“We Still Look at Ourselves as Survivors”: More Than Eighty Years Later, Remembering the Deadliest School Massacre in American…

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Dec. 18 2012 2:55 PM

“We Still Look at Ourselves as Survivors”: More Than Eighty Years Later, Remembering the Deadliest School Massacre in American History

Bath School
The rear of the Bath School after the May 18, 1927 bombing.

Wikimedia Commons

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The recent shootings in Newtown, Conn., have led many people to characterize school violence as a modern affliction, a byproduct of our national obsession with guns and media violence. But the deadliest school-related massacre in American history happened in 1927, at an elementary school in Bath, Mich. A school board member named Andrew Kehoe, upset over a burdensome property tax, wired the building with dynamite and set it off in the morning of May 18. Kehoe’s actions killed 45 people, 38 of whom were children.

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At the time, Bath was a small farm community with under 300 residents. The town had “an elevator, a little drugstore, and you knew everybody within 20 miles,” as one survivor of the attack recalled in 2009. Perhaps its most modern feature was the Bath Consolidated School, which opened its doors in 1922 and brought all the region’s students under one roof. In The Bath School Disaster, published in 1927 and available online here, Kehoe’s neighbor, Monty J. Ellsworth, noted that the consolidated school was markedly superior to the “common country school” that preceded it. It was also more expensive, and the township raised property taxes in order to repay the school’s bonds.

This upset Andrew Kehoe. A local farmer with training as an electrical engineer, he was a severe, stubborn man fond of drastic solutions to small problems; Ellsworth writes that Kehoe once shot a noisy dog and killed his own horse because it was lazy. In an article from May 20, 1927, the New York Times noted that Kehoe “was known through the countryside as a ‘dynamite farmer’.  Neighbors detailed how he was continually setting off blasts on his farm, blowing up stumps and rocks.”

Kehoe really hated taxes, and joined the school board to argue against them. The Times reported that, as a board member, he “appeared to have a tax mania and fought the expenditure or money for the most necessary equipment.” In 1926, he ran for town clerk, but his obstructionist reputation preceded him, and he was defeated. His loss in that race, coupled with the news that his farm was facing foreclosure, appears to have triggered his plan.

Over the course of several months, Kehoe gained access to the school and packed it tight with dynamite that was wired together so expertly that, after the explosion, investigators could hardly believe that Kehoe had acted alone. A few days before the attack, Kehoe visited Monty Ellsworth for a round of target shooting; afterwards, Ellsworth looked inside Kehoe’s vehicle and saw “a box in the back about two feet long and 12 or 14 inches wide which was about half full of rifle shells. I believe there must have been a thousand of them.”

Kehoe Farm
The ruins of Andrew Kehoe's house, post-explosions.

Wikimedia Commons

The school exploded at 8:45 a.m. on May 18. At that point, after killing his wife and destroying his farm, Kehoe hopped inside an explosive-laden truck and drove to the school. Thirty minutes after the initial attack, while conversing with the superintendent, he detonated the truck bomb, killing himself, the superintendent, and a few others. Later, investigators found that a short circuit in Kehoe’s wiring was the only thing that stopped the attack from claiming more lives, as “more than 500 pounds of dynamite and several sacks of gunpowder were found under a portion of the building that remained standing.” If the explosion had gone as planned, Bath’s entire downtown might have been destroyed.

Like the Newtown school shooting, the Bath bombing was a major news story. Ellsworth writes, “I think we had the greatest demonstration of American sympathy ever awarded a grief stricken community. Thousands and thousands of cars stayed in line for hours. I have a gas station one-half mile west of Bath on the main road to Lansing, where there was a double row of traffic all day. In the afternoon it took about four hours to get three miles, but I don't remember … hearing a single horn sounded. It was like a great funeral procession. Everyone's heart was filled with sympathy.”

But the attention was short-lived. In an interview this summer with the Christian Science Monitor, Arnie Bernstein, author of 2009’s Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing, noted that “there wasn't a media frenzy like today. The media came in and left. Three days after it happened, Lindbergh took off and flew to Paris, and that part of it was over.”

It took the people of Bath much longer to recover. In 2009, NPR went back to the town and found several survivors of the attack still living. Now in their 90s, the survivors noted that “we still look at ourselves as survivors. So you look after one another differently, because you know that the absolute unthinkable can happen, even going to school.”

An inquest eventually determined that Kehoe had acted alone. Amid the ruins of Kehoe’s farm, they found a sign attached to a fence. It read: “Criminals are made, not born.”

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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