weren’t in school,” says Kett. “Those kinds of kids just didn’t go. If you were very unhappy, you took off and went somewhere else. The kid in the state of perpetual rage, he’d probably wind up on a whaler.”

–Judith Shulevitz