Joseph Green Semmes, redux

Based on new information, I am revising my original biography of Joseph Green Semmes to include details about his death.

Though the story of Semmes shooting Professor John A. G. Davis is recounted almost daily at the University of Virginia, the fate of Semmes has never been made clear. We know that he jumped bail and never showed up for his trial in October 1841. What happened to him then? Edgar Woods reported that he went to Texas and committed suicide. Several newspapers of 1841 and 1842 state that “young Semmes” went to Texas, where presumably he could quietly disappear, but I have not been able to confirm that.

However, with newspaper resources from the University of Virginia Library and the Library of Congress, I was able to find a newspaper report (several, actually) that details Semmes’s sad demise. In July 1847, the Charlottesville [Jeffersonian] Republican, apparently published an article announcing Semmes’s death by suicide. Unfortunately, this issue of that newspaper no longer exists. The custom of the day was that newspaper editors “borrowed” material from each other, sometimes giving credit to the source. In late July 1847, the Baltimore Sun reprinted this article from the Republican, putting it on the front page. In quick succession, other newspapers followed suit, including the New London, CT Morning News, the Edgefield Advertiser (SC), and the Tennessee Baptist. At the moment, I am cross-checking various primary sources to verify this information.

In order to find these newspapers, I used several databases that are offered to University affiliates through subscription by the University of Virginia Library, including America’s Historical Newspapers, published by Readex. Another useful newspaper database, offered to the public for free by the Library of Congress, is Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

Here is the text from the Baltimore Sun, 30 Jul. 1847, p.1:

Fate of Semmes.–The Charlott[e]sville Republican gives the following account of the sad fate of Semmes, the young man who shot Professor Davis, some years since, at the Virginia University:

We learn from an authentic source that Joseph G. Semmes, respecting whose career our readers will be curious to hear something certain, brought his life to an end by his own hand, the morning of the 9th inst. [9 July 1847], at the house of his brother in Washington, Georgia. He shot himself with a pistol, the ball entering the left eye and penetrating the brain, and lingered in a state of total insensibility from about 7 o’clock, A. M., when the family was called to his room by the report of a pistol, until 1-2 past [half past] 1. P. M. of the same day. When his room was entered he was found in a chair, placed at a table. A pistol was lying across his lap, and on the table was an open razor. On the table was found an open note, stating, in the form of a certificate, dated July 9th, 1847, that his death was occasioned by himself, and was brought about either by pistol or razor.

Radio Interview with Sandy Hausman of WVTF.

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2 Responses to Joseph Green Semmes, redux

  1. fertgop says:

    Contradictory reports on the shooting?

    • Each of the newspaper accounts is slightly different from the others. As you get further away in time from November 12, 1840, the articles add or subtract bits and pieces of the story. Plus, it’s often possible to trace where each article came from, i.e., to figure out the “genealogy” of the particular article, and thus see it develop and diverge from the original, just like a game of “Gossip.” What are the citations (names of newspapers and pages, if possible) for these two articles? I’d be interested in taking a look at them. Thank you for sending them.

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