November 2, 1853
Matthew Flournoy Ward fatally shoots a teacher for punishing his younger brother
The day prior to the shooting, Matt Ward’s youngest brother, William, had been reprimanded by his teacher. Professor William H. G. Butler had caught William Ward and another high school student named Al Fisher eating chestnuts and causing a disturbance during class recitation. Butler questioned both boys. Fisher admitted to eating the chestnuts, which was against school rules, and was struck five or six times with a leather strap against his leg. William Ward denied having eaten any but other students claimed he had; he was given the same number of strikes with the strap for lying. William Ward then left school early, stating he would tell his older brother Matt of the incident and “Matt would give Butler hell.”
On November 2 at approximately 10 a.m., Matt and William Ward entered the classroom accompanied by their brother Robert Ward Jr. Matt demanded to know the details of the incident and Butler recommended they talk in private. Matt refused, demanding again “Why did you call my brother William a liar?” Butler again tried to bring Matt into another room to explain the situation whereupon Matt called Butler “a damned liar and a damned scoundrel” and made a motion as if to hit Butler. Butler avoided the hit and raised his own arm, at which point Matt drew a pistol and fired into Butler’s chest. Butler fell, exclaiming “I am killed — Oh, my poor wife and child!”
The noise grew the attention of other teachers. Matt produced a second pistol while Robert took a knife to hold students and teachers at bay. One such teacher, Mr. Sturgus, entered the room to see what had happened. Robert exclaimed “Come on, I am ready for you,” while wielding his knife. Sturgus retreated and escaped through a window. The Wards left immediately after.
Butler’s students carried Butler to a nearby house and sent for a doctor. Dr. D. D. Thompson noticed burns around the wound, indicative of the gun being in close proximity or touching the skin at the time the gun was fired. He asked Butler what had happened, to which he replied “Matt Ward called me a liar and struck me, I struck back and was immediately shot, I do not know who shot me.” Thompson reported that after Butler told him what had happened, “I heard blood splurge through the wound. Butler asked what it was and I told him; he said he was a dead man.”
During Butler’s autopsy it was revealed the minié ball had entered about an inch and a half above Butler’s left nipple, passed between his third and fourth ribs, penetrated the left lung, and lodged in his spine.
Matt was arrested, stood trial for murder, and was ultimately found “not guilty as charged in the indictment” on April 27, 1854, much to the ire of the citizens of Louisville. Two days later, a meeting was held “at early gaslight” with approximately 8,000 to 10,000 in attendance to discuss the verdict. Resolutions were made, including the request of the Wards to leave town and the State Senator Nat Wolf to resign.
After the resolutions were agreed upon, some of the group lingered and, still outraged, created effigies of Matt, Robert Jr., and some of the jurors. The effigies were then hanged and burned. A mob also attacked the house of Robert Ward Jr. Stones were hurled through his windows and front door, and burning effigies thrown at his doorstep, lighting the house on fire. Some of the jurors “met with violent deaths,” according to the Rutland Weekly Herald.
The riots caused Matt Ward to move out of state to Arkansas. In 1862, he was fatally shot in the hip by “guerrillas or Confederate soldiers” attempting to take slaves “to convey them to Mississippi to work on fortifications.”
Clipping: The Courier-Journal. February 8, 1948
- The Courier-Journal [Louisville, Kentucky]. February 8, 1948
- Johnson, L. F. Famous Kentucky Tragedies and Trials: A collection of important and interesting tragedies and criminal trials which have taken place in Kentucky. Louisville: The Baldwin Law Book Company, Incorporated, 1916
- The Daily Delta [New Orleans, Louisiana]. October 25, 1862
- Rutland Weekly Herald [Rutland, Vermont]. October 16, 1862
- “Atrocious Murder.” Vermont Christian Messenger [Montpelier, Vermont]. November 16, 1853