Richard William Bushnell was the eldest of the several children of William Bushnell of Connecticut (1787-1845), and his wife, Mary “Polly” Harnsberger (1788-1851). The couple settled in Rockingham County, Virginia. In his three sessions at the University of Virginia–sessions 13-15 (1836-1839)—R. W. Bushnell studied Ancient and Modern Languages, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Chemistry, and graduated with “considerable distinction.” (Jeffersonian Republican, 7 Oct. 1858) He became a teacher, and worked primarily in Richmond, Va. For a period of time, he was employed as the assistant principal at the Rugby Academy in Washington, D.C. (Daily American telegraph, 8 Oct. 1852)
Cooper’s Clarksburg Register reprinted the story of his last days from the Staunton Spectator:
On Thursday afternoon last Mr. Richard W. Bushnell of Washington, arrived at this place [Staunton, Va.] and took lodgings at the American Hotel. During the afternoon he had an interview with Doctor Stribling, the superintendent of the Western Lunatic Asylum, in which he stated that his object in coming to Staunton was to place himself under the Doctor’s care; that mysterious influences were surrounding him, his food and drinks having been drugged wherever he stopped. He gave unmistakable evidences of a deranged intellect, and made an appointment to meet Dr. Stribling the next morning when he proposed to enter into details in regard to the condition of his health, and expressed the hope that the seclusion of the asylum and the medical treatment of Dr. Stribling would afford him relief.
On Friday morning [1 Oct. 1858], about 5 o’clock a boarder who occupied the room adjoining Mr. Bushnell’s heard the report of a pistol. Information was immediately given to the proprietor of the hotel, who forced open the door, and found Mr. Bushnell lying on the floor, shot in the head, bleeding quite profusely, and a portion of his brains, scattered on the floor. The ball had entered a little above and behind the right ear and lodged somewhere in the front part of the head. A five shooter was lying on the floor beside him. Upon inquiry he was found to be conscious.
It was supposed that he would not live during the day, but marvellous to say, he is still alive, with a good pulse and no fever; and states that he feels pretty well with the exception of a headache. Physicians, however, entertain no hope for his recovery. He has admitted that he shot himself and expressed regrets, but stated that the impulse was “one of those involuntary passages of electricity which it was impossible to resist.”
He is a native of Rockingham county, unmarried, and probably forty years of age. He graduated from the University of Virginia some eighteen or twenty years ago with great distinction. (Cooper’s Clarksburg Register, 15 Oct. 1858)
Bushnell died on 13 Oct. 1858, 12 days after he shot himself.
[Note: Bushnell’s date of birth is from the U.Va. Matriculation Books.]
- Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Va.), 4 Oct. 1858, p.3.
- Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Va.), 7 Oct. 1858, p.3.
- Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Va.), 18 Oct. 1858, p.3.
- Daily American telegraph (Washington, D.C.), 8 Oct. 1852, p.3.
- Daily Dispatch (Richmond, Va.), 4 Oct. 1858, p.2.
- Evening star (Washington, D.C.) 5 Oct. 1858, p.2.
- Jeffersonian Republican (Charlottesville, Va.), 7 Oct. 1858, p.2.
- Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Va.), 19 Oct. 1858, p.2.
- “The Staunton Suicide.” Cooper’s Clarksburg Register (Clarksburg, Va. (now W. Va.)), 15 Oct. 1858, page 2.
- University of Virginia Matriculation Books, 1825-1904, Accession #RG-14/4/2.041, Special Collections Dept., University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.
- The Washington union (Washington, D.C.), 5 Oct. 1858, p.3.