Last night, before I went to bed, I happened to be channel surfing and happened upon one of C-SPAN's BookTV programs. The featured author was Arnie Bernstein, a Chicago-based historian and author, speaking about his new book, Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing. I had heard the story some years ago, but was surprised to see that someone had written a book about it. Speaking as an historian (in training) myself, I find that one of the many delights of history is revisiting an old story with new eyes and bringing it to an audience who otherwise might not have known it.
The Bath School Disaster, as the tragedy is more commonly known, has largely been forgotten (except, of course, to the residents of Bath). When asked to name the worst school mass murders in American history, most of us would come up with - understandably so - Columbine or Virginia Tech. Yet the Bath School Disaster was not only "America's First School Bombing", but remains to this day the deadliest: 44 victims were killed and another 58 injured.
The story begins in Bath, Michigan, a rural community about ten miles northeast of Lansing. At that time, the area was still primarily agricultural, just as it had been since its incorporation in the 1830s. Like many other rural communities in America, Bath's children were educated for many years in one-room schoolhouses, with a single teacher instructing multiple grades. By the early 1920s, the community decided to close the schoolhouses and bring all of Bath's children into a single building, where they could be divided according to age and have better facilities. The result was the creation of the Bath Consolidated School, which housed about 200 children ranging from first through twelfth grade.
On the morning of May 18, 1927, a massive explosion ripped through the north wing of the school. Eyewitness accounts claim that the force of the blast lifted the school off of the ground by several feet before the north wing collapsed. Residents from as far away as Lansing heard the explosion. Almost immediately, people rushed to the scene to find out what had happened; when they saw the north wing of the school, they frantically began digging through the rubble to find the children and pull them out. Despite the chaos, officials managed to establish a triage center to handle those injured. Bath's resources, however, were overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, and telephone operators summoned help from everywhere they could, especially Lansing, the nearest large town.
The school explosion was actually the second one that day. About an hour before the school bombing, neighbors heard explosions at the farm of Bath resident Andrew Kehoe. When they saw his farm buildings on fire, they went to Kehoe's farm to help put out the fire. Kehoe was nowhere to be found, and his neighbors were concerned for the safety of his wife, Nellie, who was in ill health due to tuberculosis. They entered the farmhouse to try to extinguish the fire and rescue Nellie. Bernstein, in his talk, mentioned that the neighbors saw a frightening sight inside: boxes of dynamite and pyrotol, a World War I-era incendiary explosive. They quickly ran out of the house; by this time, news of the school explosion reached them, and they ran to the school to help out.
About a half hour after the school explosion, Kehoe showed up at the school in his truck. The school superintendent, Emory Huyck, walked up to Kehoe's truck, either of his own volition or because Kehoe called him over (accounts vary on this point). Kehoe then took his rifle and fired into the back of his truck, setting off the dynamite he had packed in it. Kehoe had also filled the truck with numerous objects like nails, shovels, and old farm equipment to create shrapnel. This final explosion killed Kehoe, Huyck, and three others, including a schoolchild who had escaped the bombing at the school.
Relief efforts continued throughout the day and into the next. Investigators entered the school and determined what had happened. The entire school had been wired, and dynamite and pyrotol was packed in the school's basement. Though the south wing of the school did not suffer the fate of the north wing, the explosives found there demonstrated the clear intent to destroy the entire school.
The north wing of the Bath school after the explosion.
The Kehoe farm was also the site of intense investigation. All of the buildings had burned to the ground, consuming everything in them. Nellie Kehoe was stlll missing, but not for long. Behind the farm's chicken coop, a burned body was found in a wheelbarrow that was also filled with silverware and jewelry. Investigators determined that the body was that of Nellie Kehoe. She had been burned so badly so as not to be recognizable upon first sight. Wrapped up in the wire fence around the Kehoe farm was a sign stating, apparently, Andrew Kehoe's valediction: "Criminals Are Made, Not Born."
There was no doubt as to whom the perpetrator was. Andrew Kehoe's actions prior to and after the explosion showed that he was certainly capable of such a monstrous crime. Kehoe was well-known to the residents of Bath. He had extensive training as an electrician and a reputation as a skillful handyman; in fact, neighbors of Kehoe's suggested that Kehoe's lack of success as a farmer was due largely to the fact that he preferred to tinker with his farm machinery than farm. Kehoe was known to possess explosives, which was not regarded as unusual, since he used them to pulverize and extract tree stumps from his property and that of his neighbors. Dynamite was easily obtainable at hardware stores, and surplus pyrotol from World War I was cheap.
Kehoe was also active in local politics. He was, at the time, the treasurer of the Bath school board, and was known for his thriftiness with school district money. As Bernstein related, Kehoe and Huyck clashed frequently over the use of school money; Kehoe thought Huyck was wasteful, and Huyck thought Kehoe was blocking spending on necessary school improvements. Furthermore, Kehoe's position as school board treasurer and his reputation as a handyman gave him unlimited access to the school. His presence there would not have been regarded with suspicion, which gave him ample opportunity to place explosives in the basement.
Why would Kehoe commit this atrocity? Accounts given soon after the disaster suggest that Kehoe was upset about a property tax levied to fund the building of the new school. Kehoe had stopped paying his mortgage prior to the bombing (this led to foreclosure proceedings) and supposedly blamed the tax for his financial troubles. Bernstein pointed out, however, that many people are upset over taxation and foreclosure but do not go on to harm anyone as a result. A glimpse into Kehoe's character provides a possible - but speculative - explanation. Bernstein suggested that Kehoe may have fit the profile of a sociopath. He exhibited behaviors attributable to sociopaths, e.g., neighbors of his noted that he was very cruel to his farm animals, having once beaten one to death. When he was fourteen, his stepmother, with whom Kehoe did not get along at all, died due to burns suffered when she was sprayed with oil from her stove as she tried to light it. Allegedly, Kehoe came to her in the kitchen, threw a bucket of water on her, and then calmly went to his neighbors and asked them to call a doctor and a priest.
Bernstein was quick to point out, though, that no one knows the real story of what was behind Kehoe's stepmother's death or his bombing of the school. In a sense, then, there is no "why", which is what makes tragedies like this the most difficult to understand.
The cupola of the Bath school in the Bath School Memorial Park, on the original site of the school.