Who shot the professor?

Who shot the professor?

Dear Ace: The fact that the UVA honor code started after a student shot a professor is just one of those things you learn as a Charlottesvillian. What’s the deal with that?—Peter Gunn

Peter: Hey, Ace doesn’t want to get on any FBI watch lists here, but he’s met a few academics he wouldn’t lose any sleep over if they took a bullet. Nothing life-threatening, natch, maybe just a nip in the hindquarters to bring them back down to our reality. But yes, there is such an incident that Ace hazily recalls as having something to do with UVA’s Honor System, a student-governed code that’s actually taken pretty seriously around University Grounds. What’s the scoop?

Professor John Davis didn’t live to tell the tale of what happened after he came out of his door at Pavilion X on the UVA Grounds one night in 1840.

According to UVA Guide Service Historian Phi Trinh, the incident in question occurred when, "on the night of November 12, 1840, Professor John Davis came out from his door at Pavilion X to quiet two students from their calathumping." For those of us not versed in the fads of mid-19th century college students, "calathumping" refers to a wild activity that would shame the comparatively mild-mannered panty raiders and phonebook eaters that would take part in the college crazes of the following century, namely, riding horses up and down the Lawn and shooting pistols. Nowadays, the rowdiest thing likely to happen on the Lawn is an unlucky streaker having his clothes snatched mid-run. Hardly the sort of thing to bring the likes of Larry Sabato out of his Pavilion IV residence to settle things down.

At any rate, the calathumping took an eerie turn for the Eyes Wide Shut when the students in question refused to remove the masks they were wearing. Professor Davis tried to unmask one and got calathumped right in the chest. "Although he saw the student," says Trinh, "Davis said that an honorable man would step forward and refused to name the student." The guilty student, by the way, was one John Sems from Georgia. Davis died from his wounds not too long thereafter, and rowdy UVA students felt pretty ashamed for a couple years until they were given an outlet by way of an answer to Professor Henry St. George Tucker’s July 2, 1842 "call to honor." Trinh stresses, however, that the calathumping incident did not directly trigger the creation of UVA’s Honor System, as common misconception holds. Still, there’s one thing Ace has learned in all this: He really loves the word "calathumping."

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