Thomas Jefferson's university was a bold experiment. Unlike other schools, the University of Virginia was free of religious control and offered an elective system allowing students to choose what to learn. Students too were to govern themselves. Universities throughout America—including Harvard and Princeton—would eventually embrace Jefferson's innovations.

However, crimes—venial and mortal—marked the beginnings of the University. Student pranksters set fire to tar barrels on the Lawn, "smoked" students and professors from their rooms and occasionally whipped their horses into a lather racing down the Lawn, with the winner taking the pot.

Here are some of the most memorable moments—some violent, some comedic, some sublime—that marked the painful birth of the University of Virginia.

Bringing Jefferson to Tears

Some students came to the University to learn, but many came to lark and laze. These students of the first two decades, often the spoiled, self-indulgent scions of Southern plantation owners or prosperous merchants, led a life of dissipation. With a sense of honor easily bruised, the wrong word, the wrong look could easily lead to a scuffle, if not a duel. The students brandished guns freely, sometimes shooting in the air, sometimes at each other. They drank, gambled, rioted and vandalized property (even taking a hatchet to the front doors of the Rotunda).

An engraving of a 73-year-old Thomas Jefferson by John Neagle, after an 1816 painting by Bass Otis
The students' behavior was a great humiliation to Thomas Jefferson, the founder of their school and then one of the best known men in America.

Jefferson, a scant seven months after the school had opened, had called the students to the Rotunda to chastise them for their egregious behavior, which he termed "vicious irregularities," after the hooliganism had escalated into the school's first riot. The students were hostile. His professors were threatening to quit. Jefferson's enemies, and they were legion, were ready to pounce and shutter the school they considered a godless playground of the rich.

Jefferson endured many difficult events in his life—his wife died young, four of his six children died before adulthood and he was castigated and slandered by critics throughout his political career—yet he called this moment on Oct. 3, 1825, "the most painful event" of his life.

UVA from the East, 1849
Jefferson, enfeebled at age 82, his flaming red hair now gray, stood in the freshly plastered oval room to address the student body, hoping to somehow speak the words that would rescue his school from their riotous behavior. But so wounded was the former president by their betrayal of his faith in them—he had trusted all in his belief that gentlemen did not need to be forced to do the right thing—he could not speak. He choked on his own feelings. Margaret Bayard Smith, a visitor to Charlottesville, would later summarize student accounts of the dramatic moment this way: "His lips moved—he essayed to speak—burst into tears & sank back into his seat!—The shock was electric!"

Many students in the room came forward and turned themselves in for rioting. "Mr. Jefferson's tears ... melted their stubborn purpose," Smith wrote.

Murder of a Professor

In the early 19th century, rioting was a common practice in the United States among students who either didn't like the food, the rules or the punishments meted out to them. William and Mary students rioted in 1802 after professors punished two fellow classmates for dueling. Bad food—old fish and overripe cabbage—ignited Harvard's Rotten Cabbage Rebellion in 1807. That same year, Princeton students rioted after three classmates were suspended.

John A.G. Davis
The University of Virginia endured at least six riots in its earliest days. During one riot, a professor was murdered—one of the worst crimes committed at the University in its long history.

It happened this way: One of the new traditions at UVA was the celebration of the 1836 military company riot, which the students had interpreted as a victory over professorial authority. Every November the students fired their pistols, set off firecrackers, lit fires and in general spent the night caterwauling.

But on this autumn night in 1840, the disturbance was too much for John A.G. Davis, the school's law professor since 1830. He stepped out, as he no doubt had many times in the past, to put a halt to the hullabaloo, caused predominantly by two masked students parading around the Lawn firing blank cartridges.

Around 9:00 p.m., he saw one of the masked students hiding behind one of the pillars. Davis jumped for him and reached to unmask the student. The student fled, but turned after a few steps, pointed his pistol, and, without uttering a word, fired at Davis' gut. The bullet pierced Davis' abdomen, and he fell to the ground with a groan.

Students soon flocked to the pavilion as word spread that a professor had been shot. Several picked up Davis' limp, bleeding body and brought the wounded man inside. On November 14, a Saturday, he succumbed to his wounds at sundown.

And so began the search for the student who murdered the professor. This time, the students joined in the hunt for one of their own. Where previous acts of violence had always ended with students closing ranks, this time—for the first time—they sided with University authorities and recognized that there were limits to their insubordinate behavior. They held a meeting the following morning to express their "indignation and abhorrence."

Evidence pointed to student Joseph Semmes of Washington, Ga. Expecting a violent confrontation, two students found Semmes hiding in a pine grove and turned him over to the authorities. He offered no resistance. Semmes' family would later post bail, which he quickly jumped. Soon afterward, he committed suicide.

The murder would meld with a confluence of events—a rise in religious fervor and a growing temperance movement—to tame student behavior. The change was abetted by the birth of the Honor System, which led students—with Davis' murder still in mind—to decide that reporting misbehavior would be honorable. That change in behavior, coupled with smarter leadership, saved UVA.

Repartee and Gossip

Humor also marked some of the University's early life. A scrap of dialogue between Professor George Long and Jefferson survived for posterity. A mere 24 years old when classes began, Long astonished Jefferson with his youth on his first visit to Monticello, according to a letter Long wrote to a friend.

"Are you the new professor of ancient languages?" Jefferson asked Long.

"I am sir," Long answered.

"You are very young."

"I shall grow older, sir."

An artistic rendering of a University student by Porte Crayon, 1853 Drawing courtesy of UVA Special Collections Library

Gossip was also a staple in backwater Charlottesville. Cornelia J. Randolph, one of Jefferson's granddaughters, loved neighborhood gossip, especially about student misbehavior.

"There is one shocking piece of Scandal afloat" she observed in a July 1825 letter. "[ I ]t is that Mr. Raphael's sister whom you may have remarked as a very bold impudent girl was missing one night & found at twelve o'clock in one of [the] dormitories of the students & it is said that it is not one, but many she visits, but really this is scandal of too black a dye to write," she wrote.

Charles Ellis, who enrolled at the University in 1834, kept a diary for three months before tiring of it. In it, he comes across as a typical college student, bemoaning his poor study habits, trying to placate an angry father who is paying his way, given to drink and smoke and slow to rise on school days. In his short, 108-day diary, he finds space to mention the names of more than three dozen women—many of whom he tried unsuccessfully to woo. He would die a bachelor.

Complaints about school food, just like today, moved him to complain to his diary—especially about one new-fangled ingredient. Ellis, who dined at Mrs. Gray's "hotel"—a building sandwiched between the Range rooms, serving as a dining hall—said "that old Madame added a most villainous compound to our daily fare by her called Catsup."

The Oddballs

UVA's professors were an odd group of eccentric and brilliant personalities. Here are two of them: The school's first professor of chemistry was so beloved that a dormitory and one of Charlottesville's main roads still bears his name. John Patton Emmet cultivated a strange taste in pets, however. Emmet, who was not quite 29 years old when the school opened its doors in 1825, kept a menagerie of wild animals in his pavilion. He was a perfect bachelor who populated his house with snakes, a white owl and a tame bear who roamed freely through the house and garden.

The 19-year-old Edgar Allan Poe
The fun ended with his marriage to fellow professor George Tucker's niece, Mary Byrd Tucker, of Bermuda. According to legend, he banished the snakes, booted the owl into the night and had the bear put on the dinner plate.

Natural philosophy professor Charles Bonneycastle, for whom one of the University's old dorms is named, was also 29 years old when he arrived in Charlottesville. The son of a renowned mathematician, he was morbidly shy and at least once leapt a fence and trudged through mud just to avoid talking to passing students. One neighborhood wag described him as "a nervous man & queer tempered and does not as other people do."

One of the University's most famous students, Edgar Allan Poe, arrived at the raw University, still unfinished in 1826. Poe decorated the walls of his tiny Range room with highly ornate figures drawn in charcoal on the white plaster walls. Once, a classmate who had pooled his money with Poe to buy a copy of Lord Byron's Poems, stepped into Poe's room to find him drawing a life-size image of Byron on the ceiling taken from the frontispiece of the book. What a sight Poe's room must have been, his dark sketches dancing in the murky glow of candlelight.

Lovely Despite It All

Despite the murder, the riots, the assaults, the gunfire and the misbehavior, despite getting "corned," the student term for getting drunk, which was against the rules in the "precincts," the early name for the Grounds, there were some moments of beauty in that rough beginning.

An 1831 engraving of the University by W. Goodacre Engraving courtesy of UVA Special Collections Library
Ellis wrote in his diary, with a bit of purple prose and a touch of humor, about the sublime loveliness of a moonlit evening in the Academical Village:

“Just before finishing my night's task was interrupted by the shouts of a froliking party who were cutting some capers thro' college; went out and enjoyed the beauty of the scene from the Lawn; the long range of white pillars, the open trellis-work, extending up to the Rotunda, and that building throwing its massy outlines clearly defined against the sky, lit up by a brilliant moon, southward the dark masses of wood presenting a dark and gloomy aspect, and once more turning, before retiring to my Dormitory, up to the almost cloudless expanse of Heaven, studded with stars, and a light gossamer cloud casting itself in wavring line for a few moments across the pure rays of the moon, like the veil of some heavenly beauty shading her lovely features from the gaze of man.”


Editor's Note: As several readers pointed out, the caption of a photo previously used in this article, “A rare tintype photograph of early University students, ca. 1850,” was incorrect. Although UVA’s Special Collections Library listed it as a photo of 19th-century UVA students, it is actually a photo of employees of R.C. Vandergrift & Son, Architects and Builders, Charlottesville, 1890. We regret the error.

Carlos Santos (Col '75, Grad '76) is the co-author, along with Rex Bowman, of Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson's Struggle to Save the University That Changed America, published this fall by the University of Virginia Press.